Tackling the elephant in the room of doctrinal exclusivism: Thoughts from a Muslim on Brian D. McLaren’s “Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road”

This post is part of an inter-faith discussion on Brian McLaren’s new book Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road?, hosted at the Patheos Book Club.

Reading Brian D. McLaren’s Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World–which I was invited to review as part of its Patheos Book Club discussion– has been an enriching experience for me. I found it a profound, thought-provoking and unexpectedly creative meditation on authenticity in faith, religious identity and religious pluralism geared to a Christian audience, but which I suspect resonates for any person of faith who is committed to interfaith dialogue . It’s also a cri de coeur to fellow Christians for soul-searching and openness to new paradigms that promote peace and interfaith understanding, objectives I certainly support (and for my fellow Muslims, as well)

The book examines the scriptural foundations and consequences of aspects of contemporary Christian faith that are often taken as self-evident cornerstones of authentic Christian faith, especially among American Evangelicals. He argues that some widely accepted traditional Christian beliefs and interpretations have either outlived their usefulness or never rested on solid ground scripturally. He then proceeds to make an often fascinating case for creatively but faithfully re-conceptualizing them for today’s pluralistic, postmodern and increasingly polarized and violent world.

In important matters of law, sacred epistemology and lay/clergy relations Islam differs quite profoundly from Christianity, so it can sometimes be difficult to make meaningful comparisons. Aside from some theologically-outlying (though disproportionately influential) Christian sects like Christian Dominionism, you generally don’t see specifics of religious law figuring prominently in campaigns for Christian reform/renewal. In Islam, on the other hand, the prominence of sacred law within a Muslim’s daily life and within Muslim society naturally make legal reforms the centerpiece of most such campaigns in the Muslim world.

Despite these differences, reading McLaren’s reflections on what he sees as the failings of much contemporary Christian spirituality and his fascinating proposals for addressing these concerns, I was struck by how kindred his concerns are to mine and those of many (if not most) reform-minded Muslims. McLaren is arguing for a reexamination of doctrines and practices that conservatives within his tradition contend were settled definitively–if not God-given–centuries ago, and is no doubt accused of betraying Christian orthodoxy for doing so. I suspect that he would contend that these proposals are in the spirit of authentic Christian faith and more supportive of that’s faith’s aims than would be continuing to uncritically hew to outdated traditions. A similar case is made by Muslim reformers today make, even if the focus is usually on legal reforms as opposed to questions of doctrine. Advocates of reform (Ijtihad) and renewal (Tajdeed) often invoke the principle of the Maqasid al-Shari`a, or the overarching “Objectives of Islamic Law,” to justify revisiting rulings that were once, at least theoretically, set in stone centuries ago. (For more on Ijtihad and related issues in a modern context, here’s a bouquet of excellent scholarly treatments.)

With the exception the members of a few rather small and nebulous modernist movements (e.g., Quranists), Muslims regardless of sect subscribe to something roughly analogous to what Catholics sometimes refer to as the “Deposit of Faith.” Islam famously has no priesthood, but the believer is expected to ground her decisions in not only scritpure, but also an inherited sacred tradition and the guidance of its contemporary interpreters (namely, traditionally trained religious scholars). Thus, though I share his aims some aspects of McLaren’s hermeneutic approach are challenging for me to get my arms around as a Muslim. I’d love to see a exchange on his bolder suggestions and the reasoning behind them with kindred spirits within the Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Anglican traditions which, like Islam, have reservations about “Sola scriptura.” How, I wonder, do Christian reformers who subscribe to some notion of an unbroken sacred tradition relate to his proposals and what, if any, other resources or perspectives do they bring to bear to the question?

McLaren pays particular attention to an issue dear to my heart, the salvation for non-believers. The author then systematically incorporates this non-zero-sum vision of spiritual life to other aspects of Christian faith and practice–the nature of the Trinity, Original Sin, Election, the liturgical calendar, among others –in a fascinating synthesis that I have no hope of doing justice to here.

I’ve always taken the question of salvation for the religious Other very seriously and find the insouciance with which many otherwise sensitive and thoughtful religionists approach the question perplexing and a bit scandalous. To my mind and heart, the notion of non-Muslims being condemned to eternal damnation is more than paradoxical–it is blasphemous for the unseemly qualities it imputes to God. (I am thankful that there always has been a minority among Muslim scholars arguing, based on Quran and Sunna, that all people eventually reach Paradise.) Yet the fact remains that for many traditionalists in either religion, the idea of universal salvation is rejected out of hand–seemingly independently of any evidence–as if it were not only self-evidently contrary to reason but downright immoral.

A careful, holistic examination of either religious tradition’s sacred texts hardly leads inescapably, in my view, to the conclusion that God’s mercy is so fickle and constrained by simplistic human categories, so I find this curious. There are many Quranic verses and prophetic traditions which seem to indicate the punishments of the next life to be finite in duration and designed to not to scourge but prepare one for eventual return to God’s presence. Likewise, the Biblical evidence customarily adduced strikes me as highly open to interpretation. (I find it curious that many people who are perfectly able to accept and grapple with mind-bending concepts such as the hypostatic union of the Chalcedonian creed or the intricacies of Predestination find it impossible to entertain the idea that John 3:16 or John 14:6 might offer their 1st century Christian audience one of a multiplicity of paths to a loving, just God who, as the Quran declares, chose to create humanity in a multiplicity of nations, tribes and, yes, religions.)

Sometimes, I suspect that the underlying objection isn’t scriptural or even philosophical. Perhaps what’s really objected to is the radical notion of a Creator whose mercy and power aren’t constrained by human insecurities or demands for simple, binary truths. Given how often assent to doctrines of eternal perdition for non-believers is treated as the touchstone of orthodoxy in popular religious discourse–I’ve noticed this trope in conservative websites attacking Tony Compolo and Javed Ghamdi, for example; each thinker’s openness to the possibility of the other’s community enjoying God’s mercy is held up as prima facie evidence of rank heresy, as if such ecumenically minded suggestions strike a nerve–perhaps what truly puts one beyond the pale is calling into question tribalistic, Manichean visions of the world come naturally to many, but which obscure the full implications of our shared humanity.

I confess to not having given this particular angle much thought before reading this book, but I think McLaren is right in arguing that the exclusion of the religious Other from one’s vision of God’s plan can have pernicious real world effects. It is thus not merely a narrow theological issue. The modern world is far too complex, shifting and dangerous for simplistic identity binaries that in effect reduce spirituality to tribal affiliation and questions of language. They do more than foster unnecessary mistrust, if not hostility, between religious communities–they discourage much needed self-criticism and introspection.

A highly stimulating, thoughtful and multifaceted book that I recommend to Christian and non-Christian alike.

  • http://www.patheos.com Brian McLaren

    Greetings, Svend – you are so right to call my book a cri de coeur. It’s not simply an intellectual exercise or analysis, but a cry from the heart to my fellow Christians. It is gratifying to know that cry finds resonance in a Muslim heart as well.

    The Muslim quest for faithful Ijtihad and Tajdeed is, from what I have read, deeply resonant with what many of us seek in the Christian community. But you’re right, I think – the relationship between most Muslims and the Quran is not identical to the relationship between many Protestant Christians and the Bible.

    I think you’re right that Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and some Anglican scholars would place a greater emphasis on the church’s role as providing “an inherited sacred tradition” and “the guidance of its contemporary interpreters” than I do. Even though I think the Protestant slogan “sola Scriptura” is problematic in many ways, I do think that Scripture can be faithfully interpreted to critique conventional assumptions and even long-held traditions, and in that way, I’m deeply Protestant.

    You’ve probably heard the saying that a living tradition cherishes the past but is not bound to repeat it. That, I think, is the challenge we all face – to cherish our past so much that we find in it resources for a better future … for all.

    In light of “the full implications of our shared humanity,” it’s great to know that Christians and Muslims and Jews and Hindus and others can be true colleagues in that pursuit, while remaining true to our living traditions.

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  • https://sites.google.com/site/aislamthegovernment/introduction Abdul Nasser

    Interesting article! I have always found the interfaith groups weak at best. It might be said that interfaith dialogue can provide people with alternative viewpoints, however, the current historical growth of the pious communities cannot simply be an issue of perspective. The reason why the KKK lives in modern housing and the Taliban live in caves has no bearing on their piety for ethnic origins or devotion to god! Until better legislation against hate-speech is passed, I don’t see how any change of viewpoint will succeed in changing policy making decisions on going to war and killing countless innocent people because they were unlucky to live under the rule of someone they didn’t even vote for!

  • kalim

    Said Nursi proved the existence of God in his books (Risalei Nur collection) (23 th flash)

    I want to share these sentences

    Their prophets said: “Is there any doubt about God, Creator of the heavens and the earth?”

    O man! You should be aware that there are certain phrases which are commonly used and imply unbelief. The believers also use them, but without realizing their implications. We shall explain three of the most important of them.
    The First: “Causes create this.”
    The Second: “It forms itself; it comes into existence and later ceases to exist.”
    The Third: “It is natural; Nature necessitates and creates it.”
    Indeed, since beings exist and this cannot be denied, and since each being comes into existence in a wise and artistic fashion, and since each is not outside time but is being continuously renewed, then, O falsifier of the truth, you are bound to say either that the causes in the world create beings, for example, this animal; that is to say, it comes into existence through the coming together of causes, or that it forms itself, or that its coming into existence is a requirement and necessary effect of Nature, or that it is created through the power of One All-Powerful and All-Glorious. Since reason can find no way apart from these four, if the first three are definitely proved to be impossible, invalid and absurd, the way of Divine Unity, which is the fourth way, will necessarily and self-evidently and without doubt or suspicion, be proved true.