A few months after September 11, 2001, Brian McLaren and Dallas Willard (The Divine Conspiracy) were discussing the anti-Muslim rhetoric of some leading evangelicals. McLaren's world was rocked when Willard said, "Remember, Brian: in a pluralistic world, a religion is judged by the benefits it brings to its nonmembers." McLaren was initially confused by this statement. He had always thought that religions exist to confer benefits on their own members, but in time McLaren came to see how Willard's comment dovetailed nicely into Lesslie Newbigin's view that we are "elect for service, not privilege" (the lesson we considered in my previous blog post).
In Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?, McLaren discusses what Christian identity in a multi-faith world should look like. He claims that Christians often hold one of two polar-opposite approaches to people of other faiths. He believes both approaches are mistaken.
On one end of the spectrum, Christians have often been "strong and hostile," which means "the stronger our Christian commitment, the stronger our aversion or opposition to other religions." On the other end of the spectrum, other Christians have often adopted a "weak-benevolent" posture. As McLaren puts it, "We always minimize differences and maximize commonalities. But we typically achieve coexistence by weakening our Christian identity."
McLaren recommends a third via media position that he calls "strong-benevolent" Christian faith, which combines insights from both ends of the spectrum. McLaren believes this is the truly biblical approach that integrates a full-orbed commitment to the teachings of Jesus.
Here's how McLaren puts it:
"By strong I mean vigorous, vital, durable, motivating, faithful, attractive, and defining—an authentic Christian identity that matters. By kind I mean something far more robust than mere tolerance, political correctness, or coexistence: I mean benevolent, hospitable, accepting, interested, and loving, so that the stronger our Christian faith, the more goodwill we will feel and show toward those of other faiths, seeking to understand and appreciate their religion from their point of view."
Of course, a strong-benevolent Christian faith is easier said than done. After all, we don't always naturally feel a sense of warmth, generosity, and attraction toward people who are different and even hostile toward our faith. But for those of us who have chosen to follow Jesus, we are bound to an ethic that requires us to love "the other," whether we feel like it or not.
The starting point for this type of love is humanizing the other. This happens when we are willing to listen to the other person's story with an open heart and mind. By listening and entering into the other person's story, we begin to develop empathy and experience the common ground of our shared humanity. This requires actively moving toward rather than away from "the other." It requires building a bridge rather than erecting a wall.
McLaren models this movement toward the other better than just about anyone I know. Back to 9/11. In Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?, McLaren recalls leading a prayer service in the wake of the twin tower and Pentagon attacks. At the time, he was pastoring Cedar Ridge Community Church near Washington, D.C. While McLaren was praying, he sensed a voice saying to him, "Your Muslim neighbors are in danger of reprisals. You must try to protect them."
The following day, McLaren drove to an area mosque to extend friendship, solidarity and hospitality. When McLaren arrived, a TV truck was just pulling away after interviewing the imam about the recent spike in anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence. McLaren introduced himself to the imam and handed him a letter he had written to express his church's desire to extend kindness and support. McLaren remembers the imam "slowly looking down at the letter in the bright September sun, then up into my face, then down, then up, and each time he looked up, his eyes were moist. Suddenly, he threw his arms around me—a perfect stranger...I still remember the feeling of his head pressed against my chest, squeezing me as if I were his long-lost brother."
This strong-benevolent encounter led to respectful, enriching and compassionate interaction between the mosque and McLaren's church. The Cedar Ridge youth group made a banner with handwritten names and words of support on it. The imam hung the banner in the back of the mosque. The Cedar Ridge women organized volunteers to accompany Muslim women to the store and to appointments if they were afraid to venture out alone. Community meals and interfaith dialogues ensued. In short, McLaren's willingness to build a bridge stands as an inspiring example of what loving "the other" in the way of Jesus can look like.
So the fifth lesson evangelicals can learn from Brian McLaren is how to move toward "the other" by building bridges rather than erecting walls. We must reject a strong-hostile approach to those who are different from us. Likewise, we must resist the temptation to water down our faith in our quest to be compassionate. Instead, we must adopt a strong-benevolent Christian faith that moves us to "people in other faiths in wholehearted love, not in spite of their non-Christian identity and not in spite of my own Christian identity, but because of my identity as a follower of God in the way of Jesus."
Over the course of their work together, something unexpected happened—Daly and Trimpa became friends. Not just tolerable colleagues, but real, genuine friends. And this friendship didn't require Daly and Trimpa to agree on every issue.
Jim and Ted recently shared their story on the Q stage with Gabe Lyons. Do yourself a favor and watch this inspiring video (below). It is an amazing example of what can happen when we actually choose to love as God loves—with radical bridge-building inclusivity.
For a Wesleyan-Arminian assessment of Brian McLaren's theology and apologetics, see Scott R. Burson, Brian McLaren in Focus: A New Kind of Apologetics (Abilene Christian University Press, 2016).