McLaren’s Test for Religious “Hostility”

BM2Brian McLaren’s recent outing is entitled Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? (Jericho Books, 2012). The book is written primarily for those with “an internal unrest about [their] Christian identity,” and who are “seeking a way of being Christian that makes you more hospitable, not more hostile…more loving, not more judgmental…more like Christ and less (I’m sad to have to say this) like many churchgoers you have met” (p. 15). If this more or less describes you, you probably have what McLaren calls Conflicted Religious Identity Syndrome (CRIS).

In many ways, the book is a manual on how to be a properly postimperialistic, postcolonial, postmodern Christian. Specific bible doctrines need to be deconstructed (the usual culprits, of course, being original sin, penal substitution, and hell). If we reinterpret these “malignant” doctrines as “healing teachings” (p. 101), teachings that promote hospitality, we can avoid much of the religious hostility that “is part of the problem to be overcome in the world” (p. 20). In fact, we can go still further. Perhaps the whole idea of doctrine needs to be “reformulated not as an instrument of mind control and social pacification, but as an instrument of healing—including healing from the diseases of empire” (p. 101). This gospel of deconstructionism can even help us to see how we can be committed Christians “without having to condemn or convert people of other faiths” (book jacket). For the bible believing Christian, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that what we are dealing with here really is a different sort of Christianity—remarkably different than, say, what one finds in the pages of the New Testament.

In the posts to follow, I argue that McLaren’s CRIS, if it is a problem, in no way requires his proposed solution: adopting the so-called Hospitality model for engaging non-Christian religions. This model bids us to reinterpret the gospel in inclusive hospitality language (taking off its exclusive edge), and to embrace a ‘Blind Men and the Elephant’ scenario: the Holy Spirit is also “moving, working, ‘hovering’ over each religion…[so that] other religions have something to offer us as well based on their real and unique encounters with the Spirit” (p. 153).

Defining “Hostility”

One of McLaren’s principle worries is that Christians with a strong sense of who they are have carved out their identity in opposition to non-Christian religions. This, he thinks, is not a good thing:

The stronger our Christian commitment, the more we emphasize our differences in terms of good/evil, right/wrong, better/worse. We may be friendly to individuals of other religions, but our friendship always has a pretext: we want them to switch sides…This kind of pseudofriendship expresses the ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’ mind-set: love the Hindu but hate his Hinduism (pp. 9-10).

And again

When religions develop an oppositional identity—we oppose, therefore we are, or we know who we are because we know whom we oppose—their strong identity comes at a high cost” (p. 20).

The cost is hostility, which McLaren equates with opposition:

By hostility I mean opposition, the sense that the other is the enemy…Hostility makes one unwilling to be a host…Hostility is an attitude of exclusion, not embrace; of repugnance, not respect; of suspicion, not extending the benefit of the doubt; of conflict, not conviviality” (p. 19).

To find out just how hostile you are—in particular towards other religions—you can respond to the following statement (on a scale of 0-5, where 0=absolutely untrue and 5=strongly agree):

I see other faiths as wrong, false, or evil, and I maintain a posture of opposition to all faiths but the Christian faith (p. 69).

The higher your score, the more hostile you are. It goes without saying, of course, that opposition in this sense (treating others as repugnant, suspicious enemies)—let’s call it personal opposition—is generally deplorable and something Christians should do their best to avoid. Still, it wouldn’t automatically follow that a Christian shouldn’t seek to develop an oppositional identity. For consider propositional opposition. Two propositions P and Q are propositionally oppositional, we might say, just in case P and Q have opposing truth-values (one is true, the other false). In fact, McLaren himself agrees that hostility extends to the world of ideas; for we can be “hostile toward science and learning, hostile toward honest questions and new ways of thinking” (p. 20). And here is surely right: we can indeed be hostile (i.e., opposed) to these things.

Deconstructing “Hostility”

Let’s think for a moment in terms of Aristotle’s famed ‘Square of Opposition’. The opposite corners on his ‘Square’ have opposing truth values—and necessarily so, since they are contradictories. Now suppose, for argument’s sake, that I believe the ‘A’ corner for some specific proposition, say,

A:   All human beings are sinners.

And then let’s say you believe its contradictory—the ‘O’:

O:   Some human beings are not sinners.

It’s just a matter of sheer logic that if I believe A—perhaps because I read it in my bible (Romans 3:23)—I have to oppose the truth of O, the thing you believe. I have to exclude that in my thinking; I have to see us as differing in terms of right/wrong. For if I don’t, I shall find myself believing contradictions. Moreover, if it is better to hold true beliefs than false ones, I should think that my A belief is better than your O. It scarcely follows that I won’t shake your hand or have you over for dinner. Propositions and people are not the same thing. I can love and respect you without believing what you believe. As a friend once told me, “You taught me that it’s okay to disagree” (and still be friends). Now here, I’m afraid, McLaren muddies the waters considerably. This is mere “pseudofriendship,” he says. For the friendship has a pretext: “we want them to switch sides.” Furthermore, it “expresses the ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’ mind-set: love the Hindu but hate his Hinduism.” It is easy to see, I believe, that both of these considerations are flawed.

The Love-Hate Problem

First, this “love the sinner, hate the sin” argument is both logically invalid and its conclusion (very probably) a strawman. From the fact that

(1)  We should love the sinner but hate his sin

it hardly follows that

(2)  We should love the Hindu but hate his Hinduism.

For (2) is not a substitution instance of (1), and this for the simple reason that Hinduism—taken as a collection of doctrines—isn’t the right sort of thing to count as a sin (along with lying, cheating, stealing, and the like). It’s a set of propositions—propositions that are either true or false, reasonable or unreasonable, etc. You don’t hate propositions; you believe them or disbelieve them. What McLaren is doing here is uncharitably shoehorning an emotionally loaded term (“hate”) into the equation where it really has no business. So (2) doesn’t follow from (1); at best it’s a strawman imputed to the Christian without justification. No sensible believer will take responsibility for it. What she will no doubt affirm in its place, however, is

(2*)  We should love the Hindu but disagree with his Hinduism.

The left side of the conjunction follows from Matthew 22:39 – “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The right-side is required by the law of non-contradiction. Since Christianity and Hinduism are contradictory, a thinking Christian must disagree with Hinduism. So contra McLaren we can emphasize our differences in terms of true/false and right/wrong without that spilling over to personal opposition.

The Pretext Problem

Second, what about the pretext worry? Won’t McLaren say that what I’ve just described is nothing more than “pseudofriendship”? If my intent in loving or befriending you is to get you to “switch sides,” then I don’t see you or our friendship as intrinsically valuable—only a means to the end of securing a conversion. So I’m a user. And we all know what Kant thinks about that!

But am I really a bad host and a false friend if I want to see you among the saved (not the lost), on the narrow road “that leads to life” and not the broad road “that leads to destruction” (Mt 7:14)? Well, if it does, then I can console myself with the fact that I’m in good company. “I have become all things to all men,” the Apostle Paul says, “so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings” (1 Cor 9:22-23). In his books, there are only two camps into which people fall: “those who are perishing” and “us who are being saved” (1 Cor 1:18). And it certainly does look as if Paul befriended people to see them switch camps.

Here it’s initially important to note that it’s not necessarily wrong to treat someone as a means to an end. Suppose, for example, you’re my friend and you own a bookshop which sells the complete box set of the Chronicles of Narnia . If I purchase this book from your shop, I’ve used you to get the book—just as you’ve used me to make money. But clearly, I haven’t used you only as a means to this end. What would be wrong is treating you as if that were the only reason you were of value. Of course nothing Paul says so much as hints that the only reason he ever befriended anyone was to see them switch ranks. For all we know, he had other motivations as well (we frequently do), including enjoying people’s company and wanting what is best for them. As a matter of fact, if you knew there was “no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12), then the mark of a true friend would be to help me see what was really and truly in my best interests even if I disagreed. A bad friend would be one who knew all these things, but did nothing, said nothing, and left me to perish.

The upshot is that a Christian, if she has her wits about her, will indeed emphasize the doctrinal or propositional differences between Christianity and other faiths in terms of such categories as true/false, right/wrong, better/worse. Logic requires it. Fortunately, this in no way requires her to adopt a stance of personal hostility towards those with whom she disagrees. So far as I can see, therefore, we don’t (thus far) have anything like a hostility problem for which McLaren’s deconstructed gospel and Hospitality approach to non-Christian religions is the only solution. (We’ll examine the latter on its own terms in a separate post.) ——- If you would like to ask a question or make a comment about this post, please consult our Comment Policy here.