How to Live As a Christian Without Having to Believe the Unbelievable

How to Live As a Christian Without Having to Believe the Unbelievable April 27, 2012

Christianity asks you to do very hard things that are supremely worth the effort. Loving your enemies – that often seems impossible.  Willingly giving up your power and money and time and influence in order to serve the poor and the sick and the oppressed – that can be downright scary.  Having a heart full of pure love in all circumstances – how can we do it?  But if we do it, we build heaven on earth.  These are things that matter, things Jesus asks us to do.  It takes a lifetime of serious spiritual and physical and emotional work to come even close to rising to these challenges.

Compared to them, believing in the factuality of the fantastic stories in the Bible is trivial. And that is exactly why it makes no sense to let such questions matter very much in living a faithful Christian life.  It really isn’t important whether or not you take the Bible literally, or whether or not you believe all the creeds word-for-word.  If they don’t make sense to you, don’t worry about them.  Don’t let dogma and doctrine get in the way of practicing Love, who is God.  Doctrines can be interesting.  They help us understand the origins and background of our religion.  But repeating creeds is not the price of admission into Christianity.  Instead of caring whether the story of Jesus’ resurrection was a fact or a myth, let’s concern ourselves with things that matter.  Let’s care about our neighbors without jobs or health insurance, face the resentment in our hearts that needs to be released, struggle with how vote and be activist citizens, and learn how to bring our careers in alignment with our highest values.  Let’s gather in churches, soup kitchens, work-places, living rooms, and cafés to support each other in doing things that matter, and let go of old doctrines that don’t.

When Jesus asked us to believe in him, he wasn’t asking us to believe a list of ideas about him. He was asking us to believe in that spark of the divine that was inside of him, because he wanted us to believe in the spark of the divine that is in every one of us.  The belief that mattered to him was faithfulness, a willingness to follow in the way of Love.  A willingness to feed the hungry, liberate the oppressed, heal the sick, and preach the gospel, which is the good news that Love is all that matters.

The key to Christianity is the Sermon on the Mount in the gospel of Matthew, chapters 5-7.  This is the first teaching that Jesus gave his disciples and a crowd of followers.   He exhorts them to love their enemies.  He urges them to be humble in prayer.  He tells the poor that they shall be blessed.  He asks them not to worry.  He tells them not to judge.

And he says nothing at all about the following topics:

1) The Bible. Neither Jesus nor any of the people after whom its books were named had any idea that what they said or wrote would become part of the Bible.  The New Testament was created much later, over a period of over 300 years, by early Christians.  Jesus quoted and interpreted the Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament) very often, and he had a free-spirited, poetic, allegorical way of using those writings to illustrate his teachings.  It is very hard to imagine that he would have demanded that Christians take the New Testament as literal, factual history, had he known that someday it would exist.

2)  Creeds, dogma, or doctrine. One would think that if such things mattered so much to Jesus, he would have begun his preaching career by addressing them right away.  But the Sermon on the Mount makes no mention of believing in miracles, believing the doctrine of the virgin birth of Christ, believing in the Trinity or the Apostle’s Creed, or even “accepting Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior”.   Jesus didn’t care about dogma.  He cared about what was in the hearts of people, and about how they treated each other.

3)  Homosexuality and abortion. Jesus said nothing about these topics whatsoever in the New Testament. There’s no hint in the Bible that these topics mattered to him at all.  Christianity should not be confused with a rigid set of ancient rules or with a current partisan political agenda.

Christianity is both simpler and harder than most people make it out to be.

My first step into an adult Christian life came when I was sixteen years old.  I went on a backpacking trip with a Christian group.  On top of a high pass in the Sierra Nevada, the leader, appropriately, read aloud the Sermon on the Mount.  When he repeated Jesus’ words: “Love your enemies”, a rush of energy went through my body.  I was certain that this experience was God, or was of God.  I knew in an instant that it was worth basing my whole life on this one commandment.

I’m still working on it, decades later.  While his words have shaped my entire life and career profoundly, I am far from completely fulfilling Jesus’ command.

It’s been so challenging to love my enemies – to love in tough circumstances, and to love people who present me with difficulties – that I can’t imagine putting other stumbling blocks in front of people who might want to join me in following Jesus.  Many if not most people in America today cannot accept the idea that there is only one true religion.  They see people of many religions living faithful, loving lives, and cannot imagine that they are going to hell for failing to accept one certain creed.  Many people are bewildered by the contradiction of taking science seriously and then being told that the miracle stories in the Bible are literally true.  But these issues are not crucial to living a life of faith.  There is plenty of room in Christianity for people who want to follow Jesus’ way of unconditional, difficult love, but whose God-given common sense prevents them from nodding along with implausible or confounding doctrines.

How can you follow Jesus’ way of love without accepting creeds that are confusing or impossible for you to believe?

1)  Find a community of people who will give you support in following the way of Love. Find people who care much more about works of compassion and about inner spiritual growth than they do about doctrines.   You may find these people in a church – or in a sub-group of a church – or in an informal gathering of friends – or even in an online community.  Find a circle of people you can trust to challenge you to acts of kindness and service, people who can give you honest feedback, and will trust you to do the same for them.  Whether this circle goes by the name “church” doesn’t matter nearly as much as whether or not it helps its members to live like Jesus lived.  For communities in your area, see under “affiliates”.

2)  Practice a spiritual discipline. In Christianity, there are very many forms of prayer, contemplation, meditation, and other means of spiritual awakening and deepening.  Find the one that is right for you, and practice it regularly.  These disciplines can help you stay centered in love and compassion and self-awareness, giving you much more choice about how best to respond to your own emotions and urges, as well as to your encounters with others.  It prepares you for compassionate action.  For suggestions about spiritual disciplines, see my website,

3) Learn about the history of the Bible, the Christian religion, and other religions. Read and study the Bible itself, and alongside it, read interpretations of it by non-doctrinal, academic scholars who can reveal to you the cultural background and historical milieu in which its books were composed.   Websites that will introduce you to this scholarship: and .  You’ll discover that the Bible is a very human document, but that makes it all the more fascinating.  You’ll start to feel the spiritual experiences of the people who wrote it and read it in ancient times.  You’ll begin to appreciate that while much of the Bible is mythological, many of its myths have an enduring power to transform lives toward Love.  You’ll understand that the miracles in the Bible are not historical facts, but that the real miracle is the Bible itself:  a treasure-trove of poetry, stories, deep wisdom, and inspiration.  Learning about other world religions will make your studies in Christianity come alive, as you compare and contrast the various faith traditions to discover common themes and uncommon insights.

Rev. Jim Burklo is the Associate Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California. An ordained United Church of Christ pastor, he is the author of books on progressive Christianity:  OPEN CHRISTIANITY: Home by Another Road and BIRDLIKE AND BARNLESS: Meditations, Prayers, and Songs for Progressive Christians. His latest book, HITCH-HIKING TO ALASKA: The Way of Soulful Service, will be published late in 2012.  You can read his weekly blog, “Musings”, at , and his personal website is .

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11 responses to “How to Live As a Christian Without Having to Believe the Unbelievable”

  1. I’m not a Christian, but I appreciate the ethical teachings on which you seek to center your religion, rather than focusing on the various other dogmas and doctrines. The beauty of this approach is that you will find that these very same ethical teachings also form the bedrock of other religions, such as Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism, and so, and thereby develop a religious outlook that embraces the best of each religion and is unifying.

    For instance, in his discourses to his disciples, Buddha entreated them to show unswerving love to their enemies and those who harmed them.

    “Monks, even if bandits were to savagely sever you, limb by limb, with a double-handled saw, even then, whoever of you harbors ill will at heart would not be upholding my Teaching. Monks, even in such a situation you should train yourselves thus: ‘Neither shall our minds be affected by this, nor for this matter shall we give vent to evil words, but we shall remain full of concern and pity, with a mind of love, and we shall not give in to hatred. On the contrary, we shall live projecting thoughts of universal love to those very persons, making them as well as the whole world the object of our thoughts of universal love – thoughts that have grown great, exalted and measureless. We shall dwell radiating these thoughts which are void of hostility and ill will.'” Kakacupama Sutta, MN 21

    As Jesus asked his followers to turn the other cheek, so Buddha entreated his followers to treat with enveloping love, forgiveness, and sympathy those who would seek to harm them, even to sever them from limb by limb!

    Buddha urged his followers to extend this love to every single living being, and cherish them as a mother cherishes her child, abandoning all prejudices and ill-will and sacrificing one’s live for the service of others:

    “Let none deceive another,
    Or despise any being in any state.
    Let none through anger or ill-will
    Wish harm upon another.

    Even as a mother protects with her life
    Her child, her only child,
    So with a boundless heart
    Should one cherish all living beings;

    Spreading upwards to the skies,
    And downwards to the depths;
    Outwards and unbounded,
    Freed from hatred and ill-will.”

    This is no different from Jesus’ message to his followers to love their neighbors as themselves.

    This, imho, is the beauty of on their ethical teachings, because they call forth the best of ourselves. They also unite us across vast expanses of time, geography, and culture – the same teachings that the Buddha and Mahavira, the founder of the Jain religion, were espousing 2500-3000 years ago in the Indian subcontinent are beautifully preached by Jesus a few centuries later in the Middle East. We can see that there is a common bond to our human experience and a common morality, founded upon love and compassion for others, that surpasses all superficial boundaries and differences in religion, culture, and race.

  2. Actually on homosexuality and abortion Jesus does speak to those issues albeit in a indirect way. Jesus affirms man-woman marriage. Jesus was against adultery and divorce. Jesus valued children. Jesus gave us the 2 commandments which summarize everything else.

    Its not possible to love God/love others and kill one of his ultimate creations. Its not possible to love someone and encourage them to sin. Its not possible to marry a person of the SS as that would not be a marriage in Gods eyes.

    So while I agree with much of your list you went off track a bit on these two important topics topics.

  3. If all religion is is ethics, why should I bother with church? Why run twice as fast to get to the same place-or go backwards, seeing that religiously devout societies are often far more violent and corrupt and ignorant and poorer than agnostic and atheist places.

  4. How is even one tiny spiritual/faith-based/superstitious/etc. “more” believable than others or than a larger quantity? This makes no sense to me. If the rationale for a belief is anything not based on reason, then one is no more or less “unbelievable” or “believable” than the other, or indeed than all. Once something is taken on faith, the same line is crossed and I see no difference except perhaps in how it might influence one’s actions in life. In this case, a more liberal faith is usually “safer” for the world, but is it in the big/long picture? It is this misunderstanding (that there is a more rational way to believe irrational/non reason based/spiritual things) that causes more people to have no qualms about continuing to pass the holy books, unaltered, on to further generations. Perhaps if everyone were honest about belief it would be easier for insanity to stop.

  5. Walking around with stars in your eyes sighing “god is love” is just a waste of your time. But how about when your “co-religionists” stop someone from ending their life with grace, or extort money from the poor for faith healing, or keep a couple of women from marrying. If you think one or more of these is dumb, you’re left with putting smiley-faces on your e-mails objecting to their conviction that your god has told them to mess with someone’s life. Have you have taken “love your enemies” so seriously that you really did mourn the death of Osama ben Laden? If so, you are so besotted with the imaginary “gentle Jesus meek and mild” that you have drool running down your chin. Or, perhaps, you’re a normal person hoping to find god in a crevice of the human heart. Give it up: god’s love isn’t worth anything, the love of people-not from your enemies, particularly-is worth a lot.

  6. Ahimsa.
    You are correct in saying that there is much to unite different religions. What they do share in common is much more important than what they don’t.

    Unfortunately, it is often religious fundamentalists who sharpen the dividing lines between religions and and they tend to be very good at making themselves heard.

    As it is my tradition I identify myself as a Christian, although I do not believe that an historical Jesus Christ existed. I feel a need, nevertheless, to engage in religious worship with others.

    For me worship gives me that emotional understanding of something beyond ourselves.

    I look forward to the day when people of all faiths find it possible to worship together in a common spirit. It can come. It just needs the desire.

    Check out



  7. This article is very contradictory and deceptive and is so far from sound doctrine that even Judas wouldn’t believe…this is not rightfully dividing the word of truth (but rather one mans opinion of what true Christianity should be) Almighty God didn’t ask for our opinion of His words…especially in regards to sin…He wants our faith and obedience to His Word in order to be SAVED..saved from what? the penalty for all sin , whether blasphemy, homosexuality, adultery, fornication, murder, deception….no matter what the vice the resulting judgement will be the condemnation of humanity needed a God sent His son Jesus Christ to save us from our sins, teach us how to live( Yes of course Jesus knew that his teachings would be in the bible) and who will return to resurrect all who faithful obey HIS WORDS….Romans 6:23 “for the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord”…My prayer is for all who read this including the author of this blog, go research carefully what has been already wriiten in the scriptures. It matters not how many degrees you have or what your profession may be..God is no respecter of persons for a reason..Not taking the Bible in proper context and as literal truth, will place you in an unfavorable position with Jesus Christ..who is the author and finisher of our FAITH…We should never stop believing the scriptures .,for the bible is inspired of God for all to believe..

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