A Secular Jesus Follower Confesses

In his capacity as a contributing columnist for USA Today, Tom Krattenmaker regularly reports on Christianity from a secular perspective. Presently, he serves as the director of communications for Yale Divinity School and is on the board of directors of the Yale Humanist Community. In his third book, Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower (Convergence, 2016), Krattenmaker seemed to be picking up on the trend of those spiritual seekers who are attracted to the message of Jesus but not the divine proclamations issued about him by the institutional church. I decided to chat with him over the phone to expound on the themes he presents in this book.

Becky Garrison: What is a secular Jesus follower?

Tom Krattenmaker: Let’s start by acknowledging the obvious—this is not exactly an established category! As we all know, “secular Jesus follower” is nowhere to be found in those religious affiliation surveys done by Pew and the other polling outfits.

But, yes, this is a term I’m using for myself now, and maybe others will too, as time goes on. The way I see it, secular Jesus followers are people who are not part of a church and not religious—not God believers and not persuaded about supernatural phenomena or Christian doctrine—yet are captivated by the teachings and example of the figure of Jesus. They are trying to internalize these things and make them a core part of their approach to life.

What I’m saying is new only by degree. There are lots of people who are not conventionally religious but who sense that the teachings of Jesus have a universal appeal that transcends Christianity. With this new book, I’m trying to make that more explicit and show how it can actually play out in the life of a secular person.

BG: Why did you focus on the teachings of Jesus instead of other religious leaders, for instance the Buddha?

Tom Krattenmaker (image via Twitter)

Tom Krattenmaker (image via Twitter)

TK: I’m not an exclusivist. I see great value in the teachings of Buddhism and in many other prophets, sages, and philosophies. Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln—I’m happy to learn from and be inspired by all of them. Yet Jesus is the figure I find most compelling. It’s partly because I grew up in this culture, in this time. So in a sense I’ve been around Jesus more, and I’m more familiar with his teachings. That said, I’m convinced it’s more than familiarity. I find the Jesus teachings to be of an amazingly high quality—and amazingly applicable to so much of what ails us today as individuals and a society, whether it’s our broken politics or our violence or our anxiety or our racism or our rampant consumerism.

BG: While one can be a secular Jew or a secular Buddhist by following the traditions of Judaism or Buddhism, respectively, how do these terms compare to being a secular Jesus follower?

TK: That’s a good point. I’ve known secular Jews my whole adult life, and I’ve admired them. Not just for their commitment to working for a better world, but for their ability to follow the teachings and traditions of their religion without letting their lack of God belief get in the way. Maybe that has rubbed off on me and enabled me to see that I could be a secular Jesus follower.

I think the comparisons are strong between that practice and what I am doing—and the same is true with regard to people who might be secular Buddhists. The point is, a secular person can extract the nonreligious meaning and truth of these ancient teachings and apply them to our lives today. We would do this not because we’re ordered to do so by a deity or a sacred book, but because our senses and experience, combined with our knowledge about ourselves and our world, show us there is something valuable there.

BG: What do you say to those folks who have been so battered by virulent forms of Christianity that they cannot hear the word “Jesus” without wincing?

TK: For some, the term “Jesus” is radioactive. They associate Jesus with expressions of Christianity that they find objectionable—often for good reason. Some people have been victimized and dehumanized by people who are supposedly operating in the name of Jesus. I realize that for them my book is a big ask. It’s going to be difficult for people who have been hurt by Christianity to disassociate Jesus from the religion and see something positive in the teachings and example of Jesus. That said, I do hope some of these people take a peek at what I’m saying in the book and see something surprising and helpful there.

BG: Who then is your intended audience?

TK: About a year ago, we had an event at Yale called “Following Jesus as a Secular Progressive,” where I was one of the speakers. Afterward, a student came up to talk to me. She seemed really excited and encouraged by the discussion that had just taken place. She explained that she felt drawn to the figure of Jesus but had felt he was off limits to her because she wasn’t religious. She seemed heartened by the thought that Jesus’ teachings and example were available to her as an inspiration and a model, without her needing to be Christian. She represents the core audience for my book, as I see it.

BG: Why is it helpful for secular minds to engage with the Jesus story?

TK: While I’m thrilled if people can draw wisdom and uplift from any historical figure, for me, Jesus is the best source for insight on our ethics and lives. As we all know, stories are incredibly powerful means by which human beings absorb ideas. In the Jesus portrayed in the New Testament, you not only get philosophy and wisdom but you get these stories that are fascinating, revealing, and rich with multiple layers.

For example, the story of the loaves and fishes—where Jesus somehow makes an abundance out of very little and feeds the multitude gathered to hear him speak—resonates strongly with me. It won’t surprise you when I say I don’t believe in the miracle aspect of the story, but what I find compelling is the shift from scarcity to abundance. The crowd numbers more than 5,000, and the only food they’re aware of is what a child has with him—a few pieces of bread and fish. But then something happens to change the paradigm from scarcity to abundance. I see it as everyone’s generosity suddenly getting switched on. They start sharing food they’d been keeping to themselves. And suddenly there’s more than enough for everyone. I find this very instructive, personally, because whenever I can tap into abundance rather than scarcity, it changes in a lot in terms of how I see the world and interact with other people. Generosity kicks in, anxiety is put at bay, and what seemed hopeless or impossible suddenly seems more doable.

BG: Explain how you found secular ways of understanding most of the major Christian concepts.

TK: Some of it comes from the reading I do. A lot of it is stuff I’ve worked out in conversations and in my own head when I’m out for a run, walking to work, or doing any number of other things that don’t require concentration. I’ve been thinking about these things all my adult life. I remember conversations I had with my daughter when she was still a kid and trying to make sense of the religious concepts she was struggling with. I remember saying there’s a way to “translate” God and other religious concepts into words and insights that are believable and useful for those of us who are not traditional believers.

BG: As a secular Jesus follower, how do you interpret the resurrection narrative?

TK: It’s great that you ask that because it’s a tough question and a revealing one. On the surface, the resurrection might seem to be the toughest part of the Jesus story for us seculars to accept. Not only does it have the overwhelming supernatural component—I mean, rising from the dead is as big as it gets—but this feat is often depicted as the credential that gives Jesus his credibility and authority. To put it another way, the resurrection is crucial to the Christian religion, and many would say that Jesus matters only, or mainly, because he rose from the dead.

Well, as you heard me say a minute ago, I don’t pay attention to Jesus because he’s divine but because I find the teachings attributed to him to be of a very high and enduring quality. As for the resurrection, even though it’s not the reason for my interest in the figure of Jesus, I think we seculars can find great symbolic value in it. I take it as a powerful statement that the values embodied by Jesus will carry on—will live on—despite his death. This has proven to be true. Even though no society has ever fully embodied the compassion and care for others exemplified by Jesus, those ideals have never vanished, and they still beckon today whatever our religious or nonreligious persuasions.

I see the resurrection as powerful symbol of transformation and uplift, a summons to work for a more compassionate and humane world.

BG: What does it say to you that Yale Divinity School (YDS) hired you as its Director of Communication? 

TK: It’s important to realize that YDS is not going in a secular direction. The school is and will remain a Christian divinity school. When they hired me in 2014, it was because the school wanted a skilled, experienced communications person who had a working knowledge of religion.

Some people find it curious that an “out” secular person would work for a Christian divinity school—not just work at it, but promote it, which is what I do. But the experience is a positive one for me. The community at YDS is made up of wonderful people to be around—great examples of what Christianity and Christians can be at their best.

BG: What are your thoughts regarding the rise of secular communities like the Yale Humanist Community (YHC) that seem to perform many of the functions once traditionally performed by churches?

TK: I think YHC is a sign of the times. Like a church, YHC creates a time and space for us to be very intentional about our values and how we are living our lives. Also, there’s the social element. It’s great for me personally because it’s time set aside each week when I am with people who are interested in many of the same questions and who have similar starting points in addressing them. YHC illustrates an important point I explore in the epilogue of my book, which is the need for community. If you’re going to go down this path of exploring life’s big questions and how they apply to your life, it’s best not to go it alone. Best to be in the company of other people who are exploring these questions, too.

BG: A New York Times article “When Some Go to Church, Others Turn to Crossfit” cites how, for some, Crossfit has become their community. How do communities formed via like-minded interests such as Crossfit and ComicCon compare to YHC?

TK: These kinds of communities can enrich people’s lives. However, some don’t go far beyond having fun together. Don’t get me wrong. That’s important. When I was in the Mazamas mountain-climbing club back in my Portland days, I had some thrilling climbing experiences and enjoyed being around other people who, like me, were obsessed with climbing and other outdoor adventures. But for the most part, I don’t think it provided the sustenance that I am getting now through my participation in the Yale Humanist Community.

BG: What’s your reflection on books like Grace Without God as signs of the rise of a discussion about secular spirituality?

TK: Back in the mid-2000s, I was critical of the tone and the rhetoric of the Four Horsemen of New Atheism—Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, etc. I thought their arguments were one-sided and overly contemptuous. In retrospect, however, I can see how they played a necessary role. They were like shock troops who went first into very inhospitable terrain, cleared out space, and emboldened people to come out as secular. They made it possible for nonreligious people of milder temperament to enter that cleared-out space and do their thing. Since Harris and the others came on the scene a decade or so ago, the number of nonreligious people has risen significantly. And the conversation has broadened so that we talk not only about problems with religion, but about how we are going to live our secular lives. As we sometimes say at YHC, there’s more to being nonreligious than what you don’t believe.