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

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

(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.

About the author

Kimberly Winston

Kimberly Winston is a freelance religion reporter based in the San Francisco Bay Area.


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  • Based solely on this article; I’m unclear as to whether the book’s author considers Jesus to be a real person who actually said and did the things the gospels claim or whether Jesus is simply a code word for a moral worldview which coincides with his Humanism.

    If the former, he risks being misused by Christians to enable a false claim that Humanists are really their co-religionists.

    If the latter, the risk is that of encouraging those who mistakenly insist that morality emanates from their God – proclaiming that morality cannot exist without Christianity.

  • Interesting….there are things that Jesus spoke that people will never understand without the aid of the Holy Spirit, Who indwells you upon conversion. Essentially, he has an instruction book for following his idol.
    2 Corinthians 4:4 – New International Version

    The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”
    They would never be able to follow Him.
    On the other hand, it may be a good tool for evangelizing…..hmmmmm

  • His remarks in some ways mirror the thoughts of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson edited the bible, specifically the New Testament, excising those portions recounting the supernatural events associated with Jesus. He too recognized the value of Jesus as an ethical teacher, without ascribing to Him His role as Savior and the Son of God.

  • Atheism is just another fundamentalist/literalist religion as this author demonstrates. It’s arguments are only with other fundamentalist/literalist religions. It is an amusing side show.

  • sigh….how many times do I need to explain this…. Paul spent 3 years learning from Jesus in Arabia.

  • Sigh. Another serving of candy-coated Jesus. Though I’ve read the gospels many times, I’m still surprised at how quickly people turn Jesus into themselves and ignore the text itself. Jesus did both good and horrible things. He threatens people with hell more than anyone else in the whole Bible (and what could be worse than torturing a person forever?). He models the God/human relationship as a master/slave relationship, where the slave is severely beaten (Lk 12), and never suggests there is anything wrong with slavery itself. He talks about how those who don’t believe in him as King should be killed in front of him (Lk 19), kills harmless things for no reason (Mk 11), refuses to help people if they aren’t the favored race (Mt15/Mk 7), calls those in other groups “dogs” (same), is violent (attacking Jews at the Temple), says to hate your family, and says that whole towns will be tortured for not being Christian (Mt 10 & 11). Yet, everyone wants make him into themselves. Hippies make him into a new-age love guru, neocons make him a captain of capitalism, berni-backers make him a red socialist, others pretend he’s an LGBT activist, an anarchist, or whatever they themselves are. It’s sad to see a humanist join the hypocrisy of making candy-coated Jesuses.

  • Atheism is the absence of belief in god(s). Nothing added; nothing taken away.

    It really isn’t difficult.

    You want to pretend atheism is something else? Surefire indication that you can’t handle what it really is.

  • Yup. It was through revelation Spud. Look how much you are learning about the Bible by just displaying a lack of knowledge…..blessings spud.

  • Look how ridiculous claims of Paul’s authority gets when you bother to state it plainly and accurately. If I were to claim Jesus spoke to me in spirit form and you should take me as the authority for Christianity, I would be locked up as crazy. I guess people had a higher tolerance for nonsense back in the day.

  • Ok….I’ll teach you more…
    Acts 9:7 – 7 And the men who journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice but seeing no one.
    Paul wasn’t the only one who heard the Lord Spud.
    But, I also believe that Jesus can and probably has spoken to you. You just ignored it.

  • Who’s? Paul’s, yours or some numpty who conned you? Got any evidence for this revelation?

  • Good article. Mr. Krattenmaker is a very interesting and thoughtful individual. “you can engage this figure, this fascinating historical figure, in a way that does not require you to accept supernatural beliefs or doctrine.”

    Yes, I’d agree with that Jesus was a fascinating historical character and an excellent role model. I may read his book.

  • I got it already. You are very credulous about claims nobody in their right mind would have taken seriously. As long as it is in the Bible, you will take any kind of crazy irrational stuff at face value.

  • The question is, which of us is in our right mind. Romans one describes you as having a reprobate mind, to do that which is not good. So, from that perspective, I would say you believe irrational stuff at face value. Like, you think a man can be a woman!

  • Another Pauline arglebargle What is it with you and Paul? You seem to ignore the Gospels and the word of Jesus altogether to venerate Paul’s word. Christian would be a misnomer

  • I am sure Paul sold people on that. Christ’s words, his actual words are in the Gospels. Paul was simply expanding on them. Which is most of the reason why Christian belief is so far removed from a lot of what Christ actually said.

  • You know I ran into the spirit of Jesus on the way to IKEA. Told me everything I needed to know about god’s word. So now you will start to quote me? 🙂

  • Nope. Atheism comes with a belief system that enables the Atheist to make that claim.

    In addition, none of the world’s major religions believe in a supreme individuated entity. It is only the literalist ones that do. Atheism is one of those. It creates the idea of an individuated God or god and then tries to argue against it. Very odd and very much like my dog chasing its own tail.

  • Your insistence that belief is the root of the absence of belief is noted – doesn’t make it rational.

    Atheism does not argue against god(s) – it says that, due to the lack of either evidence or need, belief in god(s) is a matter of faith. Atheists often feel that the sensible approach to something for which there is neither evidence nor need is unbelief – scepticism and/or irrelevance. That faith has been misused to control millions is a human tragedy at all levels, the personal, the family, the social group and globally.

    You need to explain what you mean by “individuated entity”. Most religions promulgate belief in a deity or deities which caused the universe, oversaw its development, was responsible for the arrival of humans in the world and has an ongoing interest in the behaviour of those humans. Usually packaged with spurious claims to be the source of morality and energised by the carrot of eternal bliss and the stick of eternal torment/oblivion – all, of course, without any greater claim to accuracy that all the other religions/cults/sects that the human mind has invented.

  • Thank you for outlining the Atheist belief system. You started by claiming that Atheism is not rooted in a belief system and then immediately started to elucidate that Atheist belief system. Very amusing.

    Your next logical error was to suggest that because some people who profess a religion misuse or misunderstand that religion their doing so somehow magically invalidates that religion. It does not. You need to take an introductory course in logic and pay particular attention to Venn diagramming.

    You then claim, again falsely, that the major religions of the world believe that an individuated entity, or a deity if you prefer, caused the universe and its people. None of them do. As mentioned, some of the literalist sects may hold this view. But they like the literalist Atheists are wrong.

    Then you refer to “spurious claims” without any evidence to show these to spurious except for your insistence that they are, which is just another logical error – the well named argument ad nauseuum, whereby you seem to believe that the more times you repeat an untruth the more likely it is to magically become true or, at least, to be believed by other Atheists huddling in their dark cave of fear and complacency.

  • I like to describe myself as a “secular follower of Jesus,” and try to practice the love of Jesus beyond the shadows of the church house, where we all talk and smell alike. It’s harder to follow Jesus Monday through Saturday into those places in our world where there’s little light and love. I believe we can only attempt this with the help and companionship of the Holy Spirit. It’s no hollow intellectual pursuit like Krallenmaker’s.

    I agree that people can and do remake Jesus into the chief supporter of their agenda. That’s even the case with churches all around us, whose members on both ends of the political spectrum are quick to sign Jesus’ name to their political agenda. They’re sure he’s the leading general in the fight for social justice, or their militant, legalistic brand of religious fundamentalism.

  • “I’m still surprised at how quickly people turn Jesus into themselves and ignore the text itself. ”
    You’re surprised? Why? God always seems to agree with his mouthpieces.
    And vice versa.

  • What “atheist belief system” did I elucidate and how did I do so (specifics – not just generalised avoidance).

    Explain how my words justify “because some people who profess a religion misuse or misunderstand that religion their doing so somehow magically invalidates that religion”

    You don’t appear to know much about “the major religions of the world”. Are you unable or unwilling to define what you think you mean by “individuated entity”.

    “spurious claims? The moral objections to stealing, murder, lying on oath were around long before any religion currently practised (see the Code of Hammurabi and the Pharaonic Law)

    How do you manage to conflate complacency and fear – surely the two are mutually incompatible?
    Complacency – A feeling of smug or uncritical satisfaction with oneself or one’s achievements.
    Fear – An unpleasant emotion caused by the threat of danger, pain, or harm.

    Answer in full if you wish to continue this discussion.

  • The bottom line is that the god-of-the-bible doesn’t exist in reality Northern.

    (Notice that I’m being particular in which Creator does not exist in reality)

  • The bottom line is that you are committing the basic logical error of equivocation in that you are referencing only one meaning of “exist”.

    You use “exist” to mean having an objective reality. Objective reality requires that there be something called A and everything else is not-A. But God, Allah, Brahman, etc are everywhere all the time and so there is nothing and nowhere that God, etc. is not. Hence the objective criteria is invalid.

    “Exist” also means indwelling or existing as an innate activating force or spirit. God, etc is the activating force of the universe.

    Your mistake arises from your dependence on the limitations of sense data and of science methodology.

  • Northern, in order for you to avoid your own confusion, you must detach yourself from refering to “God”, “Allah”, “Brahman”, “etc”….and remain focused on the god-of-the-bible specifically. Apparently, you completely ignored such parameter.

    According to the authors of the bible, the god-of-the-bible must have the characteristics of being “jealous” of other gods that are worshipped by man. And if ignored, he will be greatly angered to the point of destroying such person from the face of the land:

    “Do not follow other gods, the gods of the peoples around you; for the Lord your God, who is among you, is a jealous God and his anger will burn against you, and he will destroy you from the face of the land.” – Deuteronomy 6:14

    Did the authors of the bible consider how childish and immature their god-of-the-bible character would reflect for being all-powerful? No.

    This is a clear indication in that the authors of the bible fabricated their god-of-the-bible on paper on the basis of their own opinions and imaginations Northern.

    Do you have evidence to prove that the god-of-the-bible exists in reality Northern?

    If not, then it shall be settled…the god-of-the-bible does not exist in reality Northern.

    (Northern, please work within the boundaries of the only reality we know…that is our world limited by sense data and scientific methodoligies. Spirit worlds, ethereal worlds, never-neverlands, etc. are all invalid)

  • You are still committing the logical error of equivocation on the word “exist”. In fact you committed that error twice in your last response. In doing so, you commit the additional logical error aptly known as argumentum ad nauseum whereby the more times you repeat an mistake the more likely it is to magically become true.

    The sensory, phenomenal world may be all the world you know but it is superficial and limited. Others know other aspects of the universe.

  • Northern, all you have done was distingish the “types” of existence.

    a) spritual existence.
    b) reality of existence.

    It should be obvious to you by now that the “reality of existence” is the condition of which we are discussing; not the other type of existence that cannot be proven at this time. Now with that out of the way, you have no other alternate means of evading the question.

    Do you have evidence to prove that the god-of-the-bible exists in our reality Northern?

    If you have evidence to prove other dimensions and ethereal planes of another world, please share with us what device or method you use so it can be verified and clarified Northern.

    Otherwise, please work with facts not opinions or imagination Northern. You should be well aware that there is no logic when you work with ambiguous variables Northern.

  • The “reality of existence” is what YOU are attempting to discuss and to frame a discussion of God within. But that sensory based model is flawed and inadequate. Here is why: for G to exist in your terms, there must be non-G but G is everywhere all the time, there is no non-G, so demanding a sensory based definition is silly.

    Has it occurred to you that all scripture, including the Bible, is written in figurative language because literal language is inadequate to refer to God for the reasons given above.

    You rely exclusively on a mathematico-logico learning style. There are several other learning styles in addition to that one. The rites of religion are there to provide other methods more suitable for becoming aware of the spiritual nature of the universe and all the things in it. Methods such as pictures and images that employ the visual/spatial learning style; hymns and music that engage the aural learning style; physical or kinaesthetic approaches of pilgrimage, dance and yoga; meditation and prayer to engage the interpersonal learning style; and congregation and communion to engage the interpersonal learning style.

    Just because you and other Atheists are deficient in these other learning styles doesn’t mean they can’t lead one to the divine.

    Your repeated urging of objective facts and proofs, despite their limitations and complete lack of relevance to spiritual truths reminds me of the observation of Abraham Maslow, “If all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail.” Instead of insisting on the hammer of sense data why not get some different tools in your tool box, learn how to use them, and then you will be able to do the job of knowing those spiritual truths.

  • Northern, just to correct your false assumptions, I am not an Atheist.

    As a Free Thinker, I operate on facts, not opinions or theories Northern.

    With that said, you must not deviate from our discussion regarding the god-of-the-bible by referring to the ambiguous term, “god”.

    If you claim that the god-of-the-bible is “everywhere”, then please share with us your evidence that supports your claim with facts; not by theories or “learning styles”.

    As a Free Thinker, I believe that the complexity of our Human DNA suggests that we were designed by a Creator(s) (particularly Creator(s) who do not require being worshipped by their creations).

    However, it is apparent that we were not designed by a “jealous” and “angry” Creator fabricated on paper by the authors of the bible.

    If you believe that we do not have the tools adequate to detect the god-of-the-bible, then please share with us what tool you use that is adequate to detect the god-of-the-bible.

    Otherwise, your god-of-the-bible does not exist in our reality as a matter of fact Northern.

  • You are not a free thinker.

    You are not free because you have chosen to hide in a cave of sense data with all of its limits and illusions and ignore all the other means of acquiring wisdom.

    You are not a thinker because your posts consist only of a series of logical errors and factual errors.

    In addition and important for this discussion, you are unable to distinguish between a literal use of language upon which logic and science depend and figurative language upon which scripture depends.

  • Northern, sense data provides Facts. In contrast, non-sense-data is exactly what you’re working with, nonsense. This is why you are not very convincing and having so much trouble trying to prove that your god-of-the-bible exists.

    You cannot use “spiritual” methods to claim that your god-of-the-bible exists in reality through deep meditation using sounds, images, herbs, etc. Northern.

    All you’re doing is emersing yourself and your mind in a state of fantasy and imagination. Dreaming that your god-of-the-bible does not count as Fact Northern.

    I can read Harry Potter books then meditate into a deep mode of consciousness to the point of feeling, smelling, hearing, and seeing myself with Harry Potter having a casual conversation about magic spells…does that mean Harry Potter exists in reality Northern? No.

    With such power in my mind, I can believe in anything without limitation….does that make it a reality Northern? No.

    That is why your god-of-the-bible does not exist in reality; it only exists in your imagination of no limitation Northern.

    Your logic is severely flawed primarily because there is no logic when you have no data while trying to make something out of nonsense and static Northern.

    The style or language written in scripture is irrelevant Northern. What matters are the Facts: You were not born 2,000 years ago in the Middle East region and was not a witness to any of the written stories made by 40 bible-authors whom you don’t even know and have never met, to testify that a god-of-the-bible existed.

    In other words, no archeologist, no historian, no scholar, no priest, no minister, no pope, no lawyer, and not even you can prove that the god-of-the-bible exists in reality.

    Northern, using the “spirit world” as your only defense to persuade yourself that the god-of-the-bible exists does not work in reality; that only applies to the dream world of fantasy whereby there are no limits. It is equivalent to using “Faith” to convince yourself that the god-of-the-bible exists in reality whereby Faith, is the strong belief in something without material evidence.

    That’s where your syntax error can be found Northern. Nested between all your illogical conditions and lack of data.

  • All that you have done in this response is (1) to repeat your view that sense data is the only way to wisdom and (2) rephrase my observations of your deficiencies so that they are directed me. (1) is the logical error of argumentum ad nauseum. (2) is the logical error of tu quoque. Lots of verbiage little substance.

    As I said you are not a free thinker being neither free nor able to think.

  • You’ve completely missed the point Northern.

    The objective is not to find wisdom; the objective was to find the Facts. You have been given an opportunity to present your evidence to prove that the god-of-the-bible exists in reality but even after all of your responses, you have failed repeatedly and returned Null.

    Initially it would appear that you understood logic, but upon realizing that your principles of logic also include characters in which anyone can form and invent in their mind under unlimited human creativity, it is clear that you’re just using your imagination to justify the existence of your god-of-the-bible in reality.

    If you don’t have real data, then you don’t have real evidence. If you don’t have real variables and don’t have real conditions, then you really don’t have a logical understanding in how Facts are established; your understanding and wisdom in the god-of-the-bible is based only on your own opinion and imagination originating from the written opinions and imaginations of the 40 authors of the bible.

    I could tell you that I experienced a profound encounter through deep spiritual meditation in which the god-of-the-bible introduced himself to me and demonstrated the evil and disaster he proclaims to create in order to authenticate his identity as described by the authors of the bible:

    “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.” – Isaiah 45:7.

    But would such claim prove that your god-of-the-bible exists in reality Northern? No.

    Inspite of your irrelevant opinion and futile effort to classify my replies in Latin, your entire method of conjuring spiritual proof is an invalid form of Facts Northern.

    All that matters are the Facts.

    Thus, the god-of-the-bible does not exist in reality Northern.