A lot of Americans think of themselves as “progressive christians” or “liberal christians,” and I count a good number of them among my friends and colleagues. Not long ago I was talking to one of these friends and we wandered into the subject of religion. Dawkins and Harris were invoked, as might be expected. Anti-Dawkins and -Harris resistance was encountered, also expected. So I finally decided to ask some questions that I had always wanted answers to, but had never actually asked.
The ensuing conversation went something like this:
Me: Do you believe that Mary was a virgin?
Friend: No, of course not.
Me: Do you believe that Jesus was resurrected three days after he was crucified.
Friend: Literally? No.
Me: How about that he turned water into wine or raised Lazarus from the dead?
Friend: No, those are just myths.
Me: Do you believe that he literally ascended into Heaven?
Me: Do you believe that there’s a Heaven and Hell as described in the Bible or as described by contemporary christian ministers?
Me: So what happens when you die?
Friend: I don’t really know.
Okay, at this point we need to understand what we mean by certain terms. An atheist is “someone who denies the existence of god.” An agnostic “is not committed to believing in or disbelieving in the existence of God.” Theism is more literal: “Belief in the existence of a god or gods, especially belief in a personal God as creator and ruler of the world.”
And “christian,” well, that’s a word that can apply to everything from genocidal literalists to intelligent, good-hearted people like my friend in the Samologue above (“Samologue” is “a dialogue with Sam,” by the way). The issue here, though, is whether liberal christianity and atheism or agnosticism are mutually exclusive. Fundamentalist christians are theists – they believe that god is a literal being, and nearly 50 years of close personal experience with them suggests that a large number of Americans, if not an overwhelming majority, take doctrinal issues like the virgin birth and the resurrection as literal fact.
Let’s have a look at the definition of christian.
1. Professing belief in Jesus as Christ or following the religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus.
2. Relating to or derived from Jesus or Jesus’s teachings.
3. Manifesting the qualities or spirit of Jesus; Christlike.
4. Relating to or characteristic of Christianity or its adherents.
5. Showing a loving concern for others; humane.
1. One who professes belief in Jesus as Christ or follows the religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus.
2. One who lives according to the teachings of Jesus.
Both #1 definitions open the door to something literal and supernatural with the “as Christ” formulation, and “based on the life and teachings of Jesus” leaves quite a bit open to interpretation, as well, given that a lot of what Jesus is alleged to have taught sounds kind of literal. But the rest?
I realize that resorting to online dictionary definitions of religious terminology lacks a certain theological nuance, but I’m abstracting for a reason. It appears to me that any number of liberal christians believe that Jesus lived and that his teachings represented a powerful code for living a productive, humane life. Further, I think they’d be comfortable asserting that this code makes a solid foundation upon which to build communities and societies. However, they don’t seem to believe that he was literally a supernatural being and they’re more inclined to read stories about his “miracles” as myth, not journalism. On the afterlife, they acknowledge that there’s not really any way of knowing, despite whatever beliefs or feelings they have.
If you’re a liberal christian and you’re reading this, do I have it about right?
I know lots and lots of atheists and agnostics who believe in pretty much the same principles. Many of them are willing to believe that Jesus, or someone very like him, existed and taught things that were pretty similar to what we have represented in the New Testament. I’ve known pagans to say that they have absolutely no problems at all with what liberal christians believe.
This all suggests that one can be an atheist and a christian at the same time, doesn’t it?
If so, we arrive at a question that I would love to see addressed by a national survey (preferably conducted by Pew): how many American christians are fundamentally agnostic or atheist when it comes to what they believe (or don’t believe) about the supernatural realm?
For me, at least, it’s interesting to ponder the idea that liberal christians have more in common theologically with certain atheists and pagans than they do with the christians down the street…
Categories: Religion & Philosophy