Toward a Non-Malignant Faith: An Interview with Brian McLaren

For people who appreciate clear thinking expressed with precision and elegance, Brian McLaren has for many years been a figure to watch and take seriously. McLaren is prolific, but each of his books has been produced with care—in the fullness of time, as it were, as his thought has matured and as his sense of the crisis facing American Christianity has deepened.

In Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? McLaren takes up a vexing question posed by Dean M. Kelley 40 years ago: Why isn’t there a Christianity that is both passionate/orthodox and also reasonable/progressive (my terms)?

What McLaren is after is a Christian faith that is not automatically hostile to other faiths and to no faith: he calls this “strong-benevolent” Christianity, observing along the way that only active peacemakers can really claim to be connected to God with any real degree of credibility—a point that should be obvious but isn’t.

McLaren explores the origins of the oppositional identity that infects Christianity along with other faiths, noting that the “colonizing mindset” has been and remains especially strong among Christians ever since the Emperor Constantine ordered crosses on the banners of his Roman armies. The historical section includes an interesting aside on the options available to the Prophet Mohammed in the face of a highly aggressive Christianity (submission and conversion not being among the likelier options).

As the 500-year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation creeps up, McLaren is calling for four significant reformations in Christian self-understanding: historical, doctrinal, liturgical, and missional. McLaren’s doctrinal reformulations are already quite widely accepted within the theological community but have still not reached very far down into everyday preaching/teaching. He touches deftly on the key Christian doctrines in need of refreshing: creation, sin, election, Trinity, Christology, and Holy Spirit (“pneumatology” to the uninitiated).

In a pivotal chapter, McLaren acknowledges that the movement toward a generous orthodoxy—toward finally excising the imperial and hostile malignancies embedded within the Western Christian inheritance—will surely encounter resistance; he adds that the answer to anxiety about getting attacked is to trust the “resources for self-correction” God has already given. He then goes on to describe what applying the right amount of “creative disturbance” might look like, not just in doctrine but in liturgy and mission.

I spoke to McLaren while he was braving “carmageddon” in Los Angeles this past fall.

 

Talk about why so many liberal Christians, pastors included, run from their own Christianity—why they have been so slow to embrace the kind of “strong-benevolent” faith that you are writing about in this book?

I think some of the embarrassment and unease about particularity goes all the way back to the Thirty Years War: an experience so traumatic that for centuries after Europe longed for a non-religious space in which reasonable people might safely meet and interact. Christians seeking escape from brutal religious conflict did not and do not want to wrestle with particularity, not realizing that the problem might be with their take on particularity and not with the particularity itself.

I’m still with G.K. Chesterton: the Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried. Which is not to say that I disparage the many achievements of liberal Christians from the Enlightenment onward. It’s just that now we need a Christianity that is both deeply generous and strongly rooted in Jesus. We need to rediscover Jesus as the great, the indispensable treasure.

Your chapter on the need for some “creative disturbance” seemed right to me, but don’t you kind of lowball the difficulty of pushing out your new thinking? You yourself cited Jonathan Haidt on the immense power of the “groupishness” residing in the strong-hostile form of Christianity.

I’m not underestimating the difficulties but I really am calling for more trust in the Holy Spirit. Which to me doesn’t mean avoiding responsibility but instead means exercising great care about the change we need—balancing courage with humility, and boldness with gentleness—all fruits of the Spirit. Most essential is making sure we use just means toward just ends, not bullying or demonizing anyone. It should be possible, it must be possible, to employ non-hostile means to achieve a new non-hostile expression of Christian faith. In the church we cannot operate with the hostility that is now normative in the political space and even in the academic space: the win/lose frame.

The way forward for this strong-benevolent Christianity has two parts: first, starting up alternative faith communities that have a strong-benevolent faith as their cornerstones, so to speak; and second, building a compelling trans-denominational movement that puts forward a coherent set of social proposals that fully express benevolence.

What we can’t do is hector or humiliate the people who are not yet ready to walk with us. That again, I think, has been a problem for the liberal Christians of the postwar period; they won on almost everything—civil rights, women in leadership, divorce, abortion, LGBT inclusion—and they were able to decide what was respectable from positions of institutional power. This serene self-confidence partly explains why they missed or misunderstood the conservative surge. We can’t go down that road gain. We have to be generous to people who disagree with us; we cannot be insensitive to the trauma and distress they feel in these fast-changing times. 

Want to be more specific about steps forward?

As I write in the book, I think we have many of the reformulated doctrinal pieces in place, or at least within reach. If I were to weigh the substance of the new thinking against what’s left of the old paradigm, it seems clear that the scales have tipped. The liturgical and missional changes to come will rest on a firm theological foundation, which doesn’t mean that there is not a lot of work still ahead on those fronts. My hope is that we will be able to get enough different people who specialize in the historical work, the doctrinal work, the liturgical work, and the missional work to begin to relate to each other and listen to each other as a broad and deep transformation gathers force.

The liturgical change will happen when pastors begin to spend even 20% more time on better hymnody, on better prayers, and on better preaching that doesn’t hammer people over their residual malignant beliefs but that instead makes non-malignant generous ideas about God overwhelmingly attractive.

The missional change will happen when clergy and congregations start breaking down old boundaries in Jesus-like ways. I’m all for Christians calling for public policy change in behalf of the poor, but I’m also all for churches inviting the business leaders in their midst to get to know some poor people—to get to know what being poor in American is really about, which is losing their voice and losing their personhood. Invite the business community leaders to apply their smarts and their hearts to shaping something new, to creating new opportunities for the lost and the least.

We American Protestants have a strange idea about what the “priesthood of all believers” means. We think it means giving people little jobs to do inside the church—that it’s about institutional maintenance. We need to be urging an energized and equipped lay priesthood to minister to the suffering world outside the church doors.

I’m worried about how little time we have to get all of these changes firmly rooted. You?

We should all be worried. A Native American sage once told me that the world cannot survive 500 more years of Christian domination. It may be more like 50 years. Until we feel that our toes are already hanging over the edge of the precipice we have not taken the problem seriously enough. But I think the change is coming. I wouldn’t be giving my life to it if I didn’t think that our Christian faith can still become a saving faith, a life-giving faith, instead of what it has been. All of us, however, need to look hard at how much of the old arrogant “Christendom” stuff is still hanging around—in our institutions and in our mindsets. Some might wish to think of all that as part of the richness in our tradition. I think we should instead view ourselves as the rich young ruler when it comes to what we inherit from strong-hostile Christianity: we must sell all that we have to keep Jesus.

One last question. Your participation in your son Trevor’s same-sex wedding ceremony certainly drew some venomous comments recently. Did these bother you? They sure would have bothered me.

I decided I wasn’t going to read them. My wife did read them and called me in tears over the way people attacked our son and family. (She’s used to the attacks on me.) I must say that I have gotten a great many private messages from leading evangelical and even charismatic leaders who want me to know that they do not endorse or share the venom expressed in the published comments. Many progressive Christians have sent kind and supportive messages, too. 

peterlaarman@gmail.com'

Peter Laarman is a United Church of Christ minister and activist who recently retired as executive director of Progressive Christians Uniting in Los Angeles. He remains involved in numerous justice struggles, in particular a campaign known as Justice Not Jails that calls upon faith communities to critique and combat the system of racialized mass incarceration often referred to as The New Jim Crow.