Sometimes our enemies clarify us better than our friends. The Baptists are not crazy about him: “Like Fosdick and other liberals before him, McLaren has assumed authority over the Bible instead of placing himself under its authority. His understanding of Scripture frees him to see Christian doctrine as evolving, and himself as an instrument of this evolution. In this way he revisits and reinterprets whatever does not accord with modern sensibilities. He has denied the literal nature of hell along with its eternality; he has denied the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ; he has denied Jesus Christ as the only way to the Father; he has affirmed homosexuality as good and pleasing to God. And he continues to think and to write, meaning that his theological development is not yet complete.”
Turning the mirror around here, we can deduce that McLaren bases his theology on the Bible and preaches from it with authority. He is a student of the formation of the Sacred texts. He sees the Christian message continually unfolding to face the cultural challenges of the times. He is cautious about teachings which have been proclaimed too strenuously, too authoritatively, and often mistakenly. His “Christology” is broad and rich, much as the New Testament itself is broad and rich in its depiction of Jesus. He understands that God is not constrained to limitations of human thought and organization. He loves and respects all churches. He is compassionate toward those marginalized by traditional moralities. He remains open to God’s will for him.
A man with these credentials will never be totally at home with one “denomination.” Which is probably a good thing because he gives all our churches sometime to think about, whether we embrace every aspect of his missionary message or not. In this he is not far from Jesus, who told his disciples that “he who is not against us is for us.” It is worth mentioning here that I was introduced to McLaren’s work by a devout Catholic layman of my own Roman Catholic congregation. I was delighted to receive his recommendation but saddened by the realization that thoughtful religious texts are so rarely discussed or recommended in Catholic parochial life. My friend has had a highly successful career in financial management, and there are many in my church like him who have made their bones in every field of endeavor. But in the 26 years I have been a member of this particular Catholic congregation, there has never been a recommendation of a theological book or Scripture commentary text from the pulpit, nor any recommendations from the parish’s social media. Catholic bookstores attached to parishes do not sell texts aimed at college graduates or studious adults. It is painfully evident that Catholic preachers themselves do not read—either writings from professional theology or from current culture—but consistently default to two or three highly predictable sermon outlines. This shallowness of preaching is one significant factor why Catholics scout out other Christian assemblies to hear a substantive preaching of the Word.
Despite having at one time the largest religious education system in the world—i.e., the Catholic school system for elementary and secondary education—Catholicism never carried the torch for an adult education based upon fellowship, reading, and study. Consequently, Catholic writing in the United States does not measure up to Protestant or Independent Christian publishing. In fairness, “Protestants” [of all variants] outnumber Catholics about 4-1, meaning that in the Barnes and Noble Religion Section of the store you will find four Brian McLarens for every one Thomas Merton. Nor do we Catholics have the equivalent of the Zondervan publishing empire which has outlets in nearly every shopping mall in the United States, for example. Our biggest problem, though, remains the troubling reality that the demand for adult Catholic publishing is low.
So, until we find our adult Catholic lay voice, we have the visionaries like McLaren. He is a speculative thinker whose writings—from the reviews I have examined—seek to take Christianity into the future while rooted in an authentic biblical past. He seeks to provide encouragement to clergy and laity alike who are “stuck” in denominational molds or gentrified biblical interpretation. For example, he bravely confronts the image of the Old Testament God of law and vengeance with the New Testament God of Jesus, as in “Philip, he who sees me sees him who sent me.” Over the years McClaren has coined the phrase “God 5.0” borrowing from the world of computer science to describe the development of better human constructs to describe the nature of God.
The “computerese” language for the divine is not exactly my cup of tea [I kept thinking “Jesus and Windows 11” was coming next] but he does say important things, certainly in his approach to Biblical interpretation. Case in point, the Torah, where he supersedes the vindictive and punitive declarations of God in the early Old Testament era with Jesus’ assertion of the infinite love of the Father in his own preaching, teaching, and works. One of his prime targets is Leviticus 20:13 [“If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them”] which continues to create its own misery and misunderstanding. One can understand why the fundamental literalist strain of Protestantism might find McLaren disconcerting when he calls for a wholesale rethinking of elements of the Good Book.
McLaren’s Jesus may be forgiving, but the author himself is critical of Christian Churches. Chapter 8, “Salvation from the Suicide Machine,” discusses the pathological marriage of religion to culture. One of his migrations is “from a religion organized for self-preservation and privilege to a religion organizing for the common good of all.” [p. 153] He is strongly immersed in an ethos of social justice, peace, and global environmental balance. He does not believe that any denomination is self-sustaining; “Episcopalians cannot solve the problems of Episcopalians by themselves.” [p. 144] His frustration rests in the sense that every Christian church [and many individuals and communities outside of it] perceive the frustrations and injustices of modern life but are tethered by denominal limitations that hinder common communication and problem solving.
McLaren has been criticized as a Universalist—a major issue in Protestant thought but not so much in formal Catholic theological circles. I would venture a guess, though, that the “typical Catholic” cultivates a universalist streak, namely, that God does not send people to hell, that all will eventually be saved. Consequently, many Catholics may find a sympathetic thread with McLaren’s stance on redemption. In Catholic academic theology, the question of final destiny and judgment falls under the discipline of “eschatology” or “the last things.” I was lucky enough to take a graduate elective in eschatology back in the early 1970’s; my major research was the work of a medieval mystic, Joachim of Flora [1130-1201 A.D.]. Flora was something of a universalist; he believed that the Age of the Father [the Old Testament] and the Age of the Son [the New Testament] were giving way to a utopian new age of the Holy Spirit. [See Britannica’s summary of his life here.] After his death Joachim’s teaching took on new life with the appearance of the new Franciscan Order; many of Joachim’s followers saw in Francis’s Rule and life of poverty the template for the new age of the Holy Spirit.
McLaren is no Joachim, but his writing reflects a frustration with the status quo of Christianity shared throughout history, by individuals as diverse as the ancient theologian Origen and the modern man of letters G.K. Chesterton, who famously wrote “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” The author attempts to provide both a philosophy and a structure for an across-the-board regeneration of Gospel living. In a series of appendices including “Charter for a Just and Generous Christianity” [pp. 207-210], and “Fourteen Precepts of Just and Generous Christianity” [pp. 211-214], McLaren lays down a primmer of what Christianity well lived ought to look like. A good number of his points attract attention. “Do not think the knowledge you presently possess is changeless, complete, and absolutely true.” “Do not force others, including children, by any means whatsoever, to adopt your views, whether by authority, threat, money, propaganda, or even education.” “Do not live with a vocation that is harmful to humans and nature.”
Strategically speaking, McLaren believes in reform from within. “To identify first 100, and then 1000, and then 10,000 vital faith communities in North America who share these commitments.” [p. 209] In theory, I can resonate with this concept of beginning with small faith groups and nurturing more into existence. Small group experience is another dimension of church life that American Catholicism has been reluctant to embrace with any wholesale enthusiasm. The poor response of many pastors and bishops to Pope Francis’s call for “little synods” this year—gatherings to discuss the common life of the church—can be traced to this reluctance. My opinion is that many church leaders are frightened or threatened by intensive lay movements, or worse, they believe that “Athens has nothing to say to Jerusalem,” as the old saying goes. Another impediment to group encounter is—again! --the deficit in Catholic adult education. What are we to talk about when we gather? In my parish there is an impressive group of lay persons who have taken it upon themselves to form a group study of Pope Francis’s recent social teaching, Fratelli Tutti. My wife is a member, and they have been hard at it for over a year. This is even more remarkable because the Pope’s teaching, Fratelli Tutti, has never been mentioned from the pulpit of my church.
The bottom line here is whether The Great Spiritual Migration is a helpful tool in the faith formation of Catholics. I would give a qualified yes. For no other reason, tackling a work of this nature is a worthy ecumenical venture of cultural awakening, in this case with the evangelical-progressive wing of Protestantism. [It is the conservative-evangelical wing that more often gets legislative and media attention.] One would be hard pressed to argue with the author’s understanding of Jesus and the general strokes of a contemporary biblical ethic that follows. And there is a good deal to be said for passion—joy, hope, sorrow, and anger—in the living and the teaching of a Christian life, that pervades the author’s style of expression. About 95% of Amazon’s 300+ reviewers rated this work 4 and 5 stars as of this morning, March 11. [I will rate it 5 when I submit an abridged review.]
Again, coming at this from my Catholicism, I have two visceral concerns. The first is more of a regret that a Catholic reader of works from other excellent Christian authors may be unaware of the genius of two millennia of Catholic thinkers, writers, theologians, and doctors of the Church. To McLaren’s considerable credit, he incorporates many shapers of the Catholic vision into his work: from Origen to St. Augustine to St. Thomas Aquinas to St. Francis of Assisi to St. Bonaventure to Father Thomas Merton to Father Richard Rohr, the latter two of our own time. Ironically, parochial Catholicism generally does not do this. If Catholicism does not energize its adults with our collective wisdom, we run the risk of devolving into an anti-intellectual authoritarian fundamentalism that distorts the Gospel and the Church’s effort to live it, a style that most of us would find onerous and probably unlivable.
The second point is a bit more eccentric, coming from me. Many years ago, I was an adjunct at Daytona College teaching both psychology and world religion courses. One of the required texts assigned to me was William James’ classic, The Varieties of Religious Experience . [William’s brother Henry is the author of a wide range of gothic horror tales, so don’t confuse them!] One point from James has remained with me over the years, particularly as I age, specifically, that raw enthusiasm does not last for a lifetime. If we live long enough, with our eyes open, we come to understand the power and prevalence of sin as well as our human limits to feed enthusiasm. James argues that we cannot continually draw from our internal well of deep feeling, that an untampered enthusiasm is exhausting and defeating in the long haul. There is a necessary dimension of spirituality that grieves over our sins of commission and, maybe even more so, omission. Moreover, as with the horrors of the Ukrainian War, we are depressed by the pain of societal sin and the grim realization of our inability to achieve a utopian Christianity on earth.
The Catholic tradition has processed the mysteries of man since Jesus rose from the dead. If the institution seems diseased, exhausted, or impotent, it is not because the Spirit failed the Church but because we have not drunk of the wisdom of that Spirit, embodied in our two millennia of the wisdom of the saints. If McLaren’s book vitalizes a personal renewal of Catholic interest, don’t forget to look in our own back yard.