Religion for Atheists and Religionless Christianity

This post was updated on April 2, 2014.

In an article discussing Swiss philosopher Alain de Botton’s book, Religion For Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion, Kimberly Winston asks: “Stripped of its supernatural elements, does religion have anything to offer atheists? What can nonbelievers borrow from the organizations, practices and rituals of believers – without borrowing a belief in God?” (see here).

Beyond what atheists and other “nonbelievers” might strip away from and also borrow from religion, I am even more interested in what Christian religious folks like me would be willing to strip away from the Christian religion and what we might leave intact. What would we reject, and what would we retain if we were to do a thorough house-cleaning? What would we find essential?

I would never separate the practice of Christianity from the person of Jesus. Nor would I do away with the supernatural. However, I would seek to do away with those otherworldly elements that have been added to the faith. Here I define “otherworldy elements” as those trappings that involve a lack of concern for the natural order and a desire to escape this world for some sweet by and by rather than address this world’s sufferings and extinguish its hatred with God’s love. Stripped of such otherworldly elements, Christianity has this to offer: Jesus stripped of everything, his earthly garb distributed over dice at his feet, hanging on a cross, dying to his divine rights, giving himself for God and the life of the world, a world that is lost in its hatred of him (Romans 5:6-11). It is a good thing when we Christians are forced to come to terms with the bare essentials of our faith. When we strip from the faith the non-essentials, we find that everything centers on Jesus and the cross for God and for the life of the world.

The American church is witnessing the increasing secularization of American culture. We can learn a great deal of how to proceed by taking to heart the heart and thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was forced to come to terms with the essence of the Christian religion in an increasingly secular age. Bonhoeffer even spoke of a “religionless Christianity.” For this modern martyr, who was executed by hanging by the Nazis in 1945 for his involvement in the failed assassination attempts of Hitler, Jesus is the man for others, and the church is the community for others. Convictions like these led Bonhoeffer to seek freedom for the Jews and to challenge the “German Christians” and the official church authority structures aligned with Hitler in his homeland.

From his prison cell, Bonhoeffer penned Letters and Papers from Prison. Bonhoeffer wrote about the God who is with us today as the God who has forsaken us in terms of our false expectations of deliverance from tribulation at the hands of evil forces. Bonhoeffer finds our God-forsaken God hanging on the cross identifying with the world in its plight. While filled with angst over the situation in which he found himself, Bonhoeffer also experienced inner resolve: we must not try to escape the problems of life and look to God to rescue us out of them. We must not try to find a gap for God to fill in our increasingly secular age. We must accompany Jesus to the gallows, as the community of the man for others and face evil head-on and conquer it through redemptive suffering.

Christianity only has Jesus to offer. Our organizations, practices and rituals only have value as they are grounded and centered in him. Any “religious trappings” not grounded and centered in him aren’t worth keeping.

Now some might think compassion can be separated from Jesus. But what kind of compassion would one find? Can the kind of compassion displayed by Jesus in the canonical gospels be separated from Jesus and his relationship with his Father? Jesus’ compassion is aimed at the unlovely, and at those who don’t love him, but rather hate him. Christian love is enemy love. If only we Christians were to love as Jesus loves more often! But we cannot do it in our own strength. We cannot love like Jesus loves apart from Jesus and his Father in the Spirit. Jesus’ love of his enemy is sustained by his Father’s love of him in the Spirit. The Father’s love led him to the cross erected by human hatred. Jesus’ love goes beyond altruism. Not only is there no benefit to be gained through Jesus’ self-sacrifice for his enemies, but also there is actually increasing injury to be suffered as he loves his enemies to the death at his enemies’ hands and rises from the dead to bring them life.

What atheists will find when they strip Christianity of its religious trappings is that Jesus and his love are independent of them: he is still there hanging naked on a cross and gives himself sacrificially for a world that opposes him to the end. Whatever compassion that may be left if we strip Christianity of Jesus is not Jesus’ kind of love formed by his Father’s embrace in the face of his enemy. While I am not claiming that people outside Christianity never miraculously and sacrificially love their enemies, such love is indeed supernatural, a miracle grounded in the reality of Jesus and his Father in the Spirit. My prayer is that the church will experience and embody this miracle increasingly in days ahead as we face increasingly the pressures of secularization and opposition to the faith.

Hopefully, atheists will also find a church—stripped of our otherworldly trappings—as a community for others. Hopefully, they will not find a Christian community existing for itself, as has so often been the case, or a community that hates others. Hopefully, they will find a community centered on Christ and his cross and resurrection power, a community that has so stripped itself of privileges and entitlements and instead loves everyone, especially the unlovely and unlovable who hate Christ’s people for displaying God’s love to the world. Religionless Christianity is one thing. Loveless Christianity is quite another. If the church is not a community that has stripped itself of other attachments and that is not centered on Jesus and his cross, all the atheists will find when they strip away Christ and his supernatural love is the religious garb of unessential organizations, rituals, and practices like Christless compassion lying at Jesus’ feet.

About Paul Louis Metzger

Dr. Paul Louis Metzger is the Founder and Director of The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and Professor at Multnomah Biblical Seminary/Multnomah University. He is the author of numerous works, including "Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths" and "Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church." These volumes and his others can be found wherever fine books are sold.

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