Friday, December 7, 2007

Redefining the Cross: Brian McLaren and the Atonement

Interview With Brian McLaren

By Leif Hansen

Brian McLaren's Attack Against Hell and Jesus Atonement


McLaren: This is, one of the huge problems is the traditional understanding of hell. Because if the cross is in line with Jesus’ teaching then—I won’t say, the only, and I certainly won’t say even the primary—but a primary meaning of the cross is that the kingdom of God doesn’t come like the kingdoms of the this world, by inflicting violence and coercing people. But that the kingdom of God comes through suffering and willing, voluntary sacrifice.

     But in an ironic way, the doctrine of hell basically says, no, that that’s not really true. That in the end, God gets His way through coercion and violence and intimidation and domination, just like every other kingdom does. The cross isn’t the center then. The cross is almost a distraction and false advertising for God.

Leif Hansen: Oh, Brian, that was just so beautifully said. I was tempted to get on my soap box there and you know—Because as you and I know there are so many illustrations and examples that you could give that show why the tradition view of hell completely falls in the face of—It’s just antithetical to the cross. But the way you put it there, I love that. It’s false advertising. And here, Jesus is saying, turn the other cheek. Love your enemy. Forgive seven times seventy. Return violence with self-sacrificial love. But if we believe the traditional view of hell, it’s like, well, do that for a short amount of time. Because eventually, God’s going to get them.

McLaren: Yeah. And I heard one well-known Christian leader, who—I won’t mention his name, just to protect his reputation, cause some people would use this against him. But I heard him say it like this: The traditional understanding says that God asks of us something that God is incapable of Himself. God asks us to forgive people. But God is incapable of forgiving. God can’t forgive unless He punishes somebody in place of the person He was going to forgive. God doesn’t say to you—Forgive your wife, and then go kick the dog to vent your anger. God asks you to actually forgive

And there’s a certain sense that, a common understanding of the atonement presents a God who is incapable of forgiving -- unless He kicks somebody else.

Hansen: Now, is that going to be—You know, I remember one of our emails, I had asked if you were going to bring that up in The Last Word, and it looks like you—as far as an alternative view of the cross, had got a little bit. My hunch is, I am wondering, is your new book about Jesus going to get into that alternative view of the cross? Or, I might say, an earlier historical view of the cross?

McLaren: Well, yes. It does. But not through sort of direct attack. The book is called The Secret Message of Jesus and it’s about the message of the kingdom. I really like—Marcus Borg and John Dominic are you know, crossing, have a new book coming out called The Last Week. And it follows the week of what we call passion week, or holy week. It is really a great book. And you know, evangelicals tend to think that they’re the only people who take the Bible seriously. I am so impressed with how seriously these guys take the Gospel of Mark, really the last week of Jesus. It's really stunning. But one of the things they point out is that Mel Gibson’s film, you know, called the crucifixion, the passion of the Christ. But Jesus’ passion, the thing He was most passionate about was the kingdom. And the message of the kingdom is what I really try to explore in this book.

And that’s why, if we look at the cross as something that becomes almost the ultimate demonstration or the ultimate exclamation point about the message of the kingdom, it looks very different than if we throw the message of the kingdom away or make the message of the kingdom about something in the future and marginalize it for Jesus’ whole life. Boy, everything looks different.

Hansen: Now, I agree with you and I am starting to come to an understanding of the cross. And I have a hunch that it’s probably pretty similar to your understanding of the cross and the kingdom. But one of the places we might differ—I don’t even want to say that because I am just really exploring right now—is, weren’t there people before Jesus and since Jesus, some inspired by Him, some Christian, some martyrs, and wasn’t God, in a sense, demonstrating self sacrificial love since the beginning of time? Since God created beings other than Himself? So, I guess the reason I ask that question is two-fold. One, it has to do with this question of world religions and Christian exclusivism. Some might say, well yes, we also believe that at the heart and center of God and of reality is self-sacrificial love. But we don’t think that Jesus was the only one to teach about that and to demonstrate that in His life. Now, a more—what’s the word to use?—a more conservative Christian, whatever—someone who believes in the literal ontological divinity of Christ would have an argument and say, well yes, but this was, this was more central because it was actually God, literally, demonstrating that kind of love. However, someone, a more liberal Christian, who might think that Jesus was perfectly imaging God’s love, or totally inspired by God’s love but not literally God—To be honest, that’s the direction I am leaning more myself these days. We would have a hard time saying what makes Jesus’ life and example and living love to the death more unique than any other.

McLaren: Right. If I understand what you’re saying. These are important subjects. I understand you’re saying: Look, we could look at Ghandi’s live as an example of self sacrificial love or Martin Luther King Junior’s life. There would be a lot of people we could look at. And so wouldn’t it be better to just talk about Jesus as one among many, rather than lift Him up as some extraordinary example. Because by doing that we create, we perpetuate this Christian elitism and exclusivism, et cetera, et cetera. Is that what you’re saying?

Hansen: Bingo! Yeah, that’s really right on.

McLaren: Well, this is a subject that I am really interested in. And in fact, it’s going to be part of the book I am going to write this year that is, kind of will be sequel to this book of The Kingdom Seeker Messages of Jesus [NOT SURE IF THAT’S WHAT HE SAID] And it’s tentatively, right now, going to be titled Jesus and the Suicide Machine. And what’s it’s going to be is talking about how the message of the kingdom speaks to our contemporary situations. And to cut to the chase, I think what you’re reacting to is not, ultimately, the uniqueness of Jesus, but it is how the uniqueness of Jesus is used by a colonial, Roman Christianity.

Hansen: I definitely am reacting to that on an emotional level. But on an intellectual level, I guess, I am also saying that there are some questions that got brought up when I was studying. You know, ranging from if we do say this, how can we not be elitist? Versus, you know—to be honest with you, one of the biggest stumbling blocks to me is Jesus’ being in a literal sense the Son of God, was finding out that Paul never once mentions the idea. And his writings are the earliest. And when I found that out, I was like—wait a second here.

McLaren: See, I think I can feel your pain, Leif. And part of what I feel is this: There is a whole package. And the package ultimately is this hell package. And here’s what I would say: I think the deeper problem here is a problem of the larger narrative. And when I think there’s another way of seeing the narrative where a lot of these problems disappear. In other words, I would say, I think we see the right problems in the narrative. But I think there are different understandings of the narrative that are very, very hard to get to. Because we’ve got so much of the old narrative so deeply rooted and so deeply influencing the way we read the Bible. And I feel like I can say this. I think I’ve got to a little rise on the journey, where I got a different view of the landscape. And I want to tell you, I think it’s going to be okay.

Hansen: Very hopeful.

McLaren: But in the meantime, I don’t think I can—I struggle. I’ve been struggling with this for, you know, fifteen years. I’ve really been struggling with this stuff. And so I feel like, piece by piece you get a different vision. But you can’t rush it. And the other narrative is so deeply ingrained.

So, but one of the questions I could raise that might be helpful for you and other people thinking about this, is to say, what is the problem with sin? What’s so bad about sin? Now, I can just imagine some people quoting—See, McLaren doesn’t think sin is a problem. I take sin really, seriously. But here’s the problem, If I were to make this sort of analogy or parable. When I had little children, if one of my little children—Let’s say my son Brett, was beating up on his little brother, Trevor. Now, Trevor is bigger. But back then—What was the problem? Was the problem that I don’t want my younger son to get hurt and I don’t want my older son to be a bully. I want my older son to be a good person. I want my younger son to be a good person. I want them to have a great relationship. Then the problem of sin is what it does to my family and what it does to my boys, you know. That’s the problem with sin.

But what we’ve created is, the problem of sin is that I am so angry at my son Brett for beating up his younger brother, I’m going to kill him. So now the problem we’ve got to solve is how to keep me from killing my son. Does that make sense?

Hansen: Yeah. It’s like a step back. Yeah, the reaction.

McLaren: And so now it seems to me the entire Christian theology has shifted so now the problem is, how can we keep me from killing Brett? And I don’t think that’s the kind of God that we serve. I think the problem is God wants His children to get along with each other. He wants them to be good people. Because He’s good. And His vision for creation is that they’ll love each other and be good to each other and enjoy each other and have a lot of fun together.

So sin is incredibly serious. But I think we have shifted why it’s so important. Can I say it one more way to say the same thing is—The problem is, why does sin matter to God? And I think what has happened is through the influence of Ansolm and maybe not even really Ansolm, but the way Ansolm was interpreted by later people—We have a vision that the real problem is God wants to kill us all. And we’ve got to somehow solve that problem. And what that does to me, Leif, that is so significant, is that it then minimizes the concern about injustice between human beings. That becomes a peripheral concern. But what if that’s God’s real concern, from beginning to end, see?

And by the way, that kind of theology, it just wants to placate God. And again, I know I am over stating it and I am aware everything I say now, that I have these people who are listening to me looking to find fault and so, anything I say—And I don’t care. If they misquote me on this to some degree, because at least maybe they’ll think about it. But I think that that theology was the perfect theology to enfranchise apartheid, colonialism, segregation in the United States. It enfranchises carelessness toward the poor, disregard for the rights of homosexuals, carelessness toward people with AIDS. It shifts all the attention from God’s will being done on earth to what happens to us after we die. And I think that is the kind of thing that would make God furious, if I could use that kind of language. And I think that is exactly why Jesus uses such strong language toward the Pharisees.

Hansen: I agree with you. I don’t want to get into it. I still kind of wish there was some way that He could have used—Cause it seems to be like, don’t be violent because, you know, God’s going to get you sometime. It just sort of—Anyway, I hear you. What I am hearing you say is that this original message of reconciliation, of hey guys, God is no longer mad at you, God forgives you. We need to get back to the original focus of caring for each other and for this planet and social justice issues. Somehow—well, not just somehow—You and I would agree, it seems to come from this idea of the fear and misunderstanding of sin and how God responds to it in getting us focussed on the afterlife. And it’s just gotten completely turned upside down. I hear you.

McLaren: And if the other guys are right, then you and I are wrong. But if we’re even partially right, the other guys have some thinking to do.

Hansen: Well, can I just do a couple of personal questions? Probably more myself. I don’t know how many of my listeners are in this similar place. But—or how many people you’ve talked to are, if you talk to mostly people who have no problem calling themselves Christians and feel God’s presence and all, but I am honest with you. I am in an incredibly dry—Particularly I was involved with a charismatic church, a Vineyard. I loved it. And I still actually hold that those experiences were largely valid and good. There’s a lot of poop in the middle of it all, humanity. But that’s okay. That’s always going to happen. But right now, I don’t think it’s intellectual. I think that large enough through my thinking, and school and your writings, there sort of just this emerging view of how I can reembrace my faith on an intellectual level. There’s still a few little struggles. But there always will be. On an emotional level though, I am just really struggling trusting even God exists at all. And I can’t mental talk myself into that, I don’t think. I think I said this to you in the letter. I think part of it is I’m scared—Things have changed so many times. I’m scared that if I start saying a believe certain things and trusting and standing on things, I’m going to be humbled again and let down and disappointed. Do you know other people struggling? Do you have any other advice for those of us in that place of how to rebuild a really basic trust again?

McLaren: Yeah. Yeah. Well, first of all, I think your honesty about that will resonant to an awful lot of people who listen to this. Because I just heard a very well known pastor—again, I won’t out him on this. But a very well known pastor said exactly the same thing recently. He said, You know, half the Mondays I get up and I just think, I’m not sure I believe anything that I preached yesterday. I’m not sure I believe any of this. But he just said his struggle it keeps coming back again and again and again. So, you know, this is a terrible problem. It is especially a problem for reflective people. I don’t know if you’ve heard this song by Jill Philips. She has a song called “God believes in You.” And there is some line in the song that goes something like: On those days when you don’t believe in yourself, God believes in you. And there’s a certain sense that reflective people, we’re capable of disbelieving anything, including ourselves, you know. So, part of this I think, for those of us who are highly reflective—and if you don’t know this, Leif, you are one of the most highly reflective of the highly reflective. You know, I think it is hard, probably it is one of the curses and blessings of your, of the kind of personality that you are. And I think I have this too. Is that we’re capable of doubting and disbelieving all kinds of things.

Now, the question is, how do people like us—what does it mean for us to have faith? And I’ll tell you another great book that will be so worth reading when it comes out. It’s by a young Irish theologian. And imagine being an Irish theologian in these last twenty or thirty years, where you’ve seen religion used—not just religion but Christianity used in some of its ugliest ways. Anyway this book is called, “How Not to Speak of God.” And it is so—I found that book so helpful. In fact, I was asked to write a foreword for the book and I just was completely gushing about the book. And I thought nobody is going to believe I’m this—They are just going to think I am marketing the thing. But I really am enthusiastic. Anyhow, Pete Rolands is the author. He is part of a community in Belfast called Icon. And I think you and other people will find that book helpful when it comes out. But one of the things that I love about that book is that I think it correctly identifies so much of the problem as the way we speak of God. And if we allow ourselves to realize that God is always—the God who would really exist has to always be greater than the language that we use in speaking about God. It gives us permission to doubt the way we speak about God as an act of faith in saying that the real God would have to be better than the way we speak about God. Cause that’s the kind of thing that the mystics always were saying.

That, that God always must be greater than however we speak about God. Right? I think XXX Eichardt who said, God saved me from God. In other words, the God who really exists must be better than the concept of God that I have. And so, I have to continually call on the God who is greater than my best concept of God.

Gregory MisXXX, who wrote at time when there was so much debate about the trinity and people were ready to kill each other about this. And obviously he was involved in those debates himself. But he said, Only wonder understands; concepts create idols. And for someone like yourself and like me and so many of us who have grown up in evangelical contexts, where we argue about God in ways that would make you think that we have great confidence in our words to capture God that we’re ready to pillory somebody who doesn’t use words just the same way we do. You know, I think we are especially prone to this idolatry of ideology and idolatry of words. And I think there is a certain sense that our atheism is a desire to disbelieve the words we keep saying about God because we know that God has to be better than those words.

Hansen: I think that resonates in me. What, okay, well, if you need to go beyond words then, what kind of experiences have you had Brian, that have given you the hope to continue on? I mean it’s got to be experiences or practices or living social justice out. What is that that has helped you and can help us to go beyond the words and to have that?

McLaren: First of all, I need to say that it is so—I hesitate to say anything because—I know that I have another phone call coming in a couple minutes that I assured somebody I would take. So, I feel like that in itself should be a three day conversation. But I can say this: I have gone through periods, two intense periods in my life that you might call a dark side of the soul. Where God just didn’t seem real to me at all. And so I know what that’s like. One of those periods lasted about three years. And I did everything I could to bring it to an end and it finally came to an end and it had nothing to do—you know what I’m saying? I didn’t think I could last six months and it went on for three years. And so I know what it’s like to feel that God doesn’t exist. And the feeling relates to—You know, you can’t tell whether your thoughts come first or your feelings come first. So, I feel that.

I also need to say that for other periods of my life, the feeling of God’s reality has been so strong and so there. And I know other people who say I have never felt that once. And I don’t think I am superior to anybody. I just think, you know, I don’t know. I don’t know how to explain it. But I was just reading a book by Barbara Brown Taylor, a new manuscript of a book she has coming out that will be called Leaving Church. And a really wonderfully written book. And she describes kind of her primal sense of the experience of God. And the way she said it is, the sense that I am being carried by invisible arms. And another way I would say it is the sense of being accompanied somehow.

Hansen: And you have that right now?

McLaren: Yeah, I do. But and I almost hesitate to say it. Because I know for people who don’t that it can either say, oh that’s just some psychological thing. Well, I’m sure it is psychological. You know, I’m sure it has to do with brain waves and everything else. All experience does. But there comes some point where I just have to acknowledge, this is a true part of my experience. But so are those Monday mornings when I have woken up and felt that God—where I didn’t have that feeling and where all of those intellectual questions are there. So, I just feel like part of being a person of God is also experiencing a sense of abandonment by God. And what I am hearing from you is that you have had times when you felt these powerful experiences of God and other times when where you XX. And I guess I identify.

One of my good friends, when I went through the first of these long, dry periods, I remember he and I were sitting across the room from each other on two couches. And I just go honest with him and I said, I don’t believe any of it right now. None of it seems real. And he just looked at me and he said, I know it doesn’t seem real to you right now. I want to tell you, it does seem real to me. And he said, maybe you need to go on my faith for a while. And I just remember feeling such a relief to be able to be honest about the experience and not have any pressure to have it be fixed. And to have him stay somewhat not anxious in the middle of it. And that’s what I just wish I—That’s what I wish I could offer to people who are going through those times right now.

Hansen: You do offer that and you have. And I am able to lean, at least somewhat on your faith there. Sounds like your call is coming through. Brian, thank you so much for taking this time…

McLaren: This is one of the great experiences that when you get to travel—You know, we all see so much garbage and the garbage is so promoted. And the stupidest things get the most attention. But you know, like I was just in a little village, two afternoons ago, way up in the mountains of Dominican Republic, where a Pentecostal pastor of a little tiny church in this little village of 4,000 people was so bothered that nobody in the whole village had health care, that he has created a health care system for these poor people who have an annual, average per capita income of $50 per person per year. That’s their average income per year. And he has created an unbelievable thing. And you know, you see something like and you just are very moved. …