Andrew Sullivan is one of those Christians whose theology is deeply confusing to many fellow Christians and to most atheists. Like John Shelby Spong and Karen Armstrong, Sullivan appears to have one foot in the atheist camp and one in the religious.
Cherry picking is necessary to maintain this view, and Sullivan inadvertently highlights this practice in his piece at The Daily Beast, which starts out with a description of Thomas Jefferson’s infamous “holey” Bible, which he cut to shreds in order to isolate what he believed to be the true message of Christ. Cherry picking doesn’t get much more obvious.
The confusion in Sullivan’s theology is demonstrated by paragraphs like this one:
What were [the doctrines of Jesus]? Not the supernatural claims that, fused with politics and power, gave successive generations wars, inquisitions, pogroms, reformations, and counterreformations. Jesus’ doctrines were the practical commandments, the truly radical ideas that immediately leap out in the simple stories he told and which he exemplified in everything he did. Not simply love one another, but love your enemy and forgive those who harm you; give up all material wealth; love the ineffable Being behind all things, and know that this Being is actually your truest Father, in whose image you were made.
Love the ineffable Being behind all things? How, exactly, does this escape Sullivan’s definition of dangerous supernatural claims? It leads inexorably to the competitive notion that the Christian’s idea of a Being is different to other religions’ ideas of a Being. And it is certainly not a practical commandment, nor a radical idea.
Then we have the following bizarre passage which follows Sullivan’s admonition of the two brands of Christianity that predominate in America today (Catholicism and Evangelical Protestantism):
The issues that Christianity obsesses over today simply do not appear in either Jefferson’s or the original New Testament. Jesus never spoke of homosexuality or abortion, and his only remarks on marriage were a condemnation of divorce (now commonplace among American Christians) and forgiveness for adultery. The family? He disowned his parents in public as a teen, and told his followers to abandon theirs if they wanted to follow him. Sex? He was a celibate who, along with his followers, anticipated an imminent End of the World where reproduction was completely irrelevant.
Sullivan seems to be suggesting that Jesus is not exactly the sort of guy we should be looking to for advice, yet he’s just spoken in glowing terms about Jesus’ “radical ideas” that leap out of the page. Once again, the message seems to be that we should cherry pick: take what jumps out at us, and discard the rest.
The next infusion of confusion comes shortly after (emphasis is Sullivan’s):
Given this crisis [of waning adherence to Christianity], it is no surprise that the fastest-growing segment of belief among the young is atheism, which has leapt in popularity in the new millennium. Nor is it a shock that so many have turned away from organized Christianity and toward “spirituality,” co-opting or adapting the practices of meditation or yoga, or wandering as lapsed Catholics in an inquisitive spiritual desert. The thirst for God is still there. How could it not be, when the profoundest human questions—Why does the universe exist rather than nothing? How did humanity come to be on this remote blue speck of a planet? What happens to us after death?—remain as pressing and mysterious as they’ve always been?
There is a glaring omission here: perhaps people are comfortable becoming atheists precisely because they feel that the big questions Sullivan poses are answerable through naturalistic means rather than “spirituality”(whatever that really means). Indeed, evolution has already answered the question of how humanity came to be – this is not a mysterious question any more. As for what happens to us after death, this is not a mystery either: biology has it covered. At death, our conscious minds cease to exist, because conscious minds are the product of brain activity. Not very exciting, perhaps, but nature doesn’t owe us excitement.
Sullivan appears to be inflating the importance of spirituality by misrepresenting the number of issues it is capable of addressing. And of course, he doesn’t actually tell us how spirituality can help us make any progress on these issues. It seems to me that the underlying purpose of spirituality is two-fold: to make us comfortable about our ignorance, and to give us license to pick whatever answers make us feel good.
The cherry-picking gets seriously underway when Sullivan starts talking about Francis of Assisi. Francis, we are told, based his entire approach to life on three randomly selected passages from the New Testament. Not only is this cherry picking, it’s blind cherry picking. It is difficult to get more arbitrary in your choice of moral grounding than that.
Luckily for Francis, he picked passages that weren’t completely awful: sell everything you own, take nothing for your journey, and deny yourself. (The common ascetic theme of these passages makes me highly doubt the random selection story, but whatever.) These passages, while a little extreme, are at least better than the passages about hating your parents, bringing a sword rather than peace, and being sent to hell for sinning.
At the end of Sullivan’s piece, the confusion returns:
What Jefferson saw in Jesus of Nazareth was utterly compatible with reason and with the future; what Saint Francis trusted in was the simple, terrifying love of God for Creation itself. That never ends.
The problem here is that the “terrifying love of God for Creation” is not compatible with reason – it is pure fantasy – so the views of Jefferson and Francis appear to be mutually exclusive.
I actually like many aspects of Sullivan’s Christianity. It is the sort of Christianity I imagined myself pursuing when I was still a believer. Sullivan’s big problem, though, is one that I think America’s growing atheist population is increasingly aware of: living a humble, compassionate, Assisi-esque life is both possible and defensible without belief in gods.
And that, at the end of the day, is the big problem religion is facing in our increasingly secular world: the supernatural stuff is, as Sullivan (almost) admits, not particularly important. Living the good life is possible without it, and there is no evidence that it even exists to begin with.