Right before the new year, a tweeted quote from comedian John Fugelsang made its way from the Huffington Post to the social media feeds of progressive Christians of my ilk:
But Fugelsang’s spin on the “Jesus was a Liberal” bumper sticker likewise appeared on the feeds of many atheists, agnostics, humanists, and sundry other Nones (people who do not claim an institutional religious affiliation) of my virtual acquaintance.
Many of these were participants in my study of the spiritual lives of the religiously unaffiliated in America, which has involved interviewing nearly a hundred Nones across the United States over the past eighteen months and gathering narrative input from another hundred-and-forty online.
While the appeal to this religiously unaffiliated cohort of such plainly religious (and, not for nothing, political) messaging might come as a surprise to some, according to the 2008 Pew “US Religious Landscape Survey,” seven-in-ten Nones emerge into Noneness from Christian backgrounds. So, it makes sense that the Christian idiom—its narratives, rituals, symbols, professed ethics, and so on—remains a significant resource for these folks, whether they’re arguing against it or adapting it to alternative spiritualities.
This was certainly the case for the majority of the Nones I interviewed across the country. Regardless of where they stood with regard to religious belief or unbelief, or attendant practices, the people I interviewed told me repeatedly how much they admired the Jesus of the Christian Gospel, radical defender of the poor and outcast.
“Being an atheist doesn’t mean I hate Jesus,” a None from North Carolina who had been raised in a nondenominational Evangelical family told me. “You have to love the whole Good Samaritan story, or the way he stood up for the adultery woman. You don’t want to throw that away, because we need those stories.” He paused, “It’s just that my church experience didn’t really focus on that. It was about no sinning, avoiding temptation. It was about helping yourself to get saved, not helping others so much.”
Another None, a Californian who had been brought up as a Presbyterian but now sets an adaptation of Buddhist mindfulness meditation, Hatha yoga, and long mountain hikes at the center of her spiritual life, called on an understanding of Jesus as a social justice exemplar as an important part of her own ethical views.
On a small home altar—among assorted crystals; small Buddhist and Hindu figurines; feathers, seashells, small stones collected on nature walks; and photos of family and friends—leaned a contemporary Orthodox-style icon depicting Jesus as the Good Samaritan. When I asked her about it, she explained,
I just was always inspired by that story ever since I was little. You know, that we could be that way toward each other. It’s really the ideal for me of how people should behave. Not “do unto others,” but more like “do what they need when you find them on the road.” That still really matters to me even though I don’t think of myself as a “Christian” in a religious sense anymore. Spiritually, though, I guess I still have that in my personal beliefs—that this was what Jesus stood for and expected us to emulate.
“I think of Jesus first and foremost as a healer,” a secular humanist from Boston who had been educated by Jesuits in Brazil told me. “He’s such an icon for reaching out to people most in need. That didn’t end up making me believe in a supernatural being who gives out miracle cures,” he made clear, “but it’s a big social lesson. It’s really the best side of Christianity.”
Indeed, so compelling is this understanding of Jesus to many Nones that in close to a hundred interviews, the story of the Good Samaritan, specifically, came up nearly twenty times.
At the end of the day, for half of the people I interviewed, the Jesus of radical compassion and justice remained spiritually and ethically significant regardless of religious identification, affiliation, or practice.
There are a number of ways to read this small body of data. The first is, of course, that, growth in the unaffiliated notwithstanding, the majority of Americans still identify with one Christian tradition or another. If you’re outside of that normative religious core, you have to contend on some level with the more dominant religiosity of American culture.
Nones—like Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Wiccans, and others outside of institutional Christianity—live in a culture saturated with Christian language, symbols, and rituals. Given this, and the high percentage of Nones who themselves come from Christian backgrounds, Jesus will likely factor into both spiritual and social identity construction.
But the Good Samaritan and other Gospel narratives also have an ethical resonance with Nones that extends beyond their place in the larger cultural vocabulary. Nancy Ammerman’s study of what she termed “Golden Rule Christians”—practicing believers across Christian denominations and ideological spectrums who take the scriptural teaching that one should “do unto others as you would have them do to you” (Mt. 7:12) as the core Christian value—certainly tracks a similarly generalized Christian ethic. But I would suggest that the ethical perspective of those I might tag as “Good Samaritan Nones” goes somewhat further in ways that are particular to the spiritualities of American Nones.
Very basically, the ethos of “Golden Rule Christianity” is to treat each person as we might desire to be treated. Philosophers from Immanuel Kant to Ayn Rand have criticized ethical practice based on the Golden Rule for a variety of reasons: it assumes self as the basis for authentic knowledge of the needs of the other; it ignores the context in which self and other interact; it values reciprocity over self-preservation and, potentially, justice; and it offers a general moral principle without defining normative moral action.
Christian thinkers, in turn, have robustly argued that the wider Gospel context of the Golden Rule grounds its interpretation in a self-giving love of neighbor exemplified by Jesus Christ.
Still, “Good Samaritan Nones” up the ethical ante. Their understanding is that the ministry and character of Jesus calls for more radical ethical action requiring risk, challenge, and even conflict on behalf of the oppressed. Here, the needs of the other are the starting point for moral engagement rather than a presumed likeness between the other and the self.
Indeed, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, difference—otherness—in itself is the locus of both moral action and of the moral assessment of the Samaritan as “good.”
“I’m not a Christian anymore,” said an agnostic woman from Nebraska,
but I’m still impressed by the story of the Good Samaritan in the Bible, which was about seeing past ethnic or tribal categories. I wish Christians and other religions would learn that. We all just are who we are walking down the road. We want to be seen as no more and no less than that.
Some Nones I talked with did routinely point out what they saw as hypocrisy in churches that do not exhibit this Jesus-like quality toward whoever their particular others might be. But most focused more on what the Gospel stories continued to mean for them personally in terms of ethical practice outside of institutional churches.
Still, even those who did not critique or condemn churches and their members for their failure to live up to the Good Samaritan ethic did not seem to feel that institutional religions were up to the challenge of offering genuinely self-sacrificing service to others.
“You know,” a None in Kansas who described herself as “an agnostic Jesus Follower” told me,
the big church organizations—Habitat [for Humanity] or whatever—will do things like that. Or, maybe after a hurricane. But day to day, week to week, you don’t really see [churches] where you live being involved—out on the streets with homeless people. I think most of them are just trying to hold on to the members they have, to make them happy and comfortable. They take care of their own, in my experience.
Now, of course, those active in churches will argue—rightly—that most local churches and their members are involved in all manner of social ministries. They staff and donate to food banks, homeless shelters, meal programs, after school programs, environmental initiatives, anti-violence campaigns, and so on, tirelessly. But these activities are almost invisible except to those most actively involved, very often within the sponsoring church communities themselves.
Even—sometimes especially—to Nones who come from Christian backgrounds, Good Samaritan practices don’t read as being at the spiritual heart of most churches as they present themselves in worship services, websites, and other public platforms.
An “atheist most days” from Virginia who had been raised in a progressive Episcopalian church talked warmly about annual youth group service trips to Haiti, Mexico, New Orleans, and other “areas in need.” He insisted that these trips had been incredibly important in his personal and spiritual development. But, he said,
they were basically extracurricular activities. You went on these trips, and did a presentation at church one week, then that was it. It was just a thing they did for the youth to develop Christian values of charity and compassion, I guess.
Few churches, it seems, express their identities in prophetic, radically other-oriented registers, even to their own members. For many, Jesus is the cute, swaddled infant of Christmas pageants; the kindly Good Shepherd who leads us beside still waters; the regal risen Christ who triumphs over sin and death. But, he’s not often a dude who would leave the comfort of a cozy church coffee hour with folks of his own social milieu to part with cloak and coin for the benefit of the dazed Iraq war vet with two pit bulls at the highway underpass down the road from church.
It’s possible, then, to read the lingering significance of “Good Samaritan Jesus” for the religiously unaffiliated as a yearning for a more ethically engaged, prophetic Christianity.
It does seem to be the case that some of the largest and most vibrant Christian congregations are those with a pointedly prophetic self-representation. Take the Mars Hill nondenominational industrial complex, for instance, with its booming call to conservative hipster masculinist Christianity; or, in a much more progressive vein, All Saints Church, Pasadena, with its sustained advocacy for LGBT inclusion and interreligious engagement.
Even the recently launched Sunday Assembly—“a global movement of wonder and good,” according to its website—offers a call to community and service to atheists, humanists, and others among the religiously unaffiliated.
Do Nones of a more spiritual leaning hunger for participation in religious and/or spiritual institutions that more boldly call for the sorts of practices Good Samaritan Jesus represents? Perhaps some do, but largely, not so much. Or, at least not in the ways religious organizations and religion researchers typically understand participation in religious institutions, in terms of sustained, exclusive affiliation on the model of voluntary membership. Thus, when Pew researchers asked Nones if they were “looking for a religion that would be right for you,” a commanding majority—88%—said, “thanks, but no thanks.”
My qualitative research with Nones, however, cautions me not to read this demographic data as an indication that they are necessarily anti-institutional. Indeed, some twenty percent were at least somewhat active in traditional religious communities. But the plural here—communities—is important. Many Nones in my study, that is, reported participating on a regular basis in more than one community they identified as spiritual or religious, perhaps taking in a Taizé service at a local church on Saturday evening, practicing yoga a few times a week, and sitting with a meditation group from time to time.
Any enduring attractiveness of Good Samaritan Jesus, then, does not translate into a desire for exclusive Christian affiliation. Indeed, the appeal of Good Samaritan Noneness over Golden Rule Christianity may have much to do with the fact that it is not understood as a universal ethic centered in an exclusive (even if welcoming) community, but as a multiversal one—as an ethic for a pluralistic postmodernity much defined by encounters with wide varieties of ethnic, racial, national, gendered, and religious others.
In this cosmopolitan spiritual landscape, Jesus is just alright with Nones—othered as they are by choice or circumstance from traditional religions—to the extent that he is seen as a particularly exemplary inhabitant of the “many dwelling places” in a diverse cosmic household rather than as the keeper of the “narrow gate.”
The appeal of Jesus to Nones may also have to do with the practical, material enactment of his ministry—his willingness to walk across religious and other social boundaries, through the lives of ordinary people, attending to their suffering, healing their afflictions, welcoming them into relationship—over against the credal or doctrinal expressions of Christianity that have largely characterized the tradition since the Reformation.
“I honestly couldn’t tell you what it means to be ‘saved in Jesus,’ or ‘baptized in the Holy Spirit,’” a former Evangelical None from Missouri told me.
But I get what it is to help someone out, to really put yourself out there for someone going through something bad. I think that was what Jesus was all about. Was that Jesus truly God? At this point in my life, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t matter. But I do believe it probably felt like that to the people he helped.