New book shows humanists how to be ‘secular Jesus followers’

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(RNS) Author Tom Krattenmaker, 56, is a humanist, but that doesn’t stop him from following Jesus.

In his new book, “Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower,” he describes how other nonbelievers — atheists, humanists and “nones” — can separate Christianity from Jesus and apply his essential teachings to their secular lives. Krattenmaker is the communications director for Yale Divinity School, but on the weekends he attends meetings of  the Yale Humanist Community, where he is part of “WTF” — “Who to Follow” — a small group whose secular members probe the teachings of great spiritual leaders.

Krattenmaker discussed his new book with RNS. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Why do you think people need to follow someone?

I think it is a good idea to avail ourselves of time-tested wisdom and input. We don’t always have to start from scratch when we are trying to develop our ethical lives, when we are learning how to treat other people, wrestle with vexing social issues, dealing with our anxieties, and so forth. There is some good source material out there — from historical figures like Jesus or Muhammad or the Buddha — to help us along the way. For me, it’s Jesus who stands out.

Why Jesus?

It has something to do with familiarity, but it is more than that. For me, Jesus has always stood out as especially inspiring and challenging. When I think about the way he dignifies people on the lowest rungs of the ladder, that gets me. When I think about his parables, like the prodigal son, they seem amazingly applicable to things going on today. And while I would never impose this on people and say it’s this way or the highway, I do think others can find something valuable in his body of work, whatever their religious beliefs. I think they’ll see it speaks to so much of what ails us today.

Tom Krattenmaker, author of “Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower.” Photo courtesy of Penguin Random House

Tom Krattenmaker, author of “Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower.” Photo courtesy of Penguin Random House

What does it mean to be a “secular Jesus follower”? How is that different than being a Christian?

I know that for some secular people the figure of Jesus is just too inextricably bound up with religion for their comfort. I get it. We all understand that invoking the Bible or God or Jesus in certain conversations can make nonreligious people cringe. These references are radioactive to a lot of people in the nonreligious community because of the way Scripture is invoked in politics and culture. But Jesus is not one and the same as all that.

I am convinced that a secular person can essentially extricate Jesus from the parts of religion that are objectionable and not believable — and that you can engage this figure, this fascinating historical figure, in a way that does not require you to accept supernatural beliefs or doctrine. What you are going to get from that kind of a secular exploration are some fascinating ethics, some inspiring examples, and a picture of a different kind of world. It’s a world that is so much more humane and compassionate than what we have now — one where human beings are truly respected and dignified.

I have heard criticism from some Christians who think I am missing the point. For them, Jesus cannot be other than the divine savior. But what I say to them is, what about the people who are not Christian and will never be? Don’t we want them to benefit from Jesus’ teachings? Shouldn’t we all love our neighbors, do unto others, remember the poor, and so forth? And I have also heard from other Christians who say they are delighted that someone is engaging with Jesus even if it is in a different, totally secular way.

“Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower,” by Tom Krattenmaker. Photo courtesy of Penguin Random House

“Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower,” by Tom Krattenmaker. Photo courtesy of Penguin Random House

In the book, you talk about how hard it is to be a follower of Jesus. How is it hard?

Because what Jesus calls us to do often goes against the prevailing norms of our culture today. So much of our culture is self-serving and self-obsessed, whether it’s our pursuit of material wealth or status or power or really awesome experiences that we have on our bucket list. Following the path of Jesus can orient us toward a life that is dedicated to more edifying ends that I think all of us can appreciate when we really think about it, regardless of where we are on the theological spectrum. Ultimately, I’m talking about getting outside of ourselves and our narrow self-interest and dedicating ourselves to something greater — especially toward other people and their well-being.

If it is hard to follow Jesus, and if you do not have what you refer to as the “cosmic stakes” of Christianity — the idea of eternal life — then why do it?

Because going this way will deepen your life. You will contribute to society becoming more humane and compassionate. And you will nudge the world closer to the kind of world we would really want.