A Radical Christianity?

Dr. Jim Rigby is pastor of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas. An activist for gay rights and women’s reproductive rights he spoke to NLP’s Alex Doherty on a radical interpretation of Christianity.

Alex Doherty: Your journey seems to have been one of increasing politicization but without moving away from religion – can you describe that journey for us?

Dr. Jim Rigby: To me, religion is a fancy word for how we build our frame of meaning and politics is just a fancy word for how we treat each other. As a child I learned an apolitical version of Christianity and was duly offended if a preacher ever brought up social issues in a sermon. Religion, I was taught, was a personal relationship with Jesus. So I could sing “Jesus loves the little children”, but did not feel any need to confront the possibility that my nation might be dropping napalm on them.

Nor did I consider myself political in college or seminary. Of course, I was political, I just didn’t know it because the religious worldview I had been taught was so in line with the dominant culture that my own politics were invisible to me. In my mind, I was just a white Christian male who happened to worship a white male version of Christ.

I wasn’t selling out consciously, but it was in my interest not to notice the power systems that left me in a place of privilege. By viewing religion as politically neutral, I could disguise the unfair advantages that came from being a white Christian heterosexual male, My complicity with various oppressions was unconscious, but I knew enough not to explore other ways of thinking, so, on some level, I knew what I was doing.

When I began to work with survivors of rape I could feel the role my male privilege played in their trauma. Later, that insight grew to include what my heterosexual privilege meant to gay and lesbian persons. Finally, I came to understand that justice has to include the whole human family. I realize that most leftists have a well deserved contempt for religion, but I personally came to hear the gospel as a call to justice for all people, which is how many oppressed people have heard it from the beginning.

AD: In your sermons, you take biblical stories to have metaphorical but not literal truth. What is a metaphorical approach to reading the bible?

JR: If the Bible were literally true, we would not need it. We do not need symbols for things on the surface of our experience, but the more deeply we wish to speak of life, the more we need poetry and ritual. Reason does very well at apprehending special affairs like matter. It is not so good at apprehending time. Symbols describe aspects of life that are invisible at any one moment but play out over time.

As I studied the stories of the Bible I realized that they were often Jewish versions of much older stories. They weren’t about actual people. They were poems about life as a human experiences it. The figures in the stories weren’t historical but allegorical representations of experiential lessons. Science and history are attempts to describe our experiences from the outside in. Art is the attempt to express those same experiences from the inside out. Religion is that intuitive act that balances those two vital concerns. As the word implies, religion is reconnecting the pieces of our experience into a meaningful whole. We never have enough information, so that effort requires faith. We never can get complete control of events, so it requires hope. We are never completely what we strive to be, so it requires forgiveness and love.

AD: You view the gospels as having a radical message — how is it then that the Church has so often sided with forces of oppression?

JR: The church was radical for several centuries but was co-opted by the Roman Empire about the time of Constantine. The reason for this hostile takeover is pretty obvious. It is the same reason corporations buy protest songs and turn them into commercials. Religion deserves much of the blame it receives for historical monstrosities such as the crusades and inquisitions, but more often, religion falls captive to political bullies who use it for very secular purposes. The war in the Middle East isn’t really about religion at all. It is a fight over land hiding behind the cloak of religion. I doubt very seriously that the primary motive for the Crusades was rescuing the holy lands from Islam. I suspect the booty captured by “pious” European kings was much more to the point.

The role of religion in violence may be closer to the role alcohol plays in domestic abuse as a “dis-inhibitor”. If you blame abuse on the alcohol, you may be missing the real dynamics of bullying. I think Voltaire was right to say those who believe absurdities are much more likely to commit atrocities, but the real question for me is can there be a religion that honors reason, science and universal human rights? If we use “religion” as a synonym for supernaturalism, the answer, obviously, is no. But I think it is a conversation worth having.

AD: What does the word “God” mean to you?

JR: There are many religious forms that do not personify experience using a concept of God at all. Non-theist religion has a rich heritage when it isn’t being burned by theists. So a personal God is not necessary, but it can be a helpful symbol for doing elementary metaphysics — which is addressing questions like “what’s it all about?” We cannot really answer the question, but our minds will construct some such frame.

Einstein would often use the word “God” as a shorthand metaphysical device probably to save time and give a charm to his imagery. He did not believe in a personal God, but he found the symbol useful for talking about everything at once. Our minds need a frame to begin the task of understanding our experience. The universe is a boundless verb, but our minds need the closure of nouns. Hegel said religion is putting philosophy in pictures. That’s an over simplification, of course, but it states a truth I think.

“God” is a human symbol that allows us to speak of everything that is too big, too deep and too strange for our ordinary understanding. In Hebrew, the divine name of God is YHWH which is a verb form of the word “being.” The other names for God are like facets on that one diamond. The point is not to believe in a being, but to illumine various aspects of being itself.

AD: Your Church took the unusual step of accepting a confirmed atheist – the writer and activist Robert Jensen – as a member of your congregation. Why did you accept him as a part of your Church? How was his acceptance viewed within and outside St. Andrews?

JR: Robert Jensen was an example of someone who had rejected religion for all the right reasons. When I heard his speeches I felt prophetic principles beneath his disdain for religion. He hated religion for the same reason that the prophets hated the religion of their day.

When Dr. Jensen joined our church, people inside our church were delighted, but many outside the church were quite upset. It was a bit strange. I received hate mail from theists, and he received hate mail from atheists. We were ordered to take him off the roles by the next higher level of the church, but we refused. Bob has been a tremendous addition to our church and has allowed people to feel much freer in rejecting supernaturalism and challenging the dominant religion of our nation which is, of course. capitalism.

AD: What is your opinion of the so-called New Atheists; in particular, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins?

JR: I have great affinity for atheists like Robert Ingersoll, but some of the people writing bestselling books are like the televangelists of atheism. They completely misunderstand what intelligent religious people are saying. If you assume that the worst of religion represents the rest, then laughing at us is easy. It is easy to refute Pat Robertson, but I’ve yet to hear a convincing argument that the world was poorer because Martin Luther King and Gandhi were religious. Who can’t refute flat earth religion? I’m sure they are good people, but reading their books feels like getting lynched by people who don’t know how to tie a knot.

When I read an atheist like Bertrand Russell I get a very different feeling. His indignation against religion came straight out of his concern for humankind so he knew where to put the scalpel. I also love Monty Python’s attacks on bad religion. The New Atheists feel more like high school bullies making fun of the slow and weak. I agree with most of what they say, but their cruelty toward their frightened and superstitious brothers and sisters is counter-productive. When confronted with ignorance a fool ridicules and a sage teaches.

AD: What is wrong with capitalism from a Christian standpoint?

JR: Theoretically, a Christian could support many types of government, but the core insights of the religion are basically socialist and even, I think, anarchist. Jesus began his ministry by saying “I’ve come to preach good news to the poor, and to announce the acceptable year of God.” That statement would have been understood as announcing the year of Jubilee, which meant a release of prisoners and a redistribution of the wealth. To pretend Jesus wasn’t political doesn’t make any sense. The Romans wouldn’t have killed him for being a religious leader. Crucifixion was primarily reserved for insurrectionists. The fact that the Romans put “King of the Jews” on his cross was not a religious taunt. It was a threat to any movement of liberation among the people.

Of course, the ancient world didn’t have the word “capitalism” in the modern sense, but they had a word for making money off of interest owed you by your neighbor. It was called “usury” and it was considered a sin. It is a mistake to reduce any religion down to a political position. And it is also wrong to force any religious sectarian viewpoint into the public sphere. But I would say any Christian who leaves the fate of the poor to market forces has renounced Christ in every meaningful sense.

AD: Much of the religious life consists of ritual. What is the point of religious rituals? What is meant to be achieved by them?

JR: I used to hate rituals. I felt manipulated by them. What I have come to realize is, when they are done voluntarily, rituals can be a way our body comes to understand the symbols in our heads. When birds want to mate they don’t say it with words, they dance. It is written in their bodies. When bees want to tell of far away honey they, too, dance. Our bodies respond to certain movements in a powerful way that rational language cannot touch. People often think of religious rituals as acts of socialization, but their more important function is to integrate individuals and communities to the circle of life and to help us move through life passages like puberty, marriage and death. One of the things that makes Americans so easy to frighten is that we do not have rituals that help our bodies understand that death is a part of life and is not to be avoided. Instead of asking people to live without rituals, I believe we should teach the kind of rituals that would help people to recognize the earth as our home, and every human as a part of our family.

AD: Can you recommend some writers on Christianity and religion in general whom you particularly admire.

JR: I was a musician for a while and discovered that those who can talk about music usually can’t make it. Sadly, the same is true for religion. Most theology induces my gagging reflex because religion isn’t supposed to be a special topic of its own. To hear someone talk about religion is like watching someone chew with their mouth open. I would much rather see them absorb the teachings and then demonstrate them in acts of courage and compassion.

Adult religion shouldn’t in the foreground of our lives. It is more the wonder behind our science, the passion behind our art, and the compassion behind our ethics. I love the writings of MLK, Gandhi and Tolstoy. But I also love an atheist like Carl Sagan who turns science into a hymn. Richard Dawkins has some nice celebrations of nature. Anyone who tunes their instrument to the chord of nature, and becomes a friend of humankind is singing the one hymn written in every human heart.

         •First published May 10, 2010 in New Left Project

Alex Doherty has written for ZNet, Counterpunch, and the New Standard. He can be reached at: alexjamesdoherty@gmail.com. Read other articles by Alex, or visit Alex's website.

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  1. Rehmat said on May 12th, 2010 at 7:09pm #

    The words lke “radicalism”, “fundamentalism”, “crusades” and “anti-Semitism” are all western products. These terms have nothing to do with the true teachings of Moses, Jesus and Muhammad (pbuh). The western pagan-dominated culture has succeeded in destroying the true spirits of Moses’ law and Jesus’ message which was almost identical to the message of Islam.

    The great majority of westerners don’t know that Islam is the only Abrahamic faith which certify all Biblical prophets as poious individuals – whereas Jews have a very negative view of Jesus and the Church have always considered Islam to be a threat to its very existence as an “Authority”.