Why Not to Be Christian
I often find that Christians are quite happy to ask members of other religions to consider that they might be wrong, and to contemplate the magnitude of a personal change like religious conversion from the faith of their birth and early life to some form of Christianity which may be culturally quite alien to them, but rarely expend much time or effort contemplating whether they might be wrong or what it would take for them to leave Christianity for something else. I think it is worthwhile, then, to consider the intellectual reasons that someone might, reasonably, consider bypassing or leaving Christianity, and specifically the reasons someone might want to become something else. Doing so can help us avoid bad reasons for becoming and being Christian and isolate the good ones.
I have never been particularly secretive that my main religious love affair beyond Christianity has been with Judaism. What that has meant to me has changed over time: from very vague, generalized, uneducated sentiments about what Judaism is or must be like as a child to high school interaction with a local Reform synagogue to sustained academic study of Second Temple or “Early” Judaism (the formative period of Judaism from 586 BCE to 70 CE, when the Temple was destroyed, or to 136 CE, when the Bar Kokhba Revolt was ended, or to 200 CE, when the Mishnah was compiled) to contemporary recombination of academic knowledge of Jewish origins and history with living engagement with the Jewish community in my daily work. The living, breathing, life-affirming, physical, emotional, revolutionary, progressive, mystical, celebrative ruach of postbiblical Judaism—especially in its Renewal, Reform, and Conservative traditions of contemporary worship, and in its kabbalistic, ecological iterations—has been and remains a religious resource that is not infrequently more attractive to me than my own available liturgical practice in the Christian world. There is something lively and intimate, for example, about the procession of a sefer Torah, something enchanted about praying in Hebrew, something lovely I have experienced at tefilah that is often (though not always) missing from my experience of Christian worship. And Jewish habits of reading Scripture—meticulously, deliberatively, dialectically, halakhically, midrashically, all of it—often strike me as more learned, more careful, and more integral than Christian habits both ancient and modern. There are of course exceptions: I think Origen may have been the greatest biblical interpreter in all of Jewish and Christian history, and Philo of Alexandria a close second or even rival to him. But in general, one is likely to learn more not only about Jewish texts but also about Christian ones from Jewish scholars than they are from many a Christian scholar, theologian, homilist, or apologist. People like Drs. Amy-Jill Levine, Paula Fredriksen, Marc Zvi Brettler, Mark Nanos, and Daniel Boyarin are all in general better expositors of the meaning of New Testament texts in their first-century Jewish context than some of the popular in-house Christian names for that kind of thing in the broader Anglophone sphere, which is to say, one is more likely to learn more about the Jewishness and therefore the history and thought of Jesus, his Mother, the apostles, Paul, and the earliest generations of Jesus’ followers from these scholars than they are from the giants of previous generations of scholarship like E.P. Sanders, N.T. Wright, and James DG Dunn. Indeed, the entire significance of Jesus is explicable within Judaism by reference to a variety of paradigms that do not in general require the apologetic, defensive hand-wringing that characterizes so much of Christian history and present discourse. Jews have the option of simply ignoring Jesus, which has been the dominant attitude of most Jews throughout their history (a not insignificant point for anyone devoted to Jesus, given that he himself was a practicing Jew who did not seek the establishment of a new religion); regretting him as a failed could-have-been, would-have been messiah; maligning him as a false messiah, a false prophet, and a twister of the words of the Torah; honoring him as a martyr for the cause of Jewish nationalism and independence against Roman oppressors; welcoming him as a fellow pious and zealous Jew, hailing him as an important Jewish teacher or sage, even as a social prophet of God’s justice and mercy for the poor and the marginalized, as a serious halakhic contender and scriptural exegete alongside both Early Jewish and later rabbinic authorities. In one case, that of Pinchas Lapide, it was even possible for a Jewish scholar and Orthodox rabbi to affirm Jesus’ resurrection as a historical reality and as a sign of divine vindication, without however understanding it as an affirmation of Jesus’ messianic identity or of the ultimate truth of Christianity. Even at this far end of the spectrum, the Maimonidean assessment of both Christianity and Islam—that they are praeparatio evangelica or messianica, in lieu of a future (naturalistic) advent of Israel’s restoration—endures, albeit with a new assessment of Jesus’ significance that is more agreeable to Christians and Muslims even if it is not finally agreeable to either one.
I confess that Lapide’s position, were it mainstream and normative within Judaism, would probably be sufficient to convince me personally that Christianity’s truth was at best half-baked, and that its historical trajectory as a sociopolitical and cultural phenomenon so ubiquitously guilty of betraying Jesus’ preaching of God’s Kingdom in alignment with the ideals of Jewish Scripture would be easily explicable as simple aberration from an aboriginal moment of genuine apocalypse. Frankly, it is worth pointing out that the traditional Jewish position that this is true even without affirming the apocalyptic character of Jesus’ person, life, death, resurrection, and exaltation is a serious and considerable counternarrative for Christian claims that more simply and succinctly explains both the delay of the parousia and the historical apostasies of the Christian Churches from their founding ideals than Christian apologiai and apologoi frequently do. And given that these latter, more positive assessments of Jesus by scholars who have studied and written on the New Testament in its Jewish context and who often function in ecumenical, interfaith contexts where many of their colleagues are sincere Christians academically committed and engaged in the Jewish-Christian relationship have yet to filter down to the ordinary lay level of Jewish consciousness in most synagogues, just as the new positions on Jews and Judaism outlined by most Western Christians in the wake of the Shoah and the Second Vatican Council have yet to make their way into the ordinary consciousness of most Christians, lay or clerical, who continue to engage in lazy stereotypes about Jews and Judaism both ancient and modern in their reading of Scripture, their approach to mission and interfaith work, and their understanding of Christ’s significance, it is likely that most people on the ground who felt themselves caught between Christianity and Judaism would simply encounter these two narratives: one in which the dilemma was between trying to explain why, if Jesus is the messiah, the messianic kingdom did not arrive with him and transform the world, and instead his followers harshly persecuted Jews and suppressed Jewish observance of Torah, and one in which Jesus, whatever his significance, was simply the catalyst for an aberrant form of Judaism that went on to have a corrupted gentile afterlife to the great regret of most Jews of the last two millennia. To choose the former, Christian option on the grounds of some idea that it better explains the data of history, and especially the messianic deficiencies of history, than the Jewish perspective is a bad reason to be Christian.
Supposing one, like me, still found that despite the ambiguities of Christian history, as some kind of historically successive proof of Jesus’ messianic identity, the apocalyptic significance of Jesus’ advent seemed inescapable—that ignoring Jesus, however comprehensible in a Jewish context defined by so many centuries of Christian persecution, seemed impossible on a comparative read of the New Testament in the world of Early Judaism and Greco-Roman religion, and therefore that most forms of contemporary Judaism could not provide a home agreeable to this response—what then? There is of course the pagan option, to simply add Jesus to an already-extant pantheon, and to understand him as a son of God among the likes of Apollo, Hermes, Asklepios, Herakles, Romulus, and others, a line of parallelism that was countenanced as early as St. Justin Martyr (First Apology 21). I will have more to say on this below; the other main option, of course, has been the Islamic response to Jesus—Isa in Arabic—which is to see him as a prophet of primordial religion and to reaffirm that he will reign in the traditionally expected messianic manner in the eschatological future over a humanity unified in Islam (understood as the true religion of Abraham, Moses, and the prophets rather than as a novel sect emerging in the seventh century). Islam in this sense has much to commend it: it remains closer culturally, civilizationally, and intellectually, in some ways, to the Judaism out of which Christianity emerged than the Great Church of the second through the fourth centuries and its Assyrian, Miaphysite, Dyophysite, Roman, and Protestant children have been; it initially embraced a Pan-Abrahamic coalition of Jews and Christians alongside monotheistic Arabs and Sabeans (possibly Mandaeans?) that expected a messianic return of Jesus and the quick inauguration of God’s Kingdom on earth, in condemnation of the corruption of the Byzantine Empire (this is the position of Stephen Shoemaker, on which perhaps an entire article is the appropriate grappling); sharia in many respects more closely resembles halakhic jurisprudence than Christian canon law, even when the sources of canon law are rooted in Jewish texts, traditions, and Jewish-Christian practices. (A notable exception to this rule are the Ethiopian Orthodox, many of whom still practice circumcision, kashrut, and shomerah Shabbat.) Islamic universalism, in which the primordial religion of all humanity has simply been most recently revealed by the Prophet Muhammad but is also theoretically present in the other Abrahamic monotheisms and even farther afield in dharmic and South and East Asian traditions, albeit corrupted to varying degrees, permits a kind of philosophical perennialism and comprehensive, pluralistic learning that has frequently been manifest in Muslim societies in a way not always true of Christian ones. (Here, the Christian exception is the Assyrian Church of the East, from whom this love of pluralistic learning in many cases seems to have been received by Muslim rulers and elites.) Islam thereby provides a holistic sense of the unity and validity of all religions without Islam’s displacement in a way that can be articulated from a Jewish or Christian perspective but, I suppose one could say, with different symmetries that have not always translated, as Islam has, into a genuinely pluralistic culture (and of course, that has not been a singularly true eventuation of Islam’s inner principles, either). Especially, Islam’s unitarian monotheism allows for a metaphysics more immediately and obviously Neoplatonic and Vedantin (which readers of this newsletter will know have my personal allegiance) than, at least, Christianity has, since these are complicated by (but not, I stress, incompatible with) Christian beliefs in the Trinity and Incarnation.
It is then another bad reason to be Christian to think that Jesus’ significance is only explicable from within Christian resources. Islam’s account of Jesus is not that of the New Testament, of course, and for me anyway, I find mainstream Islam’s disbelief in the historicity of Jesus’ crucifixion (and therefore the reality of the resurrection as the response of divine vindication to Jesus’ martyrdom) to be completely untenable. Jesus’ death at Roman hands is perhaps the one historical fact about him that we can know with certainty, and the belief that this was a docetic illusion which Jesus escaped by heavenly ascent is both traceable to certain Early Christian heresies as well as, frankly, a narratively dissatisfying account of Jesus’ prophetic career. Prophets suffer: prophecy includes the call to rejection and martyrdom for their fidelity to God’s word, and for the central point of Christian and Muslim agreement, that Jesus was a true prophet of God, to hold firm in some sense requires his death in order to be intelligible. It is precisely the unjust death of Jesus at the hands of gentile oppressors that empowered his earliest followers to proclaim in the wake of his resurrection that his restoration to life and glorification to heavenly life in fact implied that God had lent new credence to the belief in Jesus’ messianic identity that had stirred during his lifetime. And since his resurrection and exaltation also formed the very basis of those Christian beliefs in Trinity and Incarnation that are points of contention with Islam, to believe in the one does not necessarily require the other (as is evident with Lapide), but it is the case that the historical trajectory of faith in Jesus’ resurrection has most often resulted in a belief in his divine humanity and human divinity—that is to say, that Jesus’ absolute deification reveals that in some sense he has eternally hypostatized God.
The primary question for someone at this stage, then, would be whether Christianity is the only context in which belief in many of the traditional things that Christians believe about Jesus—his miracles, the salvific character of his death, the truth of his resurrection and ascension, his heavenly enthronement and intimacy to the world even now, even his divinity—is possible or not. And the answer is obviously that it is not. The construction of Jesus’ divinity among Greco-Roman pagans, and even among many first-century Jews, was not itself problematic: it was the exclusive and universal pretensions of the Jesus Movement that annoyed other Jews and aggravated the political and religious norms of the Hellenistic and Roman authorities in the first few centuries. That Jesus was a god, or a demigod, or a divinized human, or something was likely obvious to any pagan that read the Gospels; why that should mean their abandonment of the worship of state gods, traditional heroes, and other mystery cults to which they belonged was likely less clear to anyone not already in some way in the orbit of Judaism as a God-fearer or a full proselyte or otherwise compelled by Christian preaching and miraculous demonstration (though in many cases these must have been matched or obstructed by pagan talent at the same). But such was not only the case in antiquity: it is also true today. Many Hindus venerate or worship Jesus as a yogi, an enlightened teacher, a saint, or even an avatar of God, and include him in their pantheon of such avatars as the primary representative of God in the Western world in this our Kali Yuga. Paramahansa Yogananda wrote a two volume, two thousand page commetary on the Gospels and the New Testament—showcasing minimally a deeper interaction with Christian sources than the majority of ordinary Christians in his lifetime, before, or since—and claimed to meet the risen and ascended Jesus in altered states of consciousness many times throughout his later life; he never felt compelled by this to become a Christian, and was not perturbed by the fact that he also met beings like Rama, Krishna, and his deified teacher Sri Yukteswar. Yogananda also understood himself to belong to a yogic tradition that pivoted with Mahavatar Babaji, whom he thought to be using yogic powers to remain immortally alive in the Himalayas, receiving and transmitting divine energy and instruction from Krishna and Christ (specifically) out into the world with the teaching and practice of Kriya Yoga. Whether one agrees with, believes him or not, it is clear that specifically Christian faith was not necessary for Yogananda to affirm even very Christian beliefs about Jesus’ divinity and miraculous power. This is also true for many Buddhists, who understand Jesus as an enlightened teacher or even sometimes as a bodhisattva, an enlightened being who has committed himself to the liberation of all other beings from suffering. And it is true for a variety of traditional and indigenous religious practitioners in South and East Asia, Africa, South, Central, and North America, who acknowledge Jesus as a divine being and/or as an important and divinized human teacher of spiritual wisdom, and who perhaps even acknowledge the spiritual or magical power of Christian ritual, without feeling the need to become Christian, often because of the manifest and myriad evil of historic, institutionalized Christianities.
So why become Christian, then—if Judaism constitutes a generally smarter and more ethical Abrahamic monotheism in which Jesus may but does not have to factor, if Islam offers a universalist framework for understanding Jesus’ significance that provides a model for explaining the failure of the Church while upholding his significance, and Hinduism, Buddhism, and other indigenous religions are able to preserve a good deal of traditional Christology without the felt need to culturally assimilate to Christianity as a Western civilization? There are many things one could say here, but I will content myself with three.
The first and best reason to become Christian is always, undoubtedly, that one feels in encountering Jesus that they encounter God humanized so intimately that it beckons them to become divine through incorporation into Jesus. For while it is possible to have a speculative or devotional appreciation of or relationship to Jesus outside of Christianity, it remains true that Christianity most essentially and centrally facilitates that encounter with God that is rooted in the person of Jesus, for this simply is Christianity. Christians, especially those who belong to ancient communities, enjoy a genuine continuity with Christ and his earliest followers in succession, teaching, ritual practice, and religious aspirations that does not exist in other communities which may or may not value Jesus in ways convergent with those of Christian faith. When one has such an apocalyptic experience of Jesus in which they come to believe that he in some sense centers and sums up the divine significance of reality in a unique way—ideally through the Christian community, its worship, its scriptures, its loving works of mercy—it is in Christianity that they are likely to have the best and most focused chance of exploring that relationship deeply, however long they choose to stay. But this is to say that the best reason to become Christian is to come to love Jesus in and through exposure to his presence among Christians; it is not for reasons of argumentation from text, tradition, history, or philosophy, each of which are too indeterminate to secure lasting allegiance that cannot be overturned and each of which, in any event, fail to touch love as the true heart of religion.
The second good reason to become Christian is, then, because one finds a Christian context that is personally credible and workable in the real life that one lives. This is not to say that changes in life, even drastic changes in life, are never appropriate: it is to say that an abstractly intellectual Christianity will quickly dash on the rocks of life without a context, especially the context of community, ritual, prayer, and practice in which the Christian life can make sense. Christians are often the very worst people at understanding this, either internally among Christian options (frequently moving, as I have done in my life, between sectarian communities on the grounds of intellectual shifts without due consideration of where one will land when the transition happens) or when thinking externally about the costs that other people may endure in becoming Christian. Other religions are on the whole much better and more humane about considering the burden that is shifting one’s entire life to a new community. Jews and Muslims positively feast their converts, but Jews, at least, also have a sustained tradition of trying to encourage potential converts to consider how they might live as ethical monotheists in their own traditions without the need to become Jewish and to bear the burden that transition will exact. Christians perhaps achieve a long list of names of those who make “personal decisions” for Christ but infrequently succeed in making genuine disciples, which is of course the actual commission (Matt 28:19): that is, people who will do what Christ commands and integrate into a communal culture of missionary discipleship. Traditions that require some period of catechesis prior to baptism or reception, like Catholicism and Orthodoxy, are in this respect wiser than those that aim for more soterian seeker sensitivity; but as someone who has endured such initiation in both traditions, I will simply point out that they are not always good at accommodating the changes that come after conversion for many people in their personal living, thinking, and feeling. Indeed, such change is often phrased as defection from a neophyte’s original purity rather than understood as the maturation of faith coming into its own; and it is for that reason that there is also a culture of convert exodus (Ex-Catholics, Exodox) from these traditions that is perhaps more expansive though also less vocal than the culture of conversion to these traditions. One hears often of young converts to litugical traditions, less often of those who, after an early phase or even many years of trying, have to leave. Christians would do well in this regard to think more about the lifecycle of discipleship.
Third, and finally—while Christianity at its worst has often been a genuinely misanthropic reality, Christianity at its best has truly produced some of the best works of repair that the world has known. We promoted the human dignity advocated by traditional Jewish moral theology in an ancient pagan world that largely did not believe in or practice; we invented hospitals, we subverted empires, we united peoples. We have just as often done absolutely horrendous things, allegedly in the name of Jesus; corruptio optimi pessima, and all of that. But a good reason to become Christian is the desire to participate in the former and make repair for the latter: to participate in Christ’s resurrection and to bring its power to the world in work for justice and mercy, and to do so enough so as to heal and make Christ’s name to be for a blessing to those who have not heard such in it. By way of a closing objection, perhaps, one may counter that to become Christian even for these reasons is folly. Perhaps; I do not believe so, of course, but perhaps. But even so, there is surely no god or God whose mercy and compassion do not enfold those dreamers from Jesus onward who long for his Kingdom, when he shall be “all in all” (1 Cor 15:28). Those who become Christian for good reasons can trust that beyond the limina of certainty their faith will be rewarded, whatever the final unveiling holds; for the consummation of all things is in nothing other than the love that God is.