A young man introduced himself, explaining that he had heard me speak several years earlier at his Evangelical college. "Of all of my fellow students who were in the ministry track at my school," he said, "I'm basically the only one who still even goes to church, and I'm only hanging on by my fingernails." I asked what it was that had driven his peers -- all preparing for ministry work -- not only from the careers in ministry that they planned on, but from even attending church at all. "It's just what you spoke about tonight," he explained. "Hostility to 'the other.' People don't want to have to side with the church and against their friends who are Buddhist or Muslim or Jewish or agnostic."We are not supposed to be hostile. I don't know any conservative Christians who describe themselves that way. But we are supposed to believe. We are really supposed to think Jesus offers something better. That does not mean we have nothing good to say about people who are Buddhist or Muslim or Jewish or agnostic. We can learn a lot from them. But we do believe Jesus is God. So Christianity is not one more religion among many. It is has that fundamental thing right that other religions have wrong.
It is the same thing with other Christian religions. We are not hostile to protestants or orthodox. We want to learn from them. But we don't believe Catholicism is on an equal footing with them. Catholicism has the fullness of truth because God basically forced the church to hold onto it. It is not true because we are so good. It is true because the Holy Spirit is so good. But it is true.
A lot of times people simply lack that faith. They don't really believe that the Catholicism is true. The interact with people of other faiths who can be very impressive and they wonder who, if anyone, has the true religion. If that is where you are at then any proclamation of truth is going to sound like an act of hostility. It is going to seem self-serving because you are going to think of the gospel as your faith and not "the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes (Rom 1:16)."
Later in the evening, two young women, current college students, told me the same thing. "We grew up in the church," they explained. "We're still followers of Christ, but we're not attending church any more. We can't find a church that doesn't load a bunch of extra baggage on us. We tried, but they all had this long list of people we had to be against. It's just not worth it."These are classic church shoppers. They want a church that will not ask them to change. They will evaluate whether a church is "worth it." They say they are following Christ? What does that mean? Whatever they want it to mean today. They use secular language saying that Christians are haters. It shows they have made no effort to learn what Christ or His Church actually say.
One of them added, "But tonight, you gave us hope that there's a way of being Christian that doesn't mean we have to hate on anybody."
So what is the solution? To teach them an even less demanding version of Christianity? Why would they commit to that? How would it change their life? I can see a church like that not being worth it. It just leaves you as you were, with a dead faith that makes no difference in your life.
Why not challenge these young women? Why not tell them there is a better way. Yes, it means calling some things right and some things wrong. It does not mean hating anyone. It does mean sticking to your convictions that some basic rights and wrongs apply to everyone. They might balk at such a notion. They might not. At least there would be a chance for them to have an encounter with Christ that really matters.
The key is to realize that where they are right now is lost. Don't make them the judges of all of Christendom. McLaren seems to present them as having a wisdom that most churchmen lack. He kind of has the tail wagging the dog.
Their comment reminded me of something a woman about my age had shared during the Q&R session after the lecture. She explained how she, a lesbian, had left the church years ago, deeply wounded by the hostility she experienced. "I didn't choose this as a 'lifestyle,'" she said. "This is the way I am." She told us how hard it was just to show up in a church for the lecture that night, and asked me if I saw a connection between hostility against gay people and hostility against people of other religions.Of course this kind of ecumenicism will lead to heresy. Not just to one heresy but every idea the culture can serve up. Why not? We don't really believe what we believe so there is just no spiritual strength.
I explained that I think there's a deep and powerful connection: religious communities often take a short-cut to building a strong group identity -- by defining themselves in opposition to others. Muslims, atheists and gays are high-profile "others" which can be scapegoated to build a strong "Christian" identity. On top of that, Christians have been taught to see in "us vs. them" terms for centuries, and it will take time to reorient faithful people in a new direction -- "us with them," working for the common good.
It is interesting that he connects it with groups building identity. What is that a problem for Christian churches? Because of schism. When the church is one our identity is Christ. When the church is fragmented then every group needs to define itself over against the others. He says Muslims, atheists and gays are "others" but I don't see that. Atheists and gays have historically not been "others." Until recently all groups believed in God and agreed that gay sex was wrong. Muslims were there and we likely could have handled them better. Still the main "us vs. them" I experienced as a protestant was when the "them" was another group of Christians.
That is why I see the whole situation as the fruit of the reformation. The unworkability of denominations is being used as an argument in favor of doctrinal and moral relativism. It goes back to what I said earlier about learning the wrong lesson from the data. We cannot have many flavors of Christianity. We need a way to say which is the true Christian faith that is not ad hoc. Then we need to actually trust and obey that faith. We need to lose ourselves in finding Christ. Nothing else will work.
Later, this woman was in line to get a book signed, not far behind the two college students. With tears in her eyes, she gave me a hug and said, "Tonight gave me hope that there's a way I can maybe come back into the church, that there's a place for people like me."There is always the appeal to the emotions. What else can you appeal to? Once you have knocked down the church and the bible there is not much left.
As I was leaving, the two students who had spoken with me earlier circled back to talk some more. "If we can make the changes we talked about tonight -- finding a new kind of Christian identity that's built on what we're for instead of who we're against -- I think we'll make history," one said.
"Let's do it," I replied. "Let's do it."
I do always question someone who promises to build a new Christian identity. I wonder what he thinks the Holy Spirit has been doing for 2000 years. Can McLaren build something better than Jesus built? If he can make history it will be a history that makes no sense as a story of salvation through Jesus Christ. Jesus will be like one of the Avengers. He can't win the victory until He teams up with other superheros like Buddha and Mohammad. It took him 2000 years to figure out He could not do it on His own. That does not sound right to me.