Courtney Ball

A Place for Secular Christianity?

Last week I had a conversation with a man who is in the midst of planning a bar mitzvah for his son. This bar mitzvah will not be a religious ceremony or connected to a synagogue. Instead, it will take part in the context of a secular Jewish community called Sholem.

Now, I have heard of secular Judaism before, but I hadn’t ever really thought about a secular Jewish community that operated, in many ways, just like a synagogue. Sholem, for example, holds weekly Sunday school for children and adults, holiday celebrations, and rituals marking life events such as bar mitzvahs. Members of the community learn about Jewish history, culture, and ethics. They gather for social occasions, forming long-term friendships. In short, they create the kind of supportive, active community that many religious folks look for in their synagogue or church.

This got me thinking. Is there a place for secular Christianity today the way there is for secular Judaism? No doubt there are plenty of people out there who would argue that there is no such thing as a secular Christian. They would say that one has to believe in God and that Jesus is God’s son in order to be called Christian. But why should the believers get to define who is or is not a follower of Jesus?

I’ll use myself as an example. I was raised as a Christian in a family full of clergy. My father was an ordained United Methodist elder, as was his father. My older brother also became a UM pastor. When I went to college, I was involved in the Wesley Foundation and met my future wife there, who also happened to be a pastor’s kid. I myself spent several years on the path to ordination (including seminary and two years as a pastor) before deciding it wasn’t for me.

I love Jesus. I love his compassion for the outsider, his zeal for the Kingdom of God, and his commitment to nonviolence. I also appreciate the long, deep Christian tradition of attempting to make the world look more like that Kingdom of peace and equality. In spite of all the dark deeds committed by so-called Christians over the last couple millennia, there were always those saints throughout our history who embodied the teachings of Jesus in such beautiful and transformative ways. I am proud to be a part of their church.

I am a Christian. I am a follower of Jesus. I have faith in the rightness of his teachings, and (though I admit I fail plenty) I have dedicated my life to living them out.

Still, all along the way, my belief in God has been inconsistent at best. And frankly, I’m pretty comfortable with that lack of belief. It doesn’t feel like a weakness or a sin. Instead, I think of it as a gift. My tendency toward skepticism and critical thinking has helped me become a better Christian in many ways. It allowed me to question cultural assumptions and learn to think for myself. It has kept me open-minded and tolerant of those with whom I disagree. It has helped me love others more fully in spite of their own inconsistencies.

So, the question for me isn’t, “Are there secular Christians?” Instead, I want to know, “Is there a place for them?” And if so, is that place within existing churches or should there be communities like Sholem dedicated to secular Christianity?

Personally, with my religious upbringing and education, I’ve always felt very much at home in church. Yes, there have been awkward conversations where I felt pressured to explain or defend my agnosticism, but I feel well-equipped to handle those, and most people have been pretty accepting anyway. The United Methodist Church I grew up in is a “big tent”, after all. Questioning and doubt were seen as a reasonable part of faith development.

At the same time, I know others in more conservative churches have had much different experiences. Others have told me they felt intense pressure to “just believe” or “just accept” church doctrine, as if their doubt was something they could simply will away. Or if they couldn’t stop doubting, at least they should keep their skeptical thoughts to themselves. Better to pray, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.”

In other words, they were pressured into silence or into leaving. They weren’t allowed to be themselves in church, so they went elsewhere. And in fact, those who left may have actually fared better than if they had stayed in church. I recently read an article about a study that showed secular families tend to raise healthier children than religious families.

Still, even if I affirm doubt–or secularism–as a gift, I can’t say I would be happy for my children to be ignorant of the Christian tradition. That would be too big of a loss. I want them to know Jesus and his story. I want them to wrestle with the Bible and the deep questions of faith. If they could do that in a community that encourages them think for themselves instead of pressuring them to believe traditional doctrine, that would be ideal.

Again, I haven’t felt like the United Methodist churches I have participated in have been too heavy-handed with the pressure to believe, but ultimately the expectation is there, and that’s just fine. Christianity is a theistic religion after all! But I wonder, what about those people who are certain in their unbelief but still identify themselves as cultural Christians or secular followers of Jesus? Is there a place for them? Does there need to be?

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Courtney Ball

8 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Thanks Courtney for your thoughts. I have experienced the divine in the questioning and wondering. The oxymoron “secular Christian” provides space and time for thought provoking musings. I also need the incarnate Jesus who keeps me grounded in engaging in the world for the common good. Keep writing! Peace!

  • I enjoyed reading this, Courtney. A couple of thoughts I had:

    1. I just read “Funny in Farsi” by Firoozeh Dumas. She mentions a couple of interesting things about the way her family operated because they were secular Muslims. (The book is funny, interesting, and a quick read. I definitely recommend it!)

    2. I think there are a LOT of secular Christians in the pews on Sunday mornings.

    3. I think the terminology & idea, even if there wasn’t a specific place, would be very helpful if it got into common usage.

  • I believe our faith is most at risk when we are the most comfortable with it. God beckons us to question conventional wisdom. That’s what I see in the life of Christ anyway. Secular Christianity? Maybe, but “agnosticism?” That’s an altogether different animal. I don’t see how you can be both. There has to be some threshold of faith to fit the definition of “Christian,” right?

    • I think one way for agnostic or secular Christians to demonstrate faith is to believe that the way of living Jesus advocated (one focused on love, inclusion, and justice) is ultimately what will save our world, as opposed to power, security, and dominance. That being said, it’s awfully tough to ignore that Jesus put love of God first, and spent a lot of time talking about the Kingdom of God.

  • I’ve been positing to myself the notion of a church of unknowing emerging from two statements of Paul’s ” When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.” (1Co 2:1-5) And “we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.” (1Co 8:1-3).

    Returning to the simplicity of the Gospel–God is love. Knowing God is knowing love. God invites us to know him in Christ. What more is there to know?

  • Additionally, if I remember correctly Karen Armstrong asserted in “A History of God” that atheism and agnosticism are both based in the rejection of current understandings of God. I know that when I reject a notion of God that I have held due to cultural assertions there is a temporary void in my emotional and intellectual discernment of God from that perspective. When I experience that void, which I used to call my “internal atheist” I have learned that if I wait in trust God will fill that void with a new and more vibrant revelation of divine self.

    Of course, sometimes that revelation is a renewed version of the old, rejected knowledge, indicating that I held to it without commitment to “knowing/experiencing” God in that truth. A staid truth has little import in my life, but a dynamic truth leads me forward with Christ.

    It’s all in the biblical pattern of God revealing divine self. Abram was a worshiper of the moon (Joshua 2:2-3) until God revealed self and called him into a new understanding and then renamed him Abraham. I sort of agree with process theology, but my take on the process or “progress of God” is that humanity comes to know God in stages (like in the desert) building upon revelations of those before us. To stay in two thousand-year-old doctrines (at least without questioning for a fresher understanding) freezes our progress into the kingdom, which God is actively working out in the present, thus, blinding our eyes to the kingdom’s progress directly before us. Knowledge of God must change. Not that God changes, but human understanding changes, and each time it does we build something new and closer to the ideal–just before we become inured in the new thing. Then we must again reject the present and prepare for a newer, if only deeper, understanding. This, to my way of understanding, is how God shapes humanity throughout the ages.

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