The Message of Jesus for Non-Supernaturalists

This is my latest sermon, to be given today at the Community Unitarian Universalists in Brighton.  Here is the abstract:

Abstract: Many preachers have quoted the New Testament question: “What think ye of Christ?” For a non-supernaturalist, this is not an easy question. Both the historical Jesus and the additional stories that grew up around him seem remarkable. How could all of this have come together without a miracle? And what does it mean for us now if there were no miracles involved? Among the foremost answers to the last question must be the idea of the dignity of every human being–as against both other human beings of high social status, and as against the universe.

After the sermon, I add some links you might be interested in.

Update: You can now see a video of the sermon here.


In his book Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis wrote:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

I am not willing to accept any of the three choices C. S. Lewis offers. As a non-supernaturalist, the claim that Jesus was God, or the Son of God, in any traditional sense doesn’t work for me. Demons and the Devil too are supernatural. And although some degree of mental illness can be consistent with great creativity, insight and enlightenment, Jesus certainly was not crazy in a way that should cause us to dismiss all of his key messages.

The specific words in the gospels that C. S. Lewis points to in which Jesus is said to claim divinity may or may not have actually been said by Jesus. I think statements that a charismatic individual was divine are particularly likely to be added by followers later on. In the case of Jesus, there is no reason to doubt that his followers genuinely believed he came back from the grave; belief in Jesus’ resurrection would make them especially likely to add claims of divinity. 

Jesus himself seems to have been given to enigmatic sayings that could have been taken as lending credence to those claims. Jesus could have genuinely felt that God was acting through him to such an extent that he could be considered “God with us” without the full weight of the later Christology. Or it is also possible that Jesus, for his own purposes, may have actually been willing to claim godhood, perhaps in an ironic sense.

This does not mean we can dismiss the historical Jesus. Even with the later boost by the efforts of his followers, including the apostle Paul, one cannot explain Christianity without a remarkable individual at the root of it all: Jesus. I think of Jesus and the beginnings of Christianity what I think of Joseph Smith and the beginnings of the Mormonism I grew up in: one way or another, something unusual happened back then. Therefore, judging what happened is a matter of comparing the relative likelihood of various different chains of unlikely events.  

For Christianity itself was remarkable. Even a non-supernaturalist should recognize that the words and deeds of the early Christians changed the world. And it is those words and deeds of early Christians that are the most reliable clue to the non-supernatural part of the message of Jesus.


In the end, I take the key non-supernatural message of Jesus to be in line with something my college classmate and friend Peter Lake said: that John Rawls’s book A Theory of Justice is a philosophically reworked restatement of what Jesus taught.

In A Theory of Justice, John Rawls asks each of us to imagine how we would decide to arrange society if we were deciding behind a “veil of ignorance,” not knowing who each of us would be and therefore not knowing the station in society that you or I would have.

Not knowing who one would be, one would have to be concerned about the possibility that one might be put in the position of wanting to do something very badly and not being allowed to do it. So John Rawls argues that the first thing we would decide behind the veil of ignorance would be to build guarantees of freedom into the society we would end up in. The essence of freedom—as laid out, for example, by John Stuart Mill in “On Liberty”—is to define a sphere of action for each person that allows us to tend the things that we each are likely to care most about. A good example is the decision of whom to marry. Despite the emotional energy behind many people’s opposition to gay marriage, I still think that those actually getting married to the one they love tend to care more than those trying to stop them from getting married. So this is an issue of freedom.

Once freedom is guaranteed, John Rawls argues that behind the veil of ignorance, we would arrange for the level of material resources available to the worst-off member of society to be as high as possible. Here, I think John Rawls oversimplifies a little. The risk aversion we would apply behind the veil of ignorance would not be infinite. So we might put some weight on how well off higher stations in society were; but as a practical matter, the interaction of even modest levels of risk aversion or inequality aversion with the wide range of inequality in the world we live in puts so much weight on the welfare of the worst off individuals, that John Rawls’s focus on the very worst off is an excellent approximation.

The Problem

In the real world, most of human history has been a story of violence and oppression. Violence came first; oppression requires more organization.

Violence: Hunter-gatherer tribes, like chimpanzees, tend to have extremely high murder rates, as Stephen Pinker discusses in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.

One person who has thought deeply about the psychology of violence is René GirardRené Girard is an Emeritus Professor of French Literature at Stanford University who in his other role as anthropological philosopher puts Jesus at the center of history as the beginning of the end for human violence driven by envy, scapegoating and sacrifice. 

The beginning of René Girard’s account is also the foundation of culture itself: the ability to copy others. In both his literary criticism and anthropological philosophy, René Girard emphasizes a key thing we copy from one another: our notion of what is desirable. This is fine when there are many items of the same type available in the local surroundings. But when certain items are scarce, seeing that others value those items encourages us to see them as valuable and envy those that have them.

Joseph Epstein argues persuasively in his book Envy that envy is all around us:

So endemic did these and other philosophers [Kierkegaard, Kant, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, etc.] find envy… it becomes clear that one must factor in envy in considering our judgments of our own and of others’ actions. If one’s judgments are to be straight and honorable, one must be certain that they are not infected by envy.

Envy is something people are seldom willing to admit to; so it is dangerous to assume there is only as much envy in the world as people talk about.

Envy is a powerful emotion. Unlike Disney movies that often leave the evil of the villain unmotivated, the Bible gives an excellent motivation for Satan’s evil in envy. (Some say pride, but I think it is easy to detect the envy being papered over by the pride in the stories of Satan.)

When envy leads many to want the same thing without external restraints, violence is a common outcome. René Girard argues that before the development of more elaborate cultural mechanisms to restrain violence, the violence of all against all is often put on pause by scapegoating. If people can copy desires from others, they can also copy hatreds. If everyone copies a hatred toward some individual who is different enough to become a focal point, that individual becomes a scapegoat. In the olden days such a human scapegoat was often murdered. Then, René Girard argues, the people in the local community felt a catharsis great enough that they often felt oddly grateful toward the individual who was killed and began to talk of the scapegoated individual as a demigod, despite the fact that along the way to being murdered, the scapegoat had been thoroughly slandered. Turning the slandered, murdered human scapegoat into a demigod transformed the murder in memory to a human sacrifice.

At one level, Jesus’ sacrifice seems like a reenactment of the primeval pattern of a human scapegoat being slandered, murdered, and then made into a god. But René Girard argues that it is different in a momentous way: the gospels are adamant that Jesus was actually innocent. And the thought that the human scapegoat might be innocent has put sand in the gears of this primeval practice of “piling on” against a human scapegoat ever since Jesus.

Fear and Intolerance: Violence inspires fear. And in addition to violence, the scapegoating mechanism helps to enforce conformity. Though there is some randomness in who is chosen as the scapegoat in any situation, sticking out and being different is a definite risk factor. So it often seems safer to conform rather than risk being made into a scapegoat. And everyone’s fear of the dangers of nonconformity gets expressed as intolerance.

Oppression: When societies become more centralized, chaotic violence is replaced by violence as a fallback tool to enforce oppression. A week ago, I finished reading Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson’s book Why Nations Fail. They argue that most nations throughout history have been either domains of chaotic violence or domains of organized oppression. They use the terms “extractive institutions” and “extractive economics” to mean politics and economics organized to enable the in-group to make themselves as well off as possible at the expense of everyone else. This is still the way half the world is organized, and it is the root cause of poor nations being poor. Those on top in those countries would like their countries to be richer, since that would mean more to steal. Unfortunately, there are not many ways to make a country richer without running into the danger of empowering people in a way that jeopardizes one’s control. In particular, it is hard to allow much innovation, since innovation often brings with it creative destruction of existing structures—especially innovation of the kind most crucial for prosperity.

So what stands in the way of poor countries becoming rich is not ignorance, but evil—evil of the very most human kind. Evil that you and I have in our hearts too, that will cause us trouble too if we don’t restrain it.

The Solution

Violence and oppression are central human problems. Christianity brought tools helpful in the solution.

Tools to Break Down “Us vs. Them” Thinking: Three key characteristics of the early Christians helped to keep in check the human tendency toward seeing things as us versus them. The early Christians were:

1. Proselyting. They tried to win converts. Jesus was said to have given this charge after his resurrection: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

2. Inclusive. Seeking converts, they brought into their group outsiders of all ethnicities, gave women high status relative to the standards of the times, and told stories of Jesus having been kind to people in despised groups such as prostitutes and tax collectors. Inclusiveness was not a foregone conclusion for Christianity, even given what Jesus had done and said. The biggest political struggle within Christianity during its early years was over the question of whether to allow people to become Christians without taking on all the ethnic markers of Judaism. But Paul won the victory for greater inclusiveness.

3. Humble.Many of the early Christians were from relatively high social classes. But they remembered Jesus honoring not the high and mighty, but the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. And they remembered his story of the king who said “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Tools to Break Down “I vs. We” Thinking: Three more characteristics of the early Christians helped to keep in check the human tendency toward thinking of self first instead of the welfare of the group, and paradoxically helped them to go beyond fear-induced conformity. They were:

4. Bookish. The early Christians and the Christians that followed them later on in history revered a remarkable collection of books containing much of the Jewish tradition as well as their own new tradition. These writings helped individual Christians identify with the Christian movement as a whole. And as Jack Miles’s book “God: A Biography” makes clear, the Jewish tradition, which had to explain everything that happened in terms of one God, already included both sides of many deep debates, and the new Christian additions to scripture only broadened the range with arguments for both sides of such tensions as order vs. revolution, rules vs. forgiveness, mastering nature vs. standing in awe of nature, and even supernatural vs. natural. This helped ensure that although many false and harmful things could be argued from scripture that almost all true and helpful things could also be argued from scripture. And they were.

5. Fearless in the Face of Death. In addition to many facing martyrdom with bravery, early Christians showed fearlessness in the face of death by nursing one another back to health during epidemics, even at the risk of their own health. Fearlessness in the face of death is an area where supernatural beliefs obviously played a role. But the ability to imagine the welfare of others and the welfare of all instead of just one’s own welfare also played a role.

6. Idealistic. The grand sweep of the Christian narrative and the emphasis on faith helped the Christians to think big, including thinking big about the welfare of the whole.

Tools to Break Down “I vs. You” Thinking: At the more intimate, person-to-person level, three beliefs of the early Christians helped to keep in check the human tendency to put self first over a particular other person. They believed in:

7. Forgiveness.

8. Love.

9. Fidelity.

The importance of forgiveness and love in Christianity are so well known I don’t need to add anything there. But on fidelity, it is worth noting how unusual the Christian rejection of a sexual double standard was within the Roman Empire. To insist that husbands be true to their wives as well as wives being true to their husbands was an idea the Christians shared with non-Christian Jews, but otherwise it was quite unusual. And I should mention that along with marital fidelity, Christianity had some basic rules for family life that were missing for the Romans, such as “Don’t kill infant daughters.”

The Result

History is convoluted, and causality is hard to demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt. But, influenced in part by the books the sociologist Rodney Stark has written about the influence of Christianity on history, I see the characteristics of Christianity I have laid out as being crucial in getting us to the favorable spot in history that we stand at now.

Restraining Violence: Forgiveness, love and fidelity, plus seeing others as not so different from oneself, constitute a partial antidote to violence. It took many years for such ideas to have much effect on violence, but the trend has been down, as Stephen Pinker so ably documents in The Better Angels of Our Nature.

Restraining Oppression: A week and a day from now is the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta—a key step toward the Anglosphere escaping from extractive political and economic arrangements. When I read Daniel Hannan’s celebration of the Magna Carta in the May 29th Wall Street Journal, I found myself choking up at reading the words “800 years of the Crown’s acceptance of the rule of law.” The logic of power is strong; it takes a lot to tip the balance towards liberty. I can’t help but think that some ideas within Christianity made a difference:

  • If God came down to earth, maybe the King should also show some humility.

  • If other human beings are brothers and sisters, maybe a few people here and there hesitated at inflicting the tortures needed to shore up the arbitrary rule of the king.

  • Later on, when those who don’t have a vote clamor for one, it is hard to dismiss them as totally different from oneself.

  • If death is far from the worst thing, maybe it is worth it to oppose a tyrant, even if it might lead to death.

  • If one is part of some grand overarching story, then it is worth trying to make the world a better place.

  • Like the revered book, there is hope that opposing forces can all be regulated and corralled into a whole that works.

What Remains Undone

It is obvious that much remains to be done to restrain violence. But I want to end by talking about what remains to be done to restrain oppression. The essence of oppression is to run things for the benefit of an in-group at the expense of an out-group. In my post “‘Keep the Riffraff Out!’” I point out three ways in which we routinely use exclusion to run things for the benefit of an in-group at the expense of an out-group.

The first is to put up fences and guards to keep out immigrants desperate to become part of a well-run liberal democracy. Why do we keep them out? In order to benefit a subset of citizens—of the in-group—even at terrible cost to those being kept out. Or when they get in despite our best efforts, we keep them in constant fear of deportation and thereby keep them at the margins of society. 

We are often moved to compassion when we see pictures of people suffering in other countries, and send money to help. But other than limited areas such as fighting illness, it is very difficult to make things better over there where evil rules. But if we focus on helping people rather than helping nations, it is simplicity itself to help the people in other nations: let them in! It is much easier to bring the people to good systems of governance than it is to bring good systems of governance to people where they are. Where they are, evil systems designed for oppression will fight us tooth and nail. Here at home, we only have to fight the evil in our own hearts, with a fundamentally good system designed to keep our own evil in check backing us up.    

The second way in which we run things for the benefit of an in-group at the expense of an out-group is by making unnecessary licensing requirements to keep those at the bottom of the heap from competing against us with lower quality versions of the professional work that we do. We feel it is OK to deny someone else a livelihood if it keeps our own wages a bit higher. (See my post “When the Government Says ‘You May Not Have a Job.’”)

The third way we run things for the benefit on an in-group at the expense of an out-group is by tightly restricting the building of new housing in the most desirable cities to keep up the scarcity value of our own property. I saw last night an article in the Atlantic by Alana Semuels “Where Should Poor People Live?” with this summary at the top: 

Studies say that lower-income people do better when they live in affluent neighborhoods, but rich people don’t want them there. A few states are seeking ways around that resistance.

All of these impulses can be summarized under the heading of “Keep the Riffraff Out.” But if there is one key message of Jesus, it is that there is no riffraff—only human beings, who deserve to be treated with dignity. The New Testament is witness that when the early Christians invited a wide variety of people into their congregations they had to deal with a variety of behavior problems. But they let them in anyway, and worked with them.

I know I don’t have all the answers, but one thing I know is that human beings are human beings. It is not OK to talk about the pluses and minuses of any policy without talking about the effects of that policy on all human beings. If someone wants to say, “It will hurt those folks over there, but we should do it anyway,” at least that is forthright, and they may win the day. But it is within our power to keep anyone from getting away with not mentioning the welfare of the outsiders at all.

In many ways the human world is an ugly place. But it used to be much uglier. Credit for an important part of the improvement goes to the message of Jesus that all human beings should be treated with dignity—in how we think about them as well as in our direct dealings with them. It is a lesson that we have learned in part. We have further to go.