After watching the PBS presentation of From Jesus to Christ , George said, “That show really does a number on religious belief.” Then he thought a minute and said, “No, what it does is give people a different way to think about Christianity.”
George is right. While modern scholarship has never supported the supernatural claims of Christianity—or any other religion—historical research does not destroy the basic message of Jesus. Scholarly analysis may actually help those who can’t wrap their heads around supernatural events but can still appreciate the life and teachings of an historic person.
From my perspective, the major benefits of religion are not the hope for an existence beyond this life. What I value is the way religion can teach us reverence for what we can’t explain. Religion can teach us that we are part of something greater than ourselves—that we are connected to each other, to the earth which nurtures us, and to all its inhabitants. This realization is the beginning of true humility.
Some Christians believe in the virgin birth and in a literal atonement and resurrection. Some do not. Most of us can appreciate the symbolism of love, peace, and hope which the Christmas story gives. For me the life of Jesus is more important than the birth. I value the compassion which he exemplified and taught. I marvel at the calmness with which he answered accusers threatened by his message of social justice—and the peace with which he faced his unjust death.
We are free to believe as much or as little of the Christmas story as we want. What we cannot do, and still honor Jesus, is to criticize those who don’t interpret his life and message exactly the same way we do.