Ideas have consequences. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Brian McLaren’s new book Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World (Jericho Books, 2012). Once voted one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in America (Time, Feb 7, 2005), McLaren is a radical deconstructionist, who advocates rejecting classical formulations of bible doctrine—those employing hostile “oppositional” terminology (e.g., ‘unsaved’, ‘false’, ‘wrong’, ‘evil’, ‘heretical’, ‘wrath’, and so on)—and replacing them with “healing teachings” that promote hospitality and collaboration between religious groups.
Now as we’ve already noted (see here), it is a non sequitur of the first order to assert (as McLaren apparently does) that believing the doctrines of other religions to be “wrong, false, or evil” (p.69) is a sufficient condition for being personally hostile towards those who hold those doctrines. That doesn’t follow at all. Moreover, that a doctrine results in personal divisions is also no strike against it. “Do not think,” Jesus says, “that I have come to bring peace to the earth.” Rather,
I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household (Matthew 10:34-36).
If that was Jesus’ expressed intent, then deconstructing his teachings to make them more “hospitable” is clearly out of bounds. The same thing goes mutatis mutandis for the gospel. Paul tells us that its core content is offensive by divine design (cf. Galatians 5:11). Deconstructing the cross to create a “New Kind of Christianity” is therefore little more than a “turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one.” (Galatians 1:6-7).
But let’s suppose McLaren is right. Suppose we do need to “reformulate” traditional doctrines to subdue religious rivalry and hostility. How would that reformulation go? Well, on McLaren’s view, you’ll want doctrines that don’t so much as slyly suggest that the beliefs of others are “wrong, false, or evil,” since that will cause in you “an attitude of exclusion, not embrace,” make you see “the other [as] the enemy,” and result in your being “unwilling to be a host” (p. 19). And then, of course, if I see Christianity as the exclusive truth about “the one true God” (John 17:3), I might think you need to be converted to Christ, which might well offend you. And so McLaren asks: “Can you be a committed Christian without having to condemn or convert people of other faiths?” (book cover). And his answer is, ‘yes’ if you adopt a stance of hospitality underwritten by “a new understanding of key Christian doctrines” – in particular the doctrine of the Holy Spirit.
“Hovering” and Hospitality
The “Open Source” Spirit
Now a good doctrine of the Holy Spirit will no doubt begin by telling us who the Holy Spirit is. Here is McLaren’s definition:
The Holy Spirit is God-in-us or God-upon-us or God-among-us everywhere and anywhere…the Spirit is ubiquitous—everywhere, always, in all creation (p. 150).
We’re given a few options here (“…or…or…”), but the thrust seems to be this. Since the Spirit is omnipresent, we can rightly say that He is “in” us, “upon” us, and “among” us. And the idea, I take it, is that this follows if He is everywhere. According to McLaren, this also “leads to [another] thought, logical and hard to dispute”:
the Holy Spirit pre-exists all religions, cannot be contained by any single religion, and therefore cannot be claimed as private property by any one religion. That means that Pentecostals don’t own the Holy Spirit, nor do Christians, nor do monotheists, nor do theists…So we can say that the Spirit is open-source rather than proprietary” (p. 150).
In other words, a Christian—say, a missionary like the Apostle Paul—shouldn’t think that he has the Holy Spirit in a unique sort of way based on a relationship only a born again Christian can have with God. Indeed, on McLaren’s view, the Holy Spirit is already working in and through these other religions, so that the goal of the missionary isn’t to see people turn (to Christ) but rather learn from these non-Christian and pagan religions. Thus, McLaren:
we can understand human religions—all human religions, including our own—as imperfect responses to our encounters with the Spirit who is present in all creation…each religion, based on its unique location and history, would have a unique, particular, and evolving perspective from which to encounter the Spirit in a unique way (pp. 151-152).
In other words, we would expect the Holy Spirit to be 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).
Missions teams are out; “learning teams” are in. As a local church in my area puts it, the goal is “to learn, share and build relationships with others…spending time in various settings, learning from partners, and building friendships.”
Consequently, our attitude towards other religions should be one of respect, but respect understood as participation. We need to be on a “journey into with-ness,” says McLaren. Reflecting on an invitation he received from a local imam to participate “in the Muslim fast of Ramadan,” McLaren writes: “Instantly I felt the Holy Spirit speaking deep inside me: ‘This is it. Do this. ‘I’m in’, I said” (p. 243). McLaren’s response is revealing: “I received notes from Muslims around the world…nearly all positive, saying, ‘We have never heard of a Christian having respect for our religion. Thank you” (p. 243). You show respect for other religions by participating in them. That’s not wrong, of course, because the Holy Spirit is “open-source rather than proprietary.” He’s the one who “hovers” over religions in the first place, giving birth to their practices.
You might wonder whether, if McLaren is right, there would even be such a thing as evangelism. Well, there is; but it’s an entirely different animal: “[T]here is a great future for a new king of evangelism, although it will be so different that it may well need a new name” (p. 256). The apostle Paul’s evangelistic method, as we all know, involved a “decisive break” approach—a “turn[ing] to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9). Not so for McLaren:
This shared journey is not the call to convert from your religion to mine…[rather, we] are converted from hostility, from seeing the other as a threat to be feared, pitied, eliminated, or refashioned…We are converted into hosts and guests” (pp. 256-257).
McLaren missionaries call people to turn from hostility to hospitality. Nothing more.
The Perils and Pitfalls of “Missional” Missions
In one way, just stating McLaren’s view is the reductio ad absurdum of the position. If this is what Christianity really comes to, then I can tell you quite plainly that I’m not a Christian—and neither was the Apostle Paul. There are so many things to say; so many profound confusions to dispel. Here I’ll highlight a couple of the more glaring deficiencies.
First, McLaren’s “Big Tent” approach is defective because it is unacceptably inclusivist. Nowhere in the bible, not in a single place, does it say that the Holy Spirit “hovers” over other religions. This is based on a profoundly flawed understanding of the Spirit, who McLaren defines as follows: “God-in-us or God-upon-us or God-among-us everywhere” (p. 150). For McLaren, the “us” is all of us—believer and non-believer alike.
But surely this is a loaded definition. It simply assumes without biblical justification that everyone has the Holy Spirit in them. That simply isn’t true. The Holy Spirit isn’t in a person unless he or she has received the Spirit. And there are very precise conditions for that to take place.
And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38).
What McLaren has badly confused is the Holy Spirit’s omnipresence (his being everywhere present) with the Holy Spirit’s indwelling presence. The former doesn’t imply the latter. According to the bible, the ministry of the Holy Spirit to non-believers is not that of co-creation but rather conviction.
And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment:  concerning sin, because they do not believe in me;  concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer;  concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged (John 16:8-11).
Secondly, McLaren’s “Big Tent” approach is defective because it is perspectival and relativistic. It implies straight up that no religion has a “corner on the market” with God. Each is responding to the Holy Spirit from their perspective. To get a complete picture of God, we have to learn these other perspectives and add them to our own. One is reminded here of Quigley’s The Blind Men and the Elephant:
The first blind man put out his hand and touched the side of the elephant. “How smooth! An elephant is like a wall.” The second blind man put out his hand and touched the trunk of the elephant. “How round! An elephant is like a snake.” The third blind man put out his hand and touched the tusk of the elephant. “How sharp! An elephant is like a spear.” The fourth blind man put out his hand and touched the leg of the elephant. “How tall! An elephant is like a tree.” The fifth blind man reached out his hand and touched the ear of the elephant. “How wide! An elephant is like a fan.” The sixth blind man put out his hand and touched the tail of the elephant. “How thin! An elephant is like a rope.”
Such a view of religion traditions—reflected on the so-called “Golden Rule” poster—assumes that everyone is “contacting” the same God through their religious traditions. But this is false because these traditions contradict one another. Plus, as Jesus clearly and explicitly says, there is only one way to the Father (John 14:6. Cf. Acts 4:12).
McLaren’s response is that if relativism is true, then “differences between religions would not necessarily mean contradictions. They could simply mean additional data…based on differing encounters with the same Spirit of God” (p. 152). But there are deep and serious problems with this sort of perspectivalism.
(1) It would undermine McLaren’s claim that these are encounters with the same Spirit of God. That’s not a fact on his system. It’s just his biased, agenda-motivated perspective.
(2) It would undermine McLaren’s Hospitality approach (HAL). That approach is offered to us a something we ought to believe, a way of interpreting the bible we ought to adopt. In other words, it’s presented to us in absolute terms. But if perspectivalism is true, HAL is just McLaren’s response to his circumstances. It’s not an absolute. If he replies that other responses are wrong or false, then he’s not being a good host. If he says other responses are equally legitimate, then we’re free to ignore his approach. As for me and my house, we’re siding with Jesus on this one.
(3) It would undermine perspectivalism. For if perspectivalism is true, perspectivalism itself is just a perspective. Nothing more.
Finally, McLaren’s “Big Tent” approach is defective because it is based on a flawed, unbiblical understanding of respect. To be sure, the bible does say that we should show respect to others. 1 Peter 2:17 – “Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor” (niv). It never says that to do so we have to believe what they believe or participate with them in their religious activities.
Here’s the problem. McLaren’s concept of “respect” is based on his Hospitality model, which requires that the Christian community (including grade schools, bible colleges, universities, seminaries) should adopt a generous spaciousness stance to other religions. Some organizations have voluntarily created “prayer spaces” for non-Christian religions. For argument’s sake, consider a fictitious religion—say, the religion of Tash (as described in C. S. Lewis’ The Last Battle). Naturally, the followers of Aslan don’t believe in Tash. Indeed, to them he is no deity at all, even if he is worshipped by the Calormenes.
Well, suppose that Tash worship were somehow to arise in our midst. And suppose that Christian organizations eager to “respect” the religion of Tash, generously created spaces inside their organizations for worshippers of Tash to pray to him. Would that just be a case of showing hospitality to Tash devotees? Well yes, it would be an example of McLaren-respect and McLaren-hospitality. No question. Unfortunately, it would also be a clear-cut case of promoting idolatry. The very idea of this should be anathema to every Christian. You cannot mix the “the only true God”(John 17:3) with any other God. He won’t have it. If you have any doubts on the matter, you can ask the Philistines:
When the Philistines captured the ark of God, they brought it from Ebenezer to Ashdod.  Then the Philistines took the ark of God and brought it into the house of Dagon and set it up beside Dagon.  And when the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, behold, Dagon had fallen face downward on the ground before the ark of the Lord. So they took Dagon and put him back in his place.  But when they rose early on the next morning, behold, Dagon had fallen face downward on the ground before the ark of the Lord, and the head of Dagon and both his hands were lying cut off on the threshold. Only the trunk of Dagon was left to him.  This is why the priests of Dagon and all who enter the house of Dagon do not tread on the threshold of Dagon in Ashdod to this day (1 Samuel 5:1-5).
Could it be any more clear? When you’re in God’s presence, you fall before him. You don’t put a Tash prayer mat beside him. The Philistines got the message–and so did Dagon. Isn’t it time we did too?
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