Excerpt from Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower: Finding Answers in Jesus for Those Who Don’t Believe by Tom Krattenmaker
We live, for worse and for better, in a secular age. In the Western world, we live in a context where our worldviews and frames of reference are matters of our choice, where religious nonbelief is an option—an increasingly viable one, judging from the demographic data—and where religious belief, in some settings and circles more than others, is hard to muster.
It’s not surprising, then, to find growing numbers of people in the United States and other Western cultures who are secular through and through: no god, no church, no community built around religious values and commitments.
In these outward-expanding secular spheres, a real-life experiment unfolds. Where there was once reliance on God belief and the structures that grow out of that, there is now an iterative and earnest collective effort to figure out how to do life “naked,” to borrow a term from Richard Neuhaus. In his seminal work The Naked Public Square, published in 1986, Neuhaus lamented a public square increasingly shorn of religion. Three decades later, a broader unanswered question hangs over us, posed by the rapidly growing legions who would keep religion separate not only from politics and government but from their lives. More and more of us are experiencing the ups and downs and triumphs and devastations of human existence—the births and deaths and all the major milestones in between—with no religion to lean on, with no divinely ordered structure to hold us. We face our mortality and all the other vexing mysteries of life naked.
What happens now to society, and us?
Despite shrill warnings about the nihilism to which secular living supposedly must lead, despite the claims that without God, people are doomed to living life with no notion of right and wrong and good and bad—why not just kill for sport?—most of us in this wildly diverse collection of nonreligious, nontheistic individuals are managing fine, more or less. We are demonstrating every day that godlessness does not lead to the horrors that alarmist religion promoters warn about. We are, for the most part, people who enjoy our lives. We are, by and large and imperfectly, good citizens who tend to our responsibilities, take care of our kids, love our spouses and parents, and try to make the world a fairer and better place. By doing all this with our eyes open to our mortality and while harboring no sweet notion of heaven to console us, we are disproving that seculars crumble under the vast weight of supposed nothingness. We are proving, as the pithy slogan of the American Humanist Association puts it, that people and life can be “good without a god.”
Yet for all that is reassuring and even impressive about the good and useful lives being led by the burgeoning numbers of people who are atheist, agnostic, humanist, or utterly indifferent to religion, one can detect a quiet crisis of sorts. It comes in the form of a vacuum—a vacuum of inspiration and meaning—and in an absence of potent means to climb out of our mundane, self-centric existences to something greater than ourselves. So committed to do-it-yourself constructions of life’s purpose, so determined to be the captains of our own lives, we can sometimes squander grand opportunities to learn from, to draw inspiration and instruction from, teachers from the past whose insights are timeless and relevant. Forgoing these sources of insight and encouragement can leave us naked in areas of life where we could really use some clothing—particularly those vulnerable areas where a confused and hyper-individualistic culture invades our psyches and calls to us with a siren song of trivial self-seeking that will ultimately leave us crashed on the rocks if that’s all we hear, and heed.
We would be wise to avail ourselves of some time-tested input. I’d like to suggest one especially compelling source.
In the pantheon of philosophers, prophets, teachers, artists, moral exemplars, and sages from the ages, one stands out for me as a particularly promising figure for our time. He is a figure of unusual wisdom and deeply moving strangeness who calls me to reconceive the orientation of my own life and the manner in which I engage my fellow humans. His story compels me to access my often-reluctant generosity and pull myself out of my self-centered worries and obsessions. This figure’s inspiration has changed the way I treat the supposed nobodies whom I could easily get away with mistreating. His message and manner, I find, address our culture’s maladies and malaises amazingly well, as they do my own.
I do not claim there is only one figure or source from whom we can learn and draw inspiration, whom we can emulate. Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln, and others have much to offer, and this is not an either-or exploration we are going on in this book. But one figure stands out.
That figure is Jesus.
Wait, what? Jesus? Didn’t I just say I am secular? Aren’t I a little confused?
Well, no. The problem is not any confusion but the lack of a label that describes the path that I have been on for a long time, and that many more might walk if the trailhead were properly marked.
I am, as it turns out, a secular Jesus follower.
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.