|About the Curator:
Gregory Gronbacher earned his B.A. in philosophy and theology at Franciscan University, his master’s in philosophy (M.Phil.) at the International Academy of Philosophy, and did his doctoral work in philosophy (Ph.D.) at the Loyola Institute, Trinity College, Dublin. Gregory’s academic and spiritual interests focus on drawing out the naturalist aspects of various religious traditions and creating new spiritual naturalist ones. Contact Gregory with your questions and comments on Christian Naturalism!
Just as naturalistic streams are arising in Judaism, Buddhism, and in other traditions, Christianity has emerging naturalistic versions as well.
Christian Naturalism can take many forms. Some, like Thomas Jefferson, view Jesus primarily as a moral teach and as a guide for living, but deny any supernatural claims and aspects (Jefferson even created a bible with all of the supernatural elements removed). Projects like the Jesus Seminar, have provided clearer understanding of the ethical teachings of the historical Jesus, removed from the mythology.
Naturalistic Christians have a different take on God, salvation, the ‘Christ’, and many other Christian concepts that do not personify or rely on supernatural claims, but make sense within a naturalistic worldview. This is not seen as re-imagining or co-opting of Christianity, so much as it is seen as a continual evolution of revelation, always moving into greater alignment with truth/reality while maintaining the wisdom streams and traditions of its heritage.
Themes & Questions in Christian Naturalist Theology
Adopting a naturalist worldview raises profound and crucial questions for any theology, Christian theology included:
- What or who is God? What does Christianity look like without a personal God or any God?
- What are the ramifications of the above for notions such as the Trinity or Jesus’ Divinity?
- Is there any meaning to salvation in only natural-this-worldly terms?
- How do we reinterpret the meaning of the Cross and Resurrection according to naturalism?
- What do we do with biblical claims of miracles and other supernatural events?
Gordon Kaufman (1925-2011) taught at Harvard Divinity School for over thirty years. Two of his seminal works are In the Beginning – Creativity and Jesus and Creativity. Using the concept of serendipitous creativity, Kaufman formulates a naturalist view of God and then attempts to place Jesus within that framework.
Examples from Christian Naturalist Thinkers
Two examples of naturalistic Christians are associated with our Society and its Advisory Board. These are Rev. Michael Dowd, and Rev. Arthur G. Broadhurst. A third example is Lloyd Geering, a New Zealand Christian theologian, and a naturalist.
Rev. Broadhurst, in his essay, “Christianity without Religion” writes:
“We have learned to demythologize these accounts [of the Resurrection] so that we can understand and interpret their significance to us… Once we get beyond the mythological language, it is clear that the disciples had a life-transforming experience that resulted in a re-ordering of their priorities toward a new way of thinking… and led to their commitment to carry on with Jesus’ teachings… being a Christian does not require a simultaneous belief in gods or theological propositions, in magic or superstition… anyone who claims to be a follower of Jesus should be seen standing with the weak against the powerful and the rich, feeding the hungry, comforting the sick, bandaging the wounded, holding the hand of a child, standing with the oppressed against the oppressor. It means humility rather than arrogance and pride. It means becoming fully human.”
Rev. Dowd, and his wife, Connie Barlow, are both authors and speakers. Connie Barlow has written an extremely valuable book for Spiritual Naturalists called, Green Space, Green Time: The Way of Science. Rev. Dowd has written, Thank God for Evolution!
Connie and Michael travel and preach a Christianity still new to many congregations, where evolution is appreciated and science is a form of revelation, through which we can improve by coming into alignment with Reality (God). Jesus, or the Christ concept, is seen as Integrity – that is, living in right relationship with Reality. Rev. Dowd writes in “An Evangelical Pentecostal Naturalist?“:
“For me, the word God is a compelling way to personalize my relationship with Inescapable Reality, especially when I am humbled by awe, gratitude, sorrow, confusion, or disappointment… I now recognize evidence as modern-day scripture and facts as God’s native tongue. Only by submitting to ‘the authority of God’s word’—that is, by aligning with Reality and living integrously—can I know heaven, not just mythically but really—here, now…
The stories of Jesus the Christ in the early Christian scriptures reveal a divine man who was the very embodiment, the incarnation, of what I now regard as the four essential characteristics of “big integrity”: trust, authenticity, responsibility, and service… To walk the path of integrity, however, a conversion experience of some kind is generally required. That is, we must choose this path above all else, and do so with vigor, time and again.”
Lloyd Geering is a former Presbyterian minister and author of the book, Christianity without God. We have written a review of the book here. Geering points out how biblical literalism is a practice of idolatry (bibliolatry).
Geering views all God-talk as symbolic language which, though originating in ancient mythology, may still be useful in order to refer to the highest ideals, values, and aspirations to which we feel obliged to give our allegiance.
“To identify faith with the holding of a certain number of beliefs that come to us from the distant past actually makes a mockery of Christian faith and reduces it to the schoolboy’s definition: “Faith is believing things you know ain’t true”.”
General Articles on Christian Naturalism
Wikipedia article: Christian Atheism
Wikipedia article: Cultural Christian
Evolutionary Christianity, by Michael Dowd
Is A ‘Christian Naturalism’ possible?: Exploring the Boundaries of Tradition, by Jerome A. Stone
Religious Naturalism: A Framework of Interpretation and a Christian Version, by Walter B. Gulick
A Christian Naturalism: Developing the Thinking of Gordon Kaufman, by Karl E. Peters
Suggested Works to Construct a Christian Naturalist Theology
Given that naturalist perspectives comprise a smaller part of the Christian theological world, those wishing to develop their own Christian naturalism will need engage thinkers and works not fully naturalist in methodology, but still useful in the overall task. The works below, due their expressed naturalist methodologies, or reliance on historical, humanist, or other critical methods are recommended as starting points.
A Minimalist View of Transcendence – Jerome A. Stone
The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant – John Dominic Crossan
Nature is Enough – Loyal Rue
Jesus and Creativity – Gordon Kaufman
Thank God for Evolution! – Michael Dowd
Reading the Bible Again for the First Time – Marcus Borg
Jesus Before the Gospels – Bart Ehrman
Beyond the Passion – Stephen Patterson
Other Suggested Works
Numenius and the Hellenistic Sources of the Central Christian Doctrine, by Marian Hillar
Christianity Without God, by Arthur G. Broadhurst
The Possibility of Christian Humanism, by Arthur G. Broadhurst
Other Thinkers (as listed in Wikipedia):
- William Montgomery Brown (1855–1937): American Episcopal bishop, communist author and atheist activist. He described himself as a “Christian Atheist”.
- Douglas Murray (1979): British author, journalist and political commentator. He is a former Anglican who believes Christianity to be an important influence on British and European culture.
- Jordan Peterson (1962), known for arguing that any avowed atheist who lives a moral life is not really an atheist, but actually religious (e.g., Judeo-Christian). He may or may not be a Christian atheist himself.
- Anton Rubinstein (1829–1894): Russian pianist, composer and conductor. Although he was raised as a Christian, Rubinstein later became a Christian atheist.
- Dan Savage (1964): American author, media pundit, journalist and activist for the LGBT community. While he has stated that he is now an atheist, he has said that he still identifies as “culturally Catholic”.
- Gretta Vosper (1958): United Church of Canada minister who is an atheist.
- Alexander Lukashenko (1954): President of Belarus. Describes himself as an Orthodox atheist.
- Richard Dawkins (1941): Scientist and famous atheist. Said he is a cultural Anglican.