It’s time to stop drawing lines between “us and them” and start finding ways for people of different faiths to live together without compromising their beliefs or resorting to violence, Brian McLaren said in a talk in Sylvania on Monday night (Jan. 28).
“One of the things I think we know more than ever, since Sept. 11, 2001, is that we who are committed Christians live in a world with people who are committed Muslims, committed Buddhists, committed atheists, and committed Hindus and we have to figure out how we live in a world with passionate convictions and commitments without blowing each other up,” he said.
McLaren, 56, was the founding pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church in Spencerville, Md., who left in 2006 to pursue writing full time. He has degrees from the University of Maryland and Carey Theological Seminary and has published a dozen books, including “A New Kind of Christianity” and “A Generous Orthodoxy.” McLaren, who now lives in southwest Florida, is widely known for his work with the "emerging church" movement.
Anthropologists believe hostility and an “us versus them” mentality served a purpose in the distant past when human beings needed to band together as hunter-gatherers, McLaren said. But today “it’s a different game,” and a suicidal one, with the world’s arsenals stocked with nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.
“We are at a point in human history where what might have had survival value 30,000 years ago now threatens our survival,” McLaren said in an hourlong talk at Sylvania First United Methodist Church. His Monday night lecture to about 120 people preceded his participation in the Ohio Ministries Convocation 2013 held Tuesday (Jan. 29) at the Sylvania church.
McLaren’s focus on finding commonalities among different faiths is the topic of his latest book, “Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road? Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World,” published Sept. 11 by Hachette Books.
He gave the book a whimsical title, he said, because “religious people can get pretty serious – deadly serious sometimes,” and he wanted to “let people lighten up a little bit.”
Committed Christians have typically taken one of two paths in dealing with those of other faiths, he said: an “us versus them” approach that fosters hostility toward the other, or a sense of benevolence hinging on a weakening of one’s own faith. “Their basic message is, ‘I know you’re a Muslim. I’m a Christian, but my religion’s not that important to me so let’s be friends,’” he said.
McLaren believes there’s another, more viable, option that can build and sustain interfaith relationships without compromising religious beliefs.
“As I was doing the research for the book, one of the misconceptions that I had to confront is one that I held myself – that the problem is that our religions are so different and it’s our differences that keep us apart,” McLaren said.
But different faiths have much in common, he said. The similarities get lost, however, when people try to strengthen their own religious identity at the expense of others.
“I’ve actually become convinced that our differences aren’t the problem,” McLaren said. “What is keeping us apart is one thing that I think all religions have in common, and that is a tendency to build a strong identity through hostility toward the other. So Christians tell stories about how those Muslims attacked us and mistreated us, and Muslims tell stories about how those Christians attacked us and mistreated us, and Jews tell stories and people tell stories about Jews and Hindus tell stories about Buddhists and Buddhists tell stories about Hindus…”
Catholic theologian James Alison summed up this tendency well, McLaren added, when he said, “Give people a common enemy and you will give them a common identity. Deprive them of an enemy and you will deprive them of the crutch by which they know who they are.”
McLaren said there are historical, doctrinal, liturgical and missional issues challenging Christians in today's multifaith world.
But Christians willing to take a fresh look at doctrines and liturgies, which often have caused division, will discover “healing teachings” that build bonds between different faith traditions, he asserted.
An example, he said, are teachings on the Holy Spirit. The first verse of the first book of the Bible, Genesis, states that God’s spirit was “hovering over the water.”
“The Holy Spirit is active in the world before there are any churches, before there were any people, before there are any living things,” McLaren said. “So if we believe the Holy Spirit is active in creation, then wouldn’t we assume that every Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist is bumping into the Holy Spirit left and right? They might not use that word, but they live and move and have their being in the presence of the Holy Spirit.”
McLaren said the doctrine of the Holy Trinity can be seen as an example of how God’s own nature serves as a model of “oneness in otherness,” an exemple to humankind of a “unity that is not torn apart by differences.”
And the fact that the Bible contains four Gospels, not just one, also can be viewed as a divine example of how diverse groups can live in harmony, McLaren said.
“Maybe it’s an indication that there we’re better off with multiple points of view than just one point of view,” he said. “The form of Scripture can tell us that otherness and multiple perspectives are a benefit, and not a disadvantage.”