Brian D. McLaren, The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion Is Seeking a Better Way to Be Christian
New York, NY: Convergent Books, 2016
Dale Pauls is the Minister Emeritus at the Stamford Church of Christ and will be a regular co-author at this blog. He not only brings a fresh voice and perspective, but also many new and different books that are on his shelf that aren’t (yet) on mine!
Brian McLaren is one of my favorite Christian thinkers and writers. For years his A New Kind of Christian trilogy has shaped my theology and ministry. But with his The Great Spiritual Migration McLaren’s vision attains new clarity. He describes a worldwide church in historic spiritual transition. It may in some ways seem like decline, but the Spirit of God is once again moving over the deep calling us to a deeper aliveness, yes, breaking down imprisoning forms but only so as to release a worldwide movement that in the spirit of Christ will work for the common good of all. It’s a good book. It’s a readable book suitable for all ages from late teens on. And it’s good all the way through its appendices and endnotes. Its endnotes, in fact, are filled with bibliographic treasures of contemporary spirituality.
So here’s what’s happening, McLaren observes a global movement within Christianity focused now on a way of life more than a system of beliefs, inspired by a nonviolent God of liberation rather than a violent God of domination, and turning away from organized religion to organizing religion, religion organizing not for purposes of self-preservation but so that people everywhere might live more sustainable, flourishing lives.
In charting this migration (a word that well captures the human experience for so many in our times) McLaren covers a lot of ground. He challenges sacrifice-appeasement understandings of faith. He shares his own personal sojourn toward LGBT inclusion. He tracks the too often genocidal history of white Christian nations, radically rejecting dominating supremacy in all its forms. He maps out our developing conceptions of God from the most elementary to the most expansive, reminding us that a religion of the “exclusive we” must for the sake of world survival mature into a religion of the “inclusive we.” He shows us the difference between literal and literary readings of Scripture and how our quest for meaning is advanced best through such literary readings. And in tracing this he explains clearly Paul Ricoeur’s notion of a second naïveté, of how it is that we grow in both faith and knowledge as we move from precritical to critical to postcritical readings of Scripture. This all may seem highly theological, but it’s not far removed from Jesus’ “Unless you change and become like little children.” And so McLaren illuminates how it is that God emerges through the multiplicity of biblical voices as an ever luminous, life-giving, healing, liberating Presence.
McLaren covers all this and more. He spotlights theologians from around the world who are contributing to this transformative understanding of God and faith. He gives us a valuable primer in social movement theory. He challenges our destructive, suicidal economy. But through it all he’s directing us to something unbelievably simple.
Not too far into the book McLaren tells of leaving ministry for full-time teaching and writing. And he found it an interesting experience just sitting in a pew listening. He found that what he needed as a member was different than what had preoccupied him as a pastor, that he didn’t need clever sermons or a certain style of music. He didn’t need a church that was “cool” or contemporary, or big or small. And he certainly didn’t need a church whose primary goal was to police his belief system. Instead what he needed was a church that would help him live a life of love. That’s it. And the more he thought about it the more sure he was that’s what Jesus had been teaching all along. And he began to wonder what would happen if everyone knew that certain churches were just that – schools where love is learned and where theology, liturgy, curriculum and mission are dedicated to this end.
Just imagine, McLaren asks, what it would be like if people knew of churches that help people live a life of love. That’s what they do. And they don’t say or do anything that draws them away from doing this. So the question becomes, “What do we do in this place?’ and the answer is, “We learn to live a life of love.” Or the question comes, “What is your church like?” and the answer is, “It’s a place that helps us live a life of love.”
So many people are giving up on organized religion, but what might they do if found religion organizing around this simple idea – learning to live a life of love?
These skills include common courtesies, gratitude, admitting weaknesses and failures, self-reporting emotions, expressing hurt or disappointment, confronting and forgiving, asking for help, differing graciously, surfacing and negotiating competing desires, taking the first step to resolve conflicts, upholding wise boundaries, saying yes and no, winning and losing graciously, creating win-win outcomes, speaking truth in love, speaking truth to power, asking good questions, requesting feedback, expressing affection, opening one’s heart, giving gifts, and seeking wise counsel. (58)
Church leaders developing love curricula will ask questions like these: What does a loving person look like in today’s world? How does love manifest differently in different personality types, different cultures, different economies, different political systems, and at different stages in life? How do parents teach their children the habits, skills, and practices of love? What love lessons are appropriate for toddlers, young children, preteens, teenagers, young adults, engaged couples, married couples, young parents, parents of teens, parents of adults, grandparents, widows and widowers? … What music, rituals, prayers, creeds, and daily contemplative and other spiritual practices would contribute to the development of loving people? When people wander from the ways of love, how do we most effectively bring them back? (242)
It’s not often that you read a book that cuts through the clashing paradigms of one’s life to one undeniable simple truth, but McLaren does it here with the statement: Churches must be places where we together learn how to live a life of love. And everything we do from theology to liturgy to curriculum to mission to fellowship should be directed to churches as studios, dojos, schools of love, churches as schools where in light of God as revealed through Jesus love is learned.
Image the possibilities.
– Dale Pauls