Shuck and Jive

Monday, March 23, 2015

A Belief-Less Christianity

I thought it would be good to share some more reflections on my guest post in the Friendly Atheist and the responses it has received.  It certainly is being talked about.   The post has received over 1100 comments and over 12,000 Facebook shares.   A lot of it is trash talk, of course.
"You are going to hell."
"You are an idiot." 
Then there are people who get it:
Gehennah:  'He's simply doing what so many other preachers do, just a step further. Preaching the good things and the good messages of the Bible, and sweeping the crap away.'
Linda LaScola and Aric Clark have offered thoughtful responses.   There are many gems out there amidst the dross.     

Hemant Mehta is the editor of the Friendly Atheist.   He is a hard worker, a solid journalist, and an excellent editor.  He sent me an email and asked if I would make a guest post.  He had heard about my Eight Points post and wondered how I could be a Christian and believe these things. He said:
"I know a lot of atheists, myself included, often have a very specific idea of what Christians believe, and if you're breaking the mold, I think we should know about it."
He helped me with the wording and encouraged me to expand and clarify in several places.   With his help I was able to articulate what I wanted to say.

The Title

I knew the title would poke the emotion button.  I originally titled it "A Belief-Less Christianity" but Hemant suggested the title that we used, "I'm A Presbyterian Minister Who Doesn't Believe in God." I knew that many wouldn't read past the title but I also know that titles are for catching attention.  I approved it.  It is not not true.   I wrote in the piece something that I have said for a long, long, time:
I don’t believe in God as a supernatural agent or force...
Of course I am not alone in that!  Once theologians realized that Galileo put God out of a home and Darwin put God out of a job, they have been scrambling to redefine the term so they can retain it.
  • God is in the universe but not contained by the universe.
  • God is the Process of the unfolding universe.
  • God is Creativity.
  • God is Being itself.
  • God is Mystery.
  • God is Love.
Pick your favorite or create another version.   You can find theologians and ministers (including Presbyterians) who have been redefining God for a long time.  It is the on-going process of myth-making.   I think it is fascinating to watch this exploration unfold in my life and in the stories of others.  Bring your own God.  Find your path.  Make it yours.

Belief in God

This is really the point of the piece. Belief is the least interesting aspect of the Christian faith.  Diana Butler Bass, author of Christianity After Religion quotes Harvey Cox:  
"Faith is resurgent while dogma is dying. The spiritual, communal, and justice-seeking dimensions of Christianity are now its leading edge….A religion based on subscribing to mandatory beliefs is no longer viable." p. 109-110. 
Most of the things Christians thought that they were expected to believe are supernatural assertions that are no longer credible.  I don't think that Christianity--or any of the pre-modern religions for that matter--has to remain tied to believing in a supernatural god.   Even though supernatural agents may have haunted our past they need not haunt our future. I have been practicing a belief-less Christianity for some time.  My ministry has been to introduce people to pioneers who have cut these trails long before me.   Progressive is a great place to be introduced to some of these creative thinkers.   Here are their Eight Points:

Mandatory Beliefs
 "He is in violation of his ordination vows!!
If I had a dollar for every time I have heard that one, I wouldn't need a pension plan.  To be a minister (teaching elder) or ruling elder in the PCUSA, you have to affirm or re-affirm ordination questions.   Many people including, unfortunately some Presbyterians, think this exercise is about swearing on a box of beliefs.  It is not.  This exercise is about committing oneself to honor relationships with the tradition, colleagues, and the people we serve as we carry out our particular vocation.  

These questions have been misused to control and repress.   Imagine Ms. Smith coming to a group with an idea.  What are some possible responses to her idea?
Great idea!  Let's do it!
Not so sure, but let's try it and see.
Boy that is an ugly idea.  But hey, it might be what we need.
Here is how it works in the church:
That is not Christian.  You have violated your vows. Just for bringing it up, your career with us is now over.
Imagine science working that way or a research institute!   The problem with beliefs, especially mandatory beliefs is that they stifle creativity.   The most honest and creative among us are silenced or worse, we self-censor, living in fear that we might violate something if we share honest doubts with our congregations or with colleagues.   The cost of this self-censorship is high as members of The Clergy Project can attest.  These are bright, caring people whose learning moved them beyond the mandatory beliefs of their religious institutions.

I think Christianity will be better served by jettisoning mandatory beliefs.    Roy Hoover described the situation accurately in his Fourth R article, "Tradition and Faith in a New Era":
Those who insist upon the unaltered retention of traditional forms of religious understanding and language and who retreat from the challenge posed by the actual world after Galileo want to direct the Christian community into the confines of a sacred grotto, an enclosed, religiously defined world that is brought completely under the control of scripture and tradition; and they want to turn the ordained clergy into antiquities dealers.
I vote for a belief-less Christianity, one that is open, honest, creative, and evolving. 


  1. I live in a small community in Central PA, just 9 miles west of an outstanding University, Bucknell University in Lewisburg, PA. There is absolutely no Sunday worship center/church where I can go to practice my Humanist/Progressive Christianity philosophy. I count on you by way of the internet to connect myself to a community which I can feel a part of. I am so grateful to have found you, Progressive and Bishop Shelby Spong.

  2. Thank you for that! So glad we have a virtual community!