"Scandalous": Gomes on God

In his new book "The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus" the Rev. Peter Gomes pushes Christians to see beyond what he says is the "domesticated" view of the Christian Lord and embrace instead the gospel message of radical good and radical justice. Gomes decries the slogan "What would Jesus do?" as superficial and self-justifying, preferring instead "What would Jesus have me do?" "Unlike Dr. Phil, [Jesus] does not dispense free advice on television," writes Gomes, "so it falls to us to try to figure out what we ought to do in our time, with our own skills and problems, based on what we think about Jesus." The iconoclastic Gomes is the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard University and the minister of Memorial Church in Harvard Yard. NEWSWEEK's Lisa Miller spoke with him. Excerpts:

What do you think is wrong with the public conversation about religion today?
Rev. Peter Gomes: Well, most of it is conducted quite frankly at too high a decibel level, and it is not particularly well informed. It's a lot of shouting and not very much substance, and it tends to give religion a very bad name.

What's the solution?
I think the solution is a certain amount of modesty, which is a very old-fashioned word, in making claims that we don't know very much about, and with respect to traditions that are not our own. I am unabashedly a Christian, but most people who talk about Christianity don't know very much about what they're talking about.

What is wrong with the nature of personal religion today?
Well, personal religion if we're not careful tends to domesticate God. God is not my private little rabbit's foot to meet all my personal needs. There's nothing wrong in having a religion to which one subjects oneself, but it can't be one's private little therapy. It diminishes the power and the scope of God.

Do you believe you can be a moral person and not a religious person?
In theory, I'm sure that's true. I don't know how to do it myself. The importance of religion is that it helps us figure out how to be moral.

Can you believe in God and not go to church?
Those two things are quite consistent. It doesn't trouble me. I think it's frankly easier to be a believer and a churchgoer-my hat is off to those who can do it on their own. I need the community, I need the strength of the tradition, I need the help of others. I would be a terrible Quaker … But I can see that even though I'm a churchman and I've been one all my life, I can see that church is not for everybody.

Could a person who believes in God but doesn't go to church win the presidency?
I don't know. That's above my pay grade; I can't tell. I don't think that alone would disqualify somebody for the presidency. It would have to be taken in balance with everything else going for and against that person. I don't think in the 21st century we would have an automatic bias against someone who is not conventionally religious.

You've been labeled "conservative," but a lot of what you're saying is quite radical.
I think the conservative label means next to nothing. I've never been sure what it means. I think a Christian is a rather radical person, someone who's prepared to do something that has never been demonstrated to work. Christianity has been around a long time, and the world is pretty much of a shambles. One can't say look at Christianity and say it certainly works. It hasn't … I do tend to be cautious and suspicious about the newest game in town, whatever that seems to be.

Is Jesus the only path to salvation?
For me, yes. I cannot answer whether that's true for everybody. All I can say is that I'm convinced that the God who Jesus knew on earth has a provision for everybody. What I find hard to reconcile myself to is that that very same God has forgotten somehow the two-thirds of the inhabitants of the earth who don't happen to be Christian. I refuse to accept that limit on God. Maybe a sharper way of putting it is, if my God is God in fact, then God has to be God of everybody. I'm not sure how God functions as God to everybody, but because I know how God functions as God to the Christian, I have to assume God has figured out how to function as God for the Buddhist, the Hindu, the Muslim, the Jew. That's where the modesty comes in.

What do you tell people who believe that the Bible is literally true?
It isn't. It can't be. The Bible speaks in many different languages in many different styles. It would be like saying every word in Shakespeare is literally true. It can't be, of course. There's metaphor, symbolism, poetic excess. You can't read the Bible as you would the telephone directory. The apostles themselves are always confused about the meanings of Jesus's parables. The literal reading of Scripture is the most unimaginative, uninteresting and unscriptural way of looking at Scripture.

What do you tell people who believe the Bible is a fairy tale?
I think some fairy tales are efficacious and helpful. One learns from fairy tales. I don't think the Bible is a fairy tale; I think it points to profound truths. But if someone wants to read it as a good fairy tale and enter into it, they might learn something, so I don't write them off completely. The Brothers Grimm have lasted a long time. They last for a reason.