Christianity, Translated for the Non-Religious


The non-religious are by far the fastest-growing religious demographic in America.  So how shall we who are progressive Christians talk about our faith with them, when the appropriate occasions arise?
Religion is the organized, communal expression of spirituality.  But spirituality can be expressed and nurtured without it.  More and more folks are figuring this out.  They are finding non-religious ways to raise their kids to become compassionate, caring human beings with a sense of deep awe and wonder and humility toward the universe and toward other people.
Progressive Christians are religious pluralists who respect the religions of others and show genuine interest in them, and recognize that other faiths may be as good for others as ours is for us.  If we’re serious about this kind of pluralism, we must include the non-religious in it.  It is certainly possible that being non-religious may be as good for non-religious folks as being Christian is for us.  And it’s also possible that some non-religious people might resonate with Christianity if it was introduced to them intelligibly.
My friendships with non-religious folks have inspired me to think deeply about how to communicate progressive Christianity to curious people who know little to nothing about it.  I don’t think everybody ought to be Christian, but I do think that we Christians ought actively to offer our tradition to people who are open to it.  My first published book, “Open Christianity”, was addressed primarily to Christians looking for another way to do Christianity.  Fast forward two decades of work with college students who were “nones” or otherwise barely aware of the basics of Christianity, and I realized I needed to write a very different book that presumed nothing about the reader’s background in the faith.  “Tenderly Calling” was the result: it is Christianity for newbies.  It introduces the reader to the basics of the faith from a progressive perspective.
Now, a couple of years after publishing that book, I’m asking myself another question.  How can the essence of progressive Christianity be described in entirely non-religious language?  Without reference to Jesus or the Bible at all?  So that we can make its most basic message intelligible to people with no background in the faith.  And then, if they are willing, translate that secular message into the rich, beautiful, profound language of Christianity, inviting them to explore the progressive version of the faith. 
This challenge crystallized for me when I read these words of the 20th c philosopher and theologian, Simone Weil:  “I must move toward an abiding conception of the divine mercy, a conception which does not change whatever event destiny may send upon me, and which can be communicated to no matter what human being.” 
She was on a quest to express the raw essence of the faith as concisely and universally as possible.  She had an outsider’s perspective on Christianity, having grown up as a non-religious, non-observant Jew. She also wrote that “Christianity (Catholic and Protestant) speaks too much about holy things.”  She wanted to express the heart of the faith as clearly and simply as possible, with little to no jargon, to make it accessible to anyone.
It is always challenging for insiders to imagine an outsider’s point of view.  Now that familiarity with Christianity can no longer be taken for granted in the Western world, we Christians are surrounded by outsiders who don’t speak our faith language.  How shall we respond?
The dominant paradigm of Christianity in America – evangelical/fundamental Protestantism – welcomes outsiders into its fold by immediately immersing them into their religious lingo and culture.  Evangelicals don’t translate their faith into secular language because they can’t.  Their belief system emanates from the tautological religious assumption that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God because the Bible says so, and thus all that is in the Bible is historically factual.  There’s just no plausible, intelligible way to express that perspective without the use of Christian terminology and doctrines.
Progressive Christians usually offer a different religious starting point:  God is love.  So, unlike our evangelical sisters and brothers, we are able to express our faith in purely secular terms.  But we don’t express it that way often enough.  The basics of our faith are natural, observable, and intelligible to anyone, whether or not one uses Christian terminology or references to describe them.  If we really believe that God is love, then we can describe the essence of our faith entirely in terms of that love, leaving out the G-word.  Not that the G-word is bad:  it is integral to the rich mytho-poetic language of our faith tradition.  But if we want to get our message across to people who either don’t relate to the G-word, or associate it with bad experiences, we need to start with purely secular language.
I believe that if we practice this kind of secular description of our religious faith, we’ll do a better job of welcoming “nones” into it.  And at the same time, we’ll go deeper in our own understanding and practice of our faith.  What is most essential in Christianity is not confined to Christianity.  Our tradition mirrors the nature of nature itself.  The narratives and rituals of the faith reflect the universal structure of the human psyche.  What is true in Christianity is not true because of Christianity.  Christianity is one of many possible expressions of an underlying essence.  When we engage in contemplative prayer, when we participate in the sacraments, we are communing with a reality that supersedes Christianity itself.
So here is my paragraph, briefly describing Christianity in purely secular terms:
Out of billions of years of the universe churning with creation and destruction, a breathtaking reality has emerged: love.  On earth, love has evolved from the bond between family members into a deeper love that is unconditional and universal.  The emergence of this love marks a profound turning point in natural history.  This love flows through deeply attentive, open, all-embracing consciousness.  This love lifts people out of selfishness and shallowness and into lives of selfless compassion, creativity, service, and activism for justice.  This love manifests in humble awe and wonder.  This love is more extraordinary and beautiful than everyday prose can describe.  It inspires poetry, music, ritual, and mythic narrative, and it brings people together in community to celebrate and practice it more fully. 
The Christian church is one such community.  Welcome to it!


JIM BURKLO – Pastor, United Church of Christ, Simi Valley CA

Executive Director, Progressive Christians Uniting/ZOE: Progressive Christian Life on Campus

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