Tuesday, March 24, 2015

"Belief-less Christianity"

Is that a thing?  Apparently so.   Blogger and Presbyterian minister John Shuck writes that he does not believe in a supernatural God, and stories about Jesus are the stuff of legend.
 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.

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. ....

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.

Personally, even though I don’t believe in God as a supernatural agent or force, many still do. I utilize the symbol “God” in worship. This may be viewed as cheating but since our cultural tradition is filled with images of God, it is near impossible to avoid. As a symbol, I’m not yet ready to let go of God. It is a product of myth-making — I know that — but the symbol incorporates many of our human aspirations. I find that “God” for me is shorthand for all the things for which I long: beauty, truth, healing, and justice. They’re all expressed by this symbol and and the stories about it.
 Now, I don't see how you can be a Christian pastor without, you know, believing in Christ.  But perhaps that's because my familiarity is with traditional trinitarian sacramental theology (e.g., Catholic and Episcopalian) .  I don't know how the Presby's rock.  But this does seem a bit.... unconventional.

Update:  We have talked quite a bit about being a secular Christian, and in many ways I am one.   So that doesn't faze me.  But what I find interesting is that he's a "professional" God-believer....being a pastor and all... yet considers God just a symbol he uses in worship.

Shuck isn't belief-less, he's just without a conventional belief in God.  He believes in lots of things, as he has indicated here.

He's perhaps not that far from Karen Armstrong.
The myths and laws of religion are not true because they they conform to some metaphysical, scientific or historical reality but because they are life enhancing. They tell you how human nature functions, but you will not discover their truth unless you apply these myths and doctrines to your own life and put them into practice.” The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness

Or from me, for that matter.  But I'm not wearing a collar. 


PseudoPiskie said...

But it kinda makes sense. At least to me.

IT said...

We've had the discussion before about "secular Christians" but this seems to take it a bit further.

Tracie Holladay said...

Even Richard Dawkins calls himself a "cultural Christian" or "culturally Anglican."

Tracie Holladay said...

‘I’m kind of grateful to the Anglican tradition,’ Dawkins admits, ‘for its benign tolerance. I sort of suspect that many who profess Anglicanism probably don’t believe any of it at all in any case but vaguely enjoy, as I do… I suppose I’m a cultural Anglican and I see evensong in a country church through much the same eyes as I see a village cricket match on the village green. I have a certain love for it.’ Would he ever go into a church? ‘Well yes, maybe I would.’

But at this point he turns it back around again. I try to clarify my own views to him. ‘You would feel deprived if there weren’t any churches?’ he asks. ‘Yes,’ I respond. He mulls this before replying. ‘I would feel deprived in the same spirit of the English cricket match that I mentioned, that is close to my heart. Yes, I would feel a loss there. I would feel an aesthetic loss. I would miss church bells, that kind of thing.’

And what about the fear of losing the tradition? ‘Yes. I sort of understand that. I certainly would absolutely never do what some of my American colleagues do and object to religious symbols being used, putting crosses up in the public square and things like that, I don’t fret about that at all, I’m quite happy about that. But I think I share your Anglican nostalgia, especially when you look at the competition.’

JCF said...

What Shuck's proposing really isn't new: in my (tucked into storage) theological library I've got ~50 year old "Death of God Theology" stuff that's much the same.

As long as someone is able to profess the Nicene Creed ("professing" is not the same as the Fundie sort of faith-statement thing: it's individual faith, yes, but only in the context of the COMMUNITY---ala, "one Christian is no Christian"), then I don't care to unpack (others' faith) any further.

But not gonna lie: Shuck's project really doesn't appeal to me in the least. [Then again, apart from ethics, neither did Spong's.]

Kevin K said...

I haven't been worshiping in a Presbyterian Church for a long time but I am an ordained Presbyterian Elder. Back when I was in the Presbyterian church this was a trend that concerned me.

I agree with JCF. This seems like a form of having your cake and eating it to. it is also a form of lying. If you want to reject the notion of God and/or Jesus you should have the courage to move on. This is particularly true if you are serving as a minister and have taken vows which include accepting truths you now reject.

It is different for us in the pews. We can certainly attend church despite our doubts.

8thday said...

This seems like classic faulty logic:

1. All dogs have four legs (i.e., are members of the group of objects with four legs)
2. All tables have four legs
3. Therefore, all dogs are tables.

He seems to be claiming "social justice, personal integrity and resilience, and building community" as Christian tenets, therefore anyone who also believes in these things can claim to be Christian. Very faulty logic.

But there again, I find it a bit unconventional that a self identified atheist belongs to a church and runs an Episcopal blog.

Whatever floats your boat.

JCF said...

Whoa, KevinK! You're saying you agree w/ me, then going on to say things that I in no way said. I do NOT believe Shuck is (necessarily) "lying". I did not say Shuck "rejects the notion of God and/or Jesus" (perhaps rejects certain ways of believing in God and/or Jesus. It's an epistemology question). I did not accuse Shuck of "hav[ing] taken vows which include accepting truths [he] now reject[s]." [See re epistemology again]

I don't think there's a single way to credo. Just because Shuck calls his way "belief-less", SOMETHING (mysterium tremendum et fascinans, eh?) draws him to church on Sunday to lead people in giving-worth-to (aka worship) that Something.

It's not my cup of tea. But it's not grounds to kick him and his congregation out of the council of churches, either.

Kevin K said...


I was agreeing with you on your stated points and then went on to make my own observations.

There is a huge difference between attending Church as a "non believer" and accepting a pastoral roll in that Church. IT is a good example of this. I welcome and believe Churches should welcome non believers, the uncertain, those with doubts.

But, if you accept ordination and employment as a minister, I think you have expressly represent a belief in the core teachings of your Church. If I was a minister and came to the point where I no longer believed that Jesus was the son of God I don't think I could honorably continue to preach or lead worship in a Presbyterian Church. To continue to do so does seem to me to be hypocritical and representing yourself as something that you are not.

Marshall Scott said...

What I find interesting and concerning about this is the statement, "I think of Christianity as a culture." Seems to me that Christianity has a variety of expressions, participating in different cultural settings. That being the case, my fear would be that "Christianity is a culture" reflects buying into, or risks buying into, the dominant culture and identifying it as "Christian" - with all the unchallenged privilege that comes with that. Certainly, that has been a problem often enough in these United States. I appreciate that this person would not feel he was doing so, but it does seem a reasonable question.

IT said...

I identify as a "secular" or "cultural" Christian, and we've discussed the concept many times here. I agree with Shuck in a lot of ways. The thing is, I'm not a priest/pastor.

Then again, I guess 8th Day finds me as counterintuitive as I find Shuck.


IT said...

BTW I've updated the post with some additional comments.

Tracie Holladay said...

Does/should the collar part really matter? Folks in collars are human too...

Kevin K said...

To me the collar part matters a lot. I want to stress that I'm not saying clerics cannot doubt. If Peter can doubt...

If a cleric rejects the fundamental beliefs of his faith system, that is different. I think that person cannot ethically continue to hold themselves out as a priest/pastor/minister of that faith. That person should also, at least, stop taking pay.

8thday said...

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I thought you identified as an atheist. Or you previous have on this blog. Is that now considered the same thing as a "secular" or "cultural" Christian? I have such a hard time keeping up with people's ever changing label definitions.

I am very interested though in what people consider the label "Christian" to mean? Is to identify as "Christian" a belief or a way of living, an action?

IT said...

8th day, I do identify as an atheist, but that term is so freighted with baggage, I prefer "non-believer". What I think is, what we've got here is it.

So to me, I think those who identify as "Christian" without modifiers must be those who connect with God and Jesus-Christ born and cruciified-and resurrected .

when I use the term "secular Christian" I mean those of us who may not "buy" the above but find some connection to the liturgy and practice of Christianity. For example, I've been collecting classical choral (religious) polyphony since college. I love that stuff.

And, I love a community that also loves that stuff that takes it to the streets. Yeah, they are literal about the God/Jesus stuff. They think Jesus is real. To me, it's myth and metaphor.

Yet we meet in the music, and in service. They aren't demanding a faith statement, and what's it to me that they believe it? We share the music, and the concept o social justice.

And, remember it's not just my friends. It's my wife. It's the only Big Thing we don't agree on. And yet, we totally agree, because we respect and love one another.

8thday said...

This is why I have always had an issue with labels. The same label can mean 10 different things to 10 different people. I am not sure why people cling to them as they do except perhaps to try to convince others they are something they probably are not.

The majority of people I know who attend a church do so as a social safety net. They are non-believers but want the social network and status and also people to take care of them as they age. And I don’t think church’s care as long as their are butts in the pews and money being collected. Which goes back to another post about why I think churches have become more social clubs than places to practice religion.

For me, a person’s actions are much more important than labels. So if this pastor leads a life close to gospel teachings and is able to help his congregation grow in their spiritual lives, who cares what he believes or doesn’t believe or what label he uses? And that you collect classical choral music and love your wife tells me much more about you than any label could.