What it means to be a "secular" Jesus follower

12/09/2016 12:55 pm ET Updated Dec 10, 2017

I am not a religious person. But that does not mean I must start from scratch in the construction of my governing body of ethics and life's purpose.

As I scan the pantheon of philosophers, prophets, teachers, artists, moral exemplars, and sages from the ages, one figure stands out for me as particularly promising 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.

That figure is Jesus.

Wait--Jesus? Didn't I just say I am not religious? Aren't I a little confused?

The problem is not confusion, I contend, 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.

The crucial adjective

This claim that I make in my new book, Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower, elicits varied responses. Some find it exciting and galvanizing. Some find it sensible and obvious, as in, "Oh, I've always thought of myself this way, too." Some find it objectionable. And some, puzzling. "You can't really be that, can you?"

In the fascinating conversations I've had since the book's release, I've fielded questions and comments that tug at the meaning of the words in that phrase: Can one really claim to be a Jesus "follower" without being a Christian? Who exactly is this "Jesus" who I am following? The divine Jesus? The apocalyptic Jesus? The sage and moral philosopher Jesus? And what does it mean to engage this complex figure in "secular" way. Is that in any way legitimate? Or legal?

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A clue to answering these is found in the cover design of my book. Most of the title is rendered in elegant black letters of a vaguely gothic cast. In stark contrast, the word "secular" is printed in upper-case gold in jarringly plain sans serif letters. It's entirely appropriate that "secular" is made to stand out this way because, indeed, it's the word that changes everything--in the title, in the book itself, and in my idealistic quest.

About the first question above--can you legitimately claim to be a Jesus follower if you are not Christian?--"secular" is key to the answer. Obviously, I cannot claim the label as a Christian would. Nor am I trying. I am declaring myself to be a secular Jesus follower.

What follows from that are a series of logical extensions that begin to answer the next skeptical question--which Jesus? Not to be glib, but the answer quickly emerges: a secularly understood, secularly engaged Jesus. Which is to say, a secular Jesus follower is pursuing the aspects of Jesus that do not involve his religious utterances and behaviors or claims about his divine status.

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But is anything left? Yes--a lot. As I explore in the body of my book, this secularly understood Jesus can be a source of inspiration, insight, and ethical input that is powerfully applicable and transformative today, wherever we are on the theological spectrum. Whether the issue is our anxiety, our racism, our violence, our sexual exploitation, or our self-centeredness, I contend that as we examine and implement the insights of Jesus, we deepen our lives and begin to make the world a fairer, more loving, more peaceful, and more compassionate place.

Not a fabricated Jesus

But as some of my interlocutors have suggested with stern disapproval, isn't this "secular Jesus" non-biblical, at odds with the Christian understanding of Jesus? You cannot just pick part of the Jesus story and ignore the rest, can you?

Here, too, being secular is key. Because secular people by definition are not part of a church, and not seeking church acceptance of themselves or their ethical and spiritual quests, we are free to pursue Jesus as we wish. We can leave alone the parts of the Jesus story that involve the supernatural--the miracles, the resurrection, salvation, teachings about God--or, as I prefer to do, we can "translate" them into words and concepts that make sense to a secular mind.

Of course this is unsound from a Christian perspective. But this secularly framed Jesus is not a fabricated Jesus--not by any means. The aspects of Jesus I engage in my book, and life, are sourced from the pages of the New Testament, after all. The most a doubting Christian could say is that it's an incomplete Jesus whom I follow. So be it.

The weakness in my claim and quest is different. It's not that I'm not allowed to follow Jesus in a secular way; I am inspired and guided by Jesus whether an ecclesiastical body approves or not. The problem is that my secular Jesus-following could be lame. It could be distorted, self-serving, or so half-hearted and unreinforced that it becomes as thin and light as a piece of paper.

The solutions? They include the cultivation and reinforcement of practices and habits; the company of fellow travelers who are working on their ethics and lives and trying hard to do good and be good; and continued reading, study, and conversation about this figure I claim to follow and how to apply his teachings.

I have the good fortune of being privy to such conversations at the Christian divinity school where I work and in the humanist community in which I participate. As to the latter, nonreligious venues for these kinds of conversations do exist, and more are popping up as the secular community grows larger and more organized, broadening its scope from critiques of religion to positive articulations of who we are and what we stand for as secular people.

Me? I stand, above all, for the ethics and values of Jesus. The quest is as real and as valid as I, with the help of my friends, am able to make it.

A version of this post originally appeared on The Bible and Interpretation website, November 2016.