Conversations on Being a Heretic | Notes & Review

Posted on August 18, 2010


by Scot McKnight and Brian McLaren

[NOTE: My notes below is not an exact transcript.]

If the gospel isn’t embodied as good news to the poor, it isn’t the same gospel that Jesus talked about.

MCKNIGHT: It is common for a reader of yours to come away from your books wondering exactly what you believe. We detect a provocative ambiguity while others wonder if there is not a deliberate refusal to clarify your views. How would you describe your strategy when addressing polarized issues. Why not just come out and tell people what you believe?

MCLAREN: When I read a book, or listen to music, I’m not always asking “What do they believe?” I’m asking, “What do they have to say to me?” I’m not requiring them to agree with me (and me to agree with them) for me to be stimulated by what they have to say. To me, there is a peculiar problem in a lot of religious readers where their approach is, “I don’t care what the person might have to say to me. I want to know if he’s right.” And, so they go into the reading and discussion experience with an assumption that they are already right, that they already see things the way they should be. And they’re going through with a checklist. The experience of that for a writer (and for pastoring and preaching), is when you’re in the presence of those people is that it feels like an inquisition. They’re doing a kind of constant heresy hunt. My personal feeling is that there is a place for that. But maybe we could say, “those who live by the sword die by the sword,” i.e., “those who live by boundary maintenance die by boundary maintenance,…those who live by heresy hunting die by heresy hunting.” It is interesting that people read a book that way. To me, that’s a significant problem.

Regarding “provocative ambiguity,” there is some dimension of that. Soren Kierkegaard said, “It is very hard to use indirect communication when you’re talking to someone who is held in the grip of an illusion.” Because if you tell a person who is so absolutely certain, they have absolute certainty that they’re right, when they’re not right, if you tell them they’re wrong, they just assume you’re wrong. Sometimes when talking to people in an illusion, you have to use indirection. Flannery O’Connor said, “With people who can’t see very well, you have to use very large and strange characters.” I also think that in other places, I’m not trying to pass someone’s test, I’m actually trying to challenge them to think. And sometimes the ambiguity does help with that.

MCKNIGHT: Re: “A Generous Orthodoxy” and “A New Kind of Christianity.” Many of us wonder if you have abandoned Generous Orthodoxy. How do you square what you are rejecting in “A New Kind of Christianity” (i.e., the Greco-Roman Narrative) with your earlier affirmations of “A Generous Orthodoxy.”

MCLAREN: I would never ever say that the faith of the historic church should be put behind us. To me, the faith of the historic church is exactly what we should keep; dependence on God, openness to the Holy Spirit, connection and confidence in God. But I do think there are dimensions of our faith after 2000 years that we may need to go back and look at and say, there seems to be a problem there. And this issue, what I call the “Greco-Roman narrative,” I think really deserves a second look. And some people are going to say, “No it doesn’t. That’s inherent to the faith.”

Just to give you an example. To me, the essence of that narrative, that way of looking at the world — e.g., “we’re the insiders, we’re the chosen, we’re the elite, we’re the elect, we’re the saved…they’re the lost, they’re the non-Christians, they’re the damned, they’re the other, they’re the outsider.” — that dualism, and that way of looking at an “us” vs. “them” approach to the world, that I think is inherent in that, it might be avoidable. But historically, it has repeatedly resulted in oppression and violence, and horrible things that are opposed to the way and things of Jesus Christ. I think that narrative is complicit in a whole series of atrocities that Muslim people know about, that Jewish people know about, that the Native Americans know about, that African-Americans know about, that women know about, that the LBGT communities know about; it’s like everybody sees it, but us. I really do think that’s a problem. I guess the way to say it is, I think that narrative has been the ungenerous thing that has been wrapped up with orthodoxy, and I think we would be both more orthodox and more generous to articulate the faith apart from that narrative.

One other thing. In the Christian tradition, you either can read the tradition and try to find the one line that you think is legitimate, and everything off that line is illegitimate. Or you can look at the Christian tradition and say, there’s this whole range of seeing things, and that range through history gives us a lot of freedom. And I think what I’m advocating does go all the way back through Church history through to the very beginning. I think it’s the approach taken more by St. Patrick than Constantine, more by St. Francis than by both the Catholic and Protestant Church in the Colonial and Crusade era. I think it’s the approach taken more by the Anabaptists and the radical reformation, by advocates of the social gospel, liberation theology, Black, Latino, Eco, and Feminist theologies, and so on. So, I’m not interested in condemning anybody. I’m suggesting, some of us need to explore some of the alternatives.

MCKNIGHT: So, “A Generous Orthodoxy” is not the Greco-Roman narrative?

MCLAREN: As I see it, there is nothing that I wrote in “A Generous Orthodoxy” and in “A New Kind of Christianity” that aren’t in harmony. I don’t think there is a shred of tension between them. I don’t think you’ll find anything in “A Generous Orthodoxy” that supports that kind of Greco-Roman narrative. I think it was a mistake, to try to fit the good news of Jesus Christ, that arises from the story of the Jewish people, to only fit that in the categories of Greek Philosophy and Roman politics. I think it was a missiological necessity for the early Christians as they encountered Greek culture to translate the message of Jesus Christ into the terms of the Greek culture that they went to. I think it was understandable that they wanted to be acceptable to the Roman culture that had so much power. It’s ironic because many say I’m guilty of syncretism, and the irony is that we’ve had a massive mixing or syncretism in the past; a Jewish story of people being dominated. I’m worried that that story has become a tool for people with a lot of money, power, weapons, and something in the message of Jesus gets corrupted. The irony is that when people do inquisitions, they want to know your opinion on predestination, hell, etc…. no one ever asks if they’re racist. And those who are often on the right side of theology, are on the wrong side of the social implications. It’s tragic.

MCKNIGHT: When you wrote “The Last Word, and the Word After That,” people criticized you of universalism — that all will be saved. Is this true? If it is, what led you to being a universalist.

MCLAREN: It would be simple if I could say, “I’m a universalist.” I can say “I’m not an exclusivist,” which is what I was brought up with. But, it’s not really honest to say that I’m a universalist for this reason. Analogy: If you and I went on a road trip to Miami, and we saw signs that said Seattle or Portland, something about that would make me think we took a wrong turn a long time ago. In my opinion, when I’m asked to chose between exclusivism and universalism, that’s so far off the path of what I think is the story line of the Bible that it just doesn’t make sense to me. I know that sounds crazy and evasive, but I’m trying to be honest. I don’t think the primary question being asked by the Bible is who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. I think the primary question being asked is, “How can God’s will be done on earth as it is in Heaven?” I think the primary question is, “How can this creation that has been damaged by human sin, injustice, lust, greed, etc., how can it be healed, and how can we participate with God in this healing?”

MCKNIGHT: Do you think there’s an afterlife?

MCLAREN: I do think there’s an afterlife?

MCKNIGHT: And will all experience the felicity of the afterlife?

MCLAREN: Here’s what I think. First of all, in the Bible, salvation is by grace, and everybody gets judged by works. So, I think the mercy of God comes to all and the judgment of God comes to all. But, the universalism that I think is far more important in the Bible is not “What happens to everybody when they die?” I think it’s the question, “Does everybody learn to see the image of God in other human beings, or do they continue to divide the world between us and them, and ‘us’ is always the ones that God loves, and ‘them’ is somehow always the other.” And my concern is that by making the big issue who is the inside us and who is the outside them, by doing that, we violate a more important ethical universalism of seeing the image of God in every person.

MCKNIGHT: Okay, now let me say this. I get that. I believe, and Jesus clearly believes in the importance of life now. But, let’s just add the numbers up. Let’s say God is gracious enough to us that we live to 90, and there is an eternity afterward. That’s a lot more than 90. So, it’s not that it’s one or the other, it’s both.

MCLAREN: That’s true, but if you frame the Biblical question…

MCKNIGHT: I agree with you on this. We agree on this.

MCLAREN: Except for one thing. Because you are still working in a narrative that is different from the one I’m trying to work in. I grew up in your narrative. I know your narrative. I’ve been trying to explore a different way of understanding the Biblical narrative. And I think it’s very hard because it’s taken me many, many years to some how deconstruct some of this in my own brain to try to find some other space. I am very sympathetic with how hard it is for you to understand that when you step into another paradigm some of those questions don’t make sense. And if I try to answer those questions, I’m going back into your paradigm, which is…

MCKNIGHT: Yeah, okay. But here’s what I would say. I know what you’re saying. I like your idea of paradigm shift. I’m big on this. And I’ve gone through paradigm shifts in my own life. But, you get into that paradigm, and then tickle people on the other side with the old questions of salvation. Because even in those chapters, those issues come up which means that old paradigm is still at work. You know what I mean?

MCLAREN: Yeah. If I were more effective, if I had some skill that I don’t have, maybe I could help people transport over to the other. One of the reasons why I keep writing, is because it’s not easy. But for example, you use the word salvation. And for so many people, as soon as they hear the word “salvation,” they have a whole set of definitions in their mind. I was a preacher for 24 years. I really read the Bible; I still do! And what I was always troubled by is that when I read the word “salvation” in the Bible, I would import a set of assumptions about what that word meant, and they didn’t fit what I saw in the text.

MCKNIGHT: Okay, I’m with you.

MCLAREN: So when I read the text, the word “salvation” starts in the Old Testament and it means liberation. Salvation is what God does for the Jewish people, getting them out of slavery. It’s not about getting them out of hell in the Old Testament.

MCKNIGHT: I agree…

MCLAREN: It’s about getting them out of Egypt. So, I’m trying to be honest about those things. I guess we’re out of time.

MCKNIGHT: Okay, thanks Brian.

— VIA —

It is a shame it was so short. This Q talk comes at an incredible time in my life, where I’m personally wrestling with these ideas as well, and I, just this week had an almost identical conversation with a local pastor here over the exact word of “salvation.” Attempting to explain the paradigm, the pastor berated me (and my wife–also a pastor–and our hosts) with the “old” paradigm of “accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and if you don’t you’re going to spend an eternity in hell.”

I have likened this kind of discourse to asking the question, “do you take your lunch to school?” and the other person says, “you can’t take your lunch to school, you have to take the bus.”

Some observations.

1. Thankful for the civility. Unfortunately, I’ve been a part of too many conversation that simply end in talking points, and raised voices, and condescending attitudes, and postures that do not propel the conversation forward. I’m thankful for these two and their willingness to hold a conversation with civility and respect. All people need to learn this basic human courtesy in these kinds of exchanges.

2. The paradigm is not a way of “seeing,” but rather a way of “thinking.” I’m still wrestling with what a “paradigm” actually is, especially from an epistemological standpoint. From this conversation, this thought occurred to me as McKnight asked two questions. First is the quite direct question “what do you really believe?” Second, is the question of our life-expectancy of 90 years in relation to eternity being a “math” problem.

“Seeing” is about the definitions and assumptions one brings to the table, as McLaren mentioned surrounding the word “salvation.” A paradigm shift is no doubt a change of those assumptions and a change of the perspective from which one stands in order to understand their world, and in this case, the Bible. But, a paradigm shift is also about asking different questions and reasoning differently about your way of understanding which can lead you to different assumptions and perspectives. So, while McKnight may understand the definition of “salvation,” from a Biblical–Old Testament point of view as McLaren was articulating, his thinking and reasoning is still that “eternity > 90 years.” The linearity of that question is indicative of his paradigm. He may see salvation as equal to liberation, but he cannot think that that understanding could be more valid or more important in light of the logic that this life is so temporary.

Perhaps others can help me articulate this better, but I’m coming to believe that paradigm shifts actually happen before they’re evidenced in perspective or assumptions. I believe that is what happened to me, personally, as I began wrestling with these questions. In fact, I’m almost certain it is what happened. I began reasoning differently, asking different questions which eventually led to a different understanding. Therefore, trying to convince others of the conclusions of one’s journey — the seeing — is impossible without first starting with challenging their way of inquiry.

(By the way, I believe McLaren touched on this when he talked about questions and going “back” into another paradigm. So, while this is my original thinking, I also credit McLaren for this thought process, and I’m simply trying to flesh it out more in my own words.)

Now then, to Kierkegaard’s quote that McLaren mentioned. If speaking in indirect communication is the only way to speak to someone held in the grip of an illusion, then we are at a loss. Perhaps, if I may so audaciously augment Kierkegaard, perhaps speaking is not the answer, but rather questioning and allowing the other person to come to their own conclusions regarding their reasoning. Perhaps utilizing the powerful medium of questions, A) eliminates the “us” vs. “them” discourse that often dominates the conversation, and B) requires the other person to not wrestle with you, but rather to wrestle with themselves. In my conversation with that pastor this week, I only wish I began with this approach earlier. Once those questions were posed (towards the end of the conversation), you could sense that there was a different kind of wrestling, one that forced him to either convince himself of his own understanding, or face the reality of his illogicality. Here are some of the questions I asked:

What did the word “salvation” mean to the first believers? (as opposed to what does “salvation” mean?)

(re: John 14:6, Acts 4:12, etc.) If this was language used by the Jewish people for the Torah (John 14:6) and by the Romans for their Emperor (Acts 4:12) would that change your understanding of these verses?

When you read the Bible, are you looking for truth or are you looking to substantiate your own understanding of the truth? (follow-up) If you’re looking for truth, how do you know when you found it? What criteria do you use to distinguish truth from falsehood?

Are you willing to say, “Perhaps the way I’m seeing things is wrong/needs to be augmented/changed…” etc.?

I’m sure there are a thousand other questions, and many of them can only come in the context of an actual conversation. These are simply examples.

3. Perhaps it’s time to blatantly admit the evolution of Christian faith (and others). McLaren mentioned the missiological necessity of translating the Gospel into the Greco-Roman world by the early believers. While I’m not sure how much McLaren would adhere to what I’m about to say, it seems honest to say that it is impossible for any idea (faith, concept, etc.) to be “translated” into another time or culture (including language) without it changing into something that is quite distinct from the original. It’s once been said,

Christianity began as a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. When it went to Athens, it became a philosophy. When it went to Rome, it became an organization. When it went to Europe, it became a culture. When it came to America, it became a business.

In 2000, at a conference I attended with both Chip Ingram and Brian McLaren, Ingram said, “The message doesn’t change, but our methods must be continually be contextualized,” (not an exact quote). I remember thinking even then, “that can’t be completely right.” While many would staunchly preach that the Gospel doesn’t change, even the most conservative of us would have to agree that the original faith was not in English, nor was it in America and our founder was not a W.A.S.P. Each of these elements does something to the original, making the resulting faith, distinct and augmented in such a way as to question whether or not the founder would recognize what they began.

So, perhaps it’s time for all of us to simply admit, the “evolution of faith.” And by that, I mean not simply the contextualization, but the actual idea, including its dogmas and paradigms which of course have implications in practices and pragmatics.

Now, while some may decry this as more heretical than McLaren (perhaps even McLaren would as well), this does not have to necessitate an outcry; this could actually be the beauty and brilliance of God in His wisdom. As Huston Smith mentions in The Soul of Christianity, “The singularity of the Infinite splays into a multiplicity,” (page 7, #5 of the fixed points of the Christian Worldview). In other words, this “evolution” is actually the brilliance of God’s ability to communicate with and to diverse people, in diverse cultures, in diverse times. God remains perfect, sovereign, but the ways in which we experience and relate to God change…and that’s not just okay, that’s brilliant.

Thanks to McLaren and McKnight, and to “Q” for allowing these conversations to be publicly engaged with.

Posted in: Religion, Theology