How to live as a Christian without having to believe the unbelievable
April 2012 By
Christianity asks you to do very hard things that are supremely worth the effort. Loving your enemies – that often seems impossible. Willingly giving up your power and money and time and influence in order to serve the poor and the sick and the oppressed – that can be downright scary. Having a heart full of pure love in all circumstances – how can we do it? But if we do it, we build heaven on earth. These are things that matter, things Jesus asks us to do. It takes a lifetime of serious spiritual and physical and emotional work to come even close to rising to these challenges.
Compared to them, believing in the factuality of the fantastic stories in the Bible is trivial. And that is exactly why it makes no sense to let such questions matter very much in living a faithful Christian life. It really isn’t important whether or not you take the Bible literally, or whether or not you believe all the creeds word-for-word. If they don’t make sense to you, don’t worry about them. Don’t let dogma and doctrine get in the way of practicing Love, who is God. Doctrines can be interesting. They help us understand the origins and background of our religion. But repeating creeds is not the price of admission into Christianity. Instead of caring whether the story of Jesus’ resurrection was a fact or a myth, let’s concern ourselves with things that matter. Let’s care about our neighbors without jobs or health insurance, face the resentment in our hearts that needs to be released, struggle with how vote and be activist citizens, and learn how to bring our careers in alignment with our highest values. Let’s gather in churches, soup kitchens, work-places, living rooms, and cafés to support each other in doing things that matter, and let go of old doctrines that don’t.
When Jesus asked us to believe in him, he wasn’t asking us to believe a list of ideas about him. He was asking us to believe in that spark of the divine that was inside of him, because he wanted us to believe in the spark of the divine that is in every one of us. The belief that mattered to him was faithfulness, a willingness to follow in the way of Love. A willingness to feed the hungry, liberate the oppressed, heal the sick, and preach the gospel, which is the good news that Love is all that matters.
The key to Christianity is the Sermon on the Mount in the gospel of Matthew, chapters 5-7. This is the first teaching that Jesus gave his disciples and a crowd of followers. He exhorts them to love their enemies. He urges them to be humble in prayer. He tells the poor that they shall be blessed. He asks them not to worry. He tells them not to judge.
And he says nothing at all about the following topics:
1) The Bible. Neither Jesus nor any of the people after whom its books were named had any idea that what they said or wrote would become part of the Bible. The New Testament was created much later, over a period of over 300 years, by early Christians. Jesus quoted and interpreted the Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament) very often, and he had a free-spirited, poetic, allegorical way of using those writings to illustrate his teachings. It is very hard to imagine that he would have demanded that Christians take the New Testament as literal, factual history, had he known that someday it would exist.
2) Creeds, dogma, or doctrine. One would think that if such things mattered so much to Jesus, he would have begun his preaching career by addressing them right away. But the Sermon on the Mount makes no mention of believing in miracles, believing the doctrine of the virgin birth of Christ, believing in the Trinity or the Apostle’s Creed, or even “accepting Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior”. Jesus didn’t care about dogma. He cared about what was in the hearts of people, and about how they treated each other.
3) Homosexuality and abortion. Jesus said nothing about these topics whatsoever in the New Testament. There’s no hint in the Bible that these topics mattered to him at all. Christianity should not be confused with a rigid set of ancient rules or with a current partisan political agenda.
Christianity is both simpler and harder than most people make it out to be.
My first step into an adult Christian life came when I was sixteen years old. I went on a backpacking trip with a Christian group. On top of a high pass in the Sierra Nevada, the leader, appropriately, read aloud the Sermon on the Mount. When he repeated Jesus’ words: “Love your enemies”, a rush of energy went through my body. I was certain that this experience was God, or was of God. I knew in an instant that it was worth basing my whole life on this one commandment.
I’m still working on it, decades later. While his words have shaped my entire life and career profoundly, I am far from completely fulfilling Jesus’ command.
It’s been so challenging to love my enemies – to love in tough circumstances, and to love people who present me with difficulties – that I can’t imagine putting other stumbling blocks in front of people who might want to join me in following Jesus. Many if not most people in America today cannot accept the idea that there is only one true religion. They see people of many religions living faithful, loving lives, and cannot imagine that they are going to hell for failing to accept one certain creed. Many people are bewildered by the contradiction of taking science seriously and then being told that the miracle stories in the Bible are literally true. But these issues are not crucial to living a life of faith. There is plenty of room in Christianity for people who want to follow Jesus’ way of unconditional, difficult love, but whose God-given common sense prevents them from nodding along with implausible or confounding doctrines.
How can you follow Jesus’ way of love without accepting creeds that are confusing or impossible for you to believe?
1) Find a community of people who will give you support in following the way of Love. Find people who care much more about works of compassion and about inner spiritual growth than they do about doctrines. You may find these people in a church – or in a sub-group of a church – or in an informal gathering of friends – or even in an online community. Find a circle of people you can trust to challenge you to acts of kindness and service, people who can give you honest feedback, and will trust you to do the same for them. Whether this circle goes by the name “church” doesn’t matter nearly as much as whether or not it helps its members to live like Jesus lived. For communities in your area, see progressivechristianity.org under “affiliates”.
2) Practice a spiritual discipline. In Christianity, there are very many forms of prayer, contemplation, meditation, and other means of spiritual awakening and deepening. Find the one that is right for you, and practice it regularly. These disciplines can help you stay centered in love and compassion and self-awareness, giving you much more choice about how best to respond to your own emotions and urges, as well as to your encounters with others. It prepares you for compassionate action. For suggestions about spiritual disciplines, see my website, jimburklo.com.
3) Learn about the history of the Bible, the Christian religion, and other religions.Read and study the Bible itself, and alongside it, read interpretations of it by non-doctrinal, academic scholars who can reveal to you the cultural background and historical milieu in which its books were composed. Websites that will introduce you to this scholarship: progressivechristianity.org and westarinstitute.org . You’ll discover that the Bible is a very human document, but that makes it all the more fascinating. You’ll start to feel the spiritual experiences of the people who wrote it and read it in ancient times. You’ll begin to appreciate that while much of the Bible is mythological, many of its myths have an enduring power to transform lives toward Love. You’ll understand that the miracles in the Bible are not historical facts, but that the real miracle is the Bible itself: a treasure-trove of poetry, stories, deep wisdom, and inspiration. Learning about other world religions will make your studies in Christianity come alive, as you compare and contrast the various faith traditions to discover common themes and uncommon insights.
Rev. Jim Burklo is the Associate Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California. An ordained United Church of Christ pastor, he is the author of books on progressive Christianity: OPEN CHRISTIANITY: Home by Another Road and BIRDLIKE AND BARNLESS: Meditations, Prayers, and Songs for Progressive Christians. His latest book, HITCH-HIKING TO ALASKA: The Way of Soulful Service, will be published late in 2012. You can read his weekly blog, “Musings”, at www.tcpc.blogs.com/musings , and his personal website is www.jimburklo.com .