Sunday, February 18, 2007

A Humanist Jesus?

Andrew Sullivan posted this e-mail from a reader that really resonated with me. I think he sums up how I feel about Christ (and other great religious figures as well). People ask me how an atheist can have any hope for the future, take any joy from existence, or see any point to living at all. This is how. I encourage you to read the whole thing, but here's a taste of what I'm talking about:

Humanism then does not reject Christianity, it completes it. Paul was wrong. Our faith is not foolish if Jesus is not literally and physically risen from the dead. We know our faith is true, because we know that death has not defeated him. As a humanist, I do not discard the rich legacy and richness of the Christian tradition, rather I claim to be the true heir to the Christian patrimony. Christians embrace a shallower version of Jesus. I know this because I continue to be transformed by Jesus's love and he continues to inspire my humanist faith - faith that there is yet some good in this earth, that we can all be redeemed by love, and that we should all choose life and should try to live it fully in a spirit of peace and brotherhood with all mankind. It makes no difference to me whether Jesus was born of virgin or rose bodily from his grave after three days. These are signs that the wicked demand because they do not have the heart to see the divine in Jesus and in all of us without such signs.

Fundamentally, what matters to me is people. How we treat each other, the echoes that our good deeds carry forward through the coming years, the kindness and joy we can bring into existence, all of these have meaning and consequence right here, right now, for actual humans. Jesus' greatest commandment was "Love each other as I have loved you." He didn't talk about doctrine, or ritual, or how to build the perfect church. He railed against those who turned religion into a sterile, binding form without substance, focusing his ministry instead on the actual human beings around him.

Prostitutes, lepers, tax collectors, fishermen, these are the cast of Jesus' life, and in his choice of companions I see the greatest lesson of all. It is how we treat each other that matters, not which building we walk into on Sundays. If I could sum up what Christ was all about in just two words, it would be this (which also happens to be the essence of humanism):

People. Matter.

I think perhaps that's one reason I find myself hostile towards organized religion, because they seem to manage to forget that lesson far more often than not. They become about ritual, or words, or buildings, and not the people that make up the true body of their church. It sounds bizarre to say it this way, but in my opinion, religion fails when it becomes more about god and less about people.

I first realized this at the age of eleven or so. I had come back from Confession (for the first time in quite some while) and I was filled with joy, a true feeling of oneness with the world. And it was because the Priest had looked me in the eye and said "You're forgiven." I realized that it was because this human being, not a mysterious and ephemeral divinity but this man, had a moment of genuine contact with me that I felt so complete. It is humans that matter, it is humans that touch each other, love each other, hold each other, forgive each other, give each other a reason to get up each day and to try and carry goodness forward one more step.


Denise said...

I am no scholar when it comes to doctrine, but the Jesus and God described above is what I believe in. Because I deal with a lot of denominations in my job, I run across churches/congregations like you mentioned – “more about buildings and rituals than the people.” I see the charlatans, and I see the genuine. I ask my CCE kids where Jesus would sit if He came to Mass. Eventually, we come to the thought that Jesus would stand at the very back because if he could keep one person from leaving early, reaching out to take that hopeless or sad person by the hand to stop them from losing all their faith, then it would be a day for celebration. Jesus was always after that one person who had lost hope. I’ve never once seen a priest throw somebody out of the confessional nor have I seen lightning strike anyone in that dark and musty-smelling booth. Forgiveness is there for the asking.

I know dozens of Christians, Jews, Hindu and non-Christians who visit people in the hospital on a regular basis, take food and clothing to those in need, house the homeless and go about the business of charity each and every day. They are the best and holiest people I know. And, conversely, some of the “holiest” people I know are the worst people in town. Jesus ate with the lepers, tax collectors and prostitutes. His disciples were fishermen, not the upper echelons of society.

You are absolutely right in that life is all about loving each other. I read in Time magazine that they looked at all the sayings of Jesus, in Greek, Latin, etc., and the only line that was traceable straight back to the historical Jesus in every one was “Love one another as I have loved you.” It is all about the love. I’ve never believed in a fire-and-brimstone hell. I’ve long believed that hell is the absence of God when that’s all there is.

The older I get, the more I believe in the overwhelmimg power of forgiveness. Jesus was the original Freud because He knew people need to hear the words, “You’re forgiven,” just as you did, and there’s no limit on the number of times you can be forgiven. They also need human companionship, hence the calling to worship together. Carrying that goodness and feeling of brotherhood/sisterhood from inside to the outside is what we’re called to do. I know the Biblical reasons why Jesus came to earth, but I think there was a curiosity as how we humans feel emotions – why we cry, mourn, despair, laugh and celebrate. And living as a human is why Jesus despaired, believed and forgave on the cross. We need to carry that mantra around every day for ourselves as well. Life's too short to be so harsh with others. I give my CCE kids five or six stickers on the first class. On there are these words: "Say something nice today." Putting a smile on someone's face is their charge, and they all come back and tell me seeing someone smile was the best part of their day as well. Very thoughtful topic, Jeff.

Geopoet said...


I read the whole thing, and then I read Andrew Sullivan's latest response to Harris (it's tagged in the email you referenced). I would urge everyone to read Sullivan's response in its entirety. I must say that the humanism email makes absolutely no sense to me from the faith standpoint which he proposes; it's like the toy soldier walking around in amazement, not knowing there's a wind-up crank in his back. If there is no God, many of the things he's saying are quite irrational; if he admires Christ, then he's vastly underestimating the purpose and the message. It almost seems he's determined to put a limit on love.

Your memory of Confession really hit me because I had nearly the same reaction that I can remember so clearly - one of joy and oneness. What is so different however, is that I saw no disparity between the priest and the God who was dwelling in him; to be forgiven meant I was one with God and the world. You didn't do anything against the priest personally, but felt a connection. Why? - at at a fundamental level, you were looking into the eyes of God. All of this was set in place (the sacraments) by Jesus himself exactly because he wanted us to see the love God has, feel the touch of God, hear his voice and heal one another.

Organized religion is nothing less than a bunch of flawed lovers trying to do their best for one another, and nothing more than the manifestation of a living God who dwells in its imperfect members. Rituals involve our physical and our spiritual aspects precisely because this is what humanity is, as so evidenced by the Incarnation of God into the flesh. Doctrine is just a fancy word for something that's true, and truth is a precious thing. All that being said, certainly we imperfect Church-goers can do things in the name of God and love that defeats the very message Christ gave about love of neighbor, so your comment is well taken. To be fair though, this does invalidate what is true and the "religious" do far more to actually love and serve humanity than the non-religous, so the humanists should be rooting for us Christians, if anything.

It thus seems to me that the real issue has to do with a negative perception and generalizations of organized religion. I find this in all the atheist authors - a recent book I read called "Faith of the Fatherless" showed an overwhelming correlation of the most well known published atheists and their relationship with their fathers - for almost every single one of them (about 35) had either no father figure or a very bad relationship with their father. An opposite look at about the same number of theists showed a little more mix, but most did have normal relationships with their fathers. Thus, there may be a scientific reason for some atheism, and if Harris and the rest want to be honest and scientific, they should look at this as a factor. I would encourage you also to reflect on this in your life; how much of your image of God is shaped by your experience with Dad? I ask myself this same question all the time. Certainly our experiences were quite different.

In my perception of the world, people matter to me because they embody the God who loves them and who loves me. There is no dichotomy, and this is why Christianity is so "true" in the deepest of my bones, that Jesus was fully human and fully divine means he lives now and lives in all people, and is the perfection of love itself. The gospel certainly provides us with that perfected love, but much, much more. I cannot thus imagine how you can "complete" love any more than what was done on that cross.

I would encourage you to go back to Mass and just watch those going to communion - the good, the bad, the petty and the saints. All that matters to you (people and family) is there, but the imperfections are lifted up and redeemed by love incarnate. It's not God or people; it's God in his people. God loves them all. You and I. God loves us all, that much.


Anonymous said...

History shows at least 300 plus years of deciding just who this "Jesus" was. Just a man? 100% man? Or was he God incarnate, 100%? Good people really, really struggled with it. If he is, as the Catholic Church says, 100% man and 100% divine, in a way we cannot understand. Thus, I think he probably isn't too threatened by people still not believing in him!In other words the church says it's job isn't to get it all completely figured out- we are just supposed to keep trying and not expect certainty. I love your passion, and I really do believe the opposite of love is apathy!
On a similar note- Jeff, please reflect more on several subjects, as I love your insights:
1: Personal stories as a basis of faith: scientifically they are very weak proof, yet all faiths, but especially Chritianity, depends on it. In the AA program it is critical, and is a foundation, and it works. Can it be as easily dismissed as you have done?
2: The story of the "Rich Young Man".(Matthew 19:16-22. This is, to me, THE hardest parable in the gospels. My question is simple- what was the point, from an atheist point of view? From a Christian point of view? Again, from the Christian point of view, is the rich young man going to heaven? Or, is it just blah blah blah, too confusing and distracts from the active business of helping our neighbor today, and not worth studying? It's okay with me if you think so.
3. Do you think Jesus had a sense of humor? Did he laugh, make jokes? ReallyJimmy

Denise said...

Anonymous – I know you asked this question of Jeff, but I’d like to post a couple of comments, and feel free to skip my posting here. I’m a Catholic/Christian with a deep faith in God, just to let you know where I’m coming from. There are some philosophers who believe, no, there is no divine intervention. Still others maintain that there are some events that could only be explained by divine intervention. Miracles are complex concepts, and David Hume believes the evidence for miracles is weak – people are gullible and others are seldom convinced. For those who have the event happen to them, as it has to me, there is no doubt that divine intervention got me through a seemingly overwhelming situation for I did not have the strength myself. For me, the parable of the rich young man is about surrendering what we believe to be control over our lives and giving it to God. When we can let go of material possessions (position, power) and give our faith to God, then we will be free. I’d have to say the man’s fate is known only to God for he was a young man. Did he go through his life helping others with his money and position? It’s definitely worth studying, and I think it’s an illustration of Jesus making his point with a black/white parable. Did Jesus have a sense of humor? Absolutely! I find it difficult to not have a sense of humor when I’m around children, and it is said that Jesus loved being with the children. People were drawn to Jesus, and I think he needed to have a sense of humor to have so many people follow and like him (Mary and Martha, Lazarus, his disciples). The world is full of instances where God has a sense of humor – aardvarks, babies laughing, humans’ love of jokes and funny stories – that all came from God, I’d say, and Jesus probably had a great rapport with people. Hope you don’t mind I posted a reply!