Forget the Church? Or “Religion for Atheists”?

In the recently published Religion for Atheists: A Non-believers Guide to the Uses of Religion, Alain de Botton, an atheist himself, attempts in his characteristically winsome tone to turn down the heat of the often militant conversations of the non-believing. He suggests that while society may not need the gods (or God) to be moral, well-ordered, etc., only a fool would throw out the time-tested structures of religion that have served to make humans more human for millennia. For de Botton, religions do two things better than any other institution: 1) teach us how to live together in communities, and 2) help us handle the inevitable pain of life. What he is suggesting is largely a dismissal of the unpalatable content of religion in favor of holding onto its apparently still useful form

Just last week a quite contrary view captured the front cover of Newsweek. Accompanied by a hipstafied CGI rendition of a plaid-shirted, 21st century Jesus standing in the middle of a busy city street, Andrew Sullivan’s cover article broadcast a very clear message: “Forget the Church, Follow Jesus.” Now, my guess is that the image and title were the doing of Newsweek’s promotional gurus, but Sullivan’s article essentially suggests that we ought to borrow Thomas Jefferson’s X-Acto knife, take up our bibles, and excavate the true teachings (i.e. the moral nuggets) of Jesus – the greatest of all moral teachers. Here’s what it boils down to: 

“The message of Jesus…was explained in stories, parables, and metaphors—not theological doctrines of immense complexity. It was proven by his willingness to submit himself to an unjustified execution. The cross itself was not the point… The point was how he conducted himself through it all—calm, loving, accepting, radically surrendering even the basic control of his own body and telling us that this was what it means to truly transcend our world and be with God. Jesus…was a homeless person, as were his closest followers. He possessed nothing—and thereby everything.”

Whereas de Botton was interested in tossing out the content in favor of the form, Sullivan dismisses the form in favor of content, even if that content is a neutered version of what Christ’s followers have historically believed. 

Both of these authors have done Christians a service insofar as they have pointed up some of the beautiful aspects of our faith that we may tend to overlook. de Botton’s survey, if understood as being descriptive of what religion has done well rather than as prescriptive for future secularist projects (he intends the latter, I think), underscores much of the social good that has been done by those driven by faith in God – a detail often lost on radical atheists. Similarly, Sullivan does well to admire the moral teachings of Christ. After all, each nugget extracted from Jefferson’s Bible was a direct quotation of the man who was God incarnate. The problem in each instance comes when the attempt is made to divorce content from form, and visa versa. 

The beauty of historic, evangelical, gospel-centered Christianity has always been its willingness to hold the content and form of the gospel together in dynamic interplay. Starting with the full content of the gospel, which is contained in the unedited record of redemptive-history that is the Bible, the church has always understood itself to be the communal form that organically and necessarily arises in the wake of God’s redemptive work, as mandated by the scriptures. In other words, gospel content leads to gospel-formed community. Similarly, gospel-formed communities have always understood their primary task to be the preaching, living, and practice of gospel content and its implications. Gospel communities propagate and practice gospel content. When this relationship is understood as an ongoing dialogue, it becomes easier to understand the rapid and global spread of Christianity throughout history. Gospel content creates gospel communities, which proliferate gospel content, which breeds gospel communities, ad infinitum. To do away with either form or content is ultimately to do away with both. To hold them together, which only the gospel both enables and demands that we do — avoiding both empty ritual and obedience born of moralism —  is our great challenge and joy as those who have been transformed by the content of the gospel and are glad members of the community formed by it.