Following Jesus Without Excess Baggage

Roger Wolsey shared this on the Kissing Fish Facebook page:

It is apparently from the website Christian Evolution. I share it for you to discuss. Do you agree, disagree, or a bit of both? Do the statements seem to you to be obvious or controversial?

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  • J

    Jesus never existed. There are no gods. Religion is just a way of oppressing people, starting wars and stealing our money.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/ James F. McGrath

      The historical evidence indicates that there was a historical Jesus of Nazareth, although he obviously was not a god. The notion that religion is just about oppression, war, and money, suggests to me that you may have had a very narrow and negative encounter with religion, and while I am very sorry to hear that, I do hope that you will broaden your experience and discover that this generalization is no more accurate than one that generalized about atheists based on Communist dictators.

      • Brian P.

        Oh dear. I feel like I’m about to go down a rabbit hole. But I have no idea what you can mean by “not a god.” Not to debate whether or not Jesus was or is a god or a God, but to ask about your understandings of the prerequisite question–What is a god? Do you have a god detector, a set of criteria, how can you conclusively say what/who is or isn’t a god? I’m reading Litwa’s new book and find interesting the ancient Greco-Roman conceptions of gods that weren’t necessarily as Platonic as I had prior too much assumed. I think I better get what they might have thought when they thought Caesar was a god or son of god/s. I now see one more definition of a god as something akin to “he who provides humanity benefactions.” This conception seems to make it more a set of either attributes or properties than something categorically ontological. I can work with conceptions of “god as thing” (which is were I started long ago), but for a number of years I can work as “god as verb.” I think now I can work also in models as “god as adjective.” Given I have so many working notions of what it means to be a god, what do you mean by saying Jesus was “obviously was not a god.”

        There appears to be something obvious to you but not to me and I’d appreciate elaboration. Thx.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/ James F. McGrath

          The earliest evidence we have shows Jesus affirming Jewish monotheism, and not claiming divinity for himself; and then has his followers after him claiming that God exalted him to a position which was still subordinate to God, even if above all else. That’s what I was referring to.

          • Brian P.

            Then I would suggest you should have said:

            The historical evidence indicates that there was a historical Jesus of Nazareth who he didn’t necessarily claim divinity.

            There’s a profound difference that should not go lost. That was a bit sloppy I’m sorry I have to say.

    • Andrew Dowling

      Thanks for enlightening all of us. You must feel very special.

    • spinkham

      Religion is a social glue that has served as a tribalism enhancer. Yes, the tribalism religion has fostered has started wars and emptied pockets, but there’s also good arguments that we should credit it with the rise of civilization.

      This is a pretty good overview paper of the field of cognitive science of religion if you’re actually interested in what experts think are some of the actual upsides and downsides of religion: http://www2.psych.ubc.ca/~henrich/pdfs/BIOT_a_00018.pdf

      One of the authors is a top crisis negotiators who knows a thing or two about the role of religion and war, for what it’s worth.

      Religion is not the savior or a devil: Our propensity to see the world in such black and white hues (especially when we feel threatened) is.

    • R Vogel

      It’s interesting the number of scrabble tiles I see making trollish drive-byes on different blogs. Can they really not come up with anything more interesting than a single letter?

  • David Evans

    You can be a follower of Jesus, in the sense of trying to emulate him and follow his commands, without believing most of the supernatural properties ascribed to him. The only thing I see there that’s inconsistent with Jesus’ actual words is the statement that you don’t have to believe God sanctioned laws. Jesus did famously say that he came not to destroy the Jewish law but to fulfil it, and I think it’s clear that he thought the law came from God.

    • Pearly1

      I think Jesus upheld the Law not in the literal sense, but in the “spirit” of the law, which is about underlying intent — God’s intent in giving the law (from a place of Love, to guide men on the Path to Life), and also the intent in the human mind/heart in terms of interpretation.

      In other words, if one truly follows the commandments to love God and love one’s neighbor as oneself and one truly comprehends those laws and has them “written upon one’s heart” then it’s hard to break the other commandments, because the intent is righteous, honoring both God and fellow human being.

      Decisions are made from unitive, unconditional Love rather from divisive selfishness, hate, or fear. When someone is hungry or life is in jeopardy, according to Jesus and other rabbis, human life trumps the Law. So in these ways, Jesus’ teachings, getting to the intent/spirit behind the Law, actually surpass the Law.

      I would say that if the intent behind a law came from a place of Love, that guides one on the path to Life, then Jesus would understand that to be a law from God. But if the laws got so nit-picky and complicated for common folks that they hindered rather than helped, then that’s a different story, and it’s not so clear Jesus thought such laws were from God. Jesus clearly had differing ideas on interpretations and application of purity and sacrificial laws to the common people (of the 600+ laws found in Deuteronomy, Leviticus, etc.) from many Pharisees, priests, Sadducees, and scribes, and he often got into spats with them over these laws, so it is not so clear that Jesus thought all those laws came from God. If people got so focused on the details and requirements of these laws that they lost sight of the simple love of God, then I think Jesus realized those were from the egotistical will of well-meaning but misguided human beings, and not necessarily from God.

      “Come to me all ye who travail and are heavy laden, for my yolk is easy, and my burden is light.” A loving Father wants us to have life abundantly, which flows from a place of love; such a God that Jesus knew would not want his children crushed under a complex burden of too many laws that may have been men’s ideas of what they believed God wanted of men.

      Life is never black and white; Jesus likely understood this also in regard to the Law.

  • Pearly1

    I love it! That describes this follower of Jesus pretty darn well.

  • Dan

    One can be a follower of Jesus and like to follow his example, etc., and basically be a part of Americas moral religion.

    However, that does not make one Christian. To be Christian one has to believe Jesus to be the Messiah, to be Christ, to be God. once a person believes that Jesus was not God, they are not Christian.

    • James Walker

      actually, the Bible never says you must believe Jesus = God but, rather, that He was raised up and sits at the right hand of God, interceding for us.

      ETA: there’s nothing about the Sonship that requires Jesus to be some supernatural, mystical God/Man hybrid. He can be the one of us who was so in tune with the nature of God that He achieved an elevated status while here on earth.

      • Dan

        If Jesus was only human how could his actions be accredited to us? If he was in tune with the nature of God he could have pleased God with himself, but that would not benefit anyone but him.

        • R Vogel

          How is the statement, ‘if Jesus was G*d his action can be accredited to us’ any more coherent? Who gets to write the write the rule of whose actions can and cannot be accredited to us?

          • Dan

            God. If a man could pay the price for another’s sins we would not need a savior to save us from sin.

          • R Vogel

            G*d is not an answer, unless you are getting secret communications that none of the rest of us are privy. You are simply assuming a position and appealing back to it. If all can be condemned by the disobedience of one man, then there is no reason that all cannot be saved by the obedience of a man. (assuming you buy that lot)

          • Dan

            How can righteousness be transferred from one man to another? Righteousness is not inherited.

          • R Vogel

            Nor is sin. Are you righteous or forgiven? I would assume a divine being that is the source of all being could forgive whomever G*d wants, without your criteria.

          • Dan

            Actually sin is inherited, it is called inherited sin. And I do not set any criteria, only God does.

          • Andrew Dowling

            Original sin is not in the Bible. It was Augustine’s way of dealing with the problem of evil.

          • R Vogel

            Well, as long as it has such a snazzy title it must be true. And you keep saying G*d sets the criteria, but just saying it doesn’t make it so, sorry. The entire Orthodox Church does not believe in the doctrine of inherited (or original as it is most often called) sin, nor did the author of Ezekiel (Ezekiel 18:20). It also presupposes a literal reading of the book of Genesis which is not even worth commenting on.

            Either way it doesn’t matter, whether you inherit sin or commit it yourself, it still doesn’t prove the point that you are trying to make that Jesus had to be G*d. Nowhere in the entire Hebrew scripture does it say that G*d must sacrifice G*d in order to offer forgiveness to mankind. If it was so important you would think G*d would have mentioned it. Now I have no problem with you believing Jesus was G*d, that’s your prerogative. But have the honestly to admit this is simply something you accepted from someone else, or made up on your own based on your interpretation of the text.

        • James Walker

          You’re getting hanged up on the substitutionary atonement picture of Salvation, and thinking it’s only possible if Jesus = God. What if Salvation isn’t actually about blood sacrifice? What if Paul had that wrong?

          • Dan

            Yes, I see it only possible if Jesus is God. If Paul is wrong, the entire foundation and understanding of orthodoxy is wrong, and we are all damned.

          • R Vogel

            There’s no reason to frame this in such black & white. Paul doesn’t have to be wrong, although I have no problem accepting that he is, just reframed. You probably have no desire for this, which is fine. I think Paul articulated more than one atonement theory, as he struggled to communicate it to different churches which has led to difference in opinions over the history of the church. Substitutionary Atonement seems to have gained ascendance, thanks to the power of Calvinism, but it is nowhere near universally accepted. But when you are taught a certain interpretive lens for reading the bible, it is very difficult to see it any other way. It’s like those illusions with 2 images – it is very hard to unsee whatever you first see.

      • MattB

        Jesus said many times about the consequences of denying him as the Son, whom the Father sent, and this upset a lot of people because they didn’t want to believe Jesus was God

        • Andrew Dowling

          Matt . . in your time here have you been too busy debating with atheists to read James’s posts on John? I highly recommend them.

          • MattB

            Hello Andrew, yes, I have read some posts/comments that Dr.M has made on the Gospel of John and I’m not entirely convinced. I think that Larry Hurtado makes a very good argument about Jesus divinity being displayed and believed by the early church.

  • Marta L.

    Some of these seem obvious to me, but others, much less so. For instance, thinking that being gay is a sin or that the world was literally created ex nihilo within six twenty-four hour days are interpretations of specific Biblical passages. One can interpret those passages other ways and still be a Christian in good standing.

    Other things are harder to get around. For instance, the claim that God didn’t author certain laws or command certain wars in the past – that’s more controversial to me because what you really seem to be disagreeing with isn’t the way the Bible has been interpreted but what it literally says. Arguing against interpretation would be more along the lines of (say) using that as justification for current wars; there we can argue (say) that the wars for Canaan were necessary for the time, or that God is dynamic and better now than he was then, but we can’t argue God never did those things without losing a lot of what it means to be Christian, in my opinion. I’m sure some people can manage it, and I try to be open-minded and as self-critical as I can; but it does seem to change the meaning of what I mean when I think of Christianity quite a bit. So those statements are more controversial and require more explanation to my mind.

    • R Vogel

      I am interested how not believing the G*d commanded genocide in Canaan loses a lot of what it means to be a Christian? I don’t recall Jesus putting a lot of emphasis on it. People throughout history have thought G*d commanded them to do all sorts of things, the vast majority (if not all) were wrong. Why should this be a special case?

      • Marta L.

        To be clear, what I was trying to say was that it would change what I mean by being Christian, and particularly how I read the Bible. It’s my belief that the Bible is true and accurate if it’s properly interpreted. This doesn’t mean people can’t mess up. (Just because Abraham or Moses did something doesn’t always mean I should.) It doesn’t mean we should ignore genre or that we shouldn’t take the times something was written in into account. But when there’s a literal from-the-word-of-God command, I think that does mean that God actually made that command.

        (I get that not everyone will agree with me here. I’m a bit on the young side, I’m only thirty-one, and I also grew up in a fairly conservative Christianity. So this may be more about where I am in my life right now, more than anything.)

        To answer your question, the reason this would be a special case (again IMO) is that it’s the set of events the Bible identifies as actually being commanded by God. I can’t (e.g.) take seriously the Bible’s command to fair court systems and a preferential love for the poor as what God commanded, and just deny that God also commanded a specific group of people to go to war at a certain time I consider in no way justified. What I can do is question whether that means God would still command people in the modern age to do similarly (which I would very much do! I’m essentially a pacifist largely because I can’t see how war, certainly modern war, is consistent with Biblical ethics) – but because of how I understand the Bible, that has to be for some reason other than “God didn’t command what the Bible quite explicitly says He did command.”

        I know lots of Christians make the move you suggest. What I’m saying is that such people seem to understand Christianity and particularly what it means for the Bible to be true very differently than I do. Whether both qualify as Christian? That takes more wisdom than I can currently lay claim to, I think.

        • R Vogel

          Gotcha. Thanks. So just reading back to you, so I am not mis-characterizing you, it would mean ‘giving up a lot of what it means to be a Christian’ for you, yeah? Which is perfect valid in my opinion. (not that you need my opinion to validate you)

          I try, as much as possible, not to simply write-off things in the bible, as I believe the authors included them for some purpose. But when something seems not to fit, I ask myself, like Abraham, ‘Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?’ In that vein, I would invite you to look at an alternative view of the book of Joshua, where most of the genocidal texts are located. Given your obviously keen mind, which I say without a drop of sarcasm (with me it is often hard to tell), I think you might find it interesting. I know I did.

          http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2013/05/devoted-to-destruction-reading-cherem.html

  • Phil McCarthy

    Agree, agree, agree, strongly disagree, agree, agree, agree,agree.

  • joriss

    You can be a follower of Jesus and not think that being gay is a sin.

    You can be a follower of Jesus and think that living a gay life is a sin.

    You can not be a follower of Jesus Christ and think that Jesus was not sinless.

    You can be a follower of Jesus and think that Paul was not inerrant in unimportant details.

    You can not be a follower of Jesus and think Paul erred in his doctrine of atonement and reconciliation that God through Jesus gave to us.

    You can not be a follower of Jesus and not believe in his bodily resurrection.

    You can not be a follower of Jesus and not believe that the law was given by God, because Jesus sanctioned the law and said he had come to fulfil.

    You can be a follower of Jesus and not reject evolution.

    You can be a follower of Jesus and think that as a follower you ought to reject evolution.

    You can not be a follower of Jesus and be indifferent and not longing and praying for the conversion of your children, family and others.

    You can be a follower of Jesus and make fully use of your intellect.

    You can not be a follower of Jesus and not submit your intellect to the words and love of Jesus.

    • Andrew Dowling

      Well I’m glad somebody has got it all figured out and can explain the rules for me . . .all of this reading of biblical scholarship and theology was making my head hurt.

      • joriss

        I was giving a response about agreeing, disagreeing, or partly agreeing with the things that were said in this blogpost. We were invited to do so, weren’t we? I partly agreed and partly disagreed. So what’s wrong?

        • Andrew Dowling

          Sorry . . I can be a pompous a$$ sometimes; I’d forgotten the post actually asked for a direct response such as yours. My apologies.

          • joriss

            No problem!

  • Christian Evolution

    Hi James, I noticed a surge of hits from your site and clicked over. Thanks for sharing my image, I’m glad it’s stirring up lots of conversation. The physical resurrection bit is proving to be the one that most are digging their heels in on :-)

    By the way, great site you’ve got here, I will be checking it out more.

  • DScott

    I just finished reading Bart Ehrman’s “How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee” (http://www.harpercollins.com/books/9780061778186). Some commenters here may be interested in this excellent introduction to the development of Christology and the divergent beliefs about Jesus in the first few centuries of Christianity.


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