I am not the same person I was twenty, fifteen, or even ten years ago. Neither are you, although for some of us, the differences are more stark, more startling, especially when they involve, as they do in my case, changes in fundamental beliefs arising from a change in many of the presuppositions that underlie my worldview. As I’ve written so often that it almost sounds cliché (at least to me), if you change your underlying presuppositions about life and reality, your belief structure is bound to change, and you will draw significantly different conclusions about priorities, meaning, and how you should live your life.
More than thirty years ago, psychologist Daniel J. Levinson published, in a groundbreaking book called The Seasons of a Man’s Life, the results of a ten-year study of the patterns of adult development and how men, in particular, change over the course of their lifetimes. The book is filled with observations and conclusions like this one on page 192.
As he attempts to reappraise his life, a man discovers how much has been based on illusions, and he is faced with the task of de-illusionment. By this expression I mean a reduction of illusions, a recognition that long-held assumptions and beliefs about self and world are not true. This process merits special attention because illusions play so vital a role in our lives throughout the life cycle.
My own life experience testifies to the truth of that statement, which brings to mind the familiar story about an exchange (probably apocryphal) between the British economist John Maynard Keynes and one of his critics. The critic had apparently belittled Keynes’s change of heart on some matter of public policy, to which Keynes reportedly responded, “When my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do, sir?”
That’s a fair question, and from where I sit, with my seventieth birthday just three years down the road, I conclude that many people (especially men) actually do not change their minds when confronted with new information. To do so would force them outside their comfort zones, put at risk the safety and security they worked so hard to achieve, and jeopardize their social standing, their professional accomplishments, and their economic well-being. Concluding that the risk is simply too great, they double down on their original position and become masters at rationalization.
In this matter, I find inspiration in the words and example of John Maynard Keynes. There is truth to be learned there, even if the event never really happened. I’ve found the same approach is valid, and the benefits similar, when reading the Bible. One of the changes I’ve come to embrace over the past ten years or so is to appreciate the book’s literary value without assuming the literal character of everything it contains.
Brian McLaren addresses that kind of change—to literary from literal when it comes to reading and interpreting the Bible—among many others in his latest book, called The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion is Seeking a Better Way to be Christian. No contemporary author has had greater impact on my thinking in the past fifteen years than Brian McLaren, and I came upon his work by accident as I was browsing in Barnes and Noble one evening in the spring of 2002.
I was intrigued by the title of McLaren’s book, A New Kind of Christian, when I saw it on the bookstore shelf. I bought it and was hooked immediately. Not because I agreed with all, or even most of his conclusions. I didn’t. At least not at the time. But McLaren’s irenic tone and his careful style of reasoning and writing down the conclusions of that reasoning drew me in. He was speaking to many of the questions I was beginning to ask at the time. He had some answers, and I found them enlightening if not always fully persuasive.
When I finished reading that first McLaren book, I looked for more of his work, and, happily, I found some. Over the years, I have read most of what Brian has published, and, while I’ve been stretched and challenged and forced to consider ideas I might have preferred to avoid, I’ve never been disappointed or felt that McLaren had wasted my time.
His latest work, The Great Spiritual Migration, is a prime example of what E.M. Forster would call a genuinely influential book. It was one for which I was “ready,” one that has “gone a little farther down (my) particular path than I have yet got (myself).” As so often happens these days when I read a new book, I found that for every one of my questions the book answered, it raised at least that many more. But that’s okay. It’s one of the joys of growing and learning, irrespective of our age, and it’s not frustrating at all. I find it stimulating.
This is not a review of McLaren’s book. It’s more of a testimonial to its value in my own life. But I should try to summarize the book’s general theme in the hope that it will encourage you to look into its content for yourself.
McLaren acknowledges what many others have observed over the past couple of decades: American Christianity is in decline, in influence as well as in the number of people still willing to align formally with some version or expression of the religion. The reason for that decline, McLaren suggests (and I agree), is that many people are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with Christianity as a belief system with which one identifies by affirming a prescribed doctrinal statement composed of propositional assertions concerning God, Jesus, humanity, sin, salvation, etc. The problem with that way of perceiving Christianity is that, as McLaren writes,
That system of beliefs has supported a wide range of unintended consequences, from colonialism to environmental destruction, subordination of women to stigmatization of LGBT people, anti-Semitism to Islamophobia, clergy pedophilia to white privilege.
He then sets up the premise of the book with these questions:
What would it mean for Christians to rediscover their faith, not as a problematic system of beliefs, but as a just and generous way of life, rooted in contemplation and expressed in compassion, that makes amends for its mistakes and is dedicated to beloved community for all? Could Christians migrate from defining their faith as a system of beliefs to expressing it as a loving way of life? Could Christian faith lose the bitter taste of colonialism, exclusion, judgment, hypocrisy, and oppression, and regain the sweet and nourishing flavor of justice, joy, and peace?
I began to take seriously questions like those when I realized that my faith tradition, conservative evangelical Christianity, might be wrong about some things, notably its belief in the imminent (“at any moment”) literal, second coming of Jesus Christ in physical, bodily form and the apocalyptic and cataclysmic end of the world as we know it. In fact, much of conservative Christianity’s belief system—and the political, economic, and social convictions and practices it has spawned—really only makes sense if one assumes a fiery end to this planet, likely in the very near future, as part of the judgment of God on a creation that has become corrupt and decadent.
Many Christians have been looking for the second coming of Christ for more than two millennia. Of course, the more time that passes, according to that belief system, the greater is the likelihood that it will happen soon. On the other hand, what if it really means that the second coming doctrine is based on a faulty reading and/or interpretation of the Bible? What if the earth is still standing five hundred or a thousand years from now? In that case, wouldn’t it make more sense to practice thoughtful “creation care” and the responsible stewardship of earth’s resources instead of exploiting them for short-term economic gain?
I have come to the conclusion, and so have McLaren and numerous other contemporary writers and teachers with backgrounds similar to mine, that conservative Christianity’s belief system and its underlying presuppositions are inadequate for a reality that includes the possibility of a long-term future for the earth. It focuses on near-term solutions to problems confronting humanity and emphasizes personal benefits rather than long-range vision and the common good. Ultimately, that inadequate belief system is based on a flawed and inadequate view of God. Here is how McLaren puts it.
To accept Jesus and accept the God Jesus loved is to become an atheist in relation to the Supreme Being of violent and dominating power. (When we do that), we are not merely demoting God to a lower, weaker level; rather, we are accepting a radically new understanding of God as pure light, with no shadow of violence, conquest, exclusion, hostility, or hate at all.
The Great Spiritual Migration is a book that offers a fair and accurate description of contemporary Christianity, particularly its American version, rightly diagnoses the major problems facing this religious system, and casts a hopeful vision for the future. Sadly, most of the conservative religious establishment will reject both his diagnosis and his prescription for treatment.
Not to worry. More eyes are opening every day to the truth that McLaren shares. More hearts are warming to the possibilities of “a better way to be Christian.” Are you among them? If you read this book, and if its message gives you hope and stirs excitement for active and practical involvement in the “movement” McLaren seeks to encourage, then you definitely are. I know I am. Let’s find each other and see what God will do when we join together in common cause and with a vision for the common good.
Note: This is the second in a series of fourteen special posts for Lent 2017. Each post references a different book, mostly recent works, that I have found especially helpful and encouraging for my life pilgrimage, especially in light of major changes in my thinking and beliefs in the past decade or so. To read the introduction to the series that I posted on Ash Wednesday, click here. To read the first post in the series, click here.