Regardless 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.
There is 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 gospels.
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.
His 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.
Put another 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.
This 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.
Those who 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 their actions.
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.