Exploring The Evolution Of Christianity
As an atheist, Christian books are not often on my reading list, in fact I’ve probably only read a handful of religious books in my life. This month though I’ve been tempted into reading one, A New Kind of Christian which was recommended by Debbie’s pastor as one of the top ten books that changed his life. It’s not great literature, but that’s not it’s purpose, it’s designed to challenge much of the baggage that’s grown up around the teachings of Jesus in the last 2000 years and get back to his core message. It recognises the bible as a book of it’s time, that needs to be interpreted for the modern world, but also read through the filter of Jesus’ teachings.
As soon as you accept these things many of my concerns about Christianity fall away:
- Christianity’s inability to accept and embrace what we learn about the world if it’s inconsistent with the bible (evolution, age of the planet, our place in the universe etc)
- The Christian concept of heaven and hell as distinct future destinations, rather than ways of living today. I believe that living according to Jesus’ moral code can be thought of as ‘heaven’ and that the further we depart from that code the closer our lives approach ‘hell’.
- To my mind the core of what Jesus teaches us about is how we should live now, how we should act, not so much about what myths we believe.
- The idea that everyone in the world who’s unfortunate enough not to discover Christianity is damned, an idea that is so far removed from Jesus’s teachings as to be abhorrent to me
- The inability to see some of the parables and other sections of the bible for the powerful moral stories that they are, rather than as factual accounts. Once stripped of the supernatural I think they are more inspiring not less
- Cultural baggage can be disentangled from the moral code, for example attitude towards women, gays, other religions, non-believers which are clearly inconsistent with Jesus’ core teachings can be abandoned as ancient history that’s no longer appropriate to modern society
- The fatalism “it’s Gods will” that Christianity encourages, rather than promoting self responsibility to fix our own problems, deal with our own challenges
- The idea of worship which I find hard to reconcile with the the image of Jesus that I have, he wouldn’t want to be worshiped and any ‘god’ that did wouldn’t in mind mind be worthy of it. I can’t think of any great teacher in history who wanted to be, or would have tolerated being, worshiped.
The book doesn’t prescribe a new Christianity, it sketches out a new kind of Christian and points such a Christian in a direction that will result in a new kind of Christianity that’s more fluid in how it evolves over time, but also grounded on a smaller consistent core philosophy. It presents a vision for Christianity that would be much easier to live with than a version that’s up to the challenge of dealing with all of the contradictions that exist within the bible as a whole.
There’s another side to the book though that’s just as interesting. It provides a glimpse into the life of a pastor trying to reconcile the need to drive change with the need to keep his congregation on side. Many people who have the ‘religious gene’ get deeply attached to their beliefs to the point where they become inseparable from their sense of self. Challenges to these beliefs must shake such people to their foundation. These deeply held beliefs might be a great comfort to people at times, but their need to defend them against pervasive and mounting evidence that contradicts them must make them tremble inside. It’s no wonder that this internal turmoil spills over into negative behaviours and worse (love thy neighbour quickly being forgotten).
I’ve considerable experience of driving change when I was at work so I know how hard it is, even when challenging weakly held beliefs. In fact just moving people outside their comfort zone is hard work, so I have renewed respect for religious leaders who have the strength to make much needed change.
As an atheist I found the book mostly satisfying. It de-emphasised religiousism, challenges myths, promoted rational Christian philosophy, encouraged respect and the search for common ground between faiths. It placed more emphasis on living fully and well in this life, rather than focussing on a better life after death. It also made me realise though just how wonderful being an atheist is:
- I’m able to live a life guided by the best thinkers in the world rather than being constrained to a single flawed source of truth
- I don’t have to deal with all of the inconsistencies presented in the bible, I’m able shape my own consistent code for living and adapt it to the circumstances I find myself in
- I’m able to embrace the wonders of the universe without fear that those wonders might conflict with some ancient belief
- I’m able to change or refine what I believe as new information presents itself, it’s exciting to always be learning, rather than for key beliefs to be locked in the past
- I’ve no fear of going to hell, I never worry about God striking me down
- I never get disappointed when God doesn’t answer my prayers, I have to take personal responsibility for sorting out my own problems, I know where I stand
I’m a little sad though that the wonderful community that common religious beliefs promote isn’t available to me without me being forced into living a life of hypocrisy.
My spiritual life comes from appreciating the awe inspiring wonders of our universe, being in nature, surrounded by my family and friends, helping others. When I walk along the beach I often close my eyes and listen to the surf as I walk, the feeling of being one with the world is all the ‘worship’ I need. The picture I picked to illustrate today’s post is a great example of what I see when I open my eyes.