March 13, 2006

WHERE REASON LEADS YOU (via Kevin Whited):

Why this atheist is a Christian (sort of): The answer lies in the conception of faith that anyone can join the church (ROBERT JENSEN, 3/12/06, Houston Chronicle)

I'm a Christian, sort of. A secular Christian. A Christian atheist, perhaps. But, in a deep sense, I would argue, a real Christian.

A real Christian who doesn't believe in God? This claim requires some explanation about the reasons I joined, and also opens up a discussion of what the term "Christian" could, or should, mean.

First, whatever my beliefs about the nature of the nonmaterial world or my views on spirituality, I live in a country that is extremely religious, especially compared to other technologically advanced industrial nations. Surveys show that about 80 percent of Americans identify as Christian and 5 percent as some other faith. And beyond self-identification, a 2002 poll showed that 67 percent of all people in the poll agreed that the United States is a "Christian nation"; 48 percent said they believed that the United States has "special protection from God"; 58 percent said that America's strength is based on religious faith; and 47 percent asserted that a belief in God is necessary to be moral.

While 84 percent in that 2002 poll agreed that one can be a "good American" without religious faith, clearly there's an advantage to being able to speak within a religious framework in the contemporary United States.

So, my decision to join a church was more a political than a theological act. As a political organizer interested in a variety of social-justice issues, I look for places to engage people in discussion. In a depoliticized society such as the United States — where ordinary people in everyday spaces do not routinely talk about politics and underlying values — churches are one of the few places where such engagement is possible. Even though many ministers and churchgoers shy away from making church a place for discussion of specific political issues, people there expect to engage fundamental questions about what it means to be human and the obligations we owe each other —questions that are always at the core of politics.

I realize it's a common enough rationalist trope, but I've never understood the notion that someone who's reason leads them to accept the necessity of Judeo-Christianity would pretend that they're still an atheist. It seems mostly a function of ego, that because they'ver not had an emotional personal experience of God they distrust ther own mind.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 13, 2006 10:35 PM

Likewise, I've never understood the people who deny that this is a Christian nation. It seems to require denial by the bucketfull.

Posted by: David Cohen at March 13, 2006 11:53 PM

So that's all it takes to be a Cristian? Wow, I'm a Christian. And it's cool because I don't have to go to church or anything.

Posted by: Amos at March 13, 2006 11:55 PM

"What if 'God' is just the name we give to the mystery that is beyond our ability to comprehend through reason?"

With that, Mr. Jensen, we've already established what you are. Now we're just haggling over the terms. Atheism cannot be one of them.

Posted by: ghostcat at March 14, 2006 12:28 AM

David Cohen:

It's especially funny when the occasional paleocon does it (on the grounds that he's more Christian than the rest of us rote churchgoers).

Posted by: Matt Murphy at March 14, 2006 1:37 AM

I suspect that the most irksome thing about this particular author is that he's more honest about his skepticism than most, while at the same time showing more openness to (official) religion.

(Neither fish nor fowl, according to our world of entrenched categores and/or orthodoxies?)

Which skepticism precisely---and somewhat paradoxically, according to certain strands of Jewish (and perhaps other) thought---yields, or leads to, a greater spirituality.

So that whereas, perhaps, in the mid-19th Century (if not earlier), certain skeptics required great personal---and social---courage to deny the existence of God (or at least to be skeptical of the existence of divinity), today, might not great personal---and social---courage be demonstrated by denying (or at least being skeptical of) the non-existence of God?

Posted by: Barry Meislin at March 14, 2006 4:58 AM

There is a tremendous difference between crying out - "I believe, help thou my unbelief!" and saying "Lord, make me a Christian (but just not yet)".

This guy seems closer to the latter, but who knows?.

As I understand it, one feature of true spirituality is a (deep) recognition of our helplessness. That has little to do with the formal church experience, and everything to do with the supernatural. Maybe this guy will get there - after all, it's usually better to be inside the church (even if one doesn't believe). But, as we are taught, the whore who worships on Sunday and weeps over her sin is closer to God than the bishop who proudly purports to lead the church but does not believe.

Posted by: jim hamlen at March 14, 2006 8:48 AM

So in other words - he's a Methodist.

Posted by: Shelton at March 14, 2006 9:25 AM
I've never understood the notion that someone who's reason leads them to accept the necessity of Judeo-Christianity would pretend that they're still an atheist.
As someone in that camp, I don't see why believing in the necessity of religion has anything to do with beliving in the accuracy of that religion. Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at March 14, 2006 9:29 AM

Arrgh. I prefer my unbelief straight up. Anything else is fatuous moralizing.

Believers and unbelievers alike: let's refocus and "keep it real" here. If Jesus didn't really come back from real biological death, Christians are pathetic dupes.

Posted by: American Gentile at March 14, 2006 9:44 AM


Why? It's important that God died on the Cross, not that He resurrected Himself.

Posted by: oj at March 14, 2006 9:58 AM


It's like believing in the necessity of gravity but not gravity.

Posted by: oj at March 14, 2006 10:03 AM

No, it's more like believing that quantum mechanics is necessary for building computers without beleving it is accurate desciption of reality.

It's about human psychology, not fundamental properties of reality.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at March 14, 2006 1:11 PM

Human psychology is a fundamental property of reality.

Posted by: oj at March 14, 2006 1:17 PM

i support the believers

Posted by: toe at March 14, 2006 1:41 PM


There's this one story, the one true myth. You know which one. We talk about it a lot. You talk about it a lot. For it to be true, it has to be real. Historical. Effectual. Dependable. Foundational.

Paul put it best - if Jesus didn't rise, then Christians are of all men most to be pitied.

Why would he say that? Because they chose a nice, sweet fantasy over "eat, drink, and be merry"? Maybe. But I think he would say that to believe something false is just plain foolish. He was a pretty hard-headed guy, that Paul. And when he wrote those words, it would have been easy to prove the falsity. Go find the bones. No one could, and no one did.

Posted by: jim hamlen at March 14, 2006 1:50 PM

We preach Christ crucified. The Risen part doesn't matter much as theology. It's more like the miracles, to convince folks.

Posted by: oj at March 14, 2006 2:01 PM

Wow, can you say F-A-K-E? How do I know that good ol-fashioned Christianity has arrived? By the number of people who want to CALL themselves Christians rather than BE Christians. A lot of worthy men and women have gone on before and now, working hard and living tough, but good, lives, enduring the shit and shame guys like this USED to mete out on them, and when they not only stuck it out, but actually have BENEFITTED from having a REAL backbone, this guy traipses in and wants in on what he, privately, must believe is a SCAM, in order to further HIS GOALS for the world by hitching a free ride whose momentum HE OPPOSED and whose prime movers he excorated.

He demands that the Bible be interpreted symbolically, based on the IMAGINATION of the hearer and with no constraints placed on it by the literal text. We've got "the living constitution". NOW "the living scriptures". Of course, the eventual goal is to make pronouncements that have the "authority" of scripture, even though not a line of the scripture supports those pronouncements.

*snorts* people used to object to joining the church because there were hypocrites in it. Guess what: the population of hypcrites in the church just went up by one.

And don't be co-dependent, OJ: Jesus died for everyone's sins, but if he wasn't resurrected, then someone could justly say that there was a limit to God's mercy and that SOMEONE had sinned enough to prevent Jesus from being resurrected.

*Shakes head* This attitude toward the scriptures Won't work. They describe an objective reality using metaphorical language due to the limitations of language. To assert that the use of metaphorical language implies that the realities are ALSO merely metaphorical is an error.

I have found it profitable, from spiritual and material aspects, to engage in literal experimental religion, utilizing an adaptation of the scientific method to develop and test hyptotheses in the laboratory of human life and daily living. My research, so far, has determined that the major stumbling blocks are religious assumptions that override or ignore the plain reading of the text. IMHO, there is no reason to read the text and decide that the essence of the reality it describes is contradictory or irrelevant to it.

Posted by: Ptah at March 14, 2006 2:45 PM


I have found it profitable, from spiritual and material aspects, to engage in literal experimental religion, utilizing an adaptation of the scientific method to develop and test hyptotheses in the laboratory of human life and daily living. My research, so far, has determined that the major stumbling blocks are religious assumptions that override or ignore the plain reading of the text.

I'm curious.
Care to elaborate ?

Posted by: Noam Chomsky at March 14, 2006 3:32 PM


Don't listen to me. Argue with Paul.

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?... If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

Posted by: American Gentile at March 14, 2006 7:46 PM


Yes, it's Paul who said it. God's willingness to be crucified matters utterly, the Resurrection not so much.

Posted by: oj at March 14, 2006 9:22 PM

For once I agree with oj. His assertion that the Resurrection is not central to Christian doctrine is IMO correct. The Crucifixion is the core of Christian theology, Resurrection being just a miracle to convince people of his divinity. It would actually be neater if J had NOT risen from death, because Resurrection makes the Crucifixion a bit of a sham.

Posted by: Mrk at March 14, 2006 9:27 PM

Yeah, sure, Mr. Morko: The Disciples were literal POWERHOUSES of the Gospel on the Saturday after the Crucifixion. yeah, riiiiight.

Dear Mr. NC, I would normally be happy to elaborate, but time is pressing, and I regret that my website is not particularly well-organized yet to give as a reference. However, consider the full implications of what the writer of hebrews in Chapter 11 wrote: "For he who comes to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that dilligently seek him."

Firstly, this is a statement of one of the most funamental principles of human nature: If you want more of something, reward it, and if you want less of something, punish it. This is, plainly, a form of operant conditioning that God mandates parents to use when raising children, so if He is our Father, it is a methodology he would logically use as well.

Secondly, operant conditioning doesn't work if inconsistently applied. This is not an Issue with God, inasmuchas he being the Creator, has embedded iron-clad cause-and-effect rules into the very fabric of nature.

One of the things that must be kept in mind is that physical laws are very precise and very strict: they always work, but only if the requisite inputs are provided. There is not only much trial and error experimentation associated with determining the format of physical laws, but in the mundane technological application of those laws in daily life.

My point is that there is continuity between the realm of physical nature and that of the Spirit: I claim that both respond to laws (the latter of which are called promises in The Bible), and that equal precision is required when it comes to activating both sets of laws.

The upshot is that a slap-dash, hit or miss attitude toward reading and applying the Scriptures, most notably the promises, is just as prone to failure as if Edison had tried only a few materials in his search for the right materials for the Light bulb: He went through hundreds of substances before alighting on the right materials, and one must be prepared to do the same thing when it comes to "experimental" religion: One must keep on trying different hypotheses of what one must ask, think, and act, systematically choose sets and test cases, and apply them with humility and persistence. Pride is not only a sin, it is a positive handicap when one thinks that, "I did the right things, cited the right verses, believed the right chings, and prayed the right prayers, and nothing happened!" when my personal experience is that thinking you "know it all" is a positive guarantee that you won't.

And one of the big blocks in making progress is human tradition: the implied assumptions block your imagination and flexibility by making you unnecessarily dismiss options that might work.

Bah, I have been too brief and cryptic: I must really get started laying all this out in a more orderly fashion.

And I MUST get to bed.

Posted by: Ptah at March 14, 2006 10:40 PM

I am glad that this Jensen fellow is willing to confess Christ with his lips, even if that is all he is able to do. Who know, perhaps real belief may come later.

Just to drop a few grains of incense into the brazier without belief is at least an act of civic virtue, like that of a formally pius Roman who doesn't really buy all the mumbo-jumbo, but goes through the motions because that is what a good citizen does.

But he has far to go before he can call himself a Christian. Just saying the words won't do it. Mt. 7:21, and one who withholds belief in the Incarnation and the Trinity might be as admirer of Jesus, but he is no Christian. 2 Jn. 1:7-11.

Posted by: Lou Gots at March 15, 2006 6:08 AM

Romans 12:1-10

1. I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.
2. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.
3. For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith.
4. For as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office:
5. So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another.
6. Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of faith;
7. Or ministry, let us wait on our ministering: or he that teacheth, on teaching;
8. Or he that exhorteth, on exhortation: he that giveth, let him do it with simplicity; he that ruleth, with diligence; he that sheweth mercy, with cheerfulness.
9. Let love be without dissimulation. Abhor that which is evil; cleave to that which is good.
10. Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love; in honour preferring one another;

Posted by: Ptah at March 15, 2006 8:01 AM

Yeah, sure, Mr. Morko: The Disciples were literal POWERHOUSES of the Gospel on the Saturday after the Crucifixion. yeah, riiiiight.

The idea of Resurrection may have made it easier for people to believe in Jesus's divinity, but Resurrection is not a necessary part of soteriology, unlike the Crucifixion.

Posted by: Mrk at March 15, 2006 2:45 PM


I think that I grasp what you're saying, but I would note that spiritually, recognition of success is often much harder than it is in the physical world.

In other words, Edison knew that he was on to something when his filament glowed without burning up, but recognizing that "lightbulb moment" ethereally often requires a lot of introspection and interpretation, and is a process prone to error.

Further, just as people's bodies are slightly dissimilar biologically, leading to some medications being very effective in some people, and completely ineffective in others, so too do our spiritual needs differ.

What is necessary for you may not be necessary for me, and what works well for you may be less effective in me.

Having said that, I agree that dismissing concepts without consideration is a bad idea.

Posted by: Noam Chomsky at March 15, 2006 3:35 PM

The resurrection is a sine qua non of soteriology--and Christian theology in general--because people have to be saved TO something, not just FROM something.

The crucifixion saves FROM sin. The resurrection saves TO eternal life.

This is basic incarnation, folks. There had to be a rez because Jesus was one of us and hated to die. He thought it really really sucked. He thought it was painful. Just like you will when it happens to you.

Full-blooded Christian theology is the only theology in which it's not only okay, but utterly expected to hate death and say that it sucks and that we wish we didn't have to die.

All other philosophy is prettified, inhuman stoicism.

Posted by: American Gentile at March 15, 2006 7:47 PM