I reject the virgin birth, sinless life, divinity, and physical resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. And that’s just a short list of the traditional Christian doctrines that I don’t buy into.
There are a lot of open-minded, gracious people out there who consider themselves Christians who are not bothered by folks rejecting those things. But they seemed to be bothered by someone who rejects those things and still claims to follow Jesus.
So the number one question that I’ve gotten while exploring my “Creed of Negatives” has been, “Why do you still follow Jesus?” If I can expand that question a little: “Why, after rejecting all that traditional Christianity has held to be true about Christ, do you still follow him? Wouldn’t it be easier to simply shrug Jesus off, and just forget about the whole ‘Christian’ thing?”
Critics of my position have argued that I’ve made the easy choice: that I just pick and choose which Jesus I want, and tailor my faith to fit my desires.
That’s just not true. This transition from conventional Christian faith to a more “progressive” one has been one of the hardest transitions of my life. I’m going against the sincere convictions of my friends, family and peers: all folks that I have to deal with on a daily basis.
Being vocal about this kind of thing is not an easy thing to do.
Yet I’m called to be vocal about it for the same reason I felt called to look into the person of Jesus in the first place, ten years ago: because I feel it’s true. And I feel that, in exploring these things, we’ll come to an even more expansive place in our faith. I felt pulled to Christianity because of a spiritual experience I had with Jesus. It’s this same spiritual experience that leads me to my vision of who Jesus is today.
But visions can change. I’m open to that. They always have in the past. So when I’m making authoritative statements, I’m making them only for myself. And keeping in mind that I could be wrong.
But I want to spend some time on the question of why it is I still follow Jesus.
One honest answer would be because that’s simply my world’s traditional approach to God. The communities and families of my childhood and youthful years were communities and families that got to God through a Christian tradition.
Perhaps if I were born in India or the East I would be denying traditional Buddhist or Hindu doctrines and saying I still follow Buddha, or that the Vedas are beautiful, but not inspired.
I’ll never discount the possibility that one of the primary reasons I’m tuned into Jesus is simply because that’s the culture I was raised in.
I think that’s perfectly fine.
But the main reason that I still maintain Jesus as my central approach to God is that, at the core, he has been the only example of living a life that fully manifested God’s presence amid circumstances that guaranteed opposition and death by his doing so.
I believe that Buddha manifested God. I’m okay with folks following Buddha. But I believe that Jesus manifested God, too, and I’m chillin’ with him.
My rejection of the Jesus who was God in flesh, pre-existent, and sent to shed his blood on the cross to save the world has led some to assume that I don’t take Jesus at his word.
This goes, most famously, back to CS Lewis, who said that Jesus was either Lord, Liar, or Lunatic. He could only have been one of these three because no other kind of person (outside of these) would say the things that Jesus said.
I don’t accept this presentation, because I can’t just blindly accept that Jesus said everything the gospels claim he said. When you see a progression from the Jesus in the gospel of Mark (who is already at this point in the story becoming the “Superman Christ” of tradition) all the way to the Jesus in the gospel of John (who has shed his Clark Kent persona totally), you see that what’s reflected in the gospels is not what Jesus had to say about himself, but rather what the early Christian communities had to say about Jesus.
I believe that we can get to the “real Jesus” by looking at all these gospels, and sifting through what appears to be blatant Christian propaganda. (There’s nothing wrong with ‘propaganda,’ and I don’t use that word with a negative connotation.)
This is not an easy thing to do, and I admit that anytime any of us does this, we are only making best guesses, and could be completely wrong.
I’m not arrogantly asserting that I’ve got the historical Jesus figured out, here. I’m just saying that, for me, the traditional views of Jesus just aren’t holding up with historical analysis and personal experience. So I’m doing the best I can at getting to the core of who I think Jesus was, and why he’s worth following.
When I boil it all down, Jesus was active in a society whose heart beat with the continuously running blood of sacrifices, all resting on the foundation of a temple cult. This society said that you can’t get to God unless you go through this temple. To me, it seems like Jesus had a problem with that. It seems that, after belonging to John the Baptist’s movement for a while, he began to trust his own experience of God and to be vocal and active about it. He started telling people that God is their Father in an intimate way. That those who are “outcast” actually do have a seat at God’s table. He pointed out the stupidity of their legality.
What I see when I look at Jesus is radical inclusivity. What I see when I look at the Church is quite the opposite, sometimes. All of the Christologically divine statements in the scriptures seem to be to be the mythical interpretations of peoples’ experiences with Jesus.
The space between this paragraph and the preceding one was filled with about a half hour of conversation. My friend Marcus Gibbs stopped by for a chat, and I was talking to him about the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus. I’ll blog about the resurrection in the future, hopefully, but during our conversation, I was talking about how expansive and open and so much more mysterious and wonderful Christianity has become since I’ve “de-literalized” concepts like these.
Jesus hasn’t just been still worth following since I’ve started this journey. He’s become worth following more.
That’s just further affirmation that I’m on the path I need to be on right now. I don’t love the Bible less since rejecting the fundamentalist approach to it: I love it more.
I have never felt more called to follow Jesus (and more aware of my shortcomings in doing so) than I have now, after letting go of all the trappings of “orthodoxy.”
Following Jesus is not about his birth or his death. It’s more about doing what he told us to do.
I believe we can do this. I believe we can come within a few good inches of knowing roughly what Jesus was about.
Love God. Love each other.
The Kingdom of God is within you.
You’ll be judged as much as you judge. You’ll be forgiven as much as you forgive.
It doesn’t take a virgin birth and a Superman in Clark Kent’s body (God in Flesh) for me to get that this guy’s worth following. This Jesus fellow is worth listening to.
In the New Testament, I see Jesus saying “God accepts you.” And I see his followers trying to make sense of that.
Throughout Paul’s writings, you can see this message. ”We are under no condemnation! God accepts us! We are free!”
Yet we see this same Paul struggling, trying to fit that into his perception of who God has been, for himself and his people. God accepts both Jews and Gentiles? Both slave and free? Both tax collector and tax-.. er.. collected? How does this work???
Thus theology is born.
But when it comes down to it, the only thing you need to know is “God accepts you.”
We all believe this, but we bicker over doctrines and theology.
Jesus overturned all the tables.
And we came in behind him and set them up once again.
Why do I follow Jesus?
Because if anyone’s worth following, it’s the one who changed the course of the whole world with a message of love and acceptance.
We are where are today because of the 30 odd years Jesus spent on earth. This goes much more for the West than for the East. We’ve had some major bumps in the road, and we haven’t always been in the best of places (see History of the World, Part I for “The Inquisition.”)
But this world is a better place because of Jesus.
And because I think that he was the full manifestation of who God is, and what God’s all about, I choose to follow him.
James Townsend, co-founder of The Human Condition, is a follower of Jesus, who talks about religion, mythology, and philosophy. He lives in Charleston, West Virginia.