Utter the word ‘interfaith’ in some evangelical circles and you might get a dirty look; or slapped on the head with John 14:6. Because some fear that dialogue between people of different faiths can only lead to a watering down of our own – that having conversations about life and faith with Hindus or Buddhists or Muslims is in some way denying our belief that there is one way to God. Some fear it might lead us to mistakenly think that non-Christian faiths might have something good to say about community and love and divinity.
So Brian McLaren’s latest book Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road? in which he suggests that the well-being of future generations depends on how well Christians learn to relate to those of other faiths, might be criticised by many in the Church.
“I grew up with a strong and hostile faith,” Brian tells me. “I grew up fundamentalist and we were hostile even towards our fellow Christians who didn’t agree with us – let alone Muslims. But I probably would have left the Christian faith if it were not for Jesus. I just have never been able to get over my love for him; and writing this book even deepened my sense of the uniqueness of Jesus and the uniqueness that he offers to all the world. It would be nice for Christians to unwrap that gift.”
The US theologian – once named one of Time magazine’s 25 most influential evangelical Christians – thinks these inter-religious conversations are of utmost importance.
“Since 9/11 and 7/7 here, all of us feel that the issue of interfaith relations now is really a life-or-death matter,” he tells me. We are sitting in the lobby of his hotel in central London, and I can’t help but think that he reminds me of the wise yet mysterious John Locke in the TV series Lost. But I ask Locke, ahem Brian, whether the happy-happy interfaith relationships are somewhat superficial bearing in mind the inter-religious conflicts and deep-seated theological disagreements, that have existed in different areas around the world throughout the centuries.
“There’s a superficial kind of ‘let’s all be friends and sing kumbaya’ proposal,” he says. “But that never works. It might make a nice song, but it doesn’t translate into reality. I think the Bible is very honest about this. Even at the crucifixion, we see the incredible cost of forgiveness. A heart of reconciliation means facing the truth that we have often in our past been the aggressor and the other has been the victim. For there to be real reconciliation, it will require us to face both realities. When we’re the victim, we have to learn how to forgive; and when we’re the aggressor we have to learn how to seek forgiveness.”
But what place is there for righteous anger? Jesus got angry sometimes, didn’t he? He didn’t always ‘just try to get along’ with people if he disagreed with them’, I say.
“Jesus’s righteous anger is pointed at us not at them,” Brian replies. “And it’s pointed at hypocrisy and oppression. He habitually paints the ‘other’ with humanity. For example, he shocks his disciples by talking to a Samaritan woman and casts a Samaritan as the hero of his parable. He encounters a Syrophoenician woman and in the beginning displays the prejudices of a Jewish man of his day. But he listens to her. And he eventually sees her great faith.
“It would be wise, in my opinion, for Christians to spend a lot more time focussing on the injustices in the Christian community before we try to focus on the injustices in other communities. It’s not to say that we don’t speak, but once we have acknowledged our own weaknesses, we will speak out with an appropriate humility.”
I wonder if he finds it as easy to relate to fellow Christians – those who have criticised his work, who have ex-communicated him from evangelicalism and labelled him a heretic because they feel that his emergent theology just doesn’t cut it. But he thinks that these people will always fundamentally disagree with the message of his book.
“You have to start with the people who are open to agreeing with you,” he says. “I think there are many Christians who would be characterised by what I call in the book a ‘strong and hostile’ Christianity. Very few of them are going to listen. But many of their children will not accept this strong and hostile Christian identity. They will either become non-Christian or they will have to find a new kind of Christian identity.”
Despite having been made an outcast of mainstream evangelicalism, Brian would still describe himself as an evangelical. It’s just the perception of the word that’s changed. “I’m from an evangelical background and I feel that I’ve changed a lot in my life, but in so doing I feel I’ve become more true to the best things about my evangelical heritage,” he says.
“But at the same time, during my lifetime in the States, the definition of evangelical has changed. The centre of gravity has shifted farther away from where I am. Many evangelicals would not want the term to stretch to include me. And I won’t fight for the term. Because in the US, the term evangelical has been deeply, deeply compromised with American identity and with the Republican Party.”
That’s not to say that he enjoys being called a heretic. There is definitely pain and regret when he talks about the criticism he has faced. “Obviously being called a heretic is a serious accusation,” he says. “And I don’t take that lightly in any way. But I’m also aware that Roman Catholic Christians also consider evangelicals heretics.
“In some ways, it’s a bit like a verbal grenade – detonating someone’s reputation and telling the world that they’re no longer among us. I think people who know me say I’m not a fighter and I’m not a hot-headed person. The questions I have raised have been carefully thought out.”
Despite the questions and the doubts that he – and many millennials – have, he remains in love with the personhood of Christ. That’s why he’s stayed.
“It’s not like we can leave Jesus and find someone better,” he says. “My argument is for us to be able to lovingly and compassionately acknowledge the failures in the Christian religion and continue to identify ourselves as followers of Christ.
“Whatever a person’s religion, everyone has a choice. There are strong and hostile versions of their religion. There are weak and tolerant versions of their religion and there are also strong and benevolent possibilities within their religion. I would hope that whatever a person’s religious background, they would reject the strong and hostile, move beyond the weak and tolerant, and find the strong and kind way of living their faith.”