t’s a shame that when they chose their targets atheists decided to pick on Christianity as the epitome of what’s wrong with religion. In particular, their singling out of nativity scenes and their use of Christmas exuberance as an affront to their sensitivities is so singularly stupid that I sometimes wonder who runs their PR campaigns. Clearly not a Jesuit. I suspect a smiling Pope Francis has brought more people back to the Faith in six months than a sour-faced atheism has driven away in six years. But that’s just a guess. Probably the Pope’s batting average is much higher than that.
And there’s a good reason for it. No one is sure anymore what it is that atheists find so objectionable about religion, atheists least of all. True, they object to religious clotpoles getting involved in politics. So do a lot of churchgoers. In fact if only atheists objected to religious overreach (considering the massive influence that can be posited of a 1.8% voting bloc, if they all vote), the fundagelicals would rule the day. Atheists object to the whole agenda of the Christian Right, but the Christian right is not mainstream Christianity and the most effective opposition to the CR comes from liberal and secular elements within mainline Christian churches. Besides, atheists collectively until very recently have not been interested in progressive liberal causes such as LGBT, women’s rights, and erosion-of-civil rights issues. There too the lead has been taken, long since, by liberal protestant denominations and lobbying groups, alongside more specifically secular (but not anti-religious) organizations.
True atheists and the (now quaintly named) “secular humanist” movement like to think of themselves as victims these days, but frankly no one is buying it, not even all atheists. The whole “You can be good without God” campaign soon morphed into a victimization mentality that sent out tendrils to “other” victimized cadres. It failed largely because the point was too obtuse to focus anyone’s attention, a fact sufficiently driven home when the Pope made just the same point. In any event, people aren’t not becoming atheists because they are afraid of being avoided at lunch, pelted with rosaries, or stalked by armed and dangerous Southern Baptists. They are not becoming atheists because atheists manage to be loud, boring, and incoherent at the same time. They are the ideological equivalent of the Tea Party, all diss and no dat.
When I challenged the movement humanists and new atheists a few years ago to come up with the names of the schools, charities, universities, hospitals, benevolent associations, workers’ rights groups and social causes they have significantly contributed to in their mercifully short history, there was a slight ruffling of papers and then a lot of spew about how Christians only do these things because it makes converts. Actually, it probably doesn’t. They do these things because they are supposed to do them in the name of conscience, a word (and a function) that Christianity has had a monopoly on for two millennia. They did them during the plague, in storm, during wars, in peace. It was Pope Francis’s own religious order that tried to put a stop to the predation of native Americans by European exploiters, and ultimately it was liberal religion that marshalled public opinion against slavery in America. They do them because it is the cultural outgrowth of what Jesus taught. That is why they squirm when they see Pope Francis preaching about social justice: How dare a man who believes in God do that. Social justice is something atheists should be talking about. But they aren’t: they are talking about the manifold stupidity of people who think a man could walk on water. Number of papal sermons devoted to this poignant topic: 0.
That leaves me, uncomfortably, with the impression that atheists don’t like the Jesus cartoon (others would call it a straw man, but that’s a quibble) they have created for themselves. Their major premise is, Religion stinks. Their minor premise is that Christianity is a religion.
Their conclusion is therefore plain as the nose on the face that smells it.
But it’s really too bad because Christianity is not just any religion, except to people who think one religion is much the same as the next. I can only assume these people don’t drink wine or have sex.
Christianity may have had its dark ages but its illuminations are far more impressive. It gave us modern books. Fueled the dissemination of learning with better means of production, like the printing press.
“All that has been written to me about that marvelous man (Johannes Gutenberg) seen at Frankfurt is true. I have not seen complete Bibles but only a number of quires of various books of the Bible. The script was very neat and legible, not at all difficult to follow—your grace would be able to read it without effort, and indeed without glasses.” (Pope Pius II, 1455 on Gutenberg’s inventions)
It gave us libraries. It gave us modern universities. And though the average athée nouveau will hate to hear me say this, and the statement needs to be unpacked historically, which calls for more intellectual patience than this bluff crowd can muster, it gave us science. The facile juxtaposition of Christianity and science is so ludicrously wrong that I would be ashamed to utter it in learned company. Which tells you something about the kind of company many atheists keep.
But what really irks me at this time of year is the way they have taken to picking on Jesus. A slim majority have bought into the idea that Jesus never existed because they have already bought into the idea that God doesn’t exist. Maybe if they go far enough with this historical and philosophical skepticism they will reach some critical, Cartesian point of wondering about their own reality. But their incipient pyrhhonism aside, they simply can’t make up their mind whether to support the thoroughgoing mythical school of thought or punch holes in the “supernaturalism” of an otherwise historical record. To do that, they would first need to distinguish between metaphysical propositions like “There is a God”, historical assertions, such as the idea that Jesus really existed, and theological doctrines such as the statement that Jesus was God. I see no race among atheists to make such distinctions. They end up sounding more like Elmer Fudd on finding a rabbit hole empty: Jesus cannot be the son of God because God doesn’t exist so it is entirely plausible that he didn’t exist either.
The thing atheists need to know is that a lot of religious people do not believe the Bible is totally true, divinely inspired, or historically and scientifically accurate. It has been a long time since believing in bell, book and candle was required to make you a practicing Christian.
What a Christian might believe however is that Jesus was a unique figure among the religious teachers of his day. –That he preached peace and forgiveness among sectarian Jews perpetually at odds with each other and with their Roman overseers. –That he preached a kind of social equality within a society of xenophobes and law- and status- crazed disputants, as litigious as anything you can find in modern America. That he had a healthy respect for women in a culture of male entitlement. That he cared about the poor and the sick—a fact that withstands scrutiny even if you deny that he really performed cures or made the blind see and the lame walk. The motif of Jesus’s care for poor, sick, and marginalized people is as clear a theme as anything we have in ancient literature—in fact, we have nothing else quite like it. It seems merely fatuous to postulate this overwhelmingly human and personal concern of a mythological figure.
The details of Jesus’s life were completely unsuited to the religious biographies and hero-stories of his day. He was remembered as a failed radical, whose message became more prominent and popular—perhaps even prophetic– in hindsight. Even the most skeptical of New Testament scholars revert constantly to the theme of the radicalism of the figure of Jesus, so much so that the debate is really not about the theme but about its “morphology” – what accounts for it? It is this radicalism that turns the story of a historically exceptional figure into the unique story of a man who saved people from misery and poverty (attributed to sin, in the theological taxonomy of the day) and promised them a better life hereafter. It is easy to see how that story, Hellenized, could become the story of a god’s triumph over the forces of evil—a story that frankly has no explicit purchase on the gospels. It is easy to see how, in the wake of the implosion of Judaism in the late first century, the renewed energy of his teaching became a resurrection story. Prophets are only prophetic after the fact (Matthew 23.37).
Whether he meant by heaven what the Church would later mean by heaven is highly doubtful and probably impossible. But what seems clear is that the basic message of hope he preached was a memorable and unique call to people of “faith” (a word that simply means trust in God) and little faith to lead better lives, turn themselves around, facing back to God, away from selfishness, and learn to be at peace with their neighbor and their enemies. It is really as simple as that.
To ridicule this singularly useful teaching on account of how it was transformed by legend, explicated in doctrine and memorialized in worship seems merely churlish and ignorant to me. It stretches atheism to the splitting point, the point where no one can take it seriously because it has lost its major premise in a slough of distractions that have nothing whatever to do with the existence of God. Atheists who accept the historicity of Jesus are still obsessed with whether Jesus thought he was God and what the church meant when they called him that. They seem stuck in Tom Paine’s garden, repeating the familiar rationalist critiques of the bible and doctrine that were all the rage among deists and 18th century Unitarians, but have ceased to be compelling for a long time. They are still ridiculing miracles. They are still yacking about the resurrection. They are still pounding the table over the story of the virgin birth.
I would agree that any Christian who insists on the literal accuracy of the New Testament account of Jesus of Nazareth is naïve. I will agree that anybody who says silly things about the “normativity” of Christian or gospel “teaching” should be ignored, or avoided as a menace. But I don’t think that the solution for a naive literalism is a naïve rejectionism. What neither the fundamentalist Christian nor the atheist literalist gets is that the gospel is a narratively complex expression of simple ideas, not an impacted statement of unexplicated ideas—doctrines– as the church would later claim. Both need to return to their eighth grade chapter on metaphor, figures of speech, and poetic diction before they are permitted to pick up a Bible again. Feeding the hungry, visiting the imprisoned, clothing the naked, revering the peacemakers, forgiving rather than avenging—those are real things. The Centurion’s confession –“Truly, this man is a son of God”—is an interpretation and not even a clear one.
So I say, let the Christian nation beloathed by atheists have its Christ child, its manger, its new beginning, even its myth of virginal purity in Mary and patient and longsuffering fatherhood in Joseph. Let the Christians have their wise men three bearing precious gifts from orient lands afar, because life is precious after all, and to its parents every newborn is a prince or princess. Let those who adore him as Christ the Lord keep the message of salvation, and forgiveness. Turning the other cheek when we are wronged will always be an ideal, but it is an ideal we need to value above rage and vengeance–whether individual or socially sanctioned by the state. Let us have the Jesus who preached against war, the prince of peace. Even if there are “other” faces of this Jesus in the gospel, the dominant one is a Jesus who taught the fatherhood of God as a merciful and forgiving and loving father. There are other faces of God in the Bible, too; but this is the one Jesus talked about.
Finally, let the Christians have their cross and crucifixion: the tragic symbol of a life poured out in unfulfilled service against an establishment that would not be changed, could not be moved by love and grace. I do not know how Jesus died; but we have reason to think it was a judicial killing by Jewish and Roman collaborators, each of which had their own interest in bringing him down. We know that his skirmishes with moneychangers and lawyers and religious pretenders is a judgment on every profiteer, politician and evangelical shyster who bends his knee at the name of Jesus the lord while throwing people out of their houses or opening envelopes filled with money for “prayer requests.” Let the religious keep these images because they are fundamentally good images. I think they should be permitted in the public square because they tell us more about what is important in life than a ten-foot high illuminated “A.”
I have never had special confidence in “interfaith” discussion because it is nothing more than a kind of wilderness experience for over-conscientized religionists–a group hug based on the notion that religions really all teach the same thing. It proceeds from a laundry list of noble ideas that all religions would like to have as their defining message, ideas that actually find their core and center in the teaching of Jesus. But the truth is, religions, even the book religions, don’t teach the same things. They never have. That is why we have different religions. Without saying what I think the distinctive elements of Judaism and Islam (and other religious philosophies) are, I am quite sure I know what the distinguishing elements of Christianity are.
They are situated in the personality of a first century teacher who did not claim to have revelations, did not write or reveal or make any claims about a book, did not found a dynasty or a chosen “nation”of believers or even a church. For the transgression of being almost inconspicuous—a secret messiah whose followers could not keep his secret—he was killed as a public menace to the Pax Romana and the more brittle Pax Iudaeorum. He was killed before his opposition to the religious establishment in Jerusalem could solidify, before the Temple came tumbling down (an event understandably remembered by his followers as God’s judgment on his execution), before the people were raised to (yet another) furore over the slime and deceit of the Herodians and the priesthood, before his message of forgiveness foundered and failed on the stumbling block of the Judaeo-Roman pact, which finally ruptured in the second century following a series of provincial rebellions.
The strangest of those rebellions was the Galilean reform movement put into motion by the preaching of Jesus of Nazareth, about whom we know too little, but enough to know that he is an unlikely figure for mockery and abuse. The Roman garrison tried that, remember? It didn’t work.
The Jesus atheists love to hate is indeed a mythical figure. But he is their myth. Not a myth of the gospels or a man made up by storytellers to deceive future generations or to prop up a church. It’s entirely appropriate that once a year we spend some time remembering the solemnity of his birth and life.