Tom Krattenmaker is a writer and USA Today columnist who covers religion and public life in the United States. His latest book is Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower. Below is my interview with Tom about what it means to be secular and also love Jesus.
In a nut shell, your argument seems to be this: we need not believe in the supernatural Jesus (all his miracles, his resurrection, etc.) in order to learn from and be inspired by his ethical teachings and radical lifestyle. Is that correct?
That’s exactly right. We nonreligious people can take the miracles as metaphors if we’d like, or we can leave them on the cutting room floor as we go about the inevitable exercise of picking and choosing the parts of the story that abide with us. The point is, we can see Jesus not as a divine savior who takes away our sins, but as an embodiment of transformative wisdom, insight, and inspiration.
I was raised Catholic, although I’d have to say the commitment was rather tepid in my immediate family. I think my mom took us out of duty. When I was a kid in the 60s and 70s, there was a lot more social scorn heaped upon families that were not church-goers, and to maintain any veneer of respectability some kind of religious affiliation seemed necessary.
I was a nonbeliever—or at least a serious doubter—all the way back to my late teen years. Over the course of adulthood, I have gradually became more settled in that understanding and more open about it. My wife and I lived in Portland for eight years before moving to New Haven a couple of years ago. Believe me—you pay no social price whatsoever for being an “out” secular in that city!
It’s true that my secular identity is being announced more loudly than ever with this new book, as is my Jesus affinity. But in my two previous books, as in some of my columns over the years, you will find references to the fact that I’m secular and that I have a very high opinion of the figure of Jesus.
You make it clear that you don’t believe in the magical Jesus. Did you ever? If so, when did you stop? And why?
From my teen years on, I’ve not been able to accept the factual truth of the proposition that Jesus was/is a divine savior. I did earnestly try to “accept Christ” and become a real Christian during my one-year dalliance with Campus Crusade when I was an undergraduate. It didn’t take.
Reflecting on the arc of my belief and disbelief, I suspect I’m a product of what Charles Taylor calls “a secular age.” I’m a product of a culture that evaluates what’s real on the basis of what we can sense and measure. Other than the accounts from the Bible and its Christian interpreters, I have never encountered or experienced evidence for the validity of the doctrinal claims about Jesus, including his ability to wipe away humanity’s sins through his death and resurrection. You can see where I’m putting the burden of truth.
You talk about Christianity being hijacked by right-wingers in this country. Indeed, according to a recent survey, three quarters of Evangelicals are Trump supporters. In your opinion, what would Jesus think of Trump?
Jesus would compel us—even us liberals—to love Trump. I’m not making this up. Jesus is quoted as saying, “Love your enemy.” Crazy, right? But as I wrote in one of my USA Today’s pieces in the run-up to the election, we have to bear in mind that “love” in this context is not a feeling. Rather, it’s a way of regarding and treating other people—especially those we might least like and who piss us off the most—in a way that acknowledges their humanity.
When we apply this daunting concept to politics it doesn’t mean we will work for Trump’s election or validate the bigotry that his campaign has surfaced. Just the opposite. But we need not wish for his humiliation and punishment, nor for the humiliation and punishment of his supporters. As I like to say, hate the hate but love the hater. If we are going to move the country ahead, we have to stop treating our political “enemies” like enemies.
People who love Jesus seem to project onto him what they want to see. They sort of “construct” the Jesus which best reflects their own opinions, politics, or needs. Do you think you have done this? Have you ignored or downplayed various aspects of Jesus in order to make him out to be the progressive model you desire?
That’s a great point, Phil. Let’s face it. My critics will say that by skipping past the religious aspects of the Jesus story, by advancing this idea of a secular engagement with Jesus, I’ve committed this “sin” in the most flagrant way imaginable.
But that’s OK. What I’m more worried about—and this is what I get into in the epilogue of my book—is the tendency I might have, and that all of us might have, to morph Jesus into something that requires nothing of us other than business as usual. “Jesus just wants us to be nice people. Yeah, I’m a good guy. I can just keep on doing like I do!”
That’s what I’m pushing against. I’m taking very seriously the hard teachings of Jesus, the ones I’d rather ignore if left to my own devices. Such as: How do we “love” our political “enemies”? How do we understand and implement the Jesus prohibition against men divorcing their wives? How do we sacrifice our own self-interest for the sake of doing for others, especially those who have the least amount of power and privilege and, therefore, no ability to make us pay for ignoring or mistreating them?
So for all my talk about the inevitability of picking and choosing, I contend that this selectiveness must stop when we get into the body of Jesus’ ethical teachings. I’m trying to wrestle with all of the major teachings and apply them as best I’m able, even the ones I like the least. And I’m doing it in the company of other people who are likewise examining their lives. So there’s some structure of accountability.
Jesus never got married. And he urged his followers to abandon their wives. How is this a good model for us? I love being married, but if I followed Jesus, well, so much for that. Thoughts?
So much for family values, right?! In responding to your question, I’m going to take refuge in the behavior of multitudes of Christians who shun a literal application of this teaching and, especially in the evangelical sphere, make family values a central part of their identity.
Here, too, though, there’s a way of processing this teaching and understanding it in a nonliteral manner. The scripture commentaries that I’ve seen generally regard this as a message saying, “Hey, think about your ultimate attachments. Your highest priority should be the eternal, not earthly things!”
To take this teaching seriously in a secular way is tough, though—I admit it. What I’ll offer is that it’s a reminder, at least to me, to stick to our highest principles and ethics even if it costs us in terms of other people’s approval, maybe even the people we love the most.
I just have to say: your thoughts about sex were spot on. Thank you.
Thanks, Phil. So I guess you’re a prude, too, eh? Ha ha.
You talk a lot about how we’re all anxious: stressed about success and status. I agree. And you talk about our obsession with consumerism. And these were times when I thought that the Buddha (Siddhartha) might actually be a better role model than Jesus. Did you ever consider being a follower of the Buddha in the same way you follow Jesus?
I know a lot more about Jesus than Buddha. That said, I’ve read books about Buddhism and visited Buddhist shrines in Japan. I find there is a lot of wisdom in that path and, as you note, a lot of insight on our relationship with stress and anxiety. In general, I suspect that if you lined up the key issues that face us as individuals and societies, and then compared the Jesus and Buddha teachings on each of them, you might find in quite a few instances that the Buddha teaching is clearer and more compelling. That’s great. Apply the Buddha teaching!
That said, I find Jesus to be the most interesting, compelling, and comprehensive model, and I find his body of work most antithetical to so much of what is disappointing and disillusioning about life today. But, really, there is no either/or choice we have to make here. My secular Jesus-following is not an exclusive thing. I’ll take insight and inspiration from wherever I can get it.
Just yesterday, I had a great conversation with a man who is both a Unitarian minister and a practicing Buddhist. One of his two churches has services that combine Jesus and Zen Buddhism. He invited me to visit and check out what they are doing with this Jesus-Buddhist combo—which I’m looking forward to doing in a few weeks!
You state throughout the book that it doesn’t really matter if the doings and sayings of Jesus are actually, historically true. But is that really the case? I mean, if they are just myths and legends, then don’t they lose a little weight? And why not then follow the doings and teachings of other fictional characters, such as Obi-wan Kenobi? Or Anne of Green Gables? Or Charlotte and her web?
I know of people who are treating works of popular fiction as sacred texts and applying the insights to their lives. And I agree with Alain de Botton when he says a lack of factual accuracy is no reason to dismiss the insights of a religion; after all, we do not dismiss the insights of a great novel just because the story is made up.
But realistically, I doubt that I’d be as interested in Jesus, and as motivated to adopt his way, if his entire story and existence were fiction. In the Bible accounts of Jesus’ actions and teachings, are there embellishments? Even fictionalized add-ons? Of course. But it’s almost universally accepted among scholars that this Jesus figure did trod the Earth 2,000 years ago, and that he did and said things that got him executed by the authorities. For me anyway, that adds some oomph to the story. And the fact that a real-live human being had these insights and radically lived them out at great personal cost makes it seem a little less impossible to apply these difficult but world-changing teachings to my own life.
This article first appeared in Psychology Today