Sharing the Journey, In Our Own Shoes: A Jewish Response To Brian McLaren

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

In a world awash in data, but often suffering from a lack of wisdom, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road, offers both.  Brian McLaren’s new book is not only smart, it is also genuinely loving. That combination is not only rare, but crucial, in today’s world, especially in matters of faith.

Unlike those who assume that to be loving requires a softening of passions and commitments, and a weakening of the bonds to whatever particular faith animates our lives, Brian Mclaren invites us to discover that passionate commitment to others beyond our faith communities must be an expression of our chosen faiths’ most deeply held values.  As someone whose most recent book was You Don’t Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism, to say that we agree, would be an understatement!

While not all believers will agree with McLaren’s conclusions, avoiding his questions should be impossible for anyone interested in the survival of the human community, of religion in general, and of the tradition they most love.  The world is simply too small, and God simply too big, for people not to grapple with the questions raised in this book.  That said, the book does leave me with a number of additional questions — some for the author, and some for myself.

First, I am concerned that McLaren’s map of return to what he calls the core of Christian identity represents the erosion of that very core for many believers. While neither McLaren nor I may like or agree with that definition of the core, dismissing those who disagree as simply “not getting it”, or failing to take their definition of “core” more seriously, is a challenge for me.

While generously and sagely mapping a route to his understanding of the Christian core, I would have liked to see a map to appreciating that the “core” of an infinite tradition can never be reduced to one person or group’s understanding of core.  That is what separates those who will uphold this book from those who will likely oppose it.

Second, I am always concerned about a book which compares the “best” of one understanding of Christianity/religion, to what others typically think of as the “worst” understanding of Christianity and religion. When you compare your best to someone else’s worst, it’s true you will always win, but it’s hardly a fair fight.

To imagine Jesus only as the great healer and unifier, as popular as that is for this book’s readership and in America as a whole, avoids the very real parts of his narrative in which he was a divider and a disrupter.  Just imagine what is was like to be a Priest or a Pharisee in his presence!

It seems to me that if we are to take this book as seriously as it deserves to be taken, we would need to ask ourselves how we can learn to appreciate the partial truths held by those we most oppose, and with whom we have the greatest disagreements.  We may still oppose them, but what does it mean to oppose not weakly, but with genuine humility?

At the very end of the book, McClaren invites us to imagine Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed crossing the road “to encounter one another”.  “Surely”, the book continues, “it will be holy and humbling in that sacred space”.  To that I say a heartfelt AMEN!  But, we are also told that “Surely there will be joy, grace and peace.  Surely justice, truth and love.”

If the author’s vision also includes the possibility of pain and conflict in that place of shared crossing, not to mention genuine difference of opinion about the definitions of justice, truth and love, then I would say Amen! to that as well. But without room for such differences, then I fear what will happen is not the holy and truly humbling encounter first described, but a singular conclusion to what for me is an ongoing journey.

For me, this book is not ultimately a conclusion though.  It is rather, an invitation.  It invites us all to think deeply about how we balance a shared human journey with the fact that each of us walks that journey in our own shoes.  How do we love both the journey and the shoes which help us to walk it?  Inviting us to ask that question is a gift which Brian McClaren has given us, and for that I am deeply grateful to him.

Listed three years in a row in Newsweek as one of America’s 50 Most Influential Rabbis, and recognized as one of our nation’s leading Preachers & Teachers by, think tank President, talk show host, interfaith activist, and diversity expert Brad Hirschfield is the author of You Don’t Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism (Harmony, 2008).


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