This post is part of the series introduced here, summarising some of the arguments in my new book Why Progressives Need God.
Here I argue that we need change because of what Christians believe about God.
Christians characteristically believe in the kind of god Jesus believed in. People who don’t can still call themselves Christians, but I take it as normative that Christianity affirms the God of Jesus.
Secular theory tells us our beliefs about God are all irrelevant, but this is a comparatively new idea. At the time of Jesus the gods people believed in were their basis for understanding who made the world, why, and how to make the most of life.
At the time of Jesus most people believed in a variety of different gods. The Jewish tradition was best known for believing there is only one. I shall illustrate the difference by comparing two ancient texts.
Nineteenth century archaeologists discovered the creation story that had been recited in ancient Babylon at the time leading Jews had been exiled there. The story describes how the gods used to fight each other. Eventually one of them, Marduk, won. To keep the other gods happy he created humans to do the housekeeping. The purpose of human life was to maintain temples and burn sacrifices. Whenever we failed we would get punished with disasters like plagues or floods. As long as enough of us survived to perform our duties, the gods did not care what happened to us the rest of the time.
Possibly in reaction against this, some Jews wrote the first chapter of Genesis. In Genesis there is only one god, who needs nothing. God has created us as a blessing, for our own sakes, so that we may flourish.
Different gods, different purposes for human life. In the Babylonian one, individuals did not matter: what mattered was that humanity as a whole performed its duties. For people who believed this, it followed that life would always be pretty unpleasant. The best they could hope for was to make their own lives a little more comfortable. They might co-operate with each other on a local level. Or they might try to benefit themselves at the expense of other people. Either way there was absolutely no expectation of a better future, let alone a better future for humanity as a whole.
In the Jewish alternative, every individual mattered. People had no additional duties; their only duty was to treat every individual as though they mattered. Because a single god had created the whole human race as a blessing – so that everybody could flourish – it followed that living the way we have been designed to live would be a contribution to the common good. Since everybody had been created by the same god giving the same blessing, working for the common good meant working for the well-being of everyone.
There has always been conflict between these two belief systems. Even though secularists tell us to leave God out of it, the contrasting philosophies of life are still there.
Without God, you can argue, humans are merely the products of unthinking processes. In that case our existence is not intended, so there are no guarantees, no security. Each of us has to decide for ourselves how to live and whether or not to care about other people. Perhaps life is a zero sum game: the better my life, the worse yours. Extreme competitiveness beckons.
On the other hand political debate today hasn’t altogether dispensed with the notions of a common good and a caring, equal society. We inherited these notions from our religious past. When we leave God out of the picture we can no longer claim that a caring, equal society is the way we have been designed to live at our best. Over time, the conviction that we ought to have a caring society loses its authority. Instead of being seen as the right way to live, it appears instead as just what some of us would prefer. It then comes to seem perfectly legitimate for others to prefer the opposite.