How To Be A Buddhist Jewish Christian Pagan Atheist

Joel Michael Herbert
11 min readSep 13, 2023

Most of us are familiar with so image, often seen on bumper stickers, of the symbols of various world religions spelling out the word “COEXIST,” a clever plea for tolerance and pluralism in a world that so often seems hell bent (pun intended) toward the opposite.

But I find myself, internally, with the reverse problem. The older I get, the more I study, the more I deconstruct, examine, decolonize, and repurpose the fundamentalist Christian tradition I was raised in, the more I find within myself not so much a lack of ability to “choose” among the historic religious rivals, but a lack of desire and rationalization for doing so.

On any given day, I identify with not only Christianity, my religious country of origin — my “mother tongue,” if you will — and Judaism, her big sister, but also with the mystery and ethical teachings of Buddhism and Taoism, the pantheism and Earth-love of paganism, and the intellectual rigor and scientific commitment of atheism. I find each of these connections to be more or less equally strong, depending mostly on what nonsense a high-profile Christian leader has pulled in the news that week (I kid, mostly).

Growing up in extremist religion (or extremist non-religion, for that matter), one of the basic assumptions you are given is that the world is divided into boxes, and you have to choose a box. Of course, there’s only one box offered to you as the “right box,” the religion of your parents, but in theory at least, you could choose another box. In my experience, most people know what to do with you when you choose a box, even if they disapprove of your choice. They can deal with you becoming an atheist, or converting to Judaism or Islam. But woe to the one who can’t decide — or perhaps, feels no need to decide, who doesn’t buy into the whole box narrative in the first place. In fundamentalist Christianity, I daresay this is the ultimate unforgivable sin, because you’re not only denying your faith (as they conceive of it), but also the whole paradigm upon which you are required to choose to affirm or deny a particular faith. You become a traitor within your own community, a Benedict Arnold still trying to fly the stars and stripes, someone who can’t figure out that they are no longer welcome, a Snowden in a system bent on dividing the world into Putins and Bushes, a Martin Luther King in a George Wallace v. Elijah Muhammad world.

In other words, if there are no boxes, no lines, no binaries to begin with, how can there be heretics? How can we discover who will be among the damned? How can there be heaven and hell if we can’t determine who is in and who is out? When you reject the whole paradigm of black and white, in and out, good and bad, saved and damned (the tree of knowledge of good and evil?), you are especially persona non grata, because you no longer belong to any tribe — you are but a wandering soul, a prophet without a country, with no place to lay your head (sound familiar?)

I’m a Christian by birth and baptism. As a teenager, I made the distinct decision to “follow Jesus,” and I followed that up with nearly two decades of studying the Bible, church history, Christian leadership, doing missionary work around the world, and fighting on the front edge of the Culture Wars.

The easiest way to describe the change in me in the last decade is that I’ve “become more liberal.” And that’s true, simple enough. I went to seminary, began to realize that the faith that was handed down to me had far more holes in it than I had previously understood, and began to read those considered “heretics” by my community. My faith evolved, the way I thought about things like war and guns and sexuality and abortion and education and theocracy and socialism changed, certainly.

But really, more than all of that, I simply came to understand that the history of my faith, like the history of most faiths, is far more complex, broad, and inclusive than fundamentalist strains of those faiths would want us to believe. And that understanding began to lead me to open my heart and mind to my fellow persons, to seek understanding rather than immediate judgment. And guess what? I learned something!

Fundamentalist religions of every stripe have a vested interest in teaching their adherents/children (they are mostly indistinguishable) that the pure stream of their faith has come down in a plenary trickle from the mountains of God’s revelation at some point in the distant past. The most generous of them will allow that there is room for a certain amount of diversity and disagreement in these streams, so perhaps they will allow it is a small river by now, accommodating a few other strains of their tradition that are deemed acceptably orthodox. (Example: most evangelical Christians accept that other Protestants are “in,” but hold Catholics, Mormons, and Unitarians suspect, if not in outright contempt).

Study of religious history reveals the exact opposite to be true, however. Each world religion, certainly the major ones, is a massive flowing river, more akin to the Mississippi Delta than to its trickling headwaters 1,000 miles north, more like the Columbia River Gorge than its tributary Walla Walla River, with enough room even for mutually exclusive ideas and radically contradictory theologies. In spite of the best efforts of the orthodox power brokers at any given historical moment, many, many of these divergent strains have not only remained intact for centuries, even under threat of intense persecution, but have even hacked their way to consensus acceptance in their larger bodies and become mainstream. In Christianity, I think of Protestantism, once considered a dangerous heresy, now the second largest Christian communion in the world; the (ana)Baptist movement, persecuted early on by both European and American Reformers, now the dominant form of Protestantism in America; the Pentecostal movement, deemed fringe at its inception, now the ascendant form of Christianity worldwide; Mormonism, long considered a dangerous American cult, but now among the fastest growing religions in the world, and increasingly accepted among evangelicals as their political priorities converge.

In spite of the best efforts of the various “orthodox” parties, it is plain from a cursory study of history that there is a LOT of room for those of us for whom the binaries “once and for all delivered” to us — well, don’t deliver.

I love Jesus — his life, his teachings, but most of all, his ethos. Who he is, what he stands for. Whether what is reported to us in the Gospels is pure historical fact or not, I don’t really care. I still love the guy, just like I love the Tao Te Ching whether or not its been edited over the millennia, just like I love “My Sweet Lord” even if George Harrison stole it. And I think I always will, even when I’m a century old and dying of dementia. Jesus is as baked into me as the English language, as playing the guitar and piano, as my love for my kids, as the way the smell of turkey and pumpkin pie will always make me happy.

This statement would seem to immediately disqualify me from Judaism. But the more I spend time in and around the Jewish community, the more I’m convinced that the big disconnect is not in the teachings of Jesus himself — or even the apostles, for that matter — but in the later evolution of the Christian movement that became suspicious and eventually adversarial and notoriously anti-Semitic in its imperial forms.

My Jewish friend Max and I once talked about Jesus at a Shabbat service. Is Jesus the Son of God, we asked one another? Sure, Max said. Aren’t we all sons of God? Wasn’t that kind of what Jesus — the Rabbi, the Guru, the Messiah, the Christ — was all about, pointing people to the kingdom of God, their Father in Heaven? Wasn’t the whole point about being the “Son of God” about paving the way for others to a revelation of their own sonship/daughtership/belonging to the Divine? We had no disagreement.

When I read the gospels, I don’t see Jesus wandering around Palestine trying to convince everyone that he was the Jewish version of Thor. In fact, the gospel of Mark, the earliest of the Gospels, paints the exact opposite portrait of Jesus, and it is only in what early church fathers called the “spiritual gospel” of John that we see that even intimated at all. Rather, I see a Jewish rabbi, a Jewish prophet, a Jewish messiah, not unlike the other rabbis and prophets and messiahs of the time, traveling around Palestine trying to convince everyone that they were children of God, that the kingdom of God was right here, if they only had eyes to see it. That love of God and love of neighbor were the inseparable twin foundation stones of Jewish ethics, and yes — that he in some mystical way was connected to the Divine and given the mantle to restore Israel and bring them freedom and rest from their enemies, physical and spiritual.

Again, not at all unlike Joseph, or Moses, or Deborah, or Samuel, or David, or Elijah, or Isaiah, or Esther, or Ezra, or Judah Maccabee, or dozens of other characters populating the Scriptures that Jesus grew up reading.

Once we let go of this idea that to be a Christian means accepting and believing in a goyim-ized, Greek-Pantheon-infused Hercules-Jesus that would have scandalized Jewish audiences both then and now, and accept that “the Christ” is simply a word meaning someone “filled/anointed with the Spirit”… that the Logos (John’s designator for Christ) is bigger and more cosmic than any one single historical figure could ever fully embody… according to Paul and John and other pre-Christian Second Temple Judaism writers, the energy of Love and Wisdom that holds the entire Universe together… that the ideas of advent and resurrection and ascension and return have always been metaphorical and mystical (Jesus lives in my heart, but also in heaven at the “right hand of God”, he saves me by his blood, will raise my worm-eaten body up at the “last day”… the list goes on)… well, the world opens up to us a LOT.

The categories of theism, pantheism, atheism… they start to seem meaningless.

Whatever “God” is, God is not a He. And They certainly aren’t sitting on a literal cloud or a throne somewhere “beyond the blue,” anymore than Mount Olympus or Asgard are real, physical places somewhere. Religion has always been fraught with metaphor and symbol and myth, which necessarily opens it up to be wildly corrupted by those intent on literalizing what cannot possibly be literalized.

What about The Trinity? The quintessential Christian doctrine?

Father/Creator — the Prime Mover we call “God,” the Spring of All Being, the Tao of Taoism, the Logos of Greek philosophy, the Mystery undergirding all of existence, that Big Bang that science still can’t get its head around, that the Old and New Testaments refer to in mystical language that include both “Unapproachable Light” and “Thick Darkness,” that the Bible refers to with numerous names, the Ultimate Name being the inscrutable “I Am What I Am”…

Son/Redeemer — the human incarnation of this God, the embodied, enfleshed Divine, without whose experience of humanity the very idea of God would be meaningless (what is God without the “I/Thou” relationship of corresponding humanity to experience Godself?), the “Christ” energy that filled Jesus of Nazareth, James, John, and Paul, mirroring the “Buddha” energy (Christ = anointed, Buddha = enlightened) of Siddharta Gautama, Lao-Tzu, St. Francis of Assisi, the Muslim mystic Rumi, and countless other named and unnamed enlightened and anointed “Christians” (little Christs) and little Buddhas throughout history, including you and I…

Holy Spirit — the life force that sustains us all, that calls us into love and light and hope and care for one another and the Earth we live on? The very idea of “otherness” that defines words like christ and messiah and buddha and holy and saint and muslim (obedient), that pulls us inexorably into knowledge of God rather than knowledge about God…

The words of the Athanasian Creed feel appropriate here:

Thus the Father is God,
the Son is God,
the Holy Spirit is God.
Yet there are not three gods;
there is but one God.

That’s a Mystical Trinity I can get down with, a Panentheon that invades and encapsulates and fills and defines all of Creation, from atoms to supernovas, from ameobas to messiahs, from children to dictators.

It’s all metaphor; it’s all beautiful; it all belongs.

I know, my evangelical Christian friends will say I sound like an atheist who’s taken too many shrooms (it’s possible); my hardline atheist friends will say I sound like a bloody Christian; my Jewish and Buddhist and pagan friends (who are often one and the same) will likely just chuckle and say, yeah, something like that!

The “God” I “believe in” (what do those words even mean?) fills the whole universe, is invisible and yet present, cosmic and transcendent, yet intimate and warm, Light and Love, transcendent and immanent, just as… surprise! the mystics and poets and apostles and prophets and writers of sacred texts have been trying to tell us all along!

I have no categories for this “God”

— which honestly, I dislike even using the word because it inexorably conjures up images of Zeus God, The Simpsons God, Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam God, white colonizer God with his chiseled abs, long white beard, and exacting, disapproving gaze —

Is it any wonder that the Romans ridiculed both Jews and early Christians for their belief in this invisible “God” who had no image, that had not even a proper utterable name? The Romans quipped that the Jews worshipped clouds, and they called Christians “atheists,” because their conception of God was so fundamentally different than that of the traditional Greek/Roman pantheon.

And isn’t this precisely what “God” revealed to Moses at the Burning Bush? Moses wanted a Name, as did the enslaved Israelites he was freeing. They wanted an image, something tangible to see and bow down to, hence the story of the Golden Calf at the foot of Mount Sinai.

Are we so different today? Have we substituted the Mystery of the Divine for the human being Jesus of Nazareth who, in all his beautiful humanity and divinity, was still but a Mirror pointing to the Ultimate Light, a Moon reflecting the Sun? Perhaps worse, have we cheapened what it means to call a Human Divine, by insisting on a hyper-literalized understanding of those ideas rather than the mystical, mysterious, very Eastern way Jesus and the apostles understood him to be Divine?

And yet, can it all belong? Could one person conceive of it all quite literally, and have those ideas be deeply meaningful for them, and could another person have the direct opposite definitions, rejecting literal interpretations for mystical ones that feel more accessible to the heart of a skeptic?

Can an atheist be a Christian? I am.

Can a Christian be a Jew? I am.

Can a Human be Divine? I am.

Can the dead live again? I am.

Can Heaven come to Earth? I am.

Can God be With Us? I am.

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Joel Michael Herbert

Husband. Father. Artist. Storyteller. Armchair Theologian. Advocate, activist and politician. Gryffindor. [neuro]Divergent.