of their religious faith there is no serious doubt among contemporary
historians that Jesus was an itinerant Jewish teacher who traveled and taught
throughout Palestine in the First Century, gathering disciples around him through
the force of his personality and the compelling nature of his message. There is general agreement that Jesus was
perceived by the Roman occupiers of Palestine as a dangerous religious radical
and a disturber of the peace, in consequence of which he was arrested by the
local authorities and summarily executed by the Romans in a public crucifixion,
the standard method used by the Romans to deal with political troublemakers.
considerable disagreement among historians about how much of the biblical
record can be relied upon as history in the ordinary sense in which we
understand history--as contemporaneously verifiable events--given the fact that
a fairly long time passed from the days in which Jesus lived and taught in
Palestine until the traditional stories about him and his teachings that had
been circulating among the early Christian communities began to be collected
from the oral tradition and acquired their present form as the canonical
Once we get
beyond the mythological language of the biblical story, it is clear that the death
of Jesus resulted in a life-transforming experience among his disciples that
resulted in a re-ordering of their priorities toward a new way of thinking
about what was seriously important in their lives and led to their commitment
to carry on with Jesus’ teachings.
disciples interpreted this life-transforming experience to mean that the spirit
of Jesus did not die with him but was alive in them, challenging them to
continue what he had started. They
understood this to mean two things: they were to model their lives after his
life and they were to carry on his teaching about the kingdom of god and what
that implied for the people of the region.
way, once we have worked our way through the mythological and theological
baggage that has accumulated through the ages, we are left with a fundamentally
important truth—those who had met this itinerant teacher and who heard his
teaching were sufficiently captivated by his personality and engaged by his
message that they were compelled to take up the cause for which he had been
killed and to continue his teaching.
At its core,
being a Christian today means exactly the same thing for us as it meant to his
first disciples: consciously choosing to be an advocate of Jesus and his
teachings. It involves what the medieval theologian Thomas A Kempis called imitatio
Christi, the imitation of Christ. It means to live as Jesus lived and to
teach as he taught, to honor truth and show compassion, to stand with the
victims of this world against their oppressors, to stand with the weak and the
powerless against the abusers and the comfortably powerful, and to maintain
one’s integrity no matter the cost. In short being a follower of Jesus meant
then and now to be faithful to the spirit of Jesus and his teachings. That is
both the meaning and the cost of Christian discipleship.
It is that
timeless challenge that continues to captivate and motivate contemporary
Christians. It is the challenge accepted by the Peace Corps volunteer, the
builder of homes for Habitat for Humanity, the volunteer in the homeless shelters
and prisons, the helper in the food kitchens and the driver for Meals on
Wheels, those who bring joy and healing to a young child, and the Mother
Theresas of the world. There is nothing
in that challenge of commitment to the service of humanity that requires us to
believe in any particular notion of a divine being or any religious dogma.
challenge to Christian discipleship seems to have escaped the notice of much of
“official” Christianity, particularly the Evangelical Christian movement that has managed
to wander quite far from the teachings of Jesus. This is the fundamental issue over which I part
company with those traditional Christians who take the position that being a
Christian essentially means believing a particular set of theological statements.
My argument with them is not so much with their particular beliefs or with
their confusion between mythology and history, but rather with their premise
that holding particular beliefs rather than striving to emulate the life of
Jesus is what defines what it means to be a Christian.
claim they are Christians should be measured against the ultimate test of
Christian values and that means comparing how their words and their actions
hold up to the standard of Jesus’ words and actions (so far as we can know what
they are) rather than whether they hold correct theology. If their claim is to
be understood as more than a claim to believe particular propositions about
Jesus that may or may not be true and that cannot in any case be verified,
their claim is subject to the litmus test of their lives, their decisions and
We’ve now arrived
at the question whether it is possible to be a Christian without a concept of
God; and if so, what that Christianity would look like. We argue that being a Christian does not
require a belief in gods, theological statements, or mythology, and that the
test for determining whether or not one is a Christian is a simple one: anyone
who claims to be a follower of Jesus should be seen standing with the weak
against the powerful and the rich, feeding the hungry, comforting the sick and injured, seeking peace, and holding the hand of a child.
This is the
only view of Christianity that makes sense to me. It is a de-mythologized Christianity, without
the necessity for god and freed from the theological and mystical baggage of
centuries past, a Christianity that challenges us regardless of our view of god
to model our lives after that of Jesus. Being a Christian is not any more
complicated than that, but it is at least that.