In Brian McLaren’s better future Christianity is a force not for distrust, hatred and conflict between the world’s religions but for peace, tolerance and understanding. For most of Christian history the underlying Greco-Roman imperial mindset has generated 1) anxiety, 2) paranoia, 3) a future hope that excludes the ‘other’, and 4) a worldview that justifies continuing conflict. The result has been a deeply depressing catalogue of abuses as Christendom has used its political, cultural and military power to impose itself on the world.
Jesus’ mindset is quite unlike this. Jesus demonstrated a scandalous acceptance of the ‘other’ – the Samaritan woman, a Roman centurion, the Syrophoenician woman. Jesus taught a neighbourliness that requires us to respect other religions in just the same way that we wish them to respect our faith (211-212). As a community of Christ-followers, therefore, we ‘offer Jesus (not Christianity) as a gift to the world’; we do not consider it a religious obligation to ‘insult other religions and call their founders demonic’; we ‘learn to discover God in the other, and we would discover a bigger “us,” in which people of all faiths can be included’; we realize that ‘Jesus and his message of peace and service were right and true after all, and that Jesus was not a gift to one religion, but to the whole world’; we regard all people ‘as God’s beloved, as neighbors in God’s world’; we ‘practice the kind of Christlike hospitality that welcomes the outcast insider in’ (215-216).
McLaren bolsters his argument with quite extensive reference to scripture.
First, he cites a number of texts which he believes support a less antagonistic, more constructive approach towards other faiths. Many are texts which, at least when taken out of context, suggest that the ‘world’ or ‘all people’ will be saved: for example, ‘God did not send his Son in to the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him’ (John 3:17; cf. 1:9; 12:32; Rom. 5:12-21; 2 Cor. 5:19). Romans 2:1-29 is taken as evidence that ‘people are never judged based on knowledge they don’t have’ (209). There is a tradition of the ‘righteous outsider’ in scripture. The prophets speak of God’s concern for the nations (eg. Amos 9:7). In Acts 17:24-28 Paul ‘unifies everyone in a singular “us” – people created by God, people who have a God-given right to life and land, people who are being invited to seek God right where they are, people to whom God is already near, people who already living and moving and having their being in God, people who are already God’s children’ (211).
Secondly, McLaren takes pains to refute the understanding of John 14:6 which takes it as evidence that Christianity is the only true religion. He points out that the question at issue here is how the disciples are to get where Jesus is going. Where is he going? Briefly, McLaren thinks that the destination is ‘my Father’s house’ (he points to the use of the phrase in John 2:16), which in effect is the ‘new temple’ of Jesus’ resurrected body, which will be constituted by the renewed people of God. So Jesus is telling them that ‘there will be a place for them in the new people-of-God-as-temple that Jesus is preparing the way for over these next three days’ (220). When he says, therefore, that ‘No one comes to the Father except through me’, ‘no one’ clearly refers not to the followers of Mohammed or the Buddha or Lao-tzu or Enlightenment rationalism but simply to the disciples, who are struggling to make sense of Jesus’ life and actions.
It is ironic, needless to say, that McLaren advocates the contextual delimitation of ‘no one’ in John 14:6 but does not allow for a similar delimitation of ‘world’ or ‘all people’ in the first set of passages considered. In any case, the extension of ‘salvation’ to the whole world does not overrule the unique identity of this people chosen in Abraham to be a blessing. Yes, Jesus’ way has been ‘compassion, healing, acceptance, forgiveness, inclusion, and love from beginning to end’ (223) – well, not quite; there is also a ‘hell’ of a lot of judgment in what he has to say. But Jesus’ actions are confined to the narrative of Israel. He condemns the leaders of the people, the wicked shepherds; and he extends forgiveness and healing to the poor, the disenfranchised – because God is turning this highly dysfunctional nation inside out. That will have massive implications for the world, but we cannot uncritically take Jesus’ inclusiveness towards the ‘other’ in Israel and make it paradigmatic for the inclusion of the religious ‘other’ today (often against their will!) in the kingdom of God. Something needs to be done about our attitude towards other religions, but I don’t think this should be at the cost of obscuring the identity of the covenant people.
I am also not convinced by the argument about ‘my Father’s house’, though it is an intriguing thought and may be worth looking at more closely. But it is certainly important to bring into focus the whole argument here: Jesus is talking about his death and this raises difficult questions for the disciples about how they are to follow him.
My view is that when Jesus speaks of being ‘the way, and the truth, and the life’, he is making a similar point to the story of the two ways in Matthew 7:13-14. The Jews are on a broad road leading to the destruction of AD 70; but there is a narrow and difficult way of faithful suffering that will lead to life for the people of God. The disciples will eventually follow Jesus down this path – they will mostly lose their lives for his sake and for the Gospel (cf. John 13:36-38). So they are assured that Jesus, who died and was raised ahead of them, will ‘come’ and bring them to the Father. There is no other path: it is only by way of suffering that Israel will be reconciled to the Father and will find life.
There is one further question (‘How Can We Translate Our Quest into Action’) and a closing chapter about living the questions in community. But I will finish here with the last of the big theological questions. This has been a stimulating, worthwhile, but difficult exercise. I agree with much of the broad brush argument: I think there is a theological paradigm shift taking place that will have profound implications for how we address the issues that McLaren highlights. But I have struggled with the details. I understand how easy it is for critics to take exception to his line of thinking, but this often has more to do with the fact that his motivation is quite different, his rhetoric resists precise exegesis, and he has a habit of polarizing disagreements. It then takes some effort – and some generosity – to read him carefully, but there are some substantial, if inchoate, arguments in this book, and I found myself on more than one occasion correcting initially unfavourable judgments.