How I Got Here

Essay by Brian McLaren on 11 April 2019 2 Comments

 

I grew up in the fundamentalist Christian sect that gave the world the Rapture, the Left Behind industry of movies and books (and bad politics), and a school of biblical interpretation called Dispensationalism. Like any heritage, my Plymouth Brethren upbringing gave me many gifts: deep interest in the Bible, a passionate desire to do what is good and right, a willingness to challenge convention, and a yearning to live for a cause greater than myself.

But it also faced me at an early age with an inconvenient and uncomfortable truth: religious people (like all people) can be unquestionably certain of things that are highly questionable as soon as you step outside their bubble. My tribe was certain that they possessed the only legitimate interpretation of the Bible: no pastors (male or female) – only a plurality of elders, no women allowed to speak in church meetings; all women wearing “head coverings” in obedience to the literal commands of 1 Corinthians 11; a weekly “Spirit-led” communion service without any written liturgy (although the unwritten liturgy was quite rigid); no denominational name (we gathered “unto Christ alone,” which, in a heartbreaking irony, made us better than everyone else!), and so on. Our self-assured superiority faced us with a real problem: if we weren’t right, nobody was, and any step out of our elite circle was a step down into darkness, compromise, and error.

If this sounds like a seventeenth-century mindset, it may be, but based on my inbox, in the current century it is still surprisingly common in a variety of groups, from Pentecostal to Restorationist to hyper-Calvinist to Independent Fundamental/Baptist.

As a young teenager, I remember thinking that I was probably on my way out of Christianity altogether, but my escape plan was thwarted by a powerful spiritual experience combined with a mentor who started giving me books by Francis Schaeffer and C. S. Lewis. Both figures are complex and fascinating, and both defied fundamentalism before they came to define it, but they are now among Evangelical/Fundamentalist patron saints. 

For me, as a curious Brethren boy of sixteen or seventeen, Schaeffer and Lewis were gateway drugs into greener pastures. They were thoughtful, intelligent, well-read. They appreciated great art, great literature, history, philosophy, and even science. (They also drank alcohol, a strict taboo for my tribe back in those days.) Of special importance for me, Schaffer was concerned about the environment, and C. S. Lewis saw literary imagination as an organ of faith.

By the time I got my BA, my career plan was to go on to graduate school to become a college English teacher, like C. S. Lewis himself, and to open my home to spiritual seekers, as Francis and Edith Schaeffer had done. 

But I began to hit some road bumps in graduate school. An afternoon seminar on theories of literary criticism became a turning point for me. We had just read Stanley Fish’s Self-Consuming Artifacts, which led to a discussion of new schools of literary criticism that included “reader-response,” “post-structuralist” and “postmodern,” and as that conversation unfolded, I had a moment of insight that took the form of a metaphor of almost visionary quality. 

First, I pictured the great minds of modernity, each climbing up to stand on his chair (the male pronoun fit in those days) so he could look down upon his peers. Whether it was Darwin, Freud, Hume, Bentham, Skinner, or Marx, each used every tool of critical thinking at his disposal to cut the legs out from under the chairs of every rival theorist. A Freudian, for example, could show how other theorists reached their conclusions due to the dynamics of their Oedipal or Electra complexes. Marx could show how others were simply working out their class conflict. Bentham or Skinner could explain away the beliefs and positions of others based on a theory of “felicific calculus” or stimulus-response programming. 

Each theorist reduced every other theory to a phenomenon that it could explain and therefore explain away. But each theorist made one small exemption in applying its critical, reductionistic gaze. Each theorist cut the legs out from under every rival theory but never applied his own theory to undercut himself. Freudians never said that Freud’s theory was nothing more than the product of Freud’s psycho-sexual aggression, and therefore wasn’t necessarily true; they actually seemed to believe Freudianism. Darwinians acted as if the human brain evolved to enhance survival, not necessarily to discern truth, and they could apply their theory to every case except the development of their own theory, which they saw as a pristine, objective pursuit of truth. Marxists never said that Marxism was nothing more than a tool for class conflict; they actually seemed to believe it was true, and its truth lent a moral quality to their project. Their own theory-making work was exempted from their critique of other theories. That struck me as supremely unfair, even dangerous: an act of reductionistic aggression that could justify great harm. 

Suddenly, I saw in a new light the violence of the modern era, from colonialism to Stalinism to Nazism to nuclear war to the environmental crisis. Smart people, armed with excessive and un-self-critical confidence derived from their absolutized ideologies, could commit unspeakable atrocities without having second thoughts.

I saw in the few hours of that graduate school seminar something I have not been able to un-see ever since: the danger of excessive confidence and of critical thinking that exclusively critiques others but not oneself or one’s own group.

What was happening in this “postmodern turn,” I realized, was that the scholar standing on the chair was taking out his conceptual sword and, in an act of “doing unto oneself as one has done to others,” was cutting out the legs from under his own chair. This self-critical act, it seemed to me, had a profoundly moral motive: it aimed to disarm ideologies that claimed superiority and supremacy and put us all back on the same level ground as frail and fallible human beings.

But that moment of insight quickly turned into a moment of terror: weren’t C. S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer, along with other Christian apologists I admired, acting just like typical modernist thinkers? Weren’t they simply climbing up on their chairs and using their Anglicanism or Calvinism or Thomism or other forms of Christianity to cut the logical legs from beneath all their rivals, thus proclaiming their own superiority and supremacy?

I distinctly remember thinking, “If this postmodern way of thinking ever catches on, the Christian religion is in a heap of trouble,” which was followed by a thought I’m not terribly proud of: “I hope this postmodern thing doesn’t catch on!”

But of course it did. And even if it hadn’t caught on, the seed was already sewn in my own thinking. Modernist Christian absolutism, whether in its Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, or Charismatic forms, had lost its luster for me, and I was launched on a quest for a different way to be Christian, and human.

That’s one reason why, later in my graduate studies, I was so attracted to Catholic novelist Walker Percy. He was the first Christian thinker I had ever encountered who seemed to understand this postmodern turn. (He wrote about it in a brilliant essays like “The Message in the Bottle” and “The Man on the Train.”) Following Kierkegaard, he proposed that there were two different kinds of communication: the so-called objective communication of the academic or scientist, and the predicamental communication of the living human being who knows that he or she will die, and who speaks out of his or her existential crisis. (Later, I would discover that Michael Polanyi made a similar distinction, between impersonal and personal knowledge.)

This thought process continued to unfold as I finished graduate school, became a college English teacher, helped start a congregation, and then left teaching to become a pastor. 

Preparing sermons and leading Bible studies each week actually got me reading the Bible more than I ever had, not just a famous verse here or there, but all the verses in between. It became increasingly clear to me that the theological framework I’d inherited didn’t fit the actual data. Meanwhile, our congregation had an influx of people who didn’t grow up in the church, and they came with their questions, which I often found superior to the set of answers I had been taught by Lewis, Schaeffer, and others. More forward-leaning authors like Leonard Sweet and Dallas Willard helped me gradually break free from some of my remaining fundamentalist grave-clothes.

These experiences prepared me for the brilliance of Walter Brueggemann, even though my conservative background prejudiced me against him because he was seen as a “liberal.” Brueggemann saw tensions and differences among biblical writers not merely as “contradictions” to explain away (as fundamentalists did) or to expose (as other critical scholars often did), but rather as arguments. These seminal arguments presented faith as an ongoing conversation and quest for understanding rather than a fixed and fluid systematic theology or bombproof ideology. In a sense, Brueggemann gave me back the Bible, and helped me see that a fixed “Christian worldview” was neither biblical nor wise. What we need instead of a fixed worldview or doctrinal system is an ongoing Christian conversation that welcomes diverse viewpoints and expects everyone to keep learning, never forgetting what has gone before, but not being imprisoned by it either.

The need for diverse viewpoints prompted me to listen to more non-white, non-straight, and non-male voices, including gay theologians like Dale Martin; feminist, eco-feminist, and womynist theologians like Sally McFague, Ilia Delio, JoAnn Badley, and Wil Gafney; Latin American liberation theologians like Rene Padilla, Jon Sobrino, Gustavo Gutierrez, and Leonardo Boff; Black theologians like Dr. King, James Cone, and Howard Thurman; African theologians like Kwame Bediako, Mabiala Kenzo, and Allan Boesak; and indigenous theologians like Richard Twiss, Randy Woodley, Randy Aldred, and Mark Charles.

When I first encountered the early Jesus Seminar, it jangled all my remaining fundamentalist nerve endings, and it also alarmed the emerging post-modern part of me because I felt it had a modernist, reductionistic tone. But that began to change when I read The Meaning of Jesus (HarperOne, 1998) in which N. T. Wright and Marcus Borg engaged in civil but real debate. Of course, I was predisposed to prefer Dr. Wright because he had an Evangelical reputation, and Wright’s book The Challenge of Jesus (HarperOne, 1999) was profoundly important in my own theological growth. 

But I was also attracted to Marcus Borg’s gracious tone, and when I met Marcus in person, I saw that gracious tone embodied. The same was true with Dominic Crossan, and I began to read more of their joint work. They engaged with Scripture with far more depth and attention to detail than any of my conservative scholars had, and, it seemed to me, as time progressed they went beyond modernist critique and even postmodern deconstruction and attempted a more constructive re-envisioning of the Christian message and story in light of their research. I sensed the same movement in Jack Spong’s later work. Borg and Crossan also took the theme of empire and imperial violence seriously, and in that way, they, along with Richard Horsley and others, forever enriched the way I read the four Gospels, and forever changed the way I saw my own Christian tradition’s history.

Along the way, I was helped greatly by the work of Nancey Murphy, Stanley Grenz, John Franke, Jack Caputo, and Richard Kearney as they put theology in conversation with postmodernism. John Haught’s “theology of evolution” work was also deeply liberating for me, as was Philip Clayton’s multi-faceted scholarship, and both prepared me for deeper engagement with John Cobb and other process theologians, not to mention Tiehlhard de Chardin. I was also helped along by readings in poetry and fiction (especially Nancy Oliver and Wendell Berry), spirituality and mysticism (especially Richard Rohr and Cynthia Bourgeault), social history and “big history” (especially Jared Diamond and Ken Wilber), and anthropology (especially Rene Girard).

As a result of all these influences (and so many others), I felt increasingly free and increasingly curious to engage with thinkers and activists from other religious traditions. As I did, I came to appreciate what John Cobb called “the incommensurability” of the world’s religions, and simultaneously, the potential for their diverse resources to be brought to the table for a multi-faith, multi-sector conversation among the whole human community as we face our current quadruple crisis: 1. the life-and-death challenges of climate change and ecological collapse, 2. unsustainable and growing economic inequality and exploitation, 3. the ever-present danger of catastrophic war, and 4. the failure of our world’s religions to provide an inspiring and visionary way forward.

One constant and stabilizing influence on me through all these changes has been the outdoors. Whether hiking trails, naming trees, listening for bird-songs, fly-casting for tarpon, keeping tortoises, tending gardens, planting mango trees, observing stars, or studying dragonflies, I’ve always felt that the book of nature has been my most profound and delightful teacher, and has turned me into an incurable contemplative.

That’s how, in case you wondered, a fundamentalist boy could grow into a sixty-something man honored to be a progressive Christian voice in a global, multi-faith conversation. If you want to know more about my journey, of course, you can read my books, which are like crumbs dropped along the way, and check out my website, brianmclaren.net.

 

~ Brian McLaren

above image: Alan S. Maltz 

 

Question

 
I believe in God but not an interventionist God. There is too much suffering in this world both amongst believers and non-believers. If we study cosmology in the micro- and macro-universes, God must surely be quite a different being (or non-being) if He is in charge of all the things going on in His Universe. Indeed one cannot blame people for not believing in God as He is presented in many of the belief systems we have on this earth.

On the other hand, I do not begrudge those of my children who are fundamentalists; better that than being non-believers and not following the teachings of Jesus.

Is it not possible that Jesus did not die on the Cross, but merely passed out, coming to in the cave and making those appearances described in the New Testament? There are many instances of such “miraculous” recovery even to the present day and many of His miracles can be explained scientifically.

Answer

 
Dear Kevin,

Thank you so much for writing.

No, we can’t blame people for not believing in God, especially those versions of God that don’t align with our beliefs or values -- a God that is irrational, wrathful, vengeful, male, white, etc. But thousands of years ago, we placed God on a “throne” because that’s where our lords and rulers held the world in their hands, able to control forces like war, hunger and suffering as well as peace, prosperity and community. We now have more direct and personal control over these forces in our life, and along with it has come a different conception of God -- a responsibility to remake God in our own image, not the image of a king, emperor or avatar. When someone is using old language or an old map, we tend to question why they haven’t caught up with the times, rather than challenge ourselves to draw new maps together.

I’m a pluralist, so I’m not sure I agree with the statement “better [to be a fundamentalist] than [to be] non-believers and not following the teachings of Jesus.”

I think that the aims of loving God (and one another) can be found in many of the world’s faith traditions. I see it in the worship of “one God” and adherence to religious law found in Judaism and Islam. I see it in the selfless service of the Sikhs. I see it in the social justice focus of the Unitarian Universalists and the Baha’is. I see it in the mysticism of the Sufis and Jewish Renewal. I see it in the metaphysics of Unity and Science of Mind. I see it in the eco-spirituality and “creation care” of many Christian communities (Episcopalian, Methodist, UCC, etc.). I think there are much “better” alternatives than to be a fundamentalist of any religion.

For the Christian, the question is, “How are suffering and hope encountered and identified in Christ?” Christ needs to remain the gateway to understanding our place in this world. He is the archetype and the larger idea. He is the mutation of consciousness that we have been given in order to grow beyond ourselves.

Pray with Him and keep me posted.

The second part of your question is a little easier for me to address.

Are there modern-day cases of people being buried alive or returning to life? Sure.

Is it possible to attempt to scientifically explain an event like the resurrection? Sure. But, without any 2,000-year-old evidence or eyewitness accounts, it remains conjecture.

Are there people who claim that Elvis and Tupac Shakur are still alive and living in an apartment somewhere? Yes. Those people are delusional and/or they have not properly been shown how to grieve.

Regardless of its historicity, by attempting to explain this event away, we rob the event of its meaning on many levels, including the impact it has on our very souls.

Mythically, we rob Jesus of his ability to “overcome the world.” The primacy of the resurrection and the days that follow are pivotal in this story. Jesus “lived on” in the hearts and visions of those that knew him. That is where we must still look for him today.

Metaphysically, we rob ourselves of the ability to achieve salvation through Christ. This can happen once-in-a-lifetime or it can happen daily. But we must be able to surrender ourselves and give over all of our pain and suffering and “sin” to Jesus in his ninth and final hour. We must commit ourselves to entering the dark night of the soul -- the via negativa -- with Jesus at his crucifixion. Because on the other side of that is the via creativa. On the other side of that is something new in ourselves, something resurrected and reborn.

And, we rob the women who witnessed the resurrection of their stories. Why were these women the first to see (and hear) Jesus after his death? Why were they chosen? What makes them special? What did they have in common? What is the feminine experience of this witnessing and this resurrection? There is a social significance to the shared vision of these women who were the first to enter into the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God. And there’s been enough robbing women of their stories throughout history.

These are great questions. Keep them coming and thank you for keeping the conversation moving forward.

Sincerely,

~ Joran Slane Oppelt

 

Comments

 

2 thoughts on “How I Got Here

  1. Brian – thank you for an article which I thoroughly enjoyed reading. Like you, I have gone through and continue to go through a soul searching process. Not by my “own” choice but circumstantially, I have seen the Catholic worship, got baptized and confirmed as an Episcopalian and then now go to a Lutheran church. I was born into a Hindu family and grew up as such as a liberal Hindu. But I have always been fascinated with Christianity and Buddhism, esoteric organizations and metaphysical aspects of all religions including Islam. At times, I have wondered if there is something wrong with me; my friends are also puzzled as to how I can consider myself worshipping the same God through different religions and denominations.

    Sometime back, it struck me that the two commandments on love that Jesus spoke about – love God with all your heart and mind, and love your neighbors as thyself are fundamental to all religion and denominations. It dawned on me that despite what anyone may say there is only God. In this day and age, what is most relevant is the second commandment on loving our neighbors is what is of utmost importance to humanity. Accepting this has freed me of my doubts and confusion. Yes, indeed God is Love and Love is God. When seeking advice, a Buddhist monk in not too distant past advised me to pray to “God of Love.”

    – Joe

  2. Dear Brian: You said, “That’s how, in case you wondered, a fundamentalist boy could grow into a sixty-something man honored to be a progressive Christian voice in a global, multi-faith conversation. If you want to know more about my journey, of course, you can read my books, which are like crumbs dropped along the way.”

    Well, I grew up in a Chinese church in Taiwan which was the first religious fundamentalist organization I entered at my young age of 9. Before that I actually grew up in a loving family of parents with an elder brother and three younger sisters during the Sino-Japanese War. But we knew that we were loved by our parents. In our family worship my parents often invited some of their students to our home and just sang portions of the biblical features in both old and new Testament verses. I learned to sing Psalm 23rd, and Psalm 27th or 29th, and from the Book of Romans by Paul, etc. My father had spent four years in the Seminar but he was not ordained. He had wanted to translate the books of Kierkegaard into Chinese. Since the Seminary leaders did not like that, he simply quit at the end of 4 years and went back to his original college training in chemistry. Dad taught chemistry until I was in the 8th grade. But we always went to church on Sundays. So I became a member of Presbyterian Christianity. The nine years in Taiwan was all Presbyterian Fundamentalism which remained there even today. From the age of 18, however, we attended a church of Presbyterian USA until I was 68. I served from being in the Choir to teaching Sunday schools, to being a Deacon, and was ordained an elder. My Dad left me with several books, including 《新理学》(A New Treatise on Reasoning)by Professor 冯友兰(Feng Youlan 1895.12.04~1990.11.26), Ph.D., and 《The Courage To Be》by Professor Paul Tillich.
    In addition, my Dad laughed at the funny way as to how the precious blood flowing down from Jesus could cleanse the sins of the people in the world! He also described the teaching by Jesus was like a beautiful work of art that was totally messed up by “others”, which I now reason it to be by Paul (Saul), by Augustine, and by the Roman Empire in AD400. Then in 2001, when I was still in San Jose California, Bishop John Spong came to our church and gave a talk on Saturday plus a sermon on Sunday. I attended both times and asked him if he would allow me to translate his 1991-1992 book《Rescue the Bible from Fundamentalism》 into Chinese, and he approved it. My personal life, however, went through some changes in the following years as my wife Amy and I moved to Suzhou, China in 2008. I had to go back to teaching for four years before I finally retired for good. I finished my translation of that book in 2006 and happened to be in New Jersey in October. So I was honored to pay a visit to Jack at his home with Christine being their. It happened to be very shortly after Jack sustained a stroke, so the visit was short and sweet. I showed him a copy of my manuscript. He also allowed me to translate his newer book of 2016. Not long after I came back to China, however, I also got my stroke in May, 2017. And I stayed in the hospital for ten days. Fortunately I was able to recover back almost to normal after two years. In the meantime I got appointed by the leaders of ProgressiveChristianity.org to be their representative to China. In 2018 China announced the decree of her 《Regulations of Religious Affairs of P.R.C.》 so I have just made my application to the Bureau of religious Affairs in Beijing for a retroactive action of 1600 years back to the decision made by the Roman Empire to forcibly require all people to believe in the Roman Catholicism. That was after the killing of Jesus in 30AD and all his Apostles except John, plus the continued persecution until 400AD. It became a conglomeration of the Jewish Torah with the New Testament into what they declared as personally written by God and was wrapped up into the “Holy Bible.” I used the newly minted Chinese laws and regulations on Religion to accuse the Roman Empire of crimes in violation of the first five articles in chapter 1 of the 《Regulations of Religious Affairs of P.R.C.》 in order to request for approval by the P.R.C. to allow me to talk with all the Chinese churches in the cities of China.
    Eugene, from Suzhou, China

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