Tom Krattenmaker is a writer and USA Today columnist who covers religion and public life in the United States.
Below is my interview about what it means to be secular and also love Jesus.
In a nut shell, your argument seems to be this: we need not believe in the supernatural Jesus (all his miracles, his resurrection, etc.) in order to learn from and be inspired by his ethical teachings and radical lifestyle. Is that correct?
That’s exactly right. We nonreligious people can take the miracles as metaphors if we’d like, or we can leave them on the cutting room floor as we go about the inevitable exercise of picking and choosing the parts of the story that abide with us. The point is, we can see Jesus not as a divine savior who takes away our sins, but as an embodiment of transformative wisdom, insight, and inspiration.
Can you tell me a little about your own religious background? How were you raised? You describe yourself as secular — when did you adopt that identity? Why?
I was raised Catholic, although I’d have to say the commitment was rather tepid in my immediate family. I think my mom took us out of duty. When I was a kid in the 60s and 70s, there was a lot more social scorn heaped upon families that were not church-goers, and to maintain any veneer of respectability some kind of religious affiliation seemed necessary.
I was a nonbeliever—or at least a serious doubter—all the way back to my late teen years. Over the course of adulthood, I have gradually became more settled in that understanding and more open about it. My wife and I lived in Portland for eight years before moving to New Haven a couple of years ago. Believe me—you pay no social price whatsoever for being an “out” secular in that city!
It’s true that my secular identity is being announced more loudly than ever with this new book, as is my Jesus affinity. But in my two previous books, as in some of my columns over the years, you will find references to the fact that I’m secular and that I have a very high opinion of the figure of Jesus.
You make it clear that you don’t believe in the magical Jesus. Did you ever? If so, when did you stop? And why?
From my teen years on, I’ve not been able to accept the factual truth of the proposition that Jesus was/is a divine savior. I did earnestly try to “accept Christ” and become a real Christian during my one-year dalliance with Campus Crusade when I was an undergraduate. It didn’t take.
Reflecting on the arc of my belief and disbelief, I suspect I’m a product of what Charles Taylor calls “a secular age.” I’m a product of a culture that evaluates what’s real on the basis of what we can sense and measure. Other than the accounts from the Bible and its Christian interpreters, I have never encountered or experienced evidence for the validity of the doctrinal claims about Jesus, including his ability to wipe away humanity’s sins through his death and resurrection. You can see where I’m putting the burden of truth.
You talk about Christianity being hijacked by right-wingers in this country. Indeed, according to a recent survey, three quarters of Evangelicals are Trump supporters. In your opinion, what would Jesus think of Trump?
Jesus would compel us—even us liberals—to love Trump. I’m not making this up. Jesus is quoted as saying, “Love your enemy.” Crazy, right? But as I wrote in one of my USA Today’s pieces in the run-up to the election, we have to bear in mind that “love” in this context is not a feeling. Rather, it’s a way of regarding and treating other people—especially those we might least like and who piss us off the most—in a way that acknowledges their humanity.
When we apply this daunting concept to politics it doesn’t mean we will work for Trump’s election or validate the bigotry that his campaign has surfaced. Just the opposite. But we need not wish for his humiliation and punishment, nor for the humiliation and punishment of his supporters. As I like to say, hate the hate but love the hater. If we are going to move the country ahead, we have to stop treating our political “enemies” like enemies.
People who love Jesus seem to project onto him what they want to see. They sort of “construct” the Jesus which best reflects their own opinions, politics, or needs. Do you think you have done this? Have you ignored or downplayed various aspects of Jesus in order to make him out to be the progressive model you desire?
Let’s face it. My critics will say that by skipping past the religious aspects of the Jesus story, by advancing this idea of a secular engagement with Jesus, I’ve committed this “sin” in the most flagrant way imaginable.
But that’s OK. What I’m more worried about—and this is what I get into in the epilogue of my book—is the tendency I might have, and that all of us might have, to morph Jesus into something that requires nothing of us other than business as usual. “Jesus just wants us to be nice people. Yeah, I’m a good guy. I can just keep on doing like I do!”