It has taken a lot of time, a lot of scripture reading and a great deal of thought, to get to the end of Brian McLaren’s “Why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road?” for a second time. McLaren is coming to the UK in the autumn on a book tour, talking with leading figures from other faiths in the UK (the wonderful Mona Siddiqui in Newcastle, for instance), and his other books, of which I have only read a handful, are listed here.
As ever, there are some glaring omissions in his theology, which critics keep jumping on, and he hardly touches on issues such as the power of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers and the church. However, his aim is to present a reading of the bible in a way that is within the scope of a strong Christian faith and identity, benevolent towards others of other faiths or of none, and thus comes from a strongly pacifist, non-violent and non- or anti-imperialist perspective. With all this I fundamentally agree. It is only that I have been brought up as a Christian within exactly the same teachings/prejudices as McLaren, and have not walked the path that he has, that I struggle with some of the readings.
This second time through was harder because I needed to challenge everything from the scriptures to see if he had misread what was actually there, or whether I had simply interpreted the scripture from my own worldview – this happens a lot to Christians without them realising it. I read large parts of it on a reflective day at Clare Priory on the Suffolk/Essex border (for a westerner like me, this is almost like a foreign country!), and in some respects found the second reading much tougher to cope with. I was happy with the liturgical sections of the book, but found parts of the doctrinal challenge quite hard to fit into what I knew God to be like. There are some strong points made throughout the book that we need to bear in mind, though:
- Doctrine is for healing and for inclusion, not for law (this is excellently argued).
- To pick and choose among the scriptures is not falsifying them, but treating them well and in accordance with the practice of both Jesus and the early writers.
- The way we see God has to be through the lens of Jesus, and therefore the understanding we have of God from the psalms and elsewhere in the old testament needs revision in light of the gospels, which, we must remember, were virtually the last piece of the bible to be written.
The stories that McLaren tells are, as always, the most fantastic things. His account of trying to get into the gated enclosure of a Maryland mosque the day after 9/11 to encourage the imam and stand in support with him is wonderful.
Despite my reservations, I then got to the final chapter, which set to rest a whole range of my incipient objections, and made me realise that actually it is within the context of my own love for Jesus and his desire for God’s love and kindness to be fully known, and with all the deep understandings that 34 years of following him has given me, that McLaren’s vision still stands and does not fundamentally threaten. In the final chapter, he discusses the work of the missionary and missiologist E Stanley Jones, who went to India as a Methodist missionary and wrote of his experiences in a book called Christ of the Indian Road. There are some excellent quotes from his work here. He became, in later life, a good friend of Mahatma Gandhi, wrote a biography of him, and in a remarkable conversation, fully reported by Jones in Christ of the Indian Road, it says:
“Mahatma Gandhi, I am very anxious to see Christianity naturalized in India so that it shall no longer be a foreign thing identified with a foreign people and a foreign government, but a part of the national life of India and contributing its power to India’s uplift and redemption. What would you suggest we do to make that possible?”
He very gravely and thoughtfully replied: “I would suggest first of all that all of you Christians, missionaries and all begin to live more like Jesus Christ”. He needn’t have said any more – that was quite enough. I knew that looking through his eyes were the three hundred millions of India and speaking through his voice the millions of the East saying to me, a representative of the West itself “If you will come to us in the spirit of your master we will not be able to resist you”. Never was there a greater challenge to the West than that, and never was it more sincerely given.
“Second” he said “I would suggest that you must practice your religion without adulterating or toning it down”. This is just as remarkable as the first. The greatest living non Christian asks us not to adulterate or tone it down, not to meet them with an emasculated gospel but to take it in its rugged simplicity and high demand. But what are we doing? As someone has suggested we are inoculating the world with a mild form of Christianity, so that it is now practically immune to the real thing…
“Third I would suggest that you must put your emphasis upon love, for love is the centre and soul of Christianity”. He did not mean love as a sentiment, but love as a working force, the one real power in a moral universe and he wanted it applied between individuals and groups, and races and nations, the one cement and salvation of the world….
“Fourth I would suggest that you study the non-Christian religions and culture more sympathetically in order to find the good that is in them, so that you might have a more sympathetic approach to the people.”
McLaren finishes the book with this observation:
On these four points, the Hindu leader and the Christian missionary were in full agreement. We might call them four cornerstones or four foundations for Christian identity in a multi-faith world. But I think it would be better to imagine movement rather than stasis, so we can think of them as four pistons in an engine or four wheels on a car….As Gandhi said, Christian identity in a multi-faith world must be marked first and foremost by Christ-likeness, so that we experience spiritual formation in Christ-like character, Christ-like vision and Christ-like virtues and values. Second, Christian identity must focus on unadulterated, undiluted Christian practice – full-bodied, caffeinated, high-proof devotion in action. The third mark of Christian identity hardly needs to be said in the light of the other two: to emphasise love as the “centre and soul” of our faith, love for God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and love for neighbour, stranger, outcast, outsider and enemy. And fourth, we must approach other religions and cultures – and the people who inhabit them – with what Gandhi called sympathy, but what we might better call understanding, respect, human-kindness or benevolence.
A big challenge – to be both deepening in our love for Jesus and broadening in our love for and love of others. A hard challenge at the beginning of a new term for those of us who own Christ as our king.