I have described myself as a “Christian atheist“—denying any supernatural influences but practicing certain Christian principles. Anyone growing up in the rural Midwest, even the least churchgoing, is bound to absorb some Christian ideas. But I don’t cling tightly to the label “Christian atheist.” I am willing to accede to the kindly rigorous theologians in my life who tell me I can’t correctly claim the adjective unless I accept that that carpenter Jesus from Nazareth was who he said he was—the Son of God, the Divine made flesh to work some mysterious cosmic sacrifice that would wipe away our indelible sin. The divinity of Jesus defines Christianity. One can’t say Jesus was just a nice guy and claim to be a Christian any more than one can say that the interior angles of a triangle add up to 181° and claim to be a Euclidean geometer.
Lifeway Research, the conductors of this survey, are some Jesus-y people in Nashville who collect public opinion data to inform church leaders about “faith in culture and matters that affect churches.” Lifeway Research says denying the divinity of Jesus “is contrary to Scripture, which affirms from beginning to end that Jesus is indeed God (John 1:1; 8:58; Rom. 9:5; Heb. 1:1-4).” (Many respondents won’t sweat that critique, as 53% of all Christians and 26% of evangelicals agree that the Bible “contains helpful accounts of ancient myths but is not literally true.”)
I don’t have the same keen personal interest as Lifeway Research has in preserving theological consistency among Christian evangelicals, but I’ve read enough C.S. Lewis to know that the “great teacher” line means those survey respondents are either unwitting Jews or theological dimwits:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to [C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 1952].
Jesus said he was the Son of God. Why, dear “Christians” telling us that Jesus was a great teacher but not the Son of God, would a great teacher tell us something that is not true? And why would you disbelieve a great teacher’s central, defining claim?
I’ve had lots of great teachers. But I don’t go to any of their houses on Sunday to worship them. I don’t wear t-shirts or charm bracelets saying What Would David/Mary/Nancy/Rodney/Doc/Jill/Martin/Char/Pete Do? Why would Jesus deserve any more hype, not to mention massive international institutions funded by enormous financial contributions, than the great teachers who touched our lives much more directly?
My great teachers made tangible differences in my life. They taught me ideas and skills that I didn’t have and that I would not have acquired without their effective teaching.
By that measure, I ask you “teacher, not Divine” Jesus followers, how was Jesus a “great teacher”? What tangible difference did teacher Jesus make in your life that couldn’t have been made by your parents, your school teachers, your basketball coach, or a really good science-fiction novel? What does Jesus teach you that you can’t get more clearly and entertainingly (and without all the gratuitous Roman intrigue and cruciform bloodshed) from Marianne Williamson or Stuart Smalley?
If “teacher” were all that Jesus put on his résumé, would he get hired? What about his teaching methods distinguished him in the only field to which a majority of Christians and a shockingly large minority of evangelical want to limit him? He told some memorable but open-to-interpretation parallels and one big supernatural claim that the followers I’m addressing here think is bunk. He copied his whole “walk around and talk to people” method from Socrates, and the old Greek did a better job of promoting critical thinking and active learning with his Socratic questioning. Even in his own field, Jesus may be outdone by better-spoken theologians. Heck, I’ve learned more about Christianity from C.S. Lewis than I have from Jesus himself. How does an objective comparison of Jesus’s teaching methods to the methods of other thinkers distinguish Jesus as a “great” teacher?
I welcome readers, Christian and otherwise, to offer their thoughtful assessments of Jesus’s teaching skills. But establishing Jesus’s teaching cred doesn’t answer the bigger question of Jesus’s divinity and whether people who believe Jesus was just a human teacher can accurately call themselves Christian or if they are just poorly educated Jews or agnostics or something else other than what they think they are.