When it comes to the big philosophical questions — What’s meaning of life? What’s our purpose? How can we achieve social justice for all? — where should atheists turn for advice?
Tom Krattenmaker, a writer and communications director at Yale Divinity School, has a surprising answer to that: Jesus.
Even non-religious people, he argues, can find value in His teachings. He explains how that’s possible in his aptly-titled new book Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower: Finding Answers in Jesus for Those Who Don’t Believe (Convergent Books, 2016):
In the excerpt below, Krattenmaker explains how that would work, by looking at the problem of lashing out at others over the way they’ve wronged us:
In his ageless Sermon on the Mount, Jesus advises us to be careful about how we evaluate and dismiss others. “Do not judge, or you too will be judged,” he says. The way the sermon is rendered in Luke’s gospel, Jesus takes this train of thought a station or two further: “Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned,” he says. “Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”
Does it always work out this way? If you change your attitude about the nasty supervisor or co-worker who is vexing you, will it naturally play out that he or she will suddenly start treating you better? If you and a loved one have been cruel to one another, will your forgiveness of him or her assure that you will be forgiven in turn? No on both counts. But this shift in attitude evoked by Jesus can change our experience of painful turns in our relationships. It can alter our relationship to them and other vexing situations, which can lead to productive breakthroughs in how we navigate them. Sometimes, in the best-case scenarios, this shift might even inspire a positive turn in the behavior of those with whom we are in conflict. If more of us started incorporating this Jesus practice into our day-to-day interactions, the dynamics could shift, couldn’t they?
“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye,” Jesus goes on to ask, “and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”
When it’s time to condemn and punish, Jesus says, let the one who is perfect initiate the proceedings. I think we can all see how seldom condemnations and punishments will commence if this is our approach.
These insights of Jesus grab me by the lapels. I find them messing with our twenty-first-century minds in just the right ways. What a counterforce they pose to our narcissistic tendencies. How often have you observed people complaining endlessly about the mistreatment they are suffering from people in their lives, about the horrible behavior and callous deeds inflicted on them by others, while they remain oblivious to the harm they dispense, to the possibility that someone at that very moment could be laying out, quite justifiably, a similar case against them? Maybe while I’m looking in the mirror to remove the plank in my eye, I will catch a glimpse of the ways in which I am the cause of others’ suffering. Maybe I will see that those whom I condemn are not all that different from the guy in the mirror.
Jesus also speaks of love in this sermon, the hardest kind of love we can imagine: that which we have for our “enemies.” As he put it:
If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you?
Jesus is making an important distinction between transactional “love” and the kind of love — the unconditional kind — that is given with no expectation of repayment or interest. Seriously, even your bank can show you “love” of the first sort.
What Jesus summons is a kind of love that revolves around no self-seeking motive, no quid pro quo. If I do something “generous” for you but make it plainly evident that “you owe me one,” that is not exactly generosity, is it? If you buy your new girlfriend a beautiful necklace and take her to an elegant dinner, while feeling entitled to awesome sex for dessert, that is not exactly “love.” That’s putting something out with an expectation that someone will be putting out for you. It’s not altogether different from the motive of the bank in “giving” me money to buy a house. It’s business.
Jesus is talking about a no-strings-attached giving of oneself. It’s a gift, not a deal. And it’s hard. Virtually nothing in culture encourages us to behave this way.
“To you who are listening,” Jesus preaches, “I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”
Yeah, right. Who’s going to actually do that?
Jesus did it in his death throes, according to the Bible account. He asked for forgiveness for the soldiers who were carrying out his execution, famously and accurately noting that they did not know what the hell they were doing.
This radical generosity of spirit is nearly impossible to implement. It’s hard even for traditional believers, and they have the extra incentive of an eternal reward. What could possibly motivate the rest of us to follow this Jesus teaching, if only a little?
Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower is now available in bookstores and on Amazon.
Reprinted from CONFESSIONS OF A SECULAR JESUS FOLLOWER: Finding Answers in Jesus for Those Who Don’t Believe. Copyright © 2016 by Tom Krattenmaker. Published by Convergent, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.