Robert Jensen is absolutely transparent in his atheism. "I don't believe in God," he asserts. That statement is simple enough, indicating a categorical denial in any belief in God.
Lest anyone mistake his atheism for mere theological confusion, Jensen went on to explain: "I don't believe Jesus Christ was the son of a God that I don't believe in, nor do I believe Jesus rose from the dead to ascend to a heaven that I don't believe exists."
What makes these statements all the more significant is that they appear in an article entitled, "Why I am a Christian (Sort Of)," in which Jensen, a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, explains why he joined St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Austin.
As Jensen relates his story, he explains that he has joined the church as "more a political than a theological act." In other words, Jensen sees the church of which he is now a member as more of a political than a theological institution.
"Standing before the congregation of St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas, I affirmed that I (1) endorsed the core principles in Christ's teaching; (2) intended to work to deepen my understanding and practice of the universal love at the heart of those principles; and (3) pledged to be a responsible member of the church and to the larger community."
Moving from that most minimal of confessional pledges, Jensen went on to claim: "So, I am a Christian, sort of. A secular Christian. A Christian atheist, perhaps. But, in a deep sense, I would argue, a real Christian."
Of course, arguing that it is so does not make it so. Robert Jensen is a well-known political activist whose championing of liberal causes is a source of regular controversy at the University of Texas and beyond. He appears to enjoy his role as a self-anointed provocateur, and in this move to join a church, he has provoked an outcry from both orthodox Christians and his fellow atheists.
Why, after all, would an atheist even want to join a church that identifies with Christianity? More to the point, how could any church that holds even a minimal sense of Christian identity allow an atheist to join?
Jensen makes an unconvincing case concerning his own motivations. He explains that "whatever my beliefs about the nature about the non-material world or my views on spirituality, I live in a country that is extremely religious, especially compared to other technologically advanced industrial nations." In some sense, Jensen appears to be making a "if you can't beat them, join them" argument.
The cynical dimension of Jensen's reason for joining the church becomes immediately apparent when he explains that, "since a vast majority of Americans define a 'good American' as one who holds to some religious faith, clearly there's an advantage to being able to speak within a religious framework in the contemporary United States."
The political motivation behind Jensen's move is openly acknowledged. "So, my decision to join a church was more a political than a theological act. As a political organizer interested in a variety of social-justice issues, I look for places to engage people in discussion. In a depoliticized society such as the United States – where ordinary people in everyday spaces do not routinely talk about politics and its underlying values – church is one of the few places where such engagement is possible."
Well, so much for Jensen's reasons for attempting to join a church. The larger and more important question is how any church could justify accepting an atheist to join the church? In his article, published in the March 12, 2006 edition of The Houston Chronicle, Jensen explains, "the pastor and most of the congregation at St. Andrew's understand my reasons for joining, realizing that I didn't convert in a theological sense, but joined a moral and political community. There's nothing special about me in this regard – many St. Andrew's members I have talked to are seeking community and a place for spiritual, moral and political engagement. The church is expansive in defining faith; the degree to which members of the congregation believe in God and Christ in traditional terms varies widely. Many do, some don't, and a whole lot of folks seem to be searching. St. Andrew's offers a safe place and an exciting atmosphere for that search, in collaboration with others."
So, here we find a congregation that, in the words of the atheist who is now accepted into its membership, is "expansive in defining faith." This is a colossal understatement, to say the very least. In the case of this church, at least as is now claimed by Robert Jensen, this expansiveness includes those who claim no faith at all, at least in terms of any basic belief in God.
This statement gets to the heart of a widespread confusion about the nature and identity of the church. There may be strategic places which represent "a safe space and an exciting atmosphere" for a vague and wide-open spiritual quest, but this has nothing whatsoever to do with a Christian church.
By definition, a church is a fellowship of believers – those who have confessed that Jesus Christ is Lord. The very fact that a contemporary congregation could celebrate allowing an atheist to join is an indication that such a congregation is, by biblical definition, a false church.
Jim Rigby, pastor of St. Andrew's, a church affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA), explains that allowing an atheist to join his church is a matter of building "connections."
"Neither the church nor Jensen views his membership as surrendering anything," Rigby insists, "but instead is an attempt to build connections. Such efforts are crucial in a world where there seems not to be a lot of wood to build the bridges we need. And the shame is, while we fight among ourselves, the world is burning."
In making his case, "why we let an atheist join our church," Rigby, like Jensen, connects church membership to political activism. "In my ministry, I have had to live in two worlds," Rigby explains. "I have spiritual friends who are trying to celebrate the mystery of life and activist friends who are trying to change the world. Somehow these two enterprises have been separated, but I don't believe either option represents a complete life. Apolitical spirituality runs the danger of giving charity instead of justice, while atheistic humanism runs the danger of offering facts instead of meaning. This divide between spirituality and activism is a betrayal of the deeper roots of both."
What about the church's confession of faith? Constitutionally, both the pastor and the church are accountable to the denomination's revised confession of faith – a confession that, though significantly weakened by revision, still, we should note, requires belief in God. Rigby explains, "If God had wanted us to simply recite creeds, Jesus would have come as a parrot."
The pastor also asks a most interesting question: "Is there still room in the church for Thomas [who questioned the Lord's resurrection]?" This is the kind of sloppy, silly, and superficial theological argument that is so frequently the common fare in liberal Protestantism. Is Rigby seriously suggesting that Thomas was at any point an atheist? Where is the pastor's acknowledgment that Thomas' response to his encounter with the risen Lord was concluded by his own confession of faith: "My Lord and my God."
Rigby has been involved in controversy before. St. Andrew's is a congregation aligned with the "More Light" movement that is pressing for the acceptance of same-sex marriage and the ordination of active homosexuals within the Presbyterian Church (USA). As John H. Adams reports in The Presbyterian Layman, "St. Andrew's is a More Light congregation whose pastor, Jim Rigby, was recently exonerated by a presbytery investigating committee, which decided he would not face trial for marrying same-gender couples during a homosexual activist event at the University of Texas. Rigby was never tried for the charges although he declared that he welcomed the trial because he married the couples as a matter of conscience."
Just recently, John Judson, pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in San Antonio, and chairman of the local presbytery's Committee on Ministry, sent a letter to presbytery officials that stated: "It has come to our attention that a session within the bounds of the Mission Presbytery has received into membership an individual whom, according to his own writings, claims neither to believe in God nor to believe that Jesus Christ is who our historic Christian tradition and Scripture claim him to be." Further, "We take this incident with great seriousness and want you to know that we will be sending a team from the Committee on Ministry to visit with this session and discover the facts and take whatever measures we feel appropriate to deal with the situation."
We can only hope that this committee will take the measures that will be necessary in order to hold this church accountable to Scripture and the denomination's confession of faith. Lacking this, the denomination will be accepting atheism as an acceptable confession of faith for the membership of its churches.
The loss of a biblical vision for the local church is one of the greatest tragedies of our times, leading to a weakened Christian witness and a deadly theological confusion both within and without the church. This is not a problem limited to one denomination or to a single congregation.
One urgent question remains – can a church that has allowed itself to move this far from theological orthodoxy ever be recovered? Time will tell. Nevertheless, short of a miracle, such a recovery doesn't look likely. For, St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church is not only a congregation that has accepted an atheist into its membership – it is a congregation that remains proud of its own spiritual rebellion.