People of faith are again on the move, journeying away from broken religious belief systems based on static traditions, toward a more integrated Spirit-led way of life which engages all mankind and promotes unity rather than division, according to Brian McLaren.
Brian begins by explaining about how his personal pilgrimage began as a fundamentalist Plymouth Brethren, but then migrated to the evangelical “Jesus Movement” in the 1960s, and then propelled him into the progressive end of the “Religious Right” in the 1980s-90s. Today he invites readers to join him on a further migration toward a more contemplative path of Christian discipleship dedicated to manifesting the inner transformation and compassion of God toward our hurting culture.
Brian likens modern Christianity to the familiar COCA-COLA brand of soft drink. The packaging leads us to expect something inside which we can rely on as sweet and refreshing. But if the contents of the can become unsatisfying often enough, the brand will ultimately be rejected by consumers.
This rejection of the Christian belief system (can) is prompting a cultural migration away from organized religion in search of a “vision of reconciliation with God, self, neighbor, enemy and creation,” writes McLaren, which now encompasses Catholics, Evangelicals, Protestants and Orthodox Christians and even other faith traditions.
At the root of this migration away from symbolism and toward true spiritual substance (within Christianity and other major religions) is a startling realization that over time organized religion often stands for the opposite values which their original founders lived for, or died for. Jesus warned about how the traditions of men can choke out the life of God’s spiritual movement, often requiring a fresh prophetic movement to call us back to first things.
Sadly, most of Christianity is like a house that has fallen into disrepair, says McLaren, who is challenging those who love God to engage in the work of “careful demolition for salvation, not destruction,” (Think Nehemiah; clearing the rubble of war-torn Jerusalem walls and calling for community rebuilders).
The world today is awash with calls for “negative unity” — the affirmation of what we dislike most, or feel compelled to protest against. But McLaren’s call is toward something more elevating — “positive unity,” which seeks to focus on building new models of hope.
Standing firmly against positive unity and hopeful transformation is what Brian calls, “your little inner fundamentalist,” which always feels threatened by change which calls into question strong previously held beliefs. “Thank God Christianity has a rich tradition of changing course,” writes McLaren.
“Conversion is a permanent process,” says Catholic theologian Gustavo Guitierrez, “in which very often the obstacles we meet make us lose all we gained and start anew.”
All this proposed change requires a big dose of humility — a willingness to go back to square one — something which most church leaders resist because they feel they’ve already paid a heavy price climbing up the spiritual ladder.
McLaren offers a detailed threefold plan to help facilitate this great spiritual, theological and missional migration patterned after Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday, which are symbolic of death… reflection… and resurrection — of letting go … letting be… and rising up.
PART 1 — THE SPIRITUAL MIGRATION — From a System of Belief to a Way of Life
“The trajectory of our whole life is determined by one thing, the image of God we live our lives by.” -Doug Sherman, Letters From God
For billions of Christians worldwide the most important element of their faith today is correct beliefs, according to McLaren. Yet Jesus seemed to put more emphasis on correct actions (Matt. 5: 3–12) good fruit (Matt. 7:15–20) and internal contents, rather than external containers (Matt 9:17, 23:25).
What matters most is not the letter of the law or strict literal Biblical interpretation, but rather the meaning and application of the truth contained in the Biblical stories, which, as one rabbi told Brian, becomes “bottomless wells of meaning.”
Jesus seemed to side more with the prophetic/mystical traditions’ emphasis upon relationship and orthopraxy (good practices) rather than upon the scholarly/ priestly emphasis upon rules and orthodoxy (good opinion/creeds).
“When beliefs become a primary marker for belonging, religious gatekeepers gain one of humanity’s greatest powers: To excommunicate or to expel,” writes McLaren.
To effect change from a belief-based faith to a lifestyle-based faith Brian quotes the wisdom of Buckminster Fuller; “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
I especially like Brian’s analogy about what religion can learn from science in Chapter two.
Science begins with a mystery, a hypothesis, then after repeated experiments progresses to a tested theory — only after exhaustive testing is it considered a scientific fact. But if any scientific fact is disputed by new evidence, a good scientist must be willing to humbly abandon old facts and conclusions. Science has a deeper love for truth and their testing methods than previously-held facts.
Brian feels it’s high time religious communities learn this lesson from science and begin to hold our “facts” and beliefs more lightly when new evidence is brought to light — thereby exhibiting a greater commitment to the truth — by admitting that to cling on to wrong facts, beliefs or doctrines held firmly in the past is wrong.
Christ summarized all of the law and previously-held belief systems into a single new commandment: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. This simple, non-discriminatory and unconditional love which He exhibited is what mature disciples of Christ should also aspire to. The Apostle Paul confirms this saying, “The only thing that matters is faith expressing itself in love.” (Gal. 5:6)
“If the Christian faith can be redefined by practicing a dynamic pursuit of love and compassion, rather than focusing on teaching correct beliefs, our whole understanding and experience of the church could be transformed into a school of love,” says Brian, who suggests a good start would be to incorporate reading I Cor. 13 (the love chapter) into our daily devotional reading and reflection.
The highest level of love is “seeing God as an event of communion,” says McClaren. This is also referred to in the contemplative traditions as seeing the world as a “unitive field” in which dualistic perspectives are abandoned. This new spiritual ascent must be compassionate and inclusive of all previous levels.
The bottom line of Part I: We need to make our lifestyle the priority and our belief system a distant second or third. Brian closes with a reminder of the emphasis Jesus impressed upon his disciples; He said “follow me” 87 times in the gospels, yet He said “worship me” … “name a religion after me” … “recite a creed about me”… “erect a building in my honor”… zero times!
PART II — THE THEOLOGICAL MIGRATION — from Violent God of Domination to Nonviolent God of Liberation
“Religion may be viewed as a spectrum of light — ranging from the fundamentalists to the mystics. Our place on this spectrum depends on our level of spiritual expansion and knowledge.” -Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs
Part two of this book is a real eye-opener as it traces the violent history of Christianity. “Most Christians are shockingly unaware of the violence of our history…denial has replaced humble awareness,” says Brian as the opening salvo in Chapter 4, “The Genocide Card in Your Back Pocket.”
McLaren is referring to the God-sanctioned violence we see in the Old Testament (i.e. Deut. 7, I Sam. 13, Psalm 137:9). “Until you grapple with these passages and other like them, your Bible is like a loaded gun and your theology is like a license to kill.”
So how can we convert Christianity from a “warrior religion to a reconciling religion?” asks Brian. The transformation begins “If you face the dark sides of our Christian past…feel the discomfort, deep anger and heartbreak in the short-term rather than living in long-term ignorance, deception or denial.”
McLaren details the Christian atrocities starting in 313 A.D. under Roman emperor Constantine extending to the dark ages of Holy Wars, including Columbus’ “Doctrine of Discovery” which reduced Muslims and all other non-Christians to enemies of Christ and thereby empowered “the Church” to plunder, murder and enslave indigenous people of color worldwide.
“Sadly this deadly mingling of racism, empire and Christianity was not the exception, it was the norm,” bemoans Brian. The doctrine of white Christian privilege continues in America today wherever the Bible and God are used in service of racism and violence.
In the life and teaching of Christ we see a radical rejection of domination and supremacy in all it’s forms. The theological term for this rejection is “kenosis,” which means self-emptying.
The God whom Jesus showed us appears to be very different from the dominating, dictatorial Supreme Being revealed in the Old Testament.
“Jesus descended the ladders and pyramids of influence instead of climbing them,” writes Brian, “He released power instead of grasping at it, served instead of dominating…To follow Jesus is to change one’s understanding of God… For the world to migrate away from violence, our concept of God must migrate away from violence.”
To better understand this migration process McLaren offers a computer upgrade analogy, which ranges from God 1.0 to God 5.0.
Brian views the starting point for everyone at the childish God 1.0 level, where all that matters is you. Then we grow up and begin to discover the “joy of generosity,” which marks our moving to God 2.0.
As we enter young adulthood and learn the rules of fair play and safety we graduate to God 3.0. At this stage we view God’s job as “to reward the rule keepers and punish the rule breakers.”
Many Christians remain stuck in the judgmentalism of God 3.0 until they are genuinely touched by the gracious love of God, or when they fall in love with another and begin to learn “the art of sacrifice, the grace of granting forgiveness and the humility of asking for forgiveness,” says Brian.
This movement beyond the “simplicity of rule-keeping brings God 4.0 into view — a God of affection, fidelity, forgiveness and family.”
The next step upward is God 5.0 which requires an even bigger leap of faith. “The only problem with God 4.0 is that it is still “the God of the exclusive ‘we’ who shows favor only to ‘us’ but not ‘them’ — meaning those outside our religion, ethnicity or tribe.”
The exclusive ‘we God’ needs to be upgraded to an inclusive, non-dualistic God, an ‘all of us and them God’ which extends to “all of humanity and all living things within the ecosystem in which we all share,” writes McLaren.
“We are all part of one family tree, one web of life and we need our understanding of God to embrace that reality.” Like the growth rings on a tree, each new and larger concept of God naturally will transcend and include all previous concepts.
Although there are many spiritual and cultural forces at work today resisting a movement from God 4.0 to 5.0 McLaren remains a hopeful optimist. We have made great progress in the U.S. and abroad at beginning to erase racism, sexism and violence, but “our understanding of God must continue to change and grow…A great theological migration has already begun.”
In Chapter six McLaren tackles the slippery slope of biblical interpretation and how it has often presented God as violent in many places, yet non-violent and loving in many other places.
While most conservative, fundamentalist Christians are taught to always interpret Scripture “literally”, Brian makes the case that the Bible can also be interpreted as “literary”.
“An integral approach allows us to see that different voices in the biblical library held opposing view points and the tension between these view points forces us to see the wisdom and the weakness of both sides,” concludes McLaren.
McLaren argues that when you read the Bible from an integral/literary point of view, “Jesus become even more beautiful, important and essential. Rather than satisfying a wrathful God, Jesus deconstructs the conventional concept of a Supreme Being who is capable of murder, genocide or geocide…Jesus reveals a generous God…manifested in gentleness, kindness and love…this vision inspires and empowers us to become nonviolent ambassadors of a new way of life, servants of all, ministers of reconciliation, agents of liberating mission.”
PART III — THE MISSIONAL MIGRATION — From Organized Religion to Organizing Religion
“The vision must be followed by the venture. It is not enough to stare up the steps. We must step up the stares.” -Vance Havner, Road To Revival
Part three is a treasure chest of ideas about how to move this spiritual and theological migration into the next phase of cultural transformation. Brian begins by focusing on social movement theory, as he has an opportunity to sit with a doctoral candidate on the subject while awaiting a flight home from Africa.
Despite the tendency toward institutional stagnation over time, McLaren explores the dance between healthy and unhealthy institutions and movements. Most institutions are born to serve the community needs, whether religious, educational or governmental, but when institutions become self-serving they are ripe for a fresh, community-led movement to propose positive change and renewal.
“Today the church is stuck in a dangerous stalemate,” says McLaren. “On one side are good-hearted people loyal to their religious institutions, fearful of compromise, and willing to excommunicate anyone calling for change. On the other side we have morally passionate counterparts; sick of empty traditions, disgusted by the money and energy needed to keep the institution afloat.”
The Bible is full of examples of fresh ‘movements’ which sought to move the people of faith toward a bigger view of God’s purposes, such as; Moses, David, the Prophets, Jesus, the Apostle Paul, the Desert Fathers and Mothers, St. Patrick, Celts, St. Francis, St. Clare, Wesley, Pentecostalism, Social Gospel, Charismatic, Jesus Movement, Religious Right and modern Contemplatives.
Because of the magnitude of social, political, economic, spiritual and cultural crisis we face today, McLaren resonates with scores of emerging leadership perspectives that are now calling for inter-faith and multi-faith solutions.
McLaren defines interfaith evangelism as; “Inviting people to heart-to-heart communion and collaboration with God in the great work of building a beloved community, seeking first the Kingdom of God and God’s justice for all.”
I found Chapter 10, “The Broken-Open Heart” very inspiring because it prepares readers for the reality of suffering and difficulty in joining God in this great spiritual migration.
According to educator and spiritual sage Parker Palmer, a tragic gap exists between what is and what should be — and the stress of holding this gap can break our hearts in at least two ways.
“First, the heart can be broken into a thousand sharp-edged shards and then aimed at the source of our pain, an unresolved wound, often hidden. In contrast, our heart break can increase our compassion for others,” write Palmer.
“In the Christian tradition, the broken-open heart is virtually indistingishable from the image of the cross. The tensions of life can pull the heart open like the crossbeams of the cross — to hold everything from despair to ecstasy.”
Jesus came to earth to disrupt comfortable spirituality. McLaren reminds us that “the spiritual migration we need is not merely from one static location to another, but rather from one static location to a journey of endless growth…If you want to see the future of Christianity as spiritual migration,” says Brian, “don’t look at a church building, rather go look in the mirror and look at your neighbor.”
McLaren offers some wise counsel regarding how best to respond to critics… “I realized that the reactions of my critics were not my greatest danger, nor my greatest enemies, but rather, my greatest danger lay in how I react to my critics with immaturity, pride, fear and insecurity within me.”
Brian McLaren ends his dynamic call to join him in becoming transforming agents with an uplifting story of a friend, Dieter Zander. Deiter was a multi-talented pastor, speaker and musician who suffered a stroke which stripped him of his ability to speak overnight.
“Before the stroke, I was working for God…working, working working,” said Dieter, still struggling to talk after years of therapy. “Now, I playing with God…playing, playing, playing. Much better.”
Deiter’s life today consists of working in a grocery store cleaning floors and bathrooms, yet one day he clearly heard God’s voice telling him, “Urinal holy. toilet holy, grocery store holy, everything holy.” “Now, instead of playing God, I’m playing with God — at play in God’s good world where everything is holy,” says Deiter.
“To rise to the occasion of this great work we must descend in humility, to see what Dieter now sees; we are but children at play with God, living in a world where everything is holy…to relax in play, in God’s limitless grace,” concludes McLaren.
I hardily recommend this book to all who feel called to jump into serving the purposes of God with both feet. May we rise up with wings like eagles in this great spiritual migration toward intimacy with our loving Creator to bring healing our hurting culture!