Book of Questions

My latest book, Was Jesus a Humanist?: and other Questionable Essays, is a collection of 25 short essays framed as questions.

Through my years as an evangelical Christian, then Protestant minister and interfaith chaplain, and now as a secular freethinker, certain questions have troubled and intrigued me.  At this stage of the journey I’m interested in who and what speaks to our day, our world.  Does anything from the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth still have relevance, especially to progressive thinkers with or without faith?

Here are some questions I raise and address in the book:

Interview with a Strange Young Teacher? A Prophetic Professor’s Greatest Challenge? The Man from Nazareth: Liar, Lunatic, Lord, or? Was Jesus a Humanist? What if Believing Isn’t the Point? Leaving the Choir, Still Singing? Baby Gods? Saved from What? Open for Truth? Did Jesus Teach the Christianity We See Today? Faith: Lost, Found, Misplaced or Given Away? iPhone, iHuman, iGod … I Wonder? Can Faith or Freethinking be Forced? Does the World Still Need Evangelism? Are Religion and Spirituality the Same? Secular Jesus? Holy, Holey or Wholly? Losing Friendships Over Faith? Time Served with the Criminal Christ? Where is the Christian? (Part One) Where is the Christian? (Part Two) Does the Worship of Jesus break a few Commandments? Jesus was Jewish (But Should Jews be Christians?) Can a Secular Person be a Christian? Saving Jesus?

Maybe some of these have been your questions too?

Let me know.  I’d be interested what you think of my little book of questions.

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  1. I love the “Was Jesus a Humanist?” cover!

    It reminds me too of Garrison Keillor’s UU jokes….
    Q: Why are Unitarians such bad singers?
    A: They’re always looking ahead to see if they agree with the words.
    & — Did you hear about the Unitarians who burned a question mark on someone’s lawn?

    Seems like other people have opinions… I have questions.

    One of the “Was Jesus” questions reminds me of one of my favorite essays nowadays — Richard Dawkins’ “Atheists for Jesus.” What great concepts, and humor!

    I can hardly wait for my Book of Questions to arrive!

    Always, thank you!! : )

    • [Forgot to say the Dawkins essay is included in Hitchens’ “The Portable Atheist”]

    • Ha, good oldies there, Elizabeth. I was pleased to create that book cover. Someday maybe I’ll open a “secular sanctuary” with a question mark on the steeple. Let me know what you think of the little book. They are indeed “questionable questions.” Thanks!

      • Thanks for your relentless mighty efforts to get us all on the same team!!!! I was surprised your question is addressed to humanists as much as to the evangelicals I’d expected. My takeaway answer is “theological words keep unpacking into more and more theological words” [80] – ditto for philosophical ones : ) – and “definitions ought to have some fluidity.” [26] After reading, Q.E.D.
        It depends on our definitions : )

        The most striking thing for me is your characterization of Jesus’ message…. “compassion, justice, loving one’s neighbor and working for peace.” [76 etc, etc] I think about many of the writers on Rational Doubt who rail against sayings like “must hate your mother & father,” etc. … Do you sort of disregard sayings like those? I would love to adopt a view of “the good Jesus,” but I trip over what might or might not be historical, and would love to know how you get there…. likely it’s in other books!

        The only question that doesn’t strongly resonate for me is “Did Jesus spend his lifetime (or three-year teaching tour) focused on death, dying, and eating a meal?” [113] I super agree about death and dying, but I’ve been very struck by Crossan’s arguments that meal-sharing with the outcast and elite alike is something central to Jesus’ life and the stories about him, and carries into the present tradition. Again, that depends on how you frame the meal – a representation of Jesus’ sacrifice, or continuing the tradition of sharing, equality, and comradeship. In context, I take your point!! plus I’m having a little trouble trying to picture a table perched on that steeple

        A question I have left over – can you be called a humanist if, even though your teachings are of the earth, earthy, you yourself believe in god, as Jesus probably did? And an observation — I worry about what Singer might say about “humanist” – speciesism? : )

        A great concept, and such a fun read, as always, full of alliterative wit and wisdom, vignettes that stick to you. Thanks so much for your voice, refreshing


        • Well, as the pan-compassionist freethinker, you certainly get into the “spirit” of these questions!

          I like your table image. IF that was the central symbol, expressed in that language, then by all means let’s share the meal!

          I don’t disregard the “bad” stuff, just choose to emphasize (draw out and highlight) the good stuff. Maybe that’s my bad? Was Jesus an apocalyptic prophet who believed the end was coming soon so spoke in extremes? Seems reasonable. Which makes it reasonable to expect those who wrote down his story would embellish or over-emphasize the extremist language, esp. as they anticipated their own end.

          As for his being a “humanist,” yes, it depends on how strict we define terms. As I raise in the book (and in my other book on The Message on the Mountain), I think if we focus on the majority of his ethical instructions, there is a humanistic flavor. This is one way to “save Jesus.” But don’t get me wrong–I understand why many don’t care. Personally I think it’s important.

          I was reflecting: Is there a Loch Ness Monster? That’s what people call “it” if there is an “it” under there. The myth is persistent, but maybe there’s an old creature in there who isn’t a “monster,” simply an elusive animal. Not much evidence for any of that, yet, maybe based on something real. . .and/or real interpretations of experiences, or desires to believe.

          Anyway, maybe the Jesus Monster (a human being mutated into Christ) is an example of that need to make mythological giants? What I’m most concerned with … as many humanists share … is what kind of influence on life and living arises from any ancient, persistent story. The point should be: Is my life better, is the world a better place, for believing this?

          This relates to your issue with what is “historical.” I know those arguments, and in many ways think they’re irrelevant. I think there was a radical rabbinic teacher named Yeshua who lived and died under Roman rule. He was made a kind of “monster” by a powerful religious institution, yet his ethical teachings (alongside other ethical teachers) can make for a better society. Faith is optional.

          Thanks for engaging these “questionable essays.”

  2. Whoa! Jesus Monster! another arresting, adhesive image – sticks to the mind. That surely rings true…. The monster Jesus does scare little children (& grownups), while the blessing Jesus comforts them. Evocative parable, making us think, as usual… I hope & trust we see expanded versions!

    Surprisingly, a kindred spirit across the pond turned up on an old stickynote the other day… Don Cupitt said in a Progressive Spirit podcast that the idea of Jesus as incarnation, second person of trinity, is a beginning of humanism – &, exploring, now I find he pegs Jesus a “radical secular humanist” who will be a bigger figure in ethics “after Christianity, which blocked the realization of just how revolutionary a figure he was.” Saving Jesus! Ordered “Jesus and Philosophy” – very fun to be reading your books in dialog with each other!

    Central images – seems like I read years ago your envisioning welcoming arms, outstretched from the doors…. But I really love that question mark

    I’m very surprised you remember my species…. that’s neat. Thanks so much for your thoughts on my continuing questions. All us readers say Thank You to the chaplain of the bits & bytes & printing press. Gratitude

    • Once again, thanks, Elizabeth, for your continuing and compassionate engagement with these sticky ideas! It does seem that I’ll probably spend many years unpacking the mental baggage from those years of “following” the “child of humanity” (son of man). The monster and shepherd are in the past, but the radical humanist guy still hangs around, mostly as a stinging gadfly (like Socrates) to the Church that calls itself by his name. That’s the guy I most appreciate, and can engage with. Peace

      • Yes!
        Who IS that guy hanging around?
        Thank you, Chris

      • You and Cupitt are a liberating duo – both of you “saving Jesus” from traditional theology – with different aims, if I’m reading you right: you, to enable seculars and theists to appreciate one another and enjoy being and working together; Cupitt, to rescue ethics from the bonds of moral realism – “a form of servitude or slavery.” [55]

        Cupitt says secularism needn’t stretch to include Jesus – just recognize its roots in Jesus’ refusal to be bound by “a code of revealed Divine Law.” [57] As you say, Jesus was a radical revolutionary, inciting uprising. [114]

        I really like Cupitt’s description of what Jesus asked for as “ecstatic generosity” – disrupting the morality system [28] by urging action that springs from the human heart…. and of justice as not retribution or even being fair, but breaking the chain of what Nietzsche summed up as “ressentiment” – the whole spectrum of reactive feeling against others. [48ff]

        Both of you are wonderful in affirming & legitimating the “guy still hanging around” after the stultifying and sometimes horrifying theology is vaporized…. You mention current scholars like Ehrman; and Cupitt is explicit about the work of the Jesus Seminar, often referring to Funk, etc’s “The Gospel of Jesus” – a fun cross-reference. Helps me go in the direction I’d really like to go… looking forward to trying it on for size….

        This “guy’s” interests are “of the earth, earthy” – “humanistic.” Cupitt notes that most of the sayings that include the word “God” are “Kingdom of God” sayings – the ideal community here on earth. (That rings true, though I would say that many sayings do portray “God” – God as also possessing no “ressentiment” – which seems not to have been the overwhelming voice in the scriptures Jesus inherited.) Cupitt goes pretty far! — saying that when Jesus locates the source of ethical action in the human heart, “God is completely internalized within the human self. He is our own self-consciousness….” [104]

        “Ethics, being now only human, no longer comes ready-made, cosmic and immutable. On the contrary, it is humanly improvised and continually changing. It is from the heart…. And I have claimed that Jesus of Nazareth was a remote and very remarkable pioneer of our modern humanism. As a god, he is all washed up now, but as a man he has been and still is so influential as almost to justify the division of all history into the periods before him and after him.” [96-7] – So there! : )

        My lingering question is – there’s still the challenge of the despicable things humans do — the quibble I have with the term “humanism.” For example, the wonderful Fauci video you linked to, where he talks about his belief in the goodness of humanity. That must be sorely tested these days as he is suffering some of the very worst we inflict.

        But! Cupitt answers your questionable question: Resounding Yes!!

        Reading these two books together has been a great treat. I feel a little grounded in thinking that maybe I could consider there was a “good Jesus.” That is an unquestionably happy thought!!!!! Thanks so much for the great questions, Chris. It’s a real pleasure : )

        • Thanks again, Elizabeth. Sounds like Cupitt and I could enjoy a brew! (I’ve read him some time ago). Your quibble with the term humanism is appropriate. As a nature kind of person I resisted the term myself, but it seems to be evolving as a modern movement finding some footing. I’ve been consuming the approach of Dr. Anthony Pinn at Rice who comes at humanism from a Black perspective (“What is Humanism?” etc, along with Black feminist Sikivu Hutchinson in “Humanists in the Hood”). Roy Speckhardt from AHA also nudges humanists to be more openly active in social change. I find this evolution valuable.
          Anyway, I continue to prefer Freethinker to Humanist.

          btw, I’m teaching a class this fall on “The Happy Heresy of Humanism” to emphasize the positive, inclusive nature of this “way of life” philosophy. The human being called Jesus will no doubt make an appearance!

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