Why is that so many people think my affirmations are antithetical to Christianity? I think it is because Christianity has placed all of its eggs in the belief basket. We all have been trained to think that Christianity is about believing things. Its symbols and artifacts (God, Bible, Jesus, Heaven, etc) must be accepted in a certain way. And when times change and these beliefs are no longer credible, the choices we are left with are either rejection or fundamentalism.
I think of Christianity as a culture. It has produced 2,000 years of artifacts: literature, music, art, ethics, architecture, and (yes) beliefs. But cultures evolve and Christianity will have to adapt in order to survive in the modern era.
-John Shuck, Presbyterian minister
“I’m a Presbyterian Minister Who Doesn’t Believe in God”
My first reaction to Mr. Shuck’s article when I saw it posted on Facebook was to write him off as a loon, but then in reading how he relates to Christianity, it occurred to me that there are some secular and Reform Jews who relate to Judaism the same way. That is, they both see Christianity and Judaism as primarily cultural without a basis in a supernatural, all-powerful creative being. You know…God.
I think Shuck has a problem though. A Jew who is an atheist is still a Jew based on ethnicity and heritage. Even if your distant ancestors converted to Judaism a thousand years ago, you, as a descendant, are fully Jewish. Even Jews who convert to Christianity don’t stop being Jewish. Sure, they may forsake the mitzvot, abandon the Torah, and deny the continuing authority of the Sinai covenant, but they are still Jews ethnically, by family heritage, and probably to some degree, culturally.
I’ve known some Jewish people who went to our local Reform/Conservative synagogue, not because they were religious in the slightest, but to connect with Jewish community. Boise, Idaho doesn’t have a large Jewish population. Heck, there are barely 1,500 Jews in the entire state of Idaho. There just aren’t many places to experience Jewish community that aren’t synagogue related. So it makes a sort of sense that even secular Jews would be seen entering a synagogue on Friday evenings.
But none of that applies to Christians.
No one is born a Christian. There’s no such thing as an “ethnic” Christian, since Christianity in its broadest definition, is inclusive of all ethnicities. Admittedly, Christianity can be a culture. I happen to think that individual churches can be self-contained cultures. But this isn’t something that one is born into.
The sort of Christianity that Shuck is describing is like joining some long-standing social group. You can come. You can go. You can choose to belong. You can choose to dissociate. Nothing ties you to being a Presbyterian other than what you desire to experience at a wholly human level. There’s no shared ethnicity and no shared history as a people group. It’s all based on practices and traditions that Shuck calls “human constructs”. Might as well be a political party.
It is said that Judaism is based on what you do, that is, performing the mitzvot. In Christianity, it’s all about what you believe. But can you have a “beliefless” Christianity?
I believe one of the newer religious paths could be a “belief-less” Christianity. In this “sect,” one is not required to believe things. One learns and draws upon practices and products of our cultural tradition to create meaning in the present. The last two congregations I have served have huge commitments to equality for LGTBQ people and eco-justice, among other things. They draw from the well of our Christian cultural tradition (and other religious traditions) for encouragement in these efforts. I think a belief-less Christianity can be a positive good for society.
Belief-less Christianity is thriving right now, even as other forms of the faith are falling away rapidly. Many liberal or progressive Christians have already let go or de-emphasized belief in Heaven, that the Bible is literally true, that Jesus is supernatural, and that Christianity is the only way. Yet they still practice what they call Christianity. Instead of traditional beliefs, they emphasize social justice, personal integrity and resilience, and building community. The cultural artifacts serve as resources.
But what about belief in God? Can a belief-less Christianity really survive if God isn’t in the picture? Can you even call that Christianity anymore? In theory, yes. In practice, it is a challenge because “belief in God” seems to be so intractable. However, once people start questioning it and realize that they’re not alone, it becomes much more commonplace.
From Shuck’s perspective, Christianity has evolved to the point where God and Jesus Christ (at least a Jesus Christ that has any sort of Divine nature) have been left behind. I’ve actually heard some “progressive” Jews say similar things about Judaism, that the mitzvot are just human constructed moral codes and that Jews don’t really believe in the Exodus except at Passover. Kind of like how some Jewish people only go to synagogue during the High Holy Days. Kind of like how some “Christian” people only go to church on Easter.
The Presbyterian Church (USA) has devolved and morphed to the point where, except for a few superficial rituals, their values, beliefs, and practices are absolutely no different from those of the progressive leftist social and political movements in the western nations. It’s “religion lite” and God non-existent. At some point, and I must contradict Shuck here, without a traditional view of Christ, there is no Christianity. The PCUSA becomes decoupled from the central tenets of faith and is reduced to a social club masquerading as a church.
Someone quipped that my congregation is BYOG: Bring Your Own God. I use that and invite people to “bring their own God” — or none at all. While the symbol “God” is part of our cultural tradition, you can take it or leave it or redefine it to your liking. That permission to be theological do-it-yourselfers is at the heart of belief-less Christianity.
Or perhaps a meaningless “Christianity”.
I understand some Christians may react with hostility and panic to this idea — they already have — but it deserves an honest discussion.
Yes, and I’m honestly discussing it. I momentarily became a little hot under the collar when reading Shuck’s article but I realize that Shuck and the PCUSA have so removed themselves from anything taught by Messiah (Christ) that they aren’t even in the ballpark of a theological discussion, themselves being without theology. The world is full of human organizations that have nothing to do with religion, God, faith, or spirituality. The PCUSA is just one more of them.