Saturday, February 20, 2010

When Jesus Said Love Your Neighbor He Meant Pagans, Buddhists, and Athiests Too: Brian McLaren and Pluralism

Pluralism is the idea of “Can’t we just all get along?” This question for Christians becomes especially acute when dealing with religious pluralism, because it is necessary to respect and understand other traditions. Christians have seriously screwed this up in the past; our relationship to the religious other has often been one of violence, destruction and outright murder. We need to create new ways of relating to other people, and we need to figure this out quickly. In my experience it is this form of intolerance that causes some of the worst backlash against Christians.

To start off with, there are two models that people have basically proposed for why and how to be pluralistic:

The Simpsons Model

The American religious landscape has changed greatly. No longer is it safe to assume that each person that we meet is Mainline Protestant Christian, but instead it is a very real possibility that our neighbors, our teachers, or our coworkers follow a much different spiritual path than our own. Pluralism, that ability to know and respect other traditions, becomes a necessary technique for survival as a good citizen in the United States. Diana Eck wrote the seminal book, Pluralism in America, about just this topic. But if you want a more entertaining model to see how pluralism works in the United States today look no further than the television show The Simpsons. One of the major themes of the show is how religious differences can lead to conflict and how eventually understanding leads to a stronger community. Springfield is a typical American town and pluralism has become a very typical American question.

The Apocalyptic Model

There is another urgent model for the necessity of pluralism. Many point to the nuclear age that we live in as justification enough for needing to understand each other. The potential for violence and the ability to destroy all human life is at humanity’s fingertips. Preventing total destruction is a relatively new responsibility for mankind. Since religion has become a major justification for violence, people tend to get nervous over religious conflict.

This is the approach that Brian McLaren starts with. He says:
We all woke up again today in a world where Christians, Muslims, and Jews (along with adherents of many other religions) are either killing one another or planning new ways to kill one another, and many believe that in doing so they are obeying and even pleasing and honoring God.

McLaren shows here how religion sometimes can be used to justify this killing. This model for pluralism does not set out so much how we should relate to each other, but instead emphasizes why we need to figure this out. And we had better do it fast.

McLaren's Model

However, the brilliance of McLaren’s approach to pluralism is that while he frames the necessity for understanding each other in the global sense, he approaches the problem on a deeply personal level. He doesn’t map out responses for Christianity on at a state or international level, but instead focuses on three steps any individual Christian can take to becoming more Pluralistic:

1) Repent of crimes done in the name of Christianity
2) Deprogram knee-jerk, trained responses to the idea of accepting other traditions.
3) Find a new, Christian model for dealing with the Other.

Repentance: Educate Yourself
To repent, you need to educate yourself. Christians have forgotten our history of encountering other religions, and by encounter I mean for the most part abusing, enslaving, or murdering those of other traditions. However, those we have harmed in the past do remember this history. “They remember,” McLaren says repeatedly. To be able to enter into religious dialogue, we need to be aware of this history of violence so that we can apologize for it and overcome it.

Deprogram: John 14:6 doesn’t mean what you think it means
One of the struggles Christians have with pluralism is the idea of superiority in both terms of having the most evolved spiritual tradition and having an afterlife paradise for just us Christians. McLaren tackles John 14:6, the verse that is often used as Jesus reserving God just for those who follow in Jesus's footsteps. Instead of looking at this verse as a worldwide declaration for Christian exclusivism, McLaren does a thoughtful exegesis of the verse IN CONTEXT with the rest of the passage. Instead McLaren points to how this is a message of comfort and hope to his disciples, NOT a prescription for kicking everyone else out of heaven.

McLaren suggests that the reason that we think of this verse when asked about pluralism is because we have adopted an “us/them” model from the Greco-Roman culture. This us/them then is not a genuine part of Christianity, but instead an unfortunate cultural artifact from a dominant group wanting to maintain their secure place at the top of society despite adopting this radical new spiritual movement. Therefore being good Christians does not require this exclusivist outlook on other traditions, but instead could actively encourage ways to love our neighbor including their religious outlook.

New Model: Love One Another.
McLaren stresses that the new model also needs to be rooted in Christian choices, images and perfection. He explains:

[Christians] also feel uncomfortable with the win-lose, “it’s either us or them’ mind-set they have inherited, because they know this mind-set too easily descends into prejudice, dehumanization, and violence toward the other. But they also feel uncomfortable with the “Whatever you believe is fine, as long as you’re sincere” approach. Just as the former fuels fear resentment, and even hatred toward “them,” the latter undermines commitment and identity among “us.” I share this ambivalence, because I think both dangers are real.
Relativism, the reduction of everything to equally the same, creates a problem for Christians who intend to be a pluralist. Pluralists need to walk a fine line between respecting other traditions and yet still finding value rooted and caused by our own particular spiritual path.
McLaren’s solution to this problem is to not be a relativist, but instead be a Christian Pluralist. He points to several scripture passages, including Paul insisting that God treats all equally (Romans 5:12-21), the tradition of the religious outsider doing God's will in the Hebrew Scriptures, and Jesus stating "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another" (John 13:34). These examples provides a model for the way we can interact with the religious other and do so within a framework compatible with Christian teachings. Christian love of the neighbor really can expand to include the whole world.

Critique of McLaren’s Model
The problem with this model for pluralism is that McLaren tends to use religious groups interchangeably. This subtly recreates the us/them dynamic that he was trying so hard to eliminate. Although I recognize that McLaren is focusing on the way that Christians should act with the religious other, it still strikes me as deeply problematic to think that Hindus and Atheists and Jews could be interchangeable. Not only do Christians need to change our own behavior, we also need to understand the distinctions between these very diverse and separate groups. Although I recognize that it is incredibly difficult to do that in this small of a chapter, undoing the us/them distinctions really does need to start with breaking it down even when these conversations are most cramped.

McLaren suggestions do give us a model of behavior that will start good conversations with the religious other. How those conversations will progress will not be the same, because what is of utmost concern to an atheist will not be the same thing that drives a Jew to keep kosher. However, acting out in deep neighborly love will lead to rich discussions. Christians need to start and take part in these dialogues, especially if we are going to be good neighbors and effective world leaders. McLaren’s model teaches us as Christians how to listen and that will put us in a very strong starting place for how to find our voice in a world that needs Pluralism and a thoughtful Christianity.

(This post is a classroom wide series of posts about Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian.)

Saturday, February 13, 2010

A Christian debates an Atheist – can any good come from this?

My Theology after Google professor is debating Daniel Dennet, one of the four “New Atheists.” Clayton threw the glove down via YouTube, showing that new technology can still be used for old-fashioned challenges. Here is the challenge:

I am rather uncomfortable with this idea. Not because I think that atheists are terrifying or unreasonable, quite the opposite in fact. In my experience the many atheists I know have come to their conclusions from a thoughtful and patient examination of their soul (inner world if you prefer) and have chosen a system of beliefs that give them life and meaning. This journey is not unlike my path towards relevancy and hope inside my Christian tradition. We both have worked pretty hard at this; I respect and honor their path, just as my non-theist friends have respected and honored mine.

Like most belief systems, even systems of non-belief, there tends to be some obnoxious loudmouths that claim to speak for the whole movement. The Dawkins and Hitchens of the world tend to be as much fundamentalists as Pat Robertson because they claim the absolute truth and most of the media’s attention. This should certainly be splashy.

And so I worry that this debate will not bring about respect, but just louder yelling at each other. Professor Clayton says “let’s talk out of our common ground,” yet, I’m not sure that a “Debate” is even the right structure for bringing about a way to find that common ground. In my mind’s eye, I see two men at a podium waving scriptures (be it the Bible, Whitehead, or Darwin) and declaring this to be a fundamental truth, there can be no other! I know that this is probably not the case -- they will be sitting down in chairs, sipping tea, and creatively, wittily calling each other foolish.

Of course I’m going to watch this. Like a moth drawn to flame, humans are drawn to controversy, and I’m no exception. And yet I’m dearly hoping for something absolutely boring. I want Clayton to say: “Yep, I’m totally an atheist if all you define God as is an old white guy with a beard” and Dennet to say: “Yep, I’m totally theistic if God is the idea that humans can hope and love.” So I am watching this with all the expectations of a car going into the wall, but really hoping instead that it turns out to be a boring 500 laps around a track.

All right, my non-theist friends, my theist friends, my pluralist friends, my “we’ll never get along” friends, my somewhere in between friends, what do you think? Is this kind of debate a good idea? Or how would you go about starting a dialogue between atheists and theists in such a way that would uphold the positive aspects of both?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

iPhone Brain

One day I forgot to close the cap on my water bottle as I put it into my purse. Within moments everything was drenched to the core, including, oh horror of horrors, my iPhone. Quickly realizing I had achieved the pink line of warranty-voiding doom, I scoured the internet searching for a way to bring my phone back from the white screen of death. After submerging my phone in rice for two tense days, hoping that this miracle cure would work, I wrestled with the idea of going without a smart phone. Giving up that smart phone, even though I had only had it a mere six months, would have felt like giving up an arm.

In his excellent and accessible explanation of Marshal McLuhan, Callid Keefe-Perry states “technology is the extension of the human senses.” For example, a radio can extend the sense of human hearing, because it lets us hear things from a different moment or farther distance than our present time and place. The sense that the internet extends is memory. Like language and writing before it, electronic information access is expanding my universe beyond my own experience and lets me encounter the experience of the other. The iPhone, for all intents and purposes had become my memory. Yes, this memory is slower and more unorganized than my own brain, but it is much more precise and can extend beyond my own first-hand knowledge of the world. I am now part of a collective of minds all contributing thoughts, facts, impressions that I can access with this phone at any moment. As Angelina points out, my iPhone brain found me a way home even though I was on roads that I had never been before because of its GPS and mapping instructions let me tap into that collective knowledge of place. Giving up the iPhone, giving up the smart phone technology, would be like giving up a large chunk of my memory.

And yet, I turn off my phone whenever I enter a time of meeting or worship. This has become an important part of the entering into worship ritual for me – get a bulletin, give out hugs, sit with my pewmates, take a deep breath, and turn off the cell phone. Although I still feel that heart-palpitation of vulnerability from letting it go, I realize that this centers me more than all the other rituals combined. I am cutting off that memory, that extra-sensory technology, when I enter a time and place to connect with the Holy. While I know many who have added smart phone technology to their worshiping experience and tweet along to sermons, read Bible verses, or use it as a stand-in candle, I know in myself that the reason I turn it off is because I disengage from that instantaneous precision and connection to all humanity for just a moment. Perhaps, this is a new equivalent of closing eyes and bowing heads for prayers; that this is my way of shutting out the rest of the world and allowing myself to reach for that one on one encounter with God. Technology is extending the human senses, and sometimes, to be in the moment, I feel that deep need to give it up.

For more about McLuhan's description of technology or to get a better handle on what this whole Theology after Google class is talking about, here is Callid Keefe-Perry's video:

Monday, February 8, 2010

Is the United Methodist Church Macy’s or eBay?

“Small is the new big. Mind you, big is still big… Big Box stores such as Home Depot continue to drive mom-and-pop hardware shops out of business. Even small churches are being turned to condos thanks to the rise of megachurches.” (Jarvis, pg. 55)

I bet that the small churches that are turning into condos are members of the mainline denominations. Yet, as of 2000, there are roughly 6.5 million United Methodists across the United States and most of those members are scattered into small churches. On the other hand, a non-denominational megachurch may well have 8,000 people attending that one church. Some megachurches, such as Mars Hill churches in the Seattle area have started many satellite churches throughout the area (one wants to ask if this is the start of a new denomination?), yet that still is only a coalition of 30,000 people connected to each other instead of the millions of United Methodists.

Jarvis suggests that eBay’s 2007 sales figures of $59.4 million is an example of “small,” because each of those sales figures originate from individual sellers. (The corporation that owns Macy’s sold less than half of that the same year.) Yet an individual seller would not have had the same market opportunities nor would a buyer would have the same guarantee of safety, had not they made their transaction through eBay. Sure, this is an example of a “small is the new big,” because the individual generates the product and the sales, but it is still an example of how being big gives you advantages.

To me this suggests that the importance of the rule “Small is the New Big” is as much a matter of perception as it is numerical reality. Big is old fashioned, slow to change, and disempowering to the individual. Yet, being physically big is good, as long you feel small. Here, small is a measure of how much an individual is empowered to make their own goods and services readily available to others and profit from that networking. This is why not all bigs are created equal – and I would happen to agree. The internet age does privilege those gigantic connections, such as eBay, that empowers and connects.

Yet, right now, the mainline denominations resemble Macy’s more than eBay. Yes, we do have an enormous amount of sales, but how much does this feel like prepackaged goods? How much does the individual feel like they can offer their own goods and services into this connection and benefit from using the denomination as a resource? Do we feel big: monolithic and slow to change, despite our small churches; or do we feel small: letting individuals feel like they are empowered to offer their own personalities and services because of that connection? Perhaps the reason that megachurches have been so successful is the ability for an individual to feel like they have access and attention within this large structure; perhaps the megachurches just don’t feel that big.

The United Methodist Church is both small and big. I think the lesson that I’m going to learn from this is to examine size not so much in terms of numbers, but in terms of perceptions. It doesn’t matter how big we are, it matters how small we feel.