An Atheist Pastor’s Approach to Lent

An Atheist Pastor’s Approach to Lent February 27, 2020

Editor’s Note:  Andy sent this to me.  He’s an active United Church of Christ minister who was the last person I interviewed for the Dennett/LaScola study in 2012. He thought it would be interesting to readers to see how an atheist minister handles Lent.  So did I.  To me, it seems like a humanist approach and one that probably many liberal clergy – atheist or not – would find meaningful for the Lenten season.  After all, it’s really preparation for springtime.  Andy, who plans to use this in an upcoming church newsletter, assured me that it was OK to post it here as well.  /Linda LaScola, Editor

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By “Andy”

^^READER ADVISORY^^

For mature (theologically progressive) audiences only. What follows may be offensive to those holding traditional beliefs about sin and redemption. It’s not meant to offend, but rather to expose the mythology that makes the church appear to be a useless relic to so many people today.

***********************

Ready for a change? What about LENT FOR THE NON-RELIGIOUS?

We—the universal church that is—have been doing Lent for centuries, at least since the 4th century CE. That’s a long time for tradition to set in, with its many stale rituals and routines. With many other progressive Christians, I say, it’s time for a change.

The story is grounded in what we have assumed for too long to be correct—the Christian redeemer myth. It goes something like this (interpretive comments in parentheses):

Adam and Eve sinned, and in the process of procreating, transmitted sinfulness to all humankind (the very first sexually transmitted disease!) Sin is VERY BAD. In fact, it is so bad, that God can’t overlook it. It offends him to the very core of His being. He requires the payment of death.

(Of course, we now know this is ridiculous; we die because we are naturally mortal, as are all living things, not because we’re sinners!) But God made provision! In the Old Testament, the debt was paid by the endless sin offerings in the form of the blood of bulls, goats and sheep. (Such a God should have been reported to the ASPCA for animal abuse!) A better way, it was thought by ancient Christian theologians, was for God to send his only begotten son to be a perfect and enduring bloody sacrifice. There was a problem, however. Because it was assumed that sin was transmitted solely through the male, Mary had to be impregnated by Father God Himself, thus avoiding a blemished sacrifice. (Women were thought only to provide an incubation chamber for the male’s sperm. Sinless semen was needed to produce a sinless baby! Later, of course, even that wouldn’t do; Mary’s womb itself had to be perfect, so the idea of Mary’s immaculate conception was invented.)

Ultimately Jesus died, and his blood paid the price, as it were, for our sin (known theologically as ‘substitutionary atonement’). Jesus accepted and absorbed God’s anger against us (known as ‘propitiation’). When we accept that bloody sacrifice to cover our debt, God’s anger is assuaged, and we are ‘in like Flint’! (Forget for the moment that God becomes an unconscionable child abuser, and after pending trial, should be locked up for such a crime against humanity.)

Lent, then, becomes a time for us to confess our sins, (i.e., self-flagellate ourselves into a bloody pulp), seek forgiveness, accept the bloody cross of Good Friday to cover our sins, and relish our justification in the resurrection of Jesus.

As you can tell by my snarky parenthetical remarks above, that story has holes the size of the Grand Canyon in it. Increasingly, this message is simply unbelievable and unacceptable to our un-churched friends and neighbors. It reminds me of Jesus’ image of the old wine skins, which, hardened by use, cannot contain the fresh wine of the Spirit. Few thinking people accept the age-old story that Jesus died for our sins. In truth, Jesus died because Rome found him a threat to their orderly empire. It grieves me that the church’s message is still bound to faulty assumptions, which clearly violate the standards of modern science and scholarly reason.

TIME TO MOVE ON. That’s exactly what I’m going to do this Lent. It’s something I’ve contemplated before but have decided to do for the first time this year.

 

We’re going to celebrate a SEASON OF CREATION, like our Australian sisters and brothers will be observing in their Spring season (our Fall). We’re going to marvel at the gifts of creation, like the earth, the sky, the mountains, earth’s flora, earth’s fauna, and the celestial body that makes it all possible, the Sun.

We’re leaving the bloody religion behind and luxuriating in the natural world.

The overarching theme will be that we do not stand over-and-against the natural order. The natural order is in us, and we simply should live symbiotically with it (or, sadly, we can choose to dominate it). I will press the claim that an appreciation of the various topics (earth, flora, fauna, sun, etc.) is redemptive, by which I mean life giving to our ‘souls’. As opposed to the classic Christian view that our real life happens after this life, we’ll suggest that the heaven we long for is here, right now, in front of our senses. It’s the only one we can count on. Each sermon will be a call to luxuriate in the wonder of this world, and ‘count our lucky stars’ that evolution, albeit unguided by purpose, has unfolded in a way that supports our existence.

Each topic will zoom in on something unique. So, e.g., when I talk about the fauna, I’ll call attention to the life-giving oxygen of the Taiga Forest, which circles the earth at northerly latitudes. Fauna, on Palm Sunday, will focus on the beast of burden said to have carried Jesus. Here I’ll talk about the Judeo-Christian commandment to respect animal life, even giving them rest on the Sabbath, and suggest ways we can support earth’s wildlife. Easter will feature the Sun—not the Son – which makes all of life possible. The nuclear furnace is situated in just the right spot (goldilocks) for life itself. Enjoy the season of Spring Equinox.

Lest you think I’ve gone off the deep end, I assure you that celebrating Lent this way is being quite faithful to its original purpose. The word itself comes from an Old English word meaning ‘lengthen’, referencing the lengthening of daylight hours we are experiencing since the Winter Solstice. What better time than now, to relish creation, and the dawn of the coming spring, culminating in the beauty of the Easter season.

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Bio: Andy” is a former Southern Baptist Minister, who is currently a Pastor in the United Church of Christ. He plans to retire in the church, despite his rejection of metaphysical speculation (God, salvation, heaven, etc.). His life has been an evolution from traditional theism, to non-theism (via Tillich and Spong), to agnosticism (via linguistic philosophy), to ‘incipient atheism’ (via secular humanism). He holds a PhD in Biblical Studies from a major American university.

>>>>>>Photo Credits: By Bronzino – Œuvre appartenant au Musée des beaux-arts de Nice, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11949765 ; By Giovanni Battista Tiepolo – http://www.museodelprado.es/imagen/alta_resolucion/P00363.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17711733 ; By Anita Martinz from Klagenfurt, Austria – Colorful spring garden, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2903446

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  • Tawreos

    I have nothing against the idea, but I don’t see the need for it. Sermons are supposed to educate the faithful in the what a god wants and needs from them. They are also a time to interpret the holy books in light of problems that couldn’t be conceived of when they were written. Doing sermons based on the sun and the flora and fauna of our world feels like trading one god for another. It’s like we’ve traded in Yahweh and gotten Ra and swapped a trinity for a host of nature spirits. I am not against the idea for people that would rather go to church, but for me I would rather spend a morning outside enjoying the warmth from the sun and watching it’s light play on the surface of a lake than I would spending it listening to someone extol those very virtues. Time is better spent outside sitting against a tree while watching squirrels and birds go about their lives than inside hearing about them. But, maybe that is just me.

  • Andy

    I hear you. But as long as I have to stay in church work, I have to do something that doesn’t make me sick–like the old, old story of a bloody sacrifice!

    Thanks for your comment. It won’t be too long till I’m able to luxuriate in the outdoors on a Sunday morning:)

  • Tawreos

    May that day come soon for you. =)

  • Andy

    Thanks. Much appreciated.

  • mason lane

    I always thought having a cleric smear dirty ashes on a person’s forehead and have them go about the day looking like a fool with ashes on their forehead was just another way for the religion to make the person a fool for their never returning messiah and do a mini form of ye ol’ sack cloth & ashes self debasement act.

    Andy, I know you’re greatly looking forward when you can cease all the mumbling. 🙂
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/087daddb4556db8f5ea327c8be762f5cca7ed9fad7d97af74253359830ca5e76.jpg

  • Michael Neville

    BTW, I’ve given up piracy on the high seas for lent. Those of you on the low seas had better watch out.

  • Andy

    Thanks Mason!

  • TheBookOfDavid

    That’s the spirit! For those interested, I am laying off of wasteful expenditures of resources, such as that preliminary shot over the bow.

  • carolyntclark

    ” ….luxuriating in the natural world.” A return to Sapiens primitive paganism. I loved it. Thanks for sharing.

  • Wow! I’ve known for many years that my Baptist childhood and young adult years were extremely different from the Southern Baptist Convention, but this short image-filled description of the SBC-version of what Christianity believes by Andy still shocks.

    Almost none of the doctrines that Andy describes were believed in by us growing up in the 1950’s and 60’s, certainly not the horrific doctrine of Original Sin. We ‘knew’ that Augustine was a false prophet.

    Interesting that Andy now deals with Lent in the UCC. Lent was another strange belief that had nothing to do with our Baptist faith.

    Of course we had our own version of the ‘true scotsman’ Christian faith.

    Now that I am an ex-Christian, I look back on Christianity–and wonder how I could have believed our own particular Baptist version. But I am very thankful that I never had to hear, believe, and reject Andy’s SBC version.

  • Andy

    Thanks Daniel. Indeed, the sin-redemption narrative is odd. ‘Jesus died for our sins’ is the standard cliché I grew up with. I suspect you did too. Even in the UCC I hear it being pulled out unthinkingly. That’s why I’m sick of the whole Lent/Holy Week/Easter story.

    Thanks for your comments.

  • Nixon is Lord

    Then why do so many “progressives”, including agnostics, in the Mainline Protestant churches try to introduce it into their churches?