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.)


Anonymous said...

I understand McLaren's methodology for creating a more pluralistic Christianity. However, I am wondering how his thesis incorporates evangelistic doctrine. Can you be both pluralistic and evangelistic? If so, how?

jinjanblog said...

Ruth thanks for your critique; I agree, but I’m thinking of an even more basic start. Not only do Christians need to be in conversations with “the religious other”; we need to dialogue among ourselves and begin to practice neighborly love toward the persons who sit in the pew next to us - those who we may see as “the other” - either ethnically or culturally, and also with Christians who may have different denominational affiliations. When we Christians can learn to love one another, we will be more able to be neighborly to others. Many of us have the audacity to sing with zeal “In Christ There Is No East or West” on Sunday and don’t allow those lyrics to impact our day-to-day living.
I’m glad McLaren addressed the topic of pluralism; the world is moving in that direction whether we do or not. We need only to recognize as neighbor those with whom we worship, live next door to, or work beside. Dialogue is a good approach both within our sanctuaries and without.

Bethany said...

I think McLaren is spot on in urging Christians to remember their history, and that it would be a good thing for us as a western nation to do as well, Christian and non-Christian. Because I think many of the interactions we as a nation have had with others in the past are seen by those others through a religious prism, and it's important for us to understand that, even if that's not how we remember those interactions.

I appreciate your critique of McLaren, Ruth. It is very true that different groups will have very different conversations with Christians, and I think it's very important for Christians to understand that. I've noticed a lot of well meaning Christians, including family who know me well, want to have a dialogue with me but don't know how to start one because I'm an atheist, and all they have to work with is "other religion" in their mental toolbox. Of course the same could be said of many non-believers I know, who tend to lump every religious person they meet into "generic christian," which is not a helpful place to start a dialogue from either.

Thanks for doing your part to help that dialogue progress though. If this world makes it, it will be because of people like Ruth.

Angelina Duell said...

An even handed critique. I agree with what jinjan had to say as well. I would say though that we have to find a middle group. If we focus all our attention on talking amongst ourselves we run the risk of isolation and stopping dialogue with people from other traditions.

Wesley Menke said...

Hi Ruth, nice post. I think I hear a criticism of pluralism in general. What constitutes "religion" varies from culture to culture. Visiting a Hindu temple in India to make an offering serves a different role than say meditating in Buddhism or singing hymns in Methodism. They are not interchangeable. Yet this fact is what makes inter-religious dialogue so fascinating, because there isn't a one to one connection between religions, it means that each religion has something to learn from the other. This is what John Cobb called, "mutual transformation."

Jon Visitacion said...

Hi Ruth! I think you have a valid point, which is furthered with Wes' comment. As Christians, we need to address, admit apologies where needed, and try to create a practice in which we interact with other religions differently from before. But what this chapter may be hinting towards is not just a new kind of Christianity, but new kinds of religions. What about a new kind of Islam? A new kind of Judaism? I fear that it may be naive for me to suggest something like that from a Christian point of view. As McLaren suggests in question #10, I think all religions should survey themselves and ask what quest they are on. I believe that it is not just Christianity that may need to move onto another hue. Nevertheless, I do believe that we can do something that creates openness to dialogue, peace, and understanding.