A Surprising Source for Seculars
Despite the fact there was no such category, and despite the fact that such a term was not in use—not in use at all, as I discovered in an Internet search—I could be a secular Jesus follower.
See Also: Confessions of a Secular Jesus (Convergent Books, 2016).
By Tom Krattenmaker
New Haven, Ct.
We live, for worse and for better, in a secular age. In the Western world, we live in a context where our worldviews and frames of reference are matters of our choice, where religious nonbelief is an option—an increasingly viable one, judging from the demographic data—and where religious belief, in some settings and circles more than others, is hard to muster.
It’s not surprising, then, to find growing numbers of people in the United States and other Western cultures who are secular through and through: no god, no church, no community built around religious values and commitments.
In these outward-expanding secular spheres, a real-life experiment unfolds. Where there was once reliance on God belief and the structures that grow out of that, there is now an iterative and earnest collective effort to figure out how to do life “naked,” to borrow a term from Richard Neuhaus. In his seminal work The Naked Public Square, published in 1986, Neuhaus lamented a public square increasingly shorn of religion. Three decades later, a broader unanswered question hangs over us, posed by the rapidly growing legions who would keep religion separate not only from politics and government but from their lives. More and more of us are experiencing the ups and downs and triumphs and devastations of human existence—the births and deaths and all the major milestones in between—with no religion to lean on, with no divinely ordered structure to hold us. We face our mortality and all the other vexing mysteries of life naked.
What happens now to society, and us?
Despite shrill warnings about the nihilism to which secular living supposedly must lead, despite the claims that without God, people are doomed to living life with no notion of right and wrong and good and bad—why not just kill for sport?—most of us in this wildly diverse collection of nonreligious, nontheistic individuals are managing fine, more or less. We are demonstrating every day that godlessness does not lead to the horrors that alarmist religion promoters warn about. We are, for the most part, people who enjoy our lives. We are, by and large and imperfectly, good citizens who tend to our responsibilities, take care of our kids, love our spouses and parents, and try to make the world a fairer and better place. By doing all this with our eyes open to our mortality and while harboring no sweet notion of heaven to console us, we are disproving that seculars crumble under the vast weight of supposed nothingness. We are proving, as the pithy slogan of the American Humanist Association puts it, that people and life can be “good without a god.”
Yet for all that is reassuring and even impressive about the good and useful lives being led by the burgeoning numbers of people who are atheist, agnostic, humanist, or utterly indifferent to religion, one can detect a quiet crisis of sorts. It comes in the form of a vacuum—a vacuum of inspiration and meaning—and in an absence of potent means to climb out of our mundane, self-centric existences to something greater than ourselves. So committed to do-it-yourself constructions of life’s purpose, so determined to be the captains of our own lives, we can sometimes squander grand opportunities to learn from, to draw inspiration and instruction from, teachers from the past whose insights are timeless and relevant. Forgoing these sources of insight and encouragement can leave us naked in areas of life where we could really use some clothing—particularly those vulnerable areas where a confused and hyper-individualistic culture invades our psyches and calls to us with a siren song of trivial self-seeking that will ultimately leave us crashed on the rocks if that’s all we hear, and heed.
We would be wise to avail ourselves of some time-tested input. I’d like to suggest one especially compelling source.
In the pantheon of philosophers, prophets, teachers, artists, moral exemplars, and sages from the ages, one stands out for me as a particularly promising figure for our time. He is a figure of unusual wisdom and deeply moving strangeness who calls me to reconceive the orientation of my own life and the manner in which I engage my fellow humans. His story compels me to access my often-reluctant generosity and pull myself out of my self-centered worries and obsessions. This figure’s inspiration has changed the way I treat the supposed nobodies whom I could easily get away with mistreating. His message and manner, I find, address our culture’s maladies and malaises amazingly well, as they do my own.
I do not claim there is only one figure or source from whom we can learn and draw inspiration, whom we can emulate. Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln, and others have much to offer, and this is not an either-or exploration we are going on in this book. But one figure stands out.
That figure is Jesus.
Wait, what? Jesus? Didn’t I just say I am secular? Aren’t I a little confused?
Well, no. The problem is not any confusion but the lack of a label that describes the path that I have been on for a long time, and that many more might walk if the trailhead were properly marked.
I am, as it turns out, a secular Jesus follower.
These paragraphs from my book’s opening pages introduce readers to a concept that some find exciting and galvanizing, that some find odd, and that some find objectionable. The passage’s closing declaration—“I am a secular Jesus follower”—echoes a phrase that first tumbled from my mouth during a lunchtime conversation I had with one of my Christian friends not long before I launched the book project. Although a new articulation, it was not the first time I had thought this way about my complicated, hybrid religious identity. It was, in fact, a long time coming.
As I inform readers later in the book’s introduction, I’ve “had a thing” about Jesus since I was a teenager. Even though I never found church compelling and, indeed, gradually faded away from it as an adult, the stories about Jesus, and the teaching of Jesus, took up permanent residence in my head and heart. Measuring our character on the basis of how we treat those with the least amount of status and privilege—that struck me as a true and inspiring, as an exemplary way to live. As did the example set by Jesus in his humane, compassionate treatment of outcasts, for instance, and his willingness to forego power and wealth to devote himself to a greater cause: giving of himself for the sake of others.
Seems like a logical starting point on the path back to church, doesn’t it? One problem: my lack of God belief, and my related disbelief in the traditional theological propositions about Jesus as divine savior. So much for being a Christian, I realized. So much for being a “Jesus follower”—a term that appealed to me but something I heard only from Christians.
Then it dawned on me: Despite the fact there was no such category, and despite the fact that such a term was not in use—not in use at all, as I discovered in an Internet search—I could be a secular Jesus follower.
In the many fascinating conversations and interviews I’ve had in the weeks since the release of the book, I’ve fielded questions and comments that tug at the meaning of the words in that phrase: Can one really claim to be a Jesus “follower” without being a Christian? Who exactly is this “Jesus” who I am following? The divine Jesus? The apocalyptic Jesus? The sage and moral philosopher Jesus? And what does it mean to engage this complex figure in “secular” way. Is that in any way legitimate? Or legal?
A clue to answering these is found in the cover design of my book (a design I thoroughly appreciate and to which I contributed nothing other than my enthusiastic approval and appreciation). Most of the title is rendered in elegant black letters of a vaguely gothic cast. In stark contrast, the word “secular” is printed in upper-case gold in jarringly plain sans serif letters. It’s entirely appropriate that “secular” is made to stand out this way because, indeed, it’s the word that changes everything—in the title, in the book itself, and in the quest I am on to deepen my life and my engagement with our society’s biggest challenges.
With regard to the first question above—can you legitimately claim to be a Jesus follower if you are not Christian?—“secular” is key to the answer. Obviously, I cannot claim the label as a Christian would. Nor am I trying. I am declaring myself to be a secular Jesus follower.
What follows from that are a series of logical extensions that begin to answer the second skeptical question—which Jesus? Not to be glib, but the answer quickly emerges: a secularly understood, secularly engaged Jesus. Which is to say, a secular Jesus follower is pursuing the aspects of Jesus that do not involve claims about his divine status, or his own religious utterances and behaviors. What is left? A lot, actually. As I go on to explore in the body of my book, this secularly understood Jesus conveys inspiration, insight, and ethical input that is powerfully applicable and transformative today, wherever we are on the theological spectrum. Whether the issue is our anxiety, our racism, our violence, our sexual exploitation, or our self-centeredness, I contend that as we examine and implement the insights of Jesus, we deepen our lives and begin to make the world a fairer, more loving, more peaceful, and more compassionate place.
But as some of my interlocutors has suggested with stern disapproval, isn’t this “secular Jesus” non-biblical, at odds with the Christian understanding of Jesus? You cannot just pick part of the Jesus story and ignore the rest, can you?
Here, too, being secular is key. Because secular people by definition are not part of a church, and not seeking church acceptance of themselves or their ethical and spiritual quests, we are free to pursue Jesus as we wish. We can ignore the parts of the Jesus story that involve the supernatural—the miracles, the resurrection, salvation, teachings about God—or, as I prefer to do, we can “translate” them into words and concepts that make sense to a secular mind.
Of course this is unsound from a Christian perspective. But this secularly framed Jesus is not a fabricated Jesus—not by any means. The aspects of Jesus I engage in my book, and life, are sourced from the pages of the New Testament, after all. About the most a doubting Christian could say is that it’s an incomplete Jesus whom I follow. So be it.
As I readily acknowledge in my book and in the many public conversations I am having about it, the weakness in my claim and quest is different from the one discussed above. It’s not that I’m not allowed to follow Jesus in a secular way. Religiously based disapprovals are toothless; I am inspired and guided by Jesus whether an ecclesiastical body approves or not. The problem is that my secular Jesus-following could be lame. It could be distorted, self-serving, or so half-hearted and unreinforced that it becomes as thin and light as a piece of paper.
The solutions? They are similar to those developed in churches: the cultivation and reinforcement of practices and habits; the company of fellow travelers who are working on their ethics and lives and trying hard to do good and be good; and continued reading, study, and conversation about this figure I claim to follow and how to apply the insights and teachings.
I have the good fortune of being part of such conversations in the humanist community to which I belong. Such venues do exist, and more are popping up as the secular community grows larger and more organized, and as it continues to broaden its pursuits from critiques of religion to positive articulations of who we are and what we stand for as secular people.
Me? I stand, above all, for the ethics and values of Jesus. The quest is as real and as valid as I, with the help of my friends, am able to make it.
Excerpt reprinted from CONFESSIONS OF A SECULAR JESUS FOLLOWER: Finding Answers in Jesus for Those Who Don’t Believe. Copyright © 2016 by Tom Krattenmaker. Published by Convergent, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.