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Secular Christianity

Posted by Mike

It does sound like an oxymoron, doesn’t it? And yet, I expect that we have more secular religious people around than you’d might think. Just recently we had in town  representatives of an organization of secular Judaism. They were in the process of developing a congregation in the area, so that non-believing Jews would be able to get together and benefit from their traditional culture, religious services, and liturgy, without the necessity of having to believe or accept the basic theology of the religion.

 I think there is a natural human need for the spiritual, for respectful ritual, for recognition that there is more to life than we can see and touch, a need for community and sharing, respectful awareness of this “spiritual other” that is variously defined by religions. It seems to me that this natural human need is what we can call the need for the religious. I suspect that many observant Christians, when questioned closely about the theological basis of their practice, would feel uncomfortable with such questioning and change the subject rather quickly, that the real basis for their practice is the sense of community they derive, the emotional comfort of their attendance, and the structure that it gives to their moral and ethical life, that the theology and beliefs are quite secondary and unimportant to them. I understand that this would not be the case with many other Christians, especially evangelicals, but could be expected within the congregations of the more mainstream Protestant denominations and Roman Catholics.

 We do have at least one secular religion in this country, Unitarian Universalism. Unitarianism is an effort to see the value in the positive aspects of all religions, and to incorporate those in religious service and practice. It draws on multiple religious traditions and encourages members to seek their own spiritual path. Some people may confuse Unity with Unitarianism. Unity attempts to separate the teachings of Jesus from his alleged divinity and to focus on his teachings and the positive value of those. Unity does see God as “the source and creator of all.” So Unity could not be called a secular religion.

Are there secularists in the other major religious traditions, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist? I have no expertise to speak with assurance on that issue, but expect that we would find many. People want the connection with a religious community with which they share culture in common, but often they want to believe what makes sense to them, not what an authority expects or demands. I’ll just give one example of someone, in an unusual position of authority, who has uniquely solved the problem for himself. John Shelby Spong is the retired Bishop of the Episcopal Church Diocese of Newark. If you read his books, it is clear that John Spong does not believe in Christian theology, that he doesn’t believe that Jesus was divine, that he doesn’t believe in the virgin birth or in Jesus’s bodily resurrection, or in the reported miracles of Jesus. But he makes it clear that Jesus’s teachings, the liturgy, and much of the apparatus of religious practice is vital and necessary to him and has benefit for the practitioner and her or his community.

 Bishop Spong seems clearly to be a secular Christian. It works for him. It likely works for many others, but they are sort of “undercover.” It might be a healthy “opening” process were the mainstream churches to welcome all to join their practice of spirituality, with no qualifications regarding what one must believe, and with only the behavioral qualification of appropriate behavior, and respectful honoring of the great unknowns of the universe.

 

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