Christianity, pluralism and truth

This challenging book was published 7 years ago, but I hadn’t come across it until I found it in a pop-up bookshop selling off remaindered books. I thought it would have something interesting to say to me, and I was right. It raises some important issues and I think it is worth sharing where it took me.

Introducing …..

Brian McLaren (in case you didn’t know already), is an American pastor, writer and speaker who has been influential in developing new approaches to christian faith. He is much maligned by conservative christians as “liberal” and destructive of conservative christianity. This is the fourth of his books I have read, and I have heard him speak at a mini conference. I remain ambivalent about his ideas, but read this book because I felt sure it would challenge me..

McLaren and religious hostility

In this book, Brian wrestles with an issue that has become significant in first world countries with a christian heritage – how should christians relate to those of different faith who are their neighbours, colleagues and fellow citizens?

For most of us, this is a new question. In my first three or four decades, I cannot recall knowing a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu or a Buddhist. I did meet a Baha’i couple when I was about 30, but they were the only ones I can remember. It is of course very different now, with synagogues, mosques and temples in major cities around the western world.

McLaren sees hostility as being characteristic of how religions relate to each other, because each religion tends to see itself as superior to the others. When European countries were all nominally christian, this superiority led to overseas missions and colonisation, with its sorry record of oppression and violence. But now our neighbours may have a different, or no, religion, this sense of superiority can lead to friction.

So he poses the question – would Jesus have been hostile and competitive if he met other religious leaders in the street or in a bar?

Principles to live by

McLaren sets out a number of principles that he believes should guide us. Some that seemed most significant to me were these ….

  1. We should understand God by understanding Jesus.
  2. Belief in the uniqueness of Jesus doesn’t mean that other religions are false and dangerous.
  3. We should avoid the two extremes of strong, hostile christianity and weak, benign christianity, and seek a strong but benevolent faith.
  4. Hostile religion results from seeing the world in a “them vs us” way.
  5. We need to confess and repent of christianity’s past violence towards

I pretty much agree with these – except I’d prefer to re-phrase #2 as “Belief in the uniqueness of Jesus doesn’t mean that other religions don’t contain truths” – so I was interested to see where he goes from here.

Pluralistic christianity?

McLaren believes we must re-interpret christianity to fit with these principles:

Doctrines

Doctrines such as creation, original sin, election, the Trinity, etc, are interpreted in non-violent and inclusive ways that will, he believes, lead to reconciliation between opposing religious beliefs. Believe that the Spirit of God is at work in places we mightn’t expect and among people of different faiths. He endorses all the conventional christian doctrines, but his approach to the Bible wouldn’t please conservative evangelicals.

Liturgy

Christian worship, baptism, prayer, etc, should, he believes, be renewed so they reinforce our identity in “the transcendent and inclusive kingdom of God”. The eucharist should be seen as an inclusive table of fellowship rather than a remembrance of blood sacrifice. The Bible must be interpreted non-violently.

Mission

This is the real challenge, and this section probably contains the core of his agenda. How can we do evangelism or mission if we want to avoid competition with other faiths? Here Brian offers some really useful insights but also some problematic (in my view) and unclear suggestions.

Be friends with people of different faiths or no religion and refuse to see other-minded people as enemies or to treat them as anything less than people God loves. Augment these “subversive friendships” with cooperation on an organisational level. He thinks this can only be done if we give up any intention to convert them or to suggest our belief is superior to theirs, but I think we can (and should) have mutual respect, robust friendships and peaceful cooperation without those restrictions. Christians will choose to serve others.

Do good. The church is supposed to be an expression of the kingdom of God on earth. We are supposed to be carrying on the mission of Jesus – lifting up the broken-hearted, freeing the oppressed, bringing good news to the poor and recovery of sight to the blind. And, he would argue, caring for God’s creation, living sustainably, making peace and being light in the world. These are things we can do in cooperation with those who believe differently.

Salvation becomes closer to what it meant in Jesus’ day – wholeness, freedom from oppression and saving “souls from the dehumanising effects of hostility to God”. This includes repentance and undoing of past colonial oppression in which the church was too often complicit. I think he misses some of what the apostles teach about salvation as spiritual renewal, but it is all good as far as it goes.

Sensitivity to others – he sums up Gandhi’s advice to christian missionaries in India:

  • Begin to live more like Jesus.
  • Practice our religion whole-heartedly, without holding back.
  • Emphasise love.
  • Study non-christian religions more sympathetically and find what is good in them, so our approach to others is more sympathetic.

It is telling that these insights, which I believe reflect the Spirit of Jesus more than many churches do, came from someone outside our faith.

Enthusiastic endorsement …

As I have already outlined, there is much in Brian McLaren’s thought that I think we should learn from. Interpreting God through understanding Jesus, seeing no-one as enemies, building friendship relationships, repentance for past evils, seeing the kingdom of God as being larger than the church and “our” doctrine, building a better world in cooperation with those with different beliefs, emphasising love – these are all good things we should all be able to endorse enthusiastically.

If we took up these challenges, the church would be a better institution and more effective in its mission.

….. but questions and doubts

But as I read through, time and time again the question in my mind was: Is it true that other religions should be seen as just as much expressions of God’s kingdom as we understand christianity to be?

I have the feeling that Brian would say this isn’t a question we should ask; we should just get on with following Jesus.

This response could be understood in two ways.

  • Either God doesn’t care much about belief, but is more concerned about behaviour, so why think about the relative merits of different religions?
  • Or, if we live out the way of Jesus, we won’t have to argue that following him is better than following any other teacher, it will (or won’t) just become obvious.

For most of the book, I felt he was hinting at the first conclusion. In the last chapter, he seemed to lean a little towards the second.

Does it matter?

I think it does matter. My own faith is built on my conclusion that the evidence points to Jesus being the “highest” revelation of God. If I didn’t think that, I don’t know that I could continue to follow Jesus.

I spend a lot of my time writing an apologetics website and discussing faith with believers and unbelievers. They want to know what is the truth, and some argue most vehemently that getting it wrong will lead to wrong thinking.

So truth matters to many people, and I have thought hard about the questions Brian raises in this book. I have concluded that following Jesus is like being part of a centred set. Like cattle in a dry area will gather near the water bore, without any need of fences, so will people of goodwill be drawn towards the truth and towards the one true God. Some teachers, some teachings, are closer than others, but all agree on some things.

So, like Brian, I don’t think this means the other religions are all wrong, I just think none of us knows truth perfectly, and so some teachings, some teachers, are less right or further from the centre than others. For example, I believe the Buddha had some useful insights, but Jesus reveals God in a deeper way.

But I don’t think we can affirm historic christianity, as Brian does, without the inference that Jesus has something to offer that other religious teachers don’t (to say the least!). I don’t think truth and logic work that way. Either Jesus is “the name above all names”, or he isn’t.

The last word

I think Brian keeps hidden what he believes about the truth of the different religions, in the interests of building bridges. I suspect if he said what he believes, he would lose some of his audience.

But I think most of what he argues for in this book is achievable, and should be our aim, without needing to be quite so relativistic. We christians and our institutions must become more loving, more willing to see the good in other beliefs, more willing to work together, and more sensitive to how we express our belief in Jesus.

If you don’t like your cage rattled and your faith challenged, then I wouldn’t read this book, or anything else by Brian McLaren. But if you are open to learn and to change, and able to learn from what you can accept as true and look past what you can’t accept, this book has some good insights and good stories.

Too many christians react with horror and certainty about McLaren’s perceived doctrinal errors, and miss the good that they desperately need to hear and act on.

Some further reading

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