McLaren says some things in A Generous Orthodoxy that I’ve been trying to find words for awhile. In all honesty, reading those thoughts is fairly frightening. They strike at the core of what I’ve been thinking, but also go against my evangelical upbringing. Here’s what he says:
“Our Christian identity must not make us afraid of, superior to, isolated from, defensive or aggressive toward, or otherwise hostile to people of other religions. Rather the reverse” (249).
“I consider myself not above Buddhists and Muslims and others, but below them as a servant. Better, I consider myself with them as a neighbor and brother.
“I am here to love them, to seek to understand them, and to share with them everything of value that I have found or received that they would like to receive as well. i am here to receive their gifts to me with equal joy — to enjoy life in God’s world with them, to laugh and eat and work with them, so we play with one another’s children and hold one another’s babies and dance at one another’s weddings and savor one another’s hospitality.
“I am here to be their neighbor according to the teaching of my Lord, and if I am not a good one, my Lord says they have no reason to believe or even respect my message. In the process of our ongoing conversation, I hope that both they and I will become better people, transformed by God’s Spirit, more pleasing to God, more of a blessing to the world, so that God’s kingdom (which I seek, but cannot manipulate) comes on earth as in heaven.
“Ultimately, I believe ‘they’ and ‘we’ can all experience this transformation best by becoming humble followers of Jesus, whom I believe to be the Son of God, the Lord of all, and the Savior of the world.
“In this light, although I don’t hope all Buddhists will become (cultural) Christians, I do hope all who feel so called will become Buddhist followers of Jesus; I believe they should be given that opportunity and invitation. I don’t hope all Jews or Hindus will become members of the Christian religion. But I do hope all who feel so called will become Jewish or Hindu followers of Jesus.
“Ultimately, I hope that Jesus will save Buddhism, Islam and every other religion, including the Christian religion, which often seems to need saving about as much as any other religion does. (In this context, I do wish all Christians would become followers of Jesus, but perhaps this is too much to ask. After all, I’m not doing such a hot job of it myself.)
“To help Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, and everyone else experience life to the full in the way of Jesus (while learning it better myself), I would gladly become one of them (whoever they are) to whatever degree I can, to embrace them, to join them, to enter into their world without judgment but with saving love, as mine has been entered by the Lord. I do this because of my deep identity as a fervent Christian, not in spite of it.
“This coming close to my non-Christian neighbor in understanding and love does not compromise my Christian commitment, but rather expresses it” (263-264).
I think what McLaren is saying is the logical conclusion of a basic truth about Jesus — Jesus did not come to start a new religion in competition to all the others, but to bring God’s kingdom to earth as it is in heaven. In other words, Christianity is NOT the kingdom of God. It is a religious system that emerged around Jesus’ followers intention to live out the teaching and life of Jesus.
Remember, Jesus came to Israel as fulfillment of God’s covenant to them. The early followers of Jesus considered themselves simply to be a Jewish sect. The Gentile mission was the implementation of the New Creation come through Jesus via his resurrection. (In the Old Testament, when the New Creation arrived, the Gentiles would be welcomed into the household of God. Also, the New Creation’s arrival was to be marked by the vanquishing of evil, the return of Yahweh’s presence, and the resurrection of the righteous. Because the early followers of Jesus viewed these as fulfilled in Jesus, the natural conclusion was that the Gentiles needed to be invited into the renewed covenant people.)
All of this is to say that the Christian religion emerged to support the implementation of Jesus’ accomplishment — God’s kingdom coming to earth. But it is not the equivalent of God’s kingdom.
This does not mean the Christian religion is bad. It simply means that it is not the goal of Jesus’ ministry or God’s vision for his creation.
Also, this does not mean that all religions are the same and lead to the same place. That’s just ridiculous! We need to move beyond the simplistic two-option view that most Christians embrace — either other religions are the same as Christianity and therefore should be embraced or other religions are bad and therefore viewed as the enemy.
Like Jesus and Paul and the early followers, we must move to a more nuanced dialogue that involves appropriate complementing and confronting (as in Paul’s address in Athens in Acts 17).
This means that we must seriously embrace the truth that every human being is created in God’s image. And the good in other religions is just that — good. And the evil in other religions is also just that — evil. And the same is true for the Christian religion, both the good and the evil.
Missiologically, what must remain important is to help everyone understand and follow Jesus into the life of God’s kingdom, not to become adherents of the Christian religion. The fact that we have difficulty distinguishing between the two is a symptom of how distorted our story has become.
I hear this distortion so much among evangelicals, especially in prayer meetings. It almost makes me cry every time I hear “us vs. them” language in prayer. I hear it in the typical “the U.S. was a Christian nation so we need to make it so again.” I cringe every time I hear how the liberals and the homosexuals and the atheists are stealing our country from us and it’s our Christian duty to fight them and take our country back.
Is homosexuality an issue? Yes. But so is heterosexuality for God’s sake. We have Christians whose marriages are falling apart or can’t enter into a God-honoring relationship, yet who keep proclaiming that homosexuals are going to hell.
In a similar vein, we have Christians who are burned out, overworked, consumerist victims of time pathologies. Yet, they will declare that their Buddhist neighbor who is finding a level of peace through spiritual exercises is going to hell. That’s the pot calling the kettle black.
Again, I’m not saying everything is good. I’m saying that “us vs. them” mentality is devoid of love. I’m saying the “Christian nation” view is as sectarian as Muslims rising up to make the U.S. an Islamic nation. I’m saying that fighting “homosexuals, liberals and atheists” through the political machine as our primary engagement with them as people works contrary to God’s kingdom. They are not compatible.