Who Are These ‘Cultural Christians’?

Interior view of Milan Cathedral, Duomo di Milano, with marble columns and high arches. (Photo by Frank Bienewald/LightRocket/Getty Images)

A peculiar phenomenon of our time is the so-called cultural Christian or even “Christian atheist,” by which is meant someone who finds the moral claims and cultural sensibility of Christianity sympathetic but who does not (will not, cannot) accept the fundamental claim of Christianity, i.e. that the Creator of the universe embodied Himself in the form of a first-century Palestinian Jew who was tortured and put to death before rising from the dead to provide a fallen humanity with a path to redemption. 

I do not much blame these “cultural Christians,” a breed that is increasingly common in conservative political circles, inasmuch as the supernatural claims of Christianity are—I write this as a believing Christian—positively absurd on first hearing. Also on second and third hearing, and for many more hearings, and sometimes (often, I think) to the committed and convinced Christian. There are lots of true things that sound crazy. The basic physical mechanism by which an airplane flies has been observed for a few thousand years (the Chinese have been flying kites for a long, long time) but if you tried to explain to some Elizabethan sophisticate,  unfamiliar with the technological achievements of our time, that we routinely launch vehicles weighing 1 million pounds (the top flying weight of the 747-400ER freighter is just short of that, and there are much larger aircraft) into the air, under their own power, with very little danger, that one may travel from Baghdad to Athens in one of these in less time than it takes to watch a performance of Hamlet—and that nothing on the exterior of the thing even moves very much, while the whole thing runs on something extracted from the same substance found in that “Pitch Lake” that Walter Raleigh observed in Trinidad—he might think you were pulling his leg. 

Of course, Christianity isn’t like that: The man who thinks he would never believe in such a thing as an airplane might be “converted,” easily, by flying on one. Christians, in spite of a whole library full of such boneheaded books as The Case for Christ, do not have evidence of that kind. Jesus performed miracles when it pleased Him to do so, but He wasn’t an entertainer and did not perform party tricks. Some of His followers apparently were able to perform great miracles, too, but Jesus had a different view of persuasion: “If you love each other, then everyone will know that you are my disciples,” He said, and, in light of that, Christians who are being honest with ourselves must not wonder too much that many people doubt our story. 

So, why the “cultural Christian”? Where does he come from, and what does he want? 

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