Good With(out) God

 In Featured, Pastor Jason's Blog

by Pastor Jason Kramme


A History of Good Behavior 

Since the Puritans got off the boats some 400 years ago, American religious life has been dominated by a fascination with behavior. I suppose it isn’t that surprising when you consider the circumstances that brought the colonists across the Atlantic in the first place. Many of them fancied themselves a faithful or holy remnant, escaping the unholy religious power structures of Europe.  

The story that they told themselves was that they were a lamp on a stand, a city on a hill, and as a result they poured a lot of energy into looking like it. Similar to the way that the Israelites invested themselves in the Law thousands of years before them, the early colonists insisted on rigid observance to behaviors and patterns of being that marked them out as God’s chosen people. As much as it was consistent with their religious beliefs, it also served as a grounding ethic to draw together the community that was in a strange context thousands of miles from home.  

This type of Christian religious identification by way of behavioral observance has been a hallmark of American Christianity for the last four centuries. Some of the more recent iterations of this tendency can be seen in the efforts of the Moral Majority and other movements springing from conservative political circles. The bottom line is that there is a particular way that Christians should act and a set of ethics that marks us out from everyone else.  

Sociologically, it works. It is clear, you can see it, you can vote on it, and you can punish people if they don’t follow it. It is a place you can stand when modern life makes you feel like a Pilgrim landing on distant shores.  

The trouble nowadays is that it isn’t the only way of being good that works. By “works,” I mean that it grounds, orients, and holds together community. 

Not the Only Show in Town 

For the better part of American history, Christians made up the majority of the population and prominent positions of power. As such, Christians enjoyed a bit of a monologue when it came to how to make sense of the world. That ability is quickly vanishing. Globalization, advances in communication, and myriad other sociological changes have right-sized the influence on Christianity’s influence on public life. If culture were a symphony, then Christianity is no longer the featured soloist, it is buried in the alto section (nothing against the altos reading this).  

This trend of diminishing influence has been accelerating rapidly over the last decades and has led to all kinds of apocalyptic-sounding articles and books about the decline of the church. According to the Pew Research Center, more than 26% of Americans now identify as religious Nones. That is, they do not identify with any religious tradition. When you ask them why, one of the most common responses given is that they don’t need God in order to be “good.”  

In other words, there are lots of other viable ways to be good in this modern world. Hence the rise of Humanism. Heck, the head chaplain at Harvard, which was founded by Puritans, identifies as a Humanist Atheist.  

I remember back in my college philosophy days feeling remarkably nervous in conversations about how to be good without God. In some ways, I couldn’t even imagine it. I remember saying things like, “well, if there’s no God, then we could all just do what we want!” To think of a world in that way seemed scary and almost necessarily chaotic. Subconsciously, I believed that Christianity’s ethical influence is what kept society-and me- on the rails. 

But then, there were days in my poly-sci classes where Christians were using religious reasons to do all kinds of things that I couldn’t justify with the Bible no matter how hard I tried.  

Not that I want to spend time plugging liberal arts education, though I would, but running from my philosophy classes across campus to my poly-sci classes was the beginning of the end of my ‘behavior-anity.’ I began a transition from seeing Christianity (and the Bible) primarily as a guidebook for behavior. I stopped looking at my faith and the faith of other people through the lens of some pre-conceived list of ‘Christian’ behaviors. That approach just didn’t capture my heart anymore. It led to one of three dead-ends.  

One was that I would feel bad about my own discipleship. I was full-on Paul in Romans, “why do I do the things I hate?!” Other times, I would get so mad at other Christians for being hypocrites that I would avoid the church for long stretches of time. They would talk a good game about Jesus and then bury people for this or that sin. Third, I wouldn’t be able to see the difference between a practicing Christian and a nice person. There was no difference other than the nice (atheist) person had no obligations on Sunday mornings.  

It was a very U2 season in that I still hadn’t found what I was looking for. I think a lot of people are in the same boat.  


There are times that I wish life was a lot more like movies where there is one defining moment that provides all the self-revelation needed to change your mind. That hasn’t been true in my case. Instead, it has been about a decade of moments that have made a lot of things clearer than they were when I started.  

Over the last five years or so I’ve been working with the Enneagram. It’s a personality inventory that splits people into nine different types and reveals a wounding childhood message that animates the behaviors of each type. To work with it over time is to commit to a journey from a version of you motivated by this wound to a version of you that is motivated by self-love and understanding. It is order – becoming aware of your motivations in the moment as they are; disorder – disconnecting from those motivations; re-order- seeking how to live with new motivation.  

Running parallel to this work with the Enneagram was a lot of work with the Gospel of John here at Prince of Peace. In the prologue of John’s Gospel, we read,  

“The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” 

Later in the Gospel we find Jesus chatting with a man named Nicodemus about how he must be “born again.” Jesus tells the disciples that if they want to be his followers that they must “lose their lives to gain it.” That their lives are like a grain of wheat that must die in order to produce fruit.  

In my mind, all these notes came together to play a chord that I can’t get out of my head.  

Jesus has come to reveal or shine light on our Child of God Selves. In order to do that we need to be able to identify the version of us that we have been pretending is the real version of us. (The tool that has helped me to do that is the Enneagram, but it could be different for you.) We need to let that version die. Then we need to start embracing our Child of God Self. The version of us that God created us to be, grounded in self-love.  

It is a journey that I go on multiple times a day, every day, all the time. It isn’t about behavior; it is about being. The focus on who I am necessarily shapes my behavior but it isn’t confined to a particular set of behaviors. It’s work that just keeps going deeper and deeper into who I really am.  

I recognize that there are a lot of people for whom the faith of the Puritans works. I’m not saying that they were off-base on everything. What I am saying is that they didn’t have all the pieces and their faith-legacy is failing to a lot of people in this moment in history. Maybe that is you. If it is, then I encourage you to dive into the Enneagram and into the Gospel of John to begin to go on a journey to a deeper you; your Child of God Self. It isn’t easy. A lot of the time it will feel like you’ve washed up on some distant shores in a place unknown.  

If you do, just know that you’re not alone. God already loves that space and is right there with you. In fact, the Bible tells us that God has already declared that space and who you are to be more than good—to be very good. And you don’t have to do a thing.  


Jason serves as Pastor of Spiritual Formation and Stewardship

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