In his recent cover story for Newsweek, “The Forgotten Jesus” Andrew Sullivan admits that he believes “in Jesus’ divinity and resurrection.” Sullivan relies heavily on the faith underlying this belief, causing him to make some critical errors that must be addressed. First, Sullivan claims that there exists a “purest, simplest, apolitical Christianity, purged of the agendas of those who had sought to use Jesus to advance their own power decades and centuries after Jesus’ death,” to which readers can return. Second, Sullivan wants readers to follow the simple messages of Jesus and not organized religion. Third, Sullivan recruits Thomas Jefferson for his cause. Finally, Sullivan seeks to satisfy the “thirst for God” and avers that “something inside telling us we need radical spiritual change” with faith.
To be fair, Sullivan makes some laudable points, first and foremost that people should leave organized religion and particularly the Catholic Church (strangely, he self-identifies as a Catholic). FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor made the same argument, although more boldly, eloquently, and persuasively, in her letter to Catholics “It’s Time to Quit the Catholic Church," subsequently run as a full page ad in the New York Times. Sullivan spurns “biblical literalism,” admitting that the New Testament was written decades after the death of Jesus (Sullivan assumes Jesus actually existed).
“Apolitical Christianity:” a contradiction in terms
Christianity is nothing if not political. Who was more concerned with the “Kingdom” than Jesus? In Matthew alone Jesus talks about “the Kingdom” more than 50 times.1 Jesus’ followers called him “Lord,” and later books refer to him as “he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords." 2 Even Jesus’ death is more properly characterized as a politically motivated execution, and not the human sacrifice that Sullivan adores.
Christianity is political, as are Jesus’ teachings. Jesus was so focused on “the Kingdom” because it was “at hand." (Shouldn’t Jesus lose credibility given that he was wrong about the one thing he was so focused on?) If you genuinely believe that this world is ending, and soon, that belief has serious political ramifications. Why worry about the environment, your health, other’s health, paying taxes, maintaining infrastructures, human rights, human suffering, or defending your borders if the rapture is at hand? Belief in a mythical, superior, and imminent future induces destructive action — just look at the New York skyline.
1Seriously, JC was obsessed with the Kingdom: Matt. 3:2, 4:8, 4:17, 4:23, 5:3, 5:10, 5:19, 5:20, 6:10, 6:33, 7:21, 8:11-12, 9:35, 10:7, 11:11, 11:12, 12:25, 12:28, 13:11, 13:19, 13:24, 13:31, 13:33, 13:38, 13:41, 13:43, 13:44, 13:45, 13:47, 13:52, 16:19, 16:28, 18:1, 18:3, 18:4, 18:23, 19:12, 19:14, 19:23, 19:24, 20:1, 20:21-22, 21:31, 21:43, 22:2, 23:13, 24:7, 24:14, 25:1, 25:34, 26:29.
21 Tim. 15. See also Rev. 17:14, 19:16
The not-so-simple message of Jesus
Sullivan urges his readers to “forget the church, follow Jesus,” to “return to what Jesus actually asked us to do and to be ….” But the teachings of Jesus are convoluted and contradictory. As with most Christian apologists, Sullivan uses his own morality to judge which of Jesus’ teachings should be followed and which should be ignored.
Sullivan does not cite any sources for the teachings of Jesus he has chosen to follow and readers are left to assume it is the bible. Sullivan sums up Jesus’ great moral teachings like this: “Above all: give up power over others, because power, if it is to be effective, ultimately requires the threat of violence, and violence is incompatible with the total acceptance and love of all other human beings that is at the sacred heart of Jesus’ teaching.” But this synthesis is in direct conflict with Jesus’ teachings. Jesus not only permits slavery, the basest, most disgusting exercise of power over another person, but also commands violence against slaves:
“if that slave says to himself, ‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and if he begins to beat the other slaves, men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk, the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know, and will cut him in pieces, and put him with the unfaithful. That slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know and did what deserved a beating will receive a light beating.” Luke 12:45-48.
Jesus directly contradicts himself and Sullivan by advocating violence to maintain power over other humans.
The first teaching Sullivan mentions is “not simply to love one another, but to love your enemy and forgive those who harm you.” Sullivan does not attempt to square Jesus’ doctrine of eternal torment in hell with his doctrine of forgiveness, nor does he address the plain fact that Jesus was a self-proclaimed belligerent:
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one's foes will be members of one's own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me…” Matthew 10:34-37
Jesus contradicted himself, so how does Sullivan choose which teachings to follow and which to ignore? Sullivan rejects some teachings because of his own morality, which means he is not following Jesus, but his own moral reasoning. Sullivan is violating the central tenet of his article.
Setting the American History record straight
Sullivan also attempts to co-opt Jefferson for his “follow Jesus, not religion” camp. He quotes Jefferson: “ ‘I am a real Christian,’ Jefferson insisted against the fundamentalists and clerics of his time. ‘That is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.’ ” Sullivan is attempting to show that he, just like Jefferson, wants only to follow the teachings of Jesus.
Shortly after quoting Jefferson, Sullivan admits that he believes in Jesus’ “divinity and resurrection.” But Jefferson did not believe in the supernatural fairy tales of the bible. Jefferson cut up the bible specifically to eliminate the supernatural nonsense — the “dunghill.” He jettisoned the virgin birth, the resurrection, all the miracles, and all the man-god/god-man nonsense. The final verse of the Jefferson bible reads “There laid they Jesus, and rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulcher, and departed.” This makes Sullivan’s claim that Jefferson believed “the message of Jesus was the deepest miracle” all the more exasperating because Jefferson did not believe in miracles.
Furthermore, Jefferson used his own morality to excise some of Jesus’ more immoral teachings. For instance, he cut the above passage (Matthew 10:34-37) out of his bible. There was nothing supernatural about the passage so the safe assumption is that Jefferson, like Sullivan, used his reason to excise this immoral teaching of Jesus. Jefferson’s own moral reasoning was his guide, not the teachings of a Bronze Age rabbi with a flair for parables.
Faith is Unfulfilling
Sullivan’s final error lies in his claim that “[t]he thirst for God is still there. How could it not be, when the profoundest human questions—Why does the universe exist rather than nothing? How did humanity come to be on this remote blue speck of a planet? What happens to us after death?—remain as pressing and mysterious as they’ve always been?”
Sullivan mistakenly assumes that god, and therefore faith, are the answer to people’s feelings of un-fulfillment and curiosity about our existence. But the thirst is not for god; the thirst is for answers, for the satisfaction of curiosity, and for a fulfilled life. Answers and fulfillment are not possible with faith. People still feel this thirst because they rely on faith to answer questions that it cannot answer. As an atheist I feel a thirst for knowledge but satisfy it by learning, reading, and exploring. I feel quite fulfilled and happy in my life and place in the cosmos.
Feeling fulfilled and satisfied with this life means abandoning the wish-thinking and unquestioning faith that tells you there is another, better world just around the bend. We have but one chance at life. You’ll never feel fulfilled in this life chance if you spend it praying for a better life “next time.”
Sullivan was right about one thing: As long as he holds onto faith, something inside him will be telling him he needs a “radical change,” his reason.
Read the whole article, “The Forgotten Jesus” here.
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Why not tell Newsweek that you are tired of their seasonal, knee-jerk religious cover stories, that the stories are either proselytizing or timid, vacuous nonsense and rarely feature balance by nonbelieving scholars and advocates.
Andrew Seidel is the newest member of FFRF’s legal team and our first Constitutional Consultant. He joined FFRF in November and absolutely loves his job (especially now that he passed the state bar exam).