By Aaron Gaglia (@GagliaAC)
Christians are continually grappling with how to minister in this postmodern world. Though many Christians advocate changing the approach but not the message, some are calling for a restructuring of the message altogether. Brian McLaren, a prominent voice in the emergent movement, is one who is calling for a reformulation of the Christian message. His latest offering, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World, gives a rather detailed exposition of this new way of doing Christianity. This book, released on September 11, 2012, has received the 2013 Book of the Year Award by Academy of Parish Clergy. In this book, McLaren seeks to do away with the Christianity “that spent too little energy making peace and too much erecting and perfecting walls of separation, suspicion, and hostility” (McLaren,14). He seeks to create a strong benevolent Christian identity that accepts people of other faiths “not in spite of the religion they love, but with the religion they love” (32). He tries to find the middle ground between on the one hand, throwing off Christian identity in order to be benevolent to other religions, and having a strong Christian identity that is opposed to other religions.
The book is divided into four sections: I. The Crisis of Christian Identity, II. The Doctrinal Challenge, III. The Liturgical Challenge, and IV. The Missional Challenge.
Section I lays out the premise as described above, showing the need for a new Christian approach to those of other faiths. He argues that we need to go past the us/other dichotomy that demonizes those with different views than us and embrace the other as part of the us. “To be ‘in Christ’ is to be in solidarity with all people—and all creation. That solidarity contrast starkly with the realities of being ‘in Christianity’ or any other ‘Us’ religion” (48, McLaren quoting his response in an online conversation between those of varied faiths). He then goes on to grapple with the violence done in the name of religion and comes to this conclusion: “The tensions between our conflicted religions arise not from our differences, but from one thing we all hold in common: an oppositional religious identity that derives strength from hostility” (57, italics original).
As the first step in creating a new Christian identity, he takes the reader on a tour through the horrible ways Christianity has been used to propagate violence and hurt those with differing views. He goes back to Constantine, showing how Christian faith took on imperial elements. McLaren sees much of the great evil propagated in the name of Christianity arising from a doctrine of exclusivity—“the theological conviction that one group of people—Us—carries God’s blessing and favor in a way others do not. Taken further the chosen become children of God and light; the unchosen, the children of the devil and darkness. In the stark shadows of that duality, how could hostility not grow?” (93, 94). He then spends the rest of the book showing how we should “rearticulate our core Christian doctrine…healing hostility and nourishing benevolence… to creatively renew our essential Christian liturgies so they fulfill their potential for spiritual formation. And then we will be able to rediscover our compelling Christian Mission” (95, Italics original).
McLaren redefines the following key Christian doctrines: Creation, Original Sin, Election, Trinity, Christ, and the Holy Spirit. He first conjectures that our understanding of doctrine is imperialistic, “restricting not only freedom of speech but also freedom of thought, thus promoting exactly the kind of political submission that totalitarian regimes depend on [.]” He seeks instead that the idea of doctrine be changed to be “an instrument of healing” (101).
To understand his theological system, it is imperative to understand his reformulation of the doctrine of original sin. He rejects the traditional understanding of original sin which he sums up as saying: “God views all humankind…with hostility because it has lapsed from its original perfection. According to this popular understanding, God’s particular form of perfection requires God to punish all imperfect beings with eternal conscious torment in hell. So in this popular view of original sin, God’s response to anything that is less than absolutely perfect must be absolute and infinite hostility” (106). He asserts that this doctrine fosters hostility toward the other in which we “imitate the complex attitude that we understand God to have toward…sinners…and translate these learned attitudes into actions and words” (106,107). He admits that this doctrine leads some to act compassionately toward others, but if it is for the sake of evangelism he still sees it as a bad thing.
He then offers a new understanding of original sin based on the work of James Alison, a Catholic theologian who further applies philosopher Rene Girard’s work to theology. McLaren explains Girard’s mimetic theory and redefines original sin with this understanding: “…all human beings are caught in these subtle webs of destructive imitation, rivalry, anxiety, scapegoating, and ritualization…As a result, our very identity as human beings as individuals has been distorted from the image envisioned in the doctrine of creation” (110). Instead of seeing original sin as disobedience toward God that incites God’s wrath and requires divine rescue, he sees original sin as a decision to demonize and live in rivalry with the other and sees the Cross of Christ not as providing atonement for our sins, but of breaking the cycle of scapegoating that we humans created.
He removes from the doctrine of election the idea of “ ‘us’ as ‘the people of God’” and reformulates “God’s call as a vocation to be the other for the sake of others” (119, 121). Though Christians would agree with the idea that Christians are called to bless others, McLaren sees a Christianity that seeks to bless people by showing them that they are in a desperate need of Jesus as leading to hostility.
Also worth noting is McLaren’s Christology. He has Christ inform our view of God and not the other way around. He sees the God of the Old Testament and Jesus as incompatible. To make this point, he quotes from Rene Girard: “The gospel interpretation of the Old Testament can be summed up in this approach… the replacement [of] the God that inflicts violence with the God that only suffers violence, the Logos that is expelled….When the consequences of this substitution finally come to fulfillment, there will be incalculable results” (143)
He has good insights to offer, such as expounding on the Trinitarian idea of perichoresis, yet instead of supplementing Biblical and historical documents, he totally redefines the doctrines. He sees orthodox Christianity and a strong benevolent identity as incompatible. Instead of rediscovering the great power the traditional Gospel has in accepting the unaccepted and bringing reconciliation to groups hostile to each other through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus, he reformulates the Gospel altogether.
I am going to stop there for now. In the coming days, look out for a follow-up blog post in which I’ll finish reviewing the book and provide an alternative for what interfaith relations should look like.