Interview with Progressive Christian, Brian McLaren, Part 2

Interview with Progressive Christian, Brian McLaren, Part 2 December 19, 2016

I (Alan Duval) have interviewed progressive Christian, former Evangelical pastor, and vocal part of the emerging church movement, Brian McLaren.

McLaren is an interesting figure in progressive Christianity, not least because one seldom hears the words “progressive” and “evangelical” in the same sentence, and when you do, one is seldom in reference to the other. He was “a college-educated fundamentalist son of a college-educated fundamentalist father,” so maybe the move to “former” evangelical was inevitable. He is vocally opposed to the union of evangelicalism and the Republican party, but even more so in light of the Trump candidacy. Part  can be found here.

Hi, Brian. In our previous interview, you said, “Evangelicalism is my heritage, but it’s hard to tell what Evangelical means anymore. I would be more likely to call myself a progressive Christian, and would see American conservatism as being incompatible with Christian ethics as I understand them.” I would like to expand on this, if possible…

What did Evangelical mean, as far as you’re concerned? (Is at simple as Bebbington’s biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism?) And what does it seem to mean now?

I was never a big fan of Bebbington’s definition, but I know a lot of people were. I think it froze Evangelicalism in fundamentalism, which, as Stan Grenz explored in Renewing the Center, was only one pole of the Evangelical project.

In addition, I have become more suspicious of defining Evangelicalism only on this religious level (doctrine and practice), because doing so camouflages the sociological level at which Evangelicalism serves too often as a cover for covert racism/white privilege, imperialism (British and American), patriarchy, and environmental plundering.

What would you say you have added to that, or indeed taken away, that makes you a progressive Christian?

As I tried to describe in A New Kind of Christianity, when sincere Evangelicals ask certain unavoidable questions (What is the gospel? Why is Jesus important? What is the shape of the biblical narrative? Is God violent?), and when those sincere Evangelicals can’t be satisfied with traditional Evangelical answers, the question is whether Evangelicalism can grow to include their new understandings, or whether these Evangelicals no longer can be considered Evangelical.

brian mclaren

Using Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations categories, Evangelicals have in recent decades defined themselves as inherently conservative, thus foreclosing on possibilities for moral growth in the name of love for tradition (narrowly defined), purity (narrowly defined), and in-group loyalty (and out-group suspicion).

As I try to describe in my new book, when one understands Christian faith primarily as a way of life/way of love, and when one understands God as nonviolent (and reads the Bible in a post-critical/literary way), and when one participates in the church as a spiritual movement for human transformation rather than earth-evacuation, I think one has moved into new space … equally different in many ways from traditional Evangelicalism and traditional mainline Protestantism and traditional Catholicism. I would hope, over time, that each of these traditional communities would find ways to expand into this more progressive space, but that requires the long view.

Can you summarize what you mean by Christian Ethics (is it genuinely distinct from other ethics, or is it a Christian take on ethics that can be found elsewhere)?

For me, Christian ethics would be the ethics that arise within the context of the Christian story and Christian community, especially centered in the life and teaching of Jesus. I would hope that as the Christian community matures, its ethics would mature, as would the ethics of other maturing faith communities. And I would hope that as these communities mature (under, I would hope, the influence of the Holy Spirit), their ethics would converge, while preserving unique perspectives and emphases from their distinct histories.

What do you see as being the core ethics of American Conservatism, and how do these each align with, or fall foul of, the Christian Ethics you understand?

This is a huge question, so this response is admittedly brief, off the cuff, and superficial. I think the core commitments of contemporary American conservatism might be characterized like this:

  1. Resistance to big federal government so that taxes can remain low and states can maintain autonomy.
  2. Commitment to economic growth as measured by GDP, with minimal concern for environmental consequences or economic inequality.
  3. Belief in the invisible power of markets, with minimal government oversight.
  4. Individualism, in a libertarian Ayn Rand sense.
  5. Pro-family, defined largely as pro-patriarchy and as anti-abortion, anti-gay-marriage.
  6. Denial of climate change and human environmental responsibility.
  7. Law and order – with a bias toward police and the military and maximum gun ownership.
  8. Religious liberty defined as a preference for the preferences of conservative Christians.

I would see each of these as having moral failings in relation to a robust Christian ethic.

I’ve often thought that the primary problem with religion is the relative immutability of the foundational texts. Were it to be the case that religion was more open to revision it seems to me that calls for religion “to go extinct” would be less valid. Catholicism has gone some of the way towards this, by accepting evolution, for example, but obviously digs its heels in on other topics. You defined religion as “the human endeavor focused on meaning-making, moral formation, and community formation.” How important is the output of science to legitimate “meaning making,” and how would that inform “moral formation, and community formation”? Is this part of the “new fuel” you spoke of?

Yes. I think science is catalytic and critical. For regressive religion to exclude science means it is abandoning science as a field of meaning, and that, I think, makes it less and less tolerable, much less admirable or desirable … or helpful. Rejecting science turns faith into make-believe, and it guarantees an inability to think and function in a morally responsible way.

For example, when you deny the science of climate change, you contribute to the future deaths of millions of people through flooding, drought, sea level rise, and the resulting political and economic cataclysm. It would be like denying the science of disease transmission and refusing to quarantine people with a contagious disease.

The Democrats seem to live up to what you noted as Jesus’ proposed way of being (“love for neighbor while redefining neighbor as inclusive of stranger, outsider, outcast, and even enemy” and “love for self, love for the earth and all its creatures”). Elsewhere you said, “one of the deepest ethical currents of progressivism: not to hoard privilege, but to be generous with it and to see it spread far and wide.” Why do you think that many Republicans, and in particular white Evangelical Republicans, are so vehemently and self-definitionally ‘never-Democrat’ (and by inference, against outsiders, outcasts, the earth, and its creatures, and against generosity)?

Sadly, I think some of this tribal behavior is related to deep-seated, even unconscious American racism, derived from our legacy of slavery and genocide of the Native Americans, and ultimately from the Christian legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery. I also think that conservative Christians have been formed by a dualistic mind, which disposes them to us-them thinking, and their leaders in the last 40 years or so have identified the “us” with Republicans/conservatives and the “them” with liberals/Democrats. The reasons for white Evangelical leaders doing so are complex. I think Randall Balmer has done a good job of describing this turn in the 1970’s. I also think patriarchy is a major factor – I’ll be blogging about this in the coming days.

One other factor should be mentioned: money. Rich donors can easily set the agenda for Evangelical organizations and individuals, and if those rich donors oppose, say, environmental regulation of their profit-making activities, then Evangelical organizations will often follow suit.

You made the point that US Protestants made a deal in the early 20th Century to focus on private personal morality, and that this lead to a pretty poor showing by them on the matters of civil rights in the 60s. But was it just the US? Two other large populations of Protestants in the world also had significant problems with their public morality in the 20th century, namely Germany and South Africa. Is it something about Protestantism, when it is both the dominant religion and in large numbers, that is the problem?

I would trace much of this to the Doctrine of Discovery, as I detailed in GSM [The Great Spiritual Migration]. It was no less present in Catholicism in the colonial period, and of course, Catholics were deeply complicit in Germany along with Lutherans, etc. But I do think the Protestant/Calvinist fixation with “election” or “chosenness” or “exceptionalism” has had disastrous social consequences. Combine this kind of us-them thinking/oppositional identity with the realities of scapegoating (as described by Rene Girard and others), and mix in a demagogue willing to exploit them, and you have a very dangerous cocktail.

Towards the end of our previous interview, you said:

“…a dynamic spiritual movement […] could provide an alternative for younger generations who feel a deep spiritual restlessness and dissatisfaction with conventional Christianity in its various forms.”

I see the conflation of spirituality and religion to be problematic, as it blurs the gradations of private and public between them – I see religion as one approach to spirituality, but spirituality is not necessarily religious. I see them as being along a continuum, from most private (spiritual), to most public (religious), so presumably this is somewhat analogous to the private personal morality of conservatism and public morality of progressivism you mentioned earlier. Do you see spirituality and religion as different words for essentially the same thing, are they distinct, or are they related in some other way?

I think they are distinct, but related on many levels. Most salient to your point: for spirituality to be passed on to future generations, some sort of institutional support must be provided – hence, religious institutions and communities that form people for spiritual experience (when they function correctly). Otherwise, spirituality is easily consumed by economics, politics, entertainment, etc. Also, if spirituality “works” and forms values in people, and if people want to act together to express those values (such as care for the poor, love for enemies, or concern for the planet), then they will form organizations (religions) to express those values. So I see them as interdependent realities. So I would say that living religion is organized spirituality, but when the vital spirituality fades away, leaving only the organizational structures, you have dead religion left.

Finally, given the never-Democrat stance of many of those from your former spiritual home (if you’ll allow me to use that phrase, given the previous question), how are you feeling about Evangelicalism’s hand in the Trump victory? What other causal factors do you see (such as Hillary’s failure to address employment concerns in the Rust Belt, and the demonization of the “deporables”), and so on? How problematic is the apparent crumbling of the wall between church and state (Evangelicalism and Conservatism)?

I wrote a post on this on my blog recently (with several links), and will be posting more about it soon. The vulnerability of Evangelicalism to Trump-ist fascism is deeply scary. They could provide an almost messianic justification for him to do almost anything. The God-Country religious patriotism (and anti-communism) of Billy Graham set the stage, I think, for the God-Trump religious nationalism of Franklin Graham.

Is the Trump victory a “new fuel” for you in creating a “creative alliance between progressive or post-Evangelicals, missional mainline Protestants, the black and Hispanic churches with roots in the Civil Rights and Liberation Theology movements, and progressive and contemplative Catholics”? What do you see as the next move in that sphere? Is that movement incompatible with secular and atheist movements?

Yes, absolutely. I’m working on this through Convergence, Auburn Senior Fellows, and other connections. I think this movement would get along very well with secular and atheist movements who share similar values – especially to protect the planet, express compassion and justice for the poor, and work for peace.

Thanks again for your time, Brian.

Thanks for your interesting questions.


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