Reading Christ Without Faith

I am an atheist, but I read a lot about Christianity. I don’t read a lot of books about Islam (though I have read some), nor do I read about Judaism (though, again, I have read some); nor about Buddhism or Hinduism or Taoism or Shinto (though again, I have read some).

Christianity. That’s mostly what I read about.

The reason seems simple: I was raised as a Catholic in the suburbs of Boston. How Catholic? Well, not only was I baptized and confirmed as a Catholic, but I volunteered as an altar boy, and on Saturdays, I worked as a receptionist for my parish’s monsignor. I also played basketball for and went on overnight field trips with my local Catholic Youth Organization. Parish priests came to my house for dinner on more than one occasion, and I considered them (and still consider them) my friends.

A Hindu pandit, on the other hand, has never passed me the green beans, nor has a Buddhist monk. I wasn’t raised on the banks of the Ganges or at the base of Mt. Fuji. Yes, I did grow up in a town that felt at least half Jewish, and yes, I attended several Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, and yes, I broke bread at least half a dozen times with a rabbi, and yes, I would argue that one can’t really read about Christianity without also taking in a fair share of Judaism, but even when I read about Judaism, I usually do so as one who is there to find Catholicism.

(Just as a side note: Maybe the best book I’ve ever read on religion and spirituality explores Judaism through a conversation with the Dalai Lama; it’s called The Jew in the Lotus, and I can’t recommend it enough.)

I guess what I’m wondering is, why? Why my fascination with Catholicism? Is it really as simple as, “Because that’s how I was raised?”

I hope not.

I mean, of course it is — it absolutely is — but I also want it to be more than that.

First, I’m fascinated by the politics of it all. Back in high school, I was introduced to the fact that after Jesus died, his brother James the Just became the leader of the apostles, sharing power with Peter and John (“James and Cephas [Peter] and John, who were acknowledged pillars [of the Jerusalem church]” {Galatians, 2:9}). Then along comes Paul, a former hunter of Christians who never met the living Jesus, proclaiming that he knows Christ’s message better than those men who walked beside Him during His ministry and witnessed Him in His resurrection (“And from those who were supposed to be acknowledged leaders (what they actually were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—those leaders contributed nothing to me” {Galatians, 2:6}).

The difference between what Paul preached and what the Jerusalem church preached was wide. Paul preached what we now consider the Christian message: “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians, 13:13). But the Jerusalem church must have preached something entirely different.

Remember, the Jerusalem church was a recognized band of fundamentalist revolutionaries whose politically assassinated leader called for a new definition of all that was held holy. James, himself, was enough of a nuisance to be stoned to death by Jerusalem’s high priest, an act that came not only from the early church’s ministry but also from the newly appointed high priest’s desire to make a big splash early in his career (he failed; his rash decision to murder a man whose epithet was “the Just” didn’t play well with the crowd, and the priest was quickly removed from office).

While we don’t know exactly what the Jerusalem church called for, the epistle of James differs from the epistles of Paul in that a) James does not refer to Jesus as the Son of God (he barely refers to Jesus at all), while most of what Paul writes ultimately finds its reasoning in the divine nature of Jesus Christ; and b) Paul writes that a person can be saved by faith alone, while James argues forcefully that “faith without works is…dead” (James 2:26).

These are two major differences. For Paul, Christianity’s validity comes from its revelation via the divine Lord, and its saving grace comes from the believer’s faith in that divinity. For James, however, Christianity is not a faith, per se, but a way of life, revealed by the prophets and embodied in the Lord Jesus Christ. For Paul, Christ is the law. For James, Jesus demonstrated the law.

The history of that argument is fascinating to me, especially since Paul’s argument was victorious and yet James’ argument feels more sound. Add on history’s iconoclastic takedown of all that the layman believes about Yeshua ben Yosef, and it’s easy to understand my fascination with the politics and the history.

Second, I’m fascinated by the theology. Christianity is the only major religion that declares God’s descension to the mortal realm (“And the Word became flesh and lived among us,” John 1:14). Judaism and Islam both declare their truths through the Word of God, as revealed by the prophet(s), but God remains fundamentally separated from the human, an abstract notion when He’s not communicating through a burning bush or an angel.

Hinduism’s concepts of the Atman and Brahman might allow an interpretation that comes close to Christianity’s God in the flesh, but Hinduism (like Shinto) is fundamentally polytheistic, so even if we stretched the metaphor in friendship, it would ultimately have to collapse in foolishness.

Both Taoism and Buddhism are godless religions (in the best sense of that phrase), so while the wisdom of the universe may be obtained there, that wisdom itself is never embodied the way John and Paul tell us that Jesus embodied God’s Word.

So that’s pretty ballsy, from a theological perspective.

Third, I’m fascinated by the message of it. I don’t know what Yeshua ben Yosef actually preached in the backwaters of Galilee in the first century CE, but I know over the next two thousand years, his disciples developed a rich and wise account of how a human ought to live: with faith in the future, hope for those among us, and love in our heart. I can get on board with that.

Fourth, I’m fascinated by the contradictions of its most avid devotees. I’m not talking about right-wing Christians who proclaim that Jesus wanted us all to get wealthy and to hate fags and communists and to arm ourselves against Islamic jihad. I’m talking about actual saints and Popes, the individuals who seem to believe with all of their heart and yet who also seem to stray from the path their Lord revealed to them  (I’m a fiction writer and reader, and thus a sucker for complex characters).

So yes, the reason I read so much about Christianity is because — without a doubt — I was born and raised a Catholic; but it’s also more than that. It’s a fascination with history, theology, morality, and humanity.

And those are topics in which my lack of faith still feels justified.