A few days before Easter, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof set the Twittersphere on fire with a provocatively titled column, “Reverend, You Say the Virgin Birth Is ‘a Bizarre Claim’?”
Kristof had just talked to Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary, about her new book Call it Grace: Finding Meaning in a Fractured World. Kristof told Jones that, though he is a religious skeptic, he admires Jesus and tries to live by his core teaching.
“Am I a Christian?” he asked.
Jones was all in. “Well, you sound an awful lot like me,” she told Kristof, “and I’m a Christian minister.”
“What happens when we die?” Kristof asked.
“I don’t know!” Jones replied, as if the question had never occurred to her. “There may be something, there may be nothing. My faith is not tied to some divine promise about the afterlife.”
Conservative pundits spent the next week using Jones as a theological punching bag. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, was at the head of the pack. “Why would anyone identify as a Christian minister and then deny the entire superstructure of Christian theology?” he asked dismissively.
“We flit from one belief system to another, often embracing a tangle of ideas that seem contradictory to outsiders.”
Conservative Christians are nervous these days. A 2016 report from the Public Religion Research Institute and Brookings revealed that 80 percent of white evangelical Christians (and three-quarters of Donald Trump supporters) believe discrimination against Christians is as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and minorities.
Liberals are also feeling the heat. When Kristof asked if Jones believed in a literal resurrection, she sounded skeptical; but she was looking forward to Easter with eager longing.
“Something was struggling to be born on that first Easter,” she told Kristof. “It burst forth in ways that changed the world forever. Today I feel that spiritual ground around us shaking again. The structures of religion as we know it have come up bankrupt and are collapsing. What will emerge? That is for our children and our children’s children to envision and build.”
Everything is falling apart, and that’s a good thing, she seemed to be saying.
Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, would agree. In his massive tome, A Secular Age (2007), Taylor took issue with the familiar “subtraction story” that describes secularization as what happens when ancient myths fall away and Western civilization wakes up to the truth.
John Lennon’s “Imagine” shows that, since the 1960s, the subtraction story has filtered down to the popular level.
Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today.
Taylor doesn’t like subtraction stories. We are now living in “an age of contested belief,” he says, in which religious belief can no longer be taken for granted. For the first time, he says, ordinary people find it possible to imagine not believing in God.
Even in America, Taylor argues, we are all living within the walls of the “imminent frame,” a space from which miracle, the supernatural and all forms of transcendent reality have been largely excluded. This is what he calls our “social imaginary,” a default worldview that is simply assumed without reflection.
However, although we all inhabit the imminent frame, some find windows looking out on the infinite while others do not.
Taylor speaks of a “nova effect,” an explosion in options, both religious and secular, that are available to ordinary people. We flit from one belief system to another, often embracing a tangle of ideas that seem contradictory to outsiders.
“The devoutly religious fear they may be indulging in groupthink or wishful thinking while skeptics struggle with Peggy Lee’s immortal question, ‘Is that all there is?’”
Taylor isn’t trying to get everyone on the same page; he just wants to get us talking respectfully and constructively across ideological lines about what “fullness” looks like on the other side of the fence. There should be an “overlapping consensus” on the value of this conversation, he believes, because, in a secular age characterized by a bewildering range of options, almost everyone is fragilized or cross-pressured. The devoutly religious fear they may be indulging in groupthink or wishful thinking while skeptics struggle with Peggy Lee’s immortal question, “is that all there is?”
This is a good thing, Taylor says, because people who claim to be free from self-doubt (he is thinking in particular of religious fundamentalists like Mohler and new atheists like Richard Dawkins) can only interact with people who agree with them.
Serene Jones’ interview with Nicholas Kristof made me uncomfortable. The blasé indifference with which she appeared to brush away core Christian doctrine made me cringe. But something told me that, before I wrote her off completely, I should check out her book, Call it Grace.
I’m glad I did.
Jones grew up in Oklahoma, the daughter of a Disciples of Christ religion professor. As an adolescent, much to her parent’s dismay, she fell in love with Freddy, a handsome, troubled, uneducated, motorcycle-driving rock musician who hailed from the poor side of town where nobody dreamed of attending college and the lure of criminality never took a holiday. One night Freddy was driving drunk after a gig in New Orleans when he swerved over the white line and died in a tangle of burning metal.
“I had grown up in a household where we avoided talk of the afterlife,” Jones reports, “but suddenly heaven was all I could think about. Not heaven in the sense of some otherworldly, fluffy-cloud kingdom where Freddy might be happily hanging out with God. It was more visceral than that. . . . I felt that in the mysterious love of God, the living and the dead existed together in the eternal here and now.”
“What if scholars like Crossan and Borg are living in another room, gazing through a window I can’t see?”
This story made me wonder if Jones believes less than I do largely because she has experienced so much more. Mystics are rarely troubled by fine points of doctrine, and Jones is a mystic.
So was the Apostle Paul, according John Dominic Crossan: “Paul thinks mystically, writes mystically, teaches mystically, and lives mystically, and expects other Christians to do likewise.”
Since I don’t have a mystical bone in my body, this troubles me. What if Crossan is right?
Although I have learned a great deal from Crossan and his colleague, Marcus Borg, their involvement in the Jesus Seminar has always bothered me. Trying to study a book that is riddled with transcendence from the cramped perspective of the imminent frame strikes me as a doomed enterprise.
But what if scholars like Crossan and Borg are living in another room, gazing through a window I can’t see?
During a Q-&-A session shortly before his untimely death, Borg was asked the “what is God” question. He replied that, for the first 30 years of his life, he saw God as an all-powerful grandfather figure living in heaven. But he eventually came to think of God “as the One in whom we live and move and have our being. That we are in God like fish are in water.”
Borg’s thinking changed “through a series of experiences in my early 30s that I now recognize as mystical experiences.” The longest of these encounters was over 40 minutes and the shortest no more than 30 seconds, but they all had the same general qualities.
Everything became luminous, and it was radiant but soft all at the same time. And I also experienced a kind of falling away of those sharp boundaries between the self and the world that marks our kind of every day ordinary consciousness. And these experiences were accompanied by just amazement and wonder and a sense that I was seeing more clearly than I ever had in my life. They were also full of joy. . . . And suddenly, for me, the word God referred to something that was manifestly real. And I don’t think I’ve ever doubted the reality of God ever since those experiences.
Borg wasn’t claiming that his mystical encounters were a substitute for careful scholarship, but they ensured that losing old beliefs would never mean losing God. And maybe scholars like Jones and Borg are so cavalier about the afterlife because they feel the hands of God cradling a sorrowing world.
A week after the Jones-Kristoff interview, Barbara Brown Taylor was on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” talking about her new book Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others. She explained that, after several years worshiping in Jewish synagogues, it had become very difficult for her to attend Good Friday services. The Gospels seem to blame the Jews for the death of Jesus, she explained to Terry Gross, and when she thought of her Jewish friends, and the sordid history of Christian anti-Semitism, it was just more than she could handle.
“Maybe Jones and Borg are so cavalier about the afterlife because they feel the hands of God cradling a sorrowing world.”
Although I understood what she was driving at, her reaction struck me as extreme. Just another liberal beating up on the Bible.
A few days later, I was stunned to learn that John Earnest, a member of a conservative Presbyterian Church in California, had walked into a Jewish synagogue and started firing indiscriminately. When he was finished, a woman was dead and three other worshippers were critically wounded. The 17-year-old left a long theological screed on social media arguing that since the Jews crucified Jesus they had become an accursed people and were thus fair game.
Mika Edmondson, a pastor from the alleged shooter’s small Presbyterian denomination, was horrified. “We can’t pretend as though we didn’t have some responsibility for him,” he tweeted. “He was radicalized into white nationalism from within the very midst of our church.”
Suddenly, Barbara Brown Taylor’s Good Friday problem began to make sense. If the anti-Jewish references in the Gospel accounts don’t make me physically ill it’s probably because Taylor has spent far more time in synagogue worship than I have. I haven’t been in the right room, looking out the right window.
Maybe God doesn’t expect us to agree on everything. Maybe God wants us to feel cross-pressured, uncertain and confused. If we are to grow in love we must listen to people who see through other windows because they live in other rooms.