I don’t believe in any God, Christian or otherwise. However, I acknowledge that a bunch of people created a body of Judaic Scripture with a lot of stories and principles for living. I also acknowledge that a Jew named Jesus from Nazareth gave up carpentry, identified some flaws in that Old Testament, and won over enough followers to create a New Testament. Those two Testaments have shaped and continue to shape the civilization in which I live and think.
I thus propose a possibly provocative description: I am an atheist Christian. Or should I say Christian atheist?
When we pair an adjective and a noun, the noun seems to take priority. Vanilla ice cream—vanilla’s the flavor, but I’m eating ice cream. If I wear a red dress, my choice of red will create less of a stir than my choice of a dress. So which term takes priority in describing my worldview?
I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in God.
But I’m Christian, by upbringing, social osmosis, and choice, in a lot of my principles.
I agree with the Mosaic tablets that murder, adultery, theft, bearing false witness, and covetousness are bad. I think taking a sabbath is healthy (that’s why you’re seeing this blog post while I’m gone walkabout). The Commandments about graven images and taking God’s name in vain are useless to me, but I can say that, technically, I have no other gods before the Christian God (and wouldn’t! If I ever convert, it’s Jesus or nobody, not Allah, Buddha, or Flying Spaghetti Monster.). So I’m better than 60% on the Commandments (a better score than the current President who won the Christian vote).
I find the Christian principle of human fallibility extremely useful and have integrated it into my worldview. Mankind stained itself and the Earth with original sin. Jesus came because we are too weak and error-bound to save ourselves. I don’t buy into the metaphysical parts of Genesis and the Gospels, but I do agree that we are fallible creatures doomed to make mistakes. We all err; we all fail; we all die. We must play to win, knowing that most of us will lose and that even the few who win today will inevitably lose someday. We should seek perfection, but we will never achieve perfection.
Human fallibility sounds like a paradox (or maybe a death sentence), yet it helps me understand my limitations and the limitations of my fellow beings. It helps me… accept failure (I was going to say forgive, but I still struggle with that concept) as a natural, predictable part of our lives, but it also helps me get up and try again, and again.
My acceptance of human fallibility reinforces the sense of of grace we must accord ourselves and our fellow human beings. When Polonius says he will treat the actors visiting Elsinore “according to their desert,” Hamlet famously responds,
God’s bodykins, man, much better: use every man
after his desert, and who should ‘scape whipping?
Use them after your own honour and dignity: the less
they deserve, the more merit is in your bounty.
Take them in [William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 2 Scene 2].
Hamlet and Jesus say we’re all scum. We lowly crawlers deserve nothing. Yet as Hamlet found the visiting actors worth shelter, food, and honor, the Gospels say a supernatural being found us fallible humans worth the sacrifice of his son. Again, even absent the metaphysics, those stories carry a useful lesson about grace. We all screw up. If we are to put up with ourselves and with each other, we have to accept our fallibility and not base our respect for each other solely on our flawed works. We must accept that all people have some inherent dignity that transcends their inevitable failures.
I also love a good hotdish, especially tater-nugget. That makes me at least an adjutant Lutheran, right?
When I was at SDSU, I imagined having two philosophical “reactors” in my head. One was an atheist reactor, chugging along nicely, powering my worldview and moral decision-making. The other was an auxiliary Christian reactor, a back-up generator, ready for me to swap out the atheist reactor if it broke down and provide all the power I needed to get me through the day (or the rest of my life). All the Christian reactor needed was that one missing component, the belief in God that I just couldn’t find.
25 years later, it occurs to me that my “Christian reactor” may not be a separate auxiliary unit. It may have been the active unit powering my worldview all along. It’s a cheap, off-brand model, with some strange parts from foreign manufacturers, and it’s still lacking that crucial God component. But like a Haier fridge next to a Kenmore, or a Tucker ’48 next to a Chevy, my worldview generator runs on many of the same principles as my neighbors’.
So which is it? Am I an atheist Christian, a follower of Christian principles who omits the supernatural parts? Am I a Christian atheist, whose fundamental belief in the natural world excludes God and spirits but who can accommodate certain principles from a certain book with certain secular application? Or is Christianity so wrapped up with the supernatural that, without the God component, I can’t honestly use the term Christian? Am I a Shakespearean Christian, an atheist Hamlet, or just a ham?
The term matters less than the practical outcome. I reject the belief in God of a majority of my neighbors (including a majority of the people who live in my house). Yet I share with them a lot of the Christian principles that help us get along and keep trying.