My dear friend and esteemed colleague Carson is running a winter term class he’s calling American Jesus. In it, he and his students are investigating the meaning of the Christ figure in American social, spiritual, political, and psychological life. He’s got an impressive reading list and has lined up a number of really influential scholars to speak to his class.
For reasons that pass my understanding, he included me in that list.
I know; I can’t believe it either. Next to theologians and published authors, he invited me to come to his class this morning to speak to the students from the perspective of an atheist. I was humbled and honored and really, really excited.
The room was full of men – I was the only female in the class – and I gather that the students spanned the high school age range. Carson hasn’t polled his students about their personal religious affiliations yet (which I think was a brilliant move on his part), but it was pretty easy for me to pick out who the more devout Christians were. Regardless, they were attentive and respectful and really, really curious.
I was asked about my childhood and upbringing (“if you weren’t Catholic or Jewish, you lived in my house“) and about whether or not I’d ever gone to church regularly (“I attended a Baptist congregation for a little while when I was about 7 or so; my beloved babysitter’s father was the minister“). I was asked about why I reject the Bible and I tried my best to explain to the students that I don’t hold the Bible in any higher esteem than I hold any stories humans tell each other (though I didn’t say that I actually hold it in LOWER esteem because of how often and for how long it’s been used by those who follow it to beat, belittle, and alienate those who don’t).
I did my best to keep politics out of it, though it didn’t take long for the students to bring politics up; I think I’d been asked three or four questions before someone asked me about how strongly I felt about separating Church and State. I thought it was PROFOUNDLY interesting, though, that one of the students tried to use the ACA as an example of why it’s okay to compel others to follow a particular religious tradition. His argument was that if the government can force us to participate in a program (health insurance) against our will, why can’t religions force us to participate against our will, as well? Why do we submit to one kind of coercion but not the other? Even though the student’s premise is deeply flawed (who gets to decide which faith tradition gets implemented?), that led to a pretty lengthy conversation about the difference between civic life and religious life, the things that we do and do not agree to as members of a particular society, and the responsibilities we accept or deny for one another in those societies. I made the very clear distinction between civil and religious marriage earlier in the class – my marriage has exactly nothing to do with God or the Church; it is a contract between my husband and me on one level and my husband, me, and the State on another – and I tried to make that distinction in this part of the discussion, as well, but I think this line of argumentation was my least effective.
We talked about my rejection of the notion of a Christ figure (and certainly my rejection of the necessity of accepting such a figure as a prerequisite for morality) and we talked about how I am not the least bit threatened by the idea that my elder daughter occasionally attends a youth group with one of her friends. I almost wish I’d made a bigger deal about that point, actually; while I am perfectly comfortable with Punk’s going to these youth group affairs and affirm with absolute certainty her right to explore and make decisions for herself, I’m certain that the same would likely not be the case for religious parents of children who want to investigate the traditions and practices of those outside their faith structures. I wish I’d asked the students why they thought that was; why I would not be threatened by my daughter’s decision to pursue a faith tradition but religious parents often see their children’s rejection (or even questioning) of their faith as a dire threat (one that sometimes results in a break-up of the family and children being turned out of the home: fully 40% of homeless youth are LGBTQ who have been rejected by their families. Christian love, indeed).
All in all, was a wholly satisfying experience for me to spend the time with him and his students. I really hope I get to do it again.