Naturalistic Christianity 101
Just as naturalistic streams have risen in Judaism, Buddhism, and more; even Christianity has emerging naturalistic versions today. These Christians are much like Thomas Jefferson, who view the example given in the story of Jesus as a guide for living, but deny any supernatural aspects (Jefferson even created a bible with all of the supernatural elements removed). With projects like the Jesus Seminar, we now have a clearer understanding of some of the ethical teachings of the historic Jesus, removed from the mythology. Naturalistic Christians have a different take on God, salvation, the ‘Christ’, and many other Christian concepts that do not personify or rely on supernatural claims, but make sense within a naturalistic worldview. This is not seen as re-imagining or co-opting of Christianity, so much as it is seen as a continual evolution of revelation, always moving into greater alignment with truth/reality while maintaining the wisdom streams and traditions of its heritage.
Two examples of naturalistic Christians are associated with our Society and its Advisory Board. These are Rev. Michael Dowd, and Rev. Arthur G. Broadhurst. A third example is Lloyd Geering…
Rev. Broadhurst, in his essay, “Christianity without Religion” writes:
“We have learned to demythologize these accounts [of the Resurrection] so that we can understand and interpret their significance to us… Once we get beyond the mythological language, it is clear that the disciples had a life-transforming experience that resulted in a re-ordering of their priorities toward a new way of thinking… and led to their commitment to carry on with Jesus’ teachings… being a Christian does not require a simultaneous belief in gods or theological propositions, in magic or superstition… anyone who claims to be a follower of Jesus should be seen standing with the weak against the powerful and the rich, feeding the hungry, comforting the sick, bandaging the wounded, holding the hand of a child, standing with the oppressed against the oppressor. It means humility rather than arrogance and pride. It means becoming fully human.”
Rev. Dowd, and his wife, Connie Barlow, are both authors and speakers. Connie Barlow has written a spectacular book for Spiritual Naturalists called, Green Space, Green Time: The Way of Science. Rev. Dowd has written, Thank God for Evolution! Connie and Michael travel and preach a Christianity still new to many congregations, where evolution is appreciated and science is a form of revelation, through which we can improve by coming into alignment with Reality (God). Jesus, or the Christ concept, is seen as Integrity – that is, living in right relationship with Reality. Rev. Dowd writes in “An Evangelical Pentecostal Naturalist?“:
“For me, the word God is a compelling way to personalize my relationship with Inescapable Reality, especially when I am humbled by awe, gratitude, sorrow, confusion, or disappointment… I now recognize evidence as modern-day scripture and facts as God’s native tongue. Only by submitting to ‘the authority of God’s word’—that is, by aligning with Reality and living integrously—can I know heaven, not just mythically but really—here, now…
The stories of Jesus the Christ in the early Christian scriptures reveal a divine man who was the very embodiment, the incarnation, of what I now regard as the four essential characteristics of “big integrity”: trust, authenticity, responsibility, and service… To walk the path of integrity, however, a conversion experience of some kind is generally required. That is, we must choose this path above all else, and do so with vigor, time and again.”
For Rev. Dowd, getting into right relationship with Reality means, among other things, waking up to the dangers of climate change, which he and his wife spend a great deal of effort bringing Christians to understand.
Lloyd Geering is a former Presbyterian minister and author of the book, Christianity without God.* Geering points out how biblical literalism is a practice of idolatry (bibliolatry). He views Zoroastrianism, Hellenism, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity as all being streams flowing into various branches, transforming as they go. The modern secular world, with all of its faults and problems, represents a new but legitimate stage in the Judeo-Christian cultural stream. Just as Gentile Christianity, Medieval Christendom, and Protestantism were new phases in their eras – thus, the global secular world is not the end of the Christian stream, but its next phase. Geering views all God-talk as symbolic language which, though originating in ancient mythology, may still be useful in order to refer to the highest ideals, values, and aspirations to which we feel obliged to give our allegiance.
One Baptist minister who Geering spoke to said, “There are three books of the Old Testament for which I have no respect at all… The book of Esther never mentions “God” at all, the Song of Songs is a collection of erotic love songs, and Ecclesiastes was written by an agnostic.” These are indications of that wisdom stream Geering sees as flowing into the naturalistic stage of Christianity today. According to Geering, the humanist tradition of Hebrew Wisdom did not look to Yahweh to deliver people by miraculous interventions in either nature or human history. It taught people to pursue the way of Wisdom and it relegated God to the role of an impersonal creative force which had shaped the world to be as it was.
Jesus stood in that Wisdom tradition more than anything else. Geering reports that this has biblical scholar led Robert Funk to say, not only that “Jesus is one of the great sages in history” but that “Jesus is also a secular sage. His parables and aphorisms all but obliterate the boundaries separating the sacred from the secular.” However, the Wisdom stream became completely overshadowed by the Pauline Gospel of the savior Christ, crucified, risen, and glorified.
These are just a few of the various approaches to naturalized Christianity that are emerging within that tradition.
*We have a review of Geering’s book, along with additional resources on naturalistic Christianity in our educational archives for Supporting Members of the Society.