The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

De-theologized Christianity: A thought experiment

Posted by Ron George on October 9, 2011

First I Love You, by Svitlana Yurchenko

Stripping the theos out of Christianity still leaves us with the compelling story of a courageous first-century Jew who took on the religious establishment of his day and who didn’t blink when confronted by the Roman state. His story is that of a reformer, someone who saw the hollowness of his inherited religious tradition, who wanted to fill the void by refreshing that tradition with its own finest values. He did not want to start a new religion. He believed the world was coming to an end. It didn’t, but the Jesus movement is still with us and in many forms Jesus scarcely could have imagined.

Why would anyone in his right mind want to take God out of the Jesus story? Let’s just say it’s implausible, for one thing; but more important, the Jesus story doesn’t need theological embellishment to be meaningful and profoundly important for today’s world.

There’s nothing new about de-theologized Christianity. It’s been proposed many times through the centuries of Christian history. There are no blazing insights in what follows, although it may address the struggle many of our contemporaries have with being or becoming followers of Jesus. Most Christians at least give lip service to the propositions of the creeds (if not the creeds themselves) or the teachings of their particular Christian denomination. What follows is a somewhat creedal thought experiment on how Christian belief might take shape from a de-theologized worldview.

I believe in the power of love, not a personal God who acts and reacts in time and space. I believe we humans strive to bring the incomprehensibility of being itself within the scope of our perceptive genius by creating myths and systems of belief within which to live and move and have our being. Our desire is for a sense of relationship with the cosmos that is not impersonal. I don’t believe there are many ways to God, because it’s unlikely that “God” exists in any traditional sense; however, there are innumerable ways of interpreting ourselves in relation to being itself, which remains a mystery to science as well as theology. Neither has a satisfactory answer to the question: Why is there something and not nothing, especially since nothing was the more likely outcome?

I believe Jesus of Nazareth taught and lived a way of love that changes people and human society for the better. I don’t believe he was the only son of God, conceived by the Holy Spirit or that he was born of a virgin. I do believe he was crucified. I don’t believe he rose from the dead. I believe his vision of the world was imperfect, more than slightly skewed by an apocalyptic understanding of history consistent with a minority view within the Judaism of his time. I believe his love ethic was consistent with his primary interest in preparing his followers for the end of the world, about which he was mistaken.

A cubist prayer one world one God, by Anthony Falbo

Jesus’ love ethic was transformed over time, detached from Jewish apocalyptic and made universal by theological reflection and liturgical practices that became traditional as a complex religious system. Jesus’ insight was the radical nature of self-giving love, which he believed would set Judaism aright in light of the world’s impending doom. Distilled from Jesus’ erroneous apocalyptic worldview, self-giving love is the substance of the good news of Christianity, even without supernatural theological apparatus, which nowadays seems irrelevant.

Jesus didn’t walk on water, he didn’t raise Lazarus from the dead and he wasn’t necessarily a healer. He may have been regarded as a teacher, but it’s more likely that he was a radical preacher in the mold of John the Baptist, declaring that the world soon would end and that only the pure would be saved. He wasn’t the only apocalyptic preacher, but he’s the only one we know of who was said to have risen from the dead – which didn’t actually happen except in the minds and hearts of his followers. What really happened to empty Jesus’ tomb? We don’t know and never will as a matter of history.

I believe Jesus’ actual history – which is virtually unknown – was mythologized into what it became at a time in ancient Mediterranean history when the yearning for savior gods was great. Jesus Christ was not the only savior-god proclaimed in the first-century Roman empire. His cult did become the most popular by accident and incidents of human history. Christianity did not succeed because it was popular with the poor but because it appealed to a broad, financially secure, segment of Roman society for whom the old, polytheistic religion had become irrelevant.

I AM, by Anthony Falbo

Jesus’ adherents were ardent, especially those few willing to die rather than renounce their faith under persecution. The church billed itself as a supernatural kingdom of God on earth, but it was no more and no less than a religious organization understandably and naturally dedicated to its preservation and growth. Its position in the world was secured by the declaration that it was one, holy, catholic and apostolic; in other words, unified in creedal belief; set aside by God to be a community of faith; universal in the sense of its having no boundaries; and authentic as having received the Jesus tradition from the first generation of his disciples. From the beginning, there have been claims to compete with this self-understanding of the church. It’s clear from history that the church actually has never been one, holy, catholic or apostolic.

I believe in the power of love to forgive sin defined as acts that traduce principles associated with love understood as self-sacrifice – giving one’s self for the sake of another. I don’t believe there is life after death or that there will be a general resurrection of the dead at the so-called second coming of Jesus. The “mystery of faith” is not that Jesus of Nazareth rose and will come again but that he died willingly to demonstrate the power of God’s self-giving love. It’s ironic that while he believed in God and I don’t, I can still believe in the power of Jesus’ self-offering, of his being willing to die for the sake of transformative love itself and the change it calls into being; moreover, Jesus’ self-sacrifice did change the world, probably for the better, though not as Jesus himself believed it would.

A Savior is Born, by Anthony Falbo

Jesus is not coming back, but the deep yearning for his return, which became a bedrock article of Christian faith, indicates the degree to which his life and teaching have impacted human history. It might not have, but it did because it captured the imagination of an emperor as well as innumerable powerfully gifted women and men for the past 2,000 years or so.

Following Jesus means embracing the ideal of radical, transformational love. Anything else in Christian tradition or scripture that doesn’t derive from that core understanding of Jesus’ message and meaning is of little use. Following Jesus means letting one’s self be conditioned by his teaching about love and how love works out in human relationships. Following Jesus means accepting him as an exemplar – a radical image – of the meaning of love as self-sacrifice over against the popular conception of love as romantic attachment or simply being nice. Among other things, transformational love means endeavoring to see clearly so that one may act truly – that is, lovingly, which is a species of truth.

It must be said that transformational love was not the core teaching of Jesus, whose primary concern was the imminent end of the world – God’s judgment upon the Jews first but also the Greeks, as it were. For Jesus, love was to be the identifying characteristic of those saved from the great tribulation by repentance for the forgiveness of sins as symbolized by baptism.

It’s likely that there was a last supper, and it’s likely that those who first celebrated the Jesus’ death expected him to return soon. (It didn’t take long for Christian theologians to see the end of the world as vindication of Jesus’ gospel and him as the supernatural judge of all humanity.) Celebrating Jesus’ death with a symbolic meal of bread and wine makes sense, even in de-theologized Christianity, though without contentious mumbo-jumbo about bread and wine becoming body and blood. We may not be awaiting his coming, but we are observers of his death as a supreme act of self-sacrifice, which is transformational love. We are changed by the knowledge not that Jesus died for us but that we, too, are called to give ourselves for the sake of all humanity in witness to the power of love. It will make the world a better place, little by little.

That’s at least pretty good news if not the best news all humanity has ever heard or ever will hear again. The hard part remains though: Are we are willing to follow Jesus’ way of love and self-sacrifice? Jesus himself had some insight into this question when he is said to have remarked that many would be called to follow his way but that few actually would. (See Matthew 22.1-14.)

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3 Responses to “De-theologized Christianity: A thought experiment”

  1. […] years ago, I wondered aloud what de-theologized Christianity would look like. (That post is here.) Nowadays, I’m writing a memoir, trying to figure out what in the world happened to me over the […]

  2. Ralph Willis said

    The term RE-theologizing seems to work a little better for me at this point. I enjoyed your post and would like to continue our discussion from this morning. R & R is something soldiers do to rest and recharge not a viable theological principle. Requirements and Rewards? Give me a break.

  3. Geoffrey said

    Where did your faith go? Tonight, I did a hop-scotch trip through previous posts of yours and discovered the gradual decline of it? The first blog that’s archived is one full of joy and excitement. This one is full of what I can only describe as “bitter distaste” for God. What gives?

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