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Calling for a New Kind of Christianity

Interview With Brian McLaren

Image credit: Hannah Davis

Brian McLaren is a prolific author, speaker, activist, and public theologian. He is a former church founder and pastor and is a leader in what is being called “Emergence Christianity.”

Brian McLaren is a prolific author, speaker, activist, and public theologian. He is a former church founder and pastor and is a leader in what is being called “Emergence Christianity.” It’s a post-colonial, postmodern Christianity. His numerous books include Faith After Doubt, The Great Spiritual Migration, A New Kind of Christian, and the upcoming Do I Stay Christian?

S&H: When we talk about “a new kind of Christianity”—I saw that quote on your website—what factors have led to that to be necessary?

McLaren: I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian setting. Fundamentalist Christians, and a lot of people don’t understand this, are super rigid in their theology but they are super flexible in their methodology. I never would have guessed this as a little kid growing up where you had to wear a white shirt to church and a tie, and the music was piano and organ, that fundamentalist churches would today be filled with people in blue jeans singing rock and roll. In fundamentalism with see a methodological flexibility and a theological rigidity. Then I moved into the mainline Protestant world. What I found there was theological flexibility and methodological rigidity. So they weren’t afraid of critical biblical scholarship, they weren’t afraid of asking questions about sexuality and science and so on, but, you couldn’t mess with the committee structure. Or you couldn’t tamper very much with the liturgy. One of our great problems is that almost all of great traditions, if not all of them, need a radical rethinking of both our methodology and our theology.

Where spirituality fits in… you could make a case that the third tract would be spirituality, and the thing I had to come to terms with, was that none of the religious options available to me seemed to be taking spirituality seriously enough. That is changing, I think but as it changes, then the other two problems of methodology and theology become a problem. So for examples, thousands, millions of Christians are discovering real spiritual help in yoga. And for some they are finding that they really can make a connection between practice of yoga and their Christian identity. But then they go and sit through an hour of liturgy where they never move their body except to stand up or kneel and they think ‘why do we have to pretend for this hour that yoga doesn’t exist?’ Figuring out how we can share the treasures of different spiritual communities and integrate them without losing our identity, that is a problem every tradition feels.

A lot of readers say, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” Where do you draw that line?

It’s not easy to draw. For some religious people, they---for people who grew up religious, they get tired of their religious but don’t want to lose the spirituality at the heart of it.They might say my inherited religion no longer satisfies me, but that doesn’t mean I’ve thrown it all out. I think the younger we go the more this is true, the people who grow up without any religion. Their thing is, I’m not religious but I don’t think science and politics and economics have all the answers either. When they use the word spirituality, that is what they mean. We have people meeting in the middle, both from the secular side and the religious side who see spiritual as something important. It’s not identical with religion. But it’s easy to lose if you throw religion out the window.

When I often hear in the news about religious freedom, I get frustrated because I feel like it’s always the most conservative religious views that get talked about being protected. I’m like, What about my religious freedoms and views, which are much more inclusive? Why aren’t they the ones protected? What do you say to someone like me?

Look, I feel the same way. The freedom to impose the majority religion on a minority is what it often means. I wrote a lot about a case with some Christians along the border who were leaving out food and water for migrants so they wouldn’t die, and this was an expression of their religious faith. Every discussion, whether political, economic, interpersonal, every discussion, has a matter of content and a matter of power involved. We can be talking about the content but if we aren’t aware that someone is gaining or losing power, someone is inconvenienced, or someone is advantaged. This is why we have to gently but firmly remind people that when they use a word like “religious freedom” it needs to be defined and no discussion between human beings happens in a vacuum. Everything happens within negotiations about power.

Tell me how you view Jesus as a religious leader within this new kind of Christianity you are writing about and practicing.

One of the things I inherited as a Christian, I didn’t know this, but I inherited a set of categories we use to talk about Jesus. A lot of this has to do with theological controversies that happened in the 4th century and have come up again and again since. I have chosen not to argue about those categories. Some people want to defend them, and some people don’t. There is a scholarly place. What happened to me is that Jesus became way more interesting to me apart from those categories. This happened to me by accident. I was a preacher and working with the Gospels every single week and the more I actually read what was there, I saw that other things are going on here. Things about power, how power is supposed to be used. Things about values that challenge the structures of religion. So what has become increasingly clear to me is whatever else you want to say about Jesus, he led a movement. You could say there were antecedents to his movement, his cousin John for example. Jesus is a movement leader and what he was starting was not a new religion, it was a spiritual movement within his own religion.

What seems to have happened is we turned it into a religion and lost the movement. When you look at Jesus as a movement leader you see what a radical he was; he was arguing for a completely different view of the world. A different set of values. A completely different way we should treat each other, a different way we should look at money. How we look at leadership and authority. Those to me are the most interesting things about Jesus. … We have every right to look at what Jesus actually said and did and what was he trying to change.

People often say they wish they could travel back to be near Jesus, because he probably was a pretty spiritually radical person. Over time he’s become a cozier figure.

Yes, that’s right. I was a pastor, and I write and speak about theology. But I don’t think these questions will be solved with someone coming up with a powerful argument. They need to see individuals and communities living a way of life that when they see it, they think “That’s right.” Here’s my hunch: When people see others living that way of life, they will say, “That is what Jesus was talking about. And it’s kind of what the Buddha was talking about. And Mohammad…”

Do you feel like what is happening now is a sea change happening within Christianity, or is this always happening with organized religions?

Yes. Let me say two things. It is happening across traditions. I have Jewish friends who are so heartbroken over Israel and what is happening with the treatment of the Palestinians, it is so out of synch with so many of their own religious colleagues who seem careless with the human rights of the Palestinians. I know a wonderful Catholic theologian Ilia Delio, who suggests that all our major world religions, Islam, Judaism, Christianity, this is less true with Hinduism, arose in the first axial age, where big breakthroughs happened, and we are entering a second axial age. Our rules of the game are very different, and our set of problems are very different, and our questions being asked are very different.

Read more full interviews with Spiritual Radicals here.