Brian McLaren is an author, speaker, pastor, and networker among innovative Christian leaders, thinkers, and activists. For a more extensive bio, check out brianmclaren.net.
Reframing the Question…
For a lot of Christians of all stripes, the first question that comes to mind when we think of people of other faiths is about them … are they in or out, going to heaven or hell? We’ve been trained to think of “the other” in these in-out terms for centuries in Western Christianity – a result of our affair with Greco-Roman imperialism, I think, but that’s another story (which I’ll go into in some detail in my 2010 book, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that are Transforming the Faith).
In other words, our first question is: What about them? But you can’t have the right answer if you’re asking the wrong question, and I think our question is approximately 180 degrees off. What if our first question shouldn’t be “What about them?” but instead “What about us?”?
In other words, what if we began with a better question in our encounters with people of other faiths and no faith: “What is my duty as a disciple of Jesus to my friend or neighbor of another religion?” Now some of my friends will immediately reply, “My duty is to tell him he’s going straight to hell and he’d better repent and join our exclusively saving religion!” But once again, this response conveniently shifts the focus from my duty to his or her status.
Of course there’s a place and time for speculating on the fate of people of various religions and no religion. (Where and when – and for how long – is another question in itself.) But my sense, after spending quite a few years on the path of following Jesus, is that my primary duty is to look in the mirror and focus, not on the failures or deficits of “the other,” but on my own. My identity as a disciple prompts me to ask what it would mean for me to love my neighbor of another religion as myself, to do for my neighbor of another religion as I would have her do for me, to be willing to sacrifice and suffer (and even die) on her behalf, to take the Christ-like posture of a servant toward my neighbors of other religions – washing their feet, showing them true respect, considering them as better than myself and not looking out for my own interests only, but also theirs.
And this line of thinking raises still more questions: would I want my neighbor of another religion to be preoccupied with my status as an outsider – as “other”? Would I want him constantly seeing me either as a potential convert or as a threat and competitor in the religious market? Would I be happy for her to minimize any common ground we might share and instead, repeatedly and habitually maximize our differences? If my answer to these questions is no, then how can I justify doing these things to my neighbor?
In light of these kinds of questions, more and more of us are becoming convinced that true godliness leads to otherliness … and that to practice incarnation means, in Paul’s words, that we no longer “recognize” people “according to the flesh.” We’re wondering if religious insider-outsider thinking is more tainted with “fleshly” tribalism – perhaps even a kind of racism or cultural/religious imperialism – than we commonly admit.
At the end of the day, I know myself to be an evangelist at heart. I believe the good news of Jesus Christ is good news for all people. I am eager to offer the gift of Jesus and his good news to all people, whatever their religion. I am eager to help all people, whatever their religious identity, to “taste and see” how good God is, and to take on Jesus’ yoke so we will experience together his meekness and gentleness of heart. I am not a relativist in the sense of believing that beliefs don’t matter and that all viewpoints are equally valid or invalid.
But my confidence is in Jesus and his gospel – my confidence is not in us and our religious systems or institutions. I don’t think any religion – including my own – “owns” Jesus or has proprietary rights on his gospel of the kingdom of God. The good news taught by and embodied in Jesus is, I am discovering, far better than the half-good/half-bad version many of us were taught.
The way taught by Jesus’ gospel sends us into the world with an otherly attitude, not “us versus them,” but “us for all of us.” As apprentices who look to Jesus for leadership, we learn to listen to the Syrophonecian woman, and to stop ignoring her or calling her an outsider “dog.” We join Jesus in seeing her great faith. We similarly encounter the Samaritan woman, the Roman centurion, the Ethiopian eunuch, the Philippian slave girl and jailer, and so on … not seeing them suspiciously as outsiders to our in-group, but as people who are already loved, already welcome, already known, already wanted in God’s “come-on-in-group.”
These are some of my reflections on “plurality 2.0.” It’s not your grandfather’s exclusivism. It’s not your father’s relativism. It’s a way of approaching “the religiously other” that seeks harmony without homogeneity, relationship without colonialism, commitment without competition, sharing without assimilation. Perhaps you could say it seeks conversion – but mutual conversion, not dominating conquest.