A non-religious friend of mine read the sermon and said this, among other things:
Your approach made me feel it’s possible that religion can be open to the non-religious, which is a nice feeling—but it also leaves me wondering that if the central myth of Christianity being true or not is irrelevant to believers, what’s the difference between believers and nonbelievers?
Our conversation went all over the place from here, but this is what I said to him initially. I post it not because it’s all that polished or finished, but because it’s where I start with these kinds of conversations.
There’s a book out right now called something like, “What’s the least I can believe and still be a Christian.” It attempts to strip out the more literalist stuff that is not really the core of the gospel. Do I have to believe Genesis 1 is scientific? No. Do I need to believe that Jesus somehow has a claim on my life and that impacts how I live? Yes.
Your basic question is right on. Perhaps there isn’t much difference between believers and non-believers. If Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God/heaven is an enacted thing, you don’t need to profess Christ in order to be a part of it. And Jesus said as much (he who is not against us is for us—though he also said the opposite somewhere else, so whaddyagonnado).
What I hope to do in my preaching is to speak a word to people who are what Flannery O’Connor called “Christ-haunted”–who struggle with profound doubt (and really, what person with a brain doesn’t doubt?), but who just cannot quit Jesus. And the best I can come up with for those folks is this idea of master stories (not my own invention). What story are we living in? Might makes right, look out for #1, only the good die young? Or life out of death? So last Easter was the anniversary of King’s assassination. And I said [paraphrased] “it is crazy to think that a bullet could put an end to Dr. King’s dream.” That’s where I see resurrection.
And for people who aren’t inclined toward faith that’s ridiculous. The man died and his children were left without a father and there were riots in the streets. I can’t argue with that. But there were also redemptive elements in the aftermath too.
Roger Ebert’s review of Of Gods and Men (the movie I mentioned in the sermon) was interesting. He just could not get his head around the monks’ decision to stay and be killed. If they had left, he said, the group of them would have had a hundred years or so of service to give to the poor in some other community. I respect that view and also recognize it as the product of an atheist mind. I’m pretty utilitarian myself, but that calculated way of looking at their lives demonstrates a lack of understanding of what motivates them. Those monks are not primarily social service providers, they are participating in a story of Christ’s emptying himself for humanity, even unto death.
I don’t know if the faith thing is genetic or what, but it’s clear there are people who just aren’t oriented that way. I’m not sure there’s anything I could say to them and it’s probably insulting to try, so peace be upon them. But for people who perceive the world in a more intuitively faith-based way, I hope I give them a place to stand, or pace around scratching their heads, or whatever they need to do.
It’s not so much that the truth of the Christ myth is unimportant, but that the facticity of the physical resurrection is a red herring in that pursuit of truth. By living in the way of Jesus, we participate in the resurrection story, and that brings its own insight, even if that insight results in a further lack of clarity.
Like Augustine said, “It is solved by walking.”
What do you say?