From The Archives: Why I Am A Christian

From The Archives: Why I Am A Christian March 17, 2010

This is a repost of a blog post from 2007, which is apparently so long ago that it is hard to find even if you specifically search for it by its title. So I’m reposting it, since someone asked me this question again recently…

One criticism I have of Bertrand Russell’s famous essay, “Why I Am Not A Christian,” is that it offers a no more sophisticated or academic a treatment of stories in the New Testament than fundamentalists would.

The story of Jesus sending demons into pigs is criticized. This story seems to me to very obviously be an example of political satire. This story from Mark’s Gospel is about the casting out of a ‘host’ of demons who call themselves “Legion”. The story is the equivalent of one that could have been told during occupied France during World War II, in which a French exorcist drives out a host of demons from a French man. The demons identify themselves as called “Panzer division” and beg not to be sent out of the country – the latter is exactly what these “Roman demons” beg Jesus in Mark! To make matters funnier, the demons take the role of (anti-)exorcist, invoking a higher power (God) to adjure (a technical term used in exorcism) Jesus not to cast them out. Then, whereas exorcists usually demanded a sign that the demons have left, the demons themselves ask to show they have departed by being sent into a herd of pigs – unclean animals according to Jewish Law. This is the icing on the cake – in the WWII parallel, the German demons would beg to be allowed to leave this French man and enter instead the opera company down the road that is performing Wagner! I discussed this passage in a treatment of satire as a neglected Biblical genre on my old blog once before.

Similarly, the other story he mentions is Jesus cursing a fig tree for not having any figs, when it wasn’t even the season in which to expect them. Most interpreters would suggest once again that the story is symbolic, with Israel the fig tree having failed to bear fruit and coming under judgment.

So why am I a Christian? A short answer would be that it was within a Christian context that I had a life-changing religious experience. But given that I do not espouse Biblical literalism and inerrancy, some might ask whether I am still a Christian, and my answer would be that taking the whole Bible seriously is certainly no less Christian than quoting it selectively while pretending to believe it all and take it all literally.

I find very helpful an answer to this question that Marcus Borg has also articulated. I am a Christian in much the same way that I am an American. It is not because I condone the actions of everyone who has officially represented America, or that I espouse the viewpoints of its current leaders. It is because I was born into it, and value the positive elements of this heritage enough that I think it is worth fighting over the definition of what it means to be American, rather than giving up on it and moving somewhere else. In the same way, the tradition that gave birth to my faith and nurtured it is one that has great riches (as well as much else beside), and I want to struggle for an understanding of Christianity that emphasizes those things. And just as my having learned much from other cultures is not incompatible with my being an American, my having learned much from other religious traditions doesn’t mean I am not a Christian. Christians have always done so. Luke attributes to Paul (in Acts 17:28) a positive quotation from a poem about Zeus (from the Phainomena by Aratos [sometimes spelled Aratus].

Why am I a Christian? Because I prefer to keep the tradition I have, rather than discarding it with the bathwater and then trying to make something new from scratch. When we pretend that we can simply leave the past behind and start anew we deceive ourselves: just look at the way China worshipped its ‘Communist emperor’ Mao with all the devotion and spectacle they offered to earlier ones. Even an atheist is in dialogue with the past, willingly or unwillingly. That is why (as Mary Doria Russell helpfully notes in one of her novels) atheists differ depending on what sort of faith they have cast aside.

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  • John Edwards

    Nice post. Borg's comments are quite helpful. I am curious if you consider your Christianity to be confessional in any way? I am thinking along the lines of the Nicene Creed or more basically a confession that Jesus rose from the dead.

  • Jay

    Nice phrased, but somewhat weak tea, James, since it sidesteps some very basic confessional questions, such as: Do you really think Jesus performed miracles – or that events contrary to now-known physical laws can occur? What about the virgin birth? Was Jesus a historical figure, or a character in a sacred play? If he was an ordinary man, born in the ordinary way, what special significance would his teachings have? In what way do his ethical teachings differ from those of Hillel, or Zoroaster, for example? What real basis, if any, is there for claiming that this Jesus, even supposing he's a historical figure, has some sort of special or unique relationship with a purported Creator of the World, and on what modern evidence does this Creator have any of the oddly human-king-like preoccupations assumed by people alive 2,000 years ago? How can the strenuous Christian focus on worshipping Jesus be justified, if all those old ideas about Son of Man and Son of God and so forth turn out to be obscure gobbledegook from long since stale-dated theological schema replete with numerology, astrology, perfect immutable Godheads and seven heavens, and so forth? Why not just admit it's all not true, and we're better off with social anthropology, human genetics, evolution of co-evolving altruistic and competitive behaviors in group animals, and scientific cosmology to understand origins and the origins of ethics?

  • Daniel O

    Hi James, thanks for the post and the tibbits about the possesed man and the figtree. Its funny how some people (Jay) think that you must believe in an exact formula to call yourself a christian. Typical atheist generalization me thinks. Mind you most christians would have a list to tick aswell to be called a Christian, why else would you need to repost your post on Why you are a Christian? I see what you are saying about why you are still a christian and not a muslim (e.g.) I guess what people want to know is do you believe in God or not? and from reading your blog I think I know the answer. However, you mention that you are a christian the same way you are an american. I know you must be aware (having studied in the Uk and all) that american christianity is unique amongst the xtian traditions. And it seems to me (having myself lived in the US for a number of years) that the lines between America and christianity are fuzzy to say the least which makes me think that american's cannot separate christianity from their national identiy and thus feel very patriotic about both. Any comments?Danps. Would you mind if I pick your brains regarding a possible research proposal for a PhD?

  • Antonio Jerez

    James wrote:"Why am I a Christian? Because I prefer to keep the tradition I have, rather than discarding it with the bathwater and then trying to make something new from scratch."But isn´t this they way most people act? Even if they may disagree about this or that part of their inherited religion they usually prefer not to discard it alltogether since it is such a hell of a job to build your life on something new that may have more correlation the the reality of things. Besides, being more in tune with reality doesn´t automatically mean that one becomes a happier person. Wiser yes, but not always happier. I have often found among believers that to go on with the selfdeception despite having discarded many of the fundamentals of a religion is a better recepie for happiness.

  • When we pretend that we can simply leave the past behind and start anew we deceive ourselves.– JamesI agree that we never really give up totally old selves or old beliefs. They weaken for the neural patterns still exists or connections still thrive in ways we may be unclear of.But we can certain leave our past ways — that is called repentance. Even Atheists can do that without being deceiving ourselves. We can repent of our theism.I get you hanging on because it is too much work to get new metaphors for your reality (as you wrote in another post), but I trust you are not belittling us who do not feel this is too much work.

  • Thank you for all the comments! I won't respond in any particular order. Sabio, hopefully it is clear that I think we all innovate and we all cling to tradition. Hopefully it is also clear that I am not opposed to revision even of cherished beliefs. Perhaps an illustration might help clarify my choice to work within a tradition I'm already part of, rather than try to start over from scratch (something which I don't think is possible anyway, in any full sense, since we are all shaped by our heritage more than we can ever be consciously aware of). Hopefully in saying that I'm not opposed to repentance, just honestly acknowledging that none of us ever manages to see everything we ought to repent of! But I think we agree that it is worth trying! I lived in Romania in the early post-Communist period, and watched as the country tried to create new laws for a new situation. Every two weeks a newpaper was published with the latest laws. I often thought that it would make more sense for Romania to adopt the laws of another country that it thinks is a positive example, and then adjust the laws for their own specific situation, than to try to reinvent the wheel, as it were.Antonio, I think this addresses your point too. I guess the short answer on all the points made is that I think there is a lot that one can discard from the Christian tradition – and all Christians discard elements from the past, whether they admit it or not, and this has always been true. And I think there is a lot that can be kept as long as it is revised or reinterpreted, and Christians have always revised and reinterpreted, whether they admit it or not. And finally (and perhaps most controversially), there is plenty that is of value in the Christian tradition which is worth keeping, some of which has in fact become part of our broader cultural heritage, and sometimes Christians hold such things dear, and sometimes atheists and others outside the church preserve such values and emphases, whether they or Christians are willing to admit it or not. And so I think we're all in the same boat in this particular cultural context – we only disagree about what labels we want to wear, and precisely what parts of our heritage to preserve, which to revise, and which to discard.

  • Jay, I think that I have publicly stated on multiple occasions when I don't think something actually happened historically. But precisely because historical study can only offer probabilities, and leaves many questions unanswered, I'm concerned to shift focus onto practical matters in the here and now. If we can find ways to inspire people to treat others the same way they would want to be treated, I don't think that is weak tea at all! But what for some people is the essence of Christianity – miracles, doctrines, etc. – for others is simply the decoration on the cup that the tea has long been served in, and while some shop around for cups that are as similar as possible to the older ones, others find nothing wrong in serving the same brew in a very different receptacle. Daniel, as long as this brain picking you speak of is not too painful, I'm willing to subject myself to it! 🙂

  • Jim, Aren't you a secular historian who happens to call himself "a Christian?" You say you like "the tradition," please explain. You like reading the Bible, attending church, paying someone to preach/expound biblical passages at you and your family (so you don't have to do so to your own family at home), you like the religious code words, the art, the baptism-wedding-funeral ceremonies, the hymns? I'm sure Spong and others in the sea of faith movement do too. I'm not saying you ought to give up those things.But if you have no certain nor utterly essential beliefs that you can put your finger on, then you appear to be a pro-secularist historian who happens to call himself a Christian, or "a proud member of the Christian tradition," whatever that means. Please define it for us so we know what you mean by the phrase.

  • Ed, I don't think there is such a thing as a "non-secular historian" in the sense that criteria of evidence have to be respected in the discipline. Being a Christian, an atheist, or anything else certainly may influence one's perspective, but ultimately you can't say "because I'm a Christian, I think we can say X probably happened even though if I were not a Christian, I would probably say that X is at best uncertain."The same applies to science, sports, and anything else people of varied religious beliefs participate in. The rules of the game don't change.As for the rest, no I don't always like the hymns. 🙂