From Organized Religion to Organizing Religion: Brian D. McLaren Wants Christians to Be Better

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Asking why there is so little progressive Christianity in America is a bit like asking the question so famously posed at the start of the previous century:”Why is There No Socialism in the United States?” The broad answer to both questions has everything to do with the development of a religiously-sanctioned ideology that fuses personal freedom and self-reliance to notions of patriarchy and dominance that are believed to mirror God’s own exercise of total sovereignty.

Add a dash of good old Original Innocence—the supposition that God always intends a special blessing for white Americans—and out comes the nasty piece of work that we know (and fear) as White Protestant Christianity.

To say this is a tough nut to crack is the ultimate understatement. We can be grateful therefore, that people like Brian McLaren are still trying to crack it. McLaren, the author of 15 previous books and tireless lecturer and movement-builder, is the very best of the progressive evangelicals associated with the Red Letter Christians group: a group that includes Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, Ron Sider, Shane Claiborne, Lisa Sharon Harper, and others.

McLaren has also been very active in the formation of a newer initiative called the Convergence, which is seeking to unite Catholics and Protestants around common principles and a shared social justice agenda. The idea, in McLaren’s phrasing, is to move people “from organized religion to organizing religion” that can serve the common good.

 

Every theme that McLaren has been carefully developing for years is present in the new book, only amplified with a new sense of urgency that seems to be informed by the climate change crisis, the new Movement for Black Lives, and the rising Islamophobia that so poisons our politics. Although framed as a call for migration to a new love-centered Christian orientation (note the silhouette of birds in flight on the book jacket), McLaren also speaks of conversion, and I read the book more through the conversion lens (I’m not sure that the migration metaphor works as well as the author hoped it might).

The tone throughout is warm and engaging, and the book is filled with telling anecdotes. But McLaren is never less than a master teacher with a solid lesson plan. He moves, in ascending order of importance, from personal spiritual migration away from a rule-bound static religion (and the conversion of lifeless churches into “schools of love”) to a longer and beautifully-done section on theological migration and then finally to the book’s longest and (I think) most problematic section—a programmatic proposal that McLaren frames as the necessary “missional” migration American Christians must make.

I want to focus on the programmatic piece, but first just a word about the theological section. At the very center of the book lies an important chapter titled “God 5.0” that neatly states where McLaren’s head and heart are today. Christ’s self-emptying, the act of kenosis expressed in the ancient hymn fragment found in Philippians 2, becomes the window for viewing divine “supremacy” in a very different light. God is supreme in self-giving love, not in traditional notions of supreme power and might. Here is McLaren:

To accept Jesus and to accept the God Jesus loved is to become an atheist in relation to the Supreme Being of violent and dominating power.

We are not merely demoting God to a lower, weaker, level; rather, we are accepting a radically new understanding of God as pure light, with no shadow of violence, conquest, exclusion, hostility, or hate at all.

This is big conceptual shift for most ordinary Christians to manage, needless to say. But I believe that McLaren is absolutely right to argue that it’s not possible to break open a fossilized and socially regressive American Christianity without first breaking apart the bad theology that places an all-powerful and thoroughly vindictive God at the center of the universe. Before they can be liberated to struggle and serve in what McLaren calls “the great work” of social transformation, Christians must migrate away from a tribalistic conception of God and embrace the 5.0 version in which there is no dualism and no violence and certainly no sanction for any form of ethnic or racial exclusivism.

It would help the migration process along if Christians could learn to read the Bible in a new key, so to speak, breaking past the literal/critical duopoly to find freedom and meaning in a “post-critical/literary” way of reading the sacred texts. Again, I think McLaren is absolutely on target with this.

My question is whether any of it is all that new. I’m sure this is my ultra-liberal snobbery showing, but didn’t James Fowler call for an ascent to a much more mature and universalizing faith in his much-discussed Stages of Faith almost 40 years ago? And haven’t post-colonial and feminist theologians been powerfully critiquing the Bible’s kingly imaging of God for at least 50 years now?  I think McLaren might say that the difference is that he and his Convergence colleagues are now trying to move this kind of thinking from the ivory tower down to the gathered congregation on the ground as a source of joy and energy. If that is his point, then more power to him. It needs to happen.

In the book’s final section, McLaren puts forward a kind of platform for the nurturing of “just and generous” Christian communities that can in turn help facilitate a broader cultural turn away from what he calls the “suicide machine” of unchecked consumerism and resource depletion. He says that the existing “just and generous” communities need to come out as such and that individuals must take the initiative to build such communities where they don’t currently exist. He says that Christians who have already done their migrating must put maximum emphasis on bringing children and youth into this new liberative space. And he says that the already-converted have a special responsibility for leadership training that goes way beyond the capacity or interest of our existing institutions, especially our academic seminaries.

I wish that McLaren had devoted more attention to the difficulties posed by breaking with the “suicide machine.” He offers just a couple of pages on what he calls examples of a “new” economic activism (boycotts, “buycotts,” socially-conscious investment, worker justice movements) and says nothing about their relative effectiveness. He does not address the extent to which economism—reducing everything to its use value—is now deeply inscribed in our whole way of thinking about the world, shaping not just our conscious choices but even our underlying psychological orientation. Other theological writers have had a lot to say about the redirection of desire as the essence of true conversion, and they have not minimized the difficulty involved.

Nor does McLaren say clearly enough that it is not just mindless consumerism but the very structure of finance capitalism itself that needs to be abandoned for the sake of planetary survival and human thriving.

Over the years, Brian McLaren has been willing to sacrifice many former affiliations and put many friendships at risk on his personal journey toward a new understanding of his Christian calling. He may feel that breaking entirely with capitalism would be going one step too far at this point. But to many of us, moving beyond the ruinous rentier system defines the “great work” of social conversion that we should all be about at this hour. We’re fairly sure that the Jesus who drove the money changers out of the temple is with us in this work.

See below for the handful of questions I posed to McLaren this week, and his frank and thoughtful answers.

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RD: Not many good books about religion get the attention of widely-followed New York Times columnists. How has your life and your sense of responsibility for shaping a different future been affected by Nick Kristof’s tip of the hat?

Brian McLaren: I’ve been a big fan of Nick’s work for a long time, so I was thrilled that he read and enjoyed the book. It was also encouraging to receive some commendation from Malcolm Gladwell recently. How much this will translate into momentum for the movement that we need remains to be seen. A lot of that, in the end, is up to us in creatively seizing opportunities. I’ll keep doing my best to do so, in the company of many others.

Of course I think your theological section is exactly on point, but I’m reminded of how many people I’ve known who go to church precisely because of their attraction to the idea of God as an all-powerful king with zero tolerance for sin and sinners. How to you respond, pastorally, to people who say that you are reducing God to more of a wispy conception than they are comfortable with?

Your question brings me back to a story from when I was a pastor. A young man told me he was leaving the church because we didn’t take the Bible literally enough. Then he told me, “When I was younger, I had a violent temper. I nearly killed a man once with my bare hands. If I don’t go to a church where black is black and white is white, I might do something violent again.”

Now I might quarrel with this man’s understanding of the best way to deal with deep anger issues, and I certainly don’t see the world in his simple black and white terms. But understanding that his more fundamentalist way of thinking was related to a deep inner struggle with violence helped me to at least appreciate the “why” behind his convictions.

I have to recall Jesus’ words about “not causing one of these little ones to stumble,” or Paul’s counsel about not judging people in disputable matters. For that reason, rather than arguing with people who criticize my work and trying to persuade them I’m right and they’re wrong, I want to be gentle with them, understanding that their current understanding may be all that’s holding them together at this point. So I might say, “I would never want you to change your view of God if you thought doing so was wrong. I hope you can extend me the same freedom. In expressing a different way of seeing things, I intend no offense or insult to you. I’m just trying to be true to my conscience as you are trying to be to yours.”

That won’t satisfy a lot of people, of course, but that’s the best I can offer.

You write of the urgent need for “movement-building initiatives that help individual Christians, congregational leaders, and denominational and network leaders come together and work together for intrapersonal, interpersonal, structural, and cultural change.” You go on to say “we’ve never been closer in my lifetime to seeing this kind of convergence happen than we are right now.”

If this is true–if there is, in fact, a new vital center among U.S. Christians–is it big enough and strong enough in view of the urgency of the social challenge, notably an unprecedented concentration of economic/political power?

Definitely not, not yet. That “new vital center” is real, and I believe it is growing, but it is fragile and in many ways embryonic. It must be nurtured, encouraged, fed, and protected from those who would like to stamp it out. There are no guarantees that it will succeed. But neither are there any alternatives as far as I can see. Again, it comes back to those of us who share this emerging perspective to practice it, embody it, and invite others to embrace it as well. That’s the way it will grow. As you suggest, the situation is urgent, so we have no time for complacency or apathy. But there’s also a sense in which what needs to be born takes time and can’t be rushed. So I feel a mixture of real urgency and yet a caution about pushing or rushing or forcing.

Your book invites readers to join the migration toward a courageous love-centered Christianity, but it’s been so much easier for people to migrate out altogether and join the ranks of the “nones.” Do you think that the religiously-unaffiliated can still be Jesus followers in a meaningful way? And, if not, how big a problem is the out-migration?

You put your finger on a real dilemma. I think the “nones” are migrating away from real problems. The question is what they are migrating toward. If they are leaving a life of religious activity without engagement in the issues that matter and are moving into a life of religious inactivity without engagement in those important issues, that’s like moving sideways rather than forward.

More positively, I’m fascinated by the ways that many spiritual-but-not-religious people self-organize to try to make a positive difference. I would hope that forward-leaning faith leaders could join together with these folks, and they could work together for the common good increasingly in the years ahead. Because in the end, the problem with organized religion is not that it’s organized. The problem is that it’s organized for the wrong purposes, or organized in the wrong way.

As to whether Jesus remains important as we move ahead, I think Jesus becomes more important than ever, but in a fresh and revolutionary way. We all know there are a lot of versions of Jesus being marketed out there these days. In all my books I make the case that a wise and coherent understanding of Jesus derived from the gospels addresses our current dilemmas powerfully, and his life and message are, to me, the most compelling inspiration I’ve ever encountered.

I was struck by your critique of the current polarization within the Christian family, in which you point to a bad choice between “a regressive movement or a progressive bureaucracy.” But we can’t have a powerful progressive movement—a spirited collaborative movement—without some kind of organizing structure, can we? And how are people motivated to step into that new collaborative space when there’s always so much competition for funding and attention among the existing fragments?

I couldn’t agree more. You’ve identified one of the biggest challenges we face. In fact, I’m writing these words in an airport after spending two days with people who are trying to provide some of the needed structure. Competing for funding … working in competitive and fragmented silos … or shockingly apathetic and complacent … that pretty much defines the status quo. That’s why I and so many others are working to build a new reality, a new possibility. It’s not easy; otherwise, it would have happened already. But I do believe it’s possible.

I made the point in my review that some of the theological insights you bring to bear are powerful but not really new. Can you describe the theological work you tap into for the benefit of a wide audience?

I worked hard to make the same point you make. Eco-feminist theologians, liberation theologians, the social gospel movement, mimetic theorists, and others have been making this case for many, many decades. My sense is that their combined efforts are now reaching a tipping point, especially (as you say) in the context of climate change and other urgent matters.

Bringing this from ivory tower to the street (via songs, sermons, prayers, rituals, books, blogs, etc.) is necessary, as is a new understanding of movement organizing in relationship to institutions. So I would not argue that this is new in a way that would call previous attempts failures; I would say that long-term processes are in motion that invite our creative participation.

Given the entire thrust of the book, it was a bit churlish of me to expect you to launch a full-on critique of finance capitalism. But am I wrong to think we can never take our eye off this huge but hidden domination system?

On the issue of capitalism, that was beyond what I felt could be productively handled without making the book too long for anyone to read.

I’m reminded of something that a friend who consults with the government of China was told by a Communist official: “We know that our current economic system isn’t working. We know we need a new one. Whatever it is, it will still be called communism because our constitution requires it to be so named.”

I don’t know what a just, generous, and sustainable economic system should be called, nor do I know how to get from where we are to where we should be. So for now, I want to focus on trying to build a spiritual movement that takes us in the right direction, in hopes that those matters will become more clear as we move forward. That’s especially the case in this critical time; we don’t know if we will be able to bring about the kind of civilizational shift needed to avert catastrophe, or if we have already crossed certain thresholds—environmental, social, political—that have already made cataclysmic collapse inevitable.

We often have to move forward (in faith!) without knowing exactly where we are going.