What an interesting title to a book. Yes, this is Brian McLaren’s newest release, though it came out a few months back: Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road? The subtitle gives a bit more insight into the theme of the book: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World.
Even more interesting is the date that the book was released – September 11th, 2012 – the anniversary of the significant event etched in the minds of not only every American, but all humanity.
So how are Christians to engage with those of other faiths?
Now, I am aware that, at least for many evangelicals, the name, Brian McLaren, immediately sends off alarm bells. The question might arise: Does he really have anything truly and properly Christian to offer to this discussion?
Why this reaction? Mainly because of 2 reasons: 1) his openness to same-sex relationships/marriages (even leading the commitment ceremony at his son’s same-sex wedding) and 2) his not-so-clearly-defined view on whether God accepts or rejects those of other faiths and religions. These are currently two hot topic issues for evangelical Christians in the 21st century.
Now, I am very much aware that some might actually have a question for me due to my own reading of McLaren’s book: Where do you stand on these issues? Many will want me to clarify my person stance on these issues. Agree with McLaren and your suspect. Disagree with McLaren and you’re probably an ok guy.
Well, I’ll come on to that a bit later. But let’s first look at the text, since this is a book review of some sorts.
As noted earlier, the central theme of the book is just this: Getting Christians to think about how we engage with those of other faiths and religions in our world today. We live in a world that is extremely pluralistic (and it’s probably going to become even more with the internet, social media and a host of other things). Some 50 to 100 years ago, everyone in your town believed very similarly to you, thought similarly to you, went to the same church, dressed similarly, enjoyed similar cuisine and more. But today, it’s likely that some of your neighbours are quite different from you – holding a different religion, from a different country and culture, speaking a different language, and much more. This is definitely true for myself living in the Brussels area, the capital of the European Union where almost every nation under heaven resides!
And, so, while it is true that there is no overtly new issue under the sun, there is a sense in which we practically engage with matters on a different level than our forefathers and foremothers. One issue is that certain nations are no longer considered Christian or Buddhist. No longer is America and western Europe identified as ‘Christian,’ while China is identified as Buddhist. No longer is Africa mostly animistic. There are probably more Christians in China or India or Africa than in western Europe today.
So how do we live as Christians today, all the while acknowledging this demographic shift?
Well, it does call for a change. And this is what McLaren champions in his book, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road? How can we, as Christians, better interact with those of other religious backgrounds?
McLaren identifies 2 normal responses from Christians towards those of other faiths: a) The stronger our Christian commitment, the stronger our aversion or opposition to other religions. We focus on emphasising our differences, framing them as right/wrong, good/evil, better/worse. b) Some carry a more positive, accepting response towards those of other religions. They minimalise differences and maximise commonalities, all the while never proselytising. This could end up weakening one’s Christian commitment.
Brian takes time to explore what he believes is a third and better option – having a Christian identity that is both strong and kind, a Christian faith that is both faithful to Christ and hospitable to those of other religions.
And, so, he adapts the line from a well-known joke (the chicken crossing the road) and uses it to open discussion of how the 4 greatest religious figures in history would interact with one another. Or, in particular, how Jesus would react to the other three. McLaren remarks:
So, why is it funny to ask about Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed crossing the road? Before looking for a punch line, just for fun try to imagine the scene: four of history’s greatest religious leaders . . . not fighting, not arguing, not damning and condemning one another, not launching crusades or jihads, but walking together, moving together, leading together. Doesn’t that already reverse some of our expectations? And doesn’t that reversal expose our unspoken expectation – that different religions are inherently and unchangeably incompatible, disharmonious, fractious and hostile towards one another? (p2)
If you’re a Christian like me, of whatever sort – Catholic, Protestant or Eastern Orthodox; conservative, liberal or moderate; traditional or whatever – if you love Jesus, if you know and have confidence in him as Lord, Saviour, Son of God, Son of Man, God incarnate, Word made flesh and more, let me ask you to seriously consider this: how do you think Jesus would treat Moses, Mohammed and Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) if they took a walk across a road together?
Would Jesus push Moses aside and demand to cross first, claiming that his ancestor’s failed religion had been forever superseded by his own? Would he trade insults with Mohammed, claiming his crusaders could whip Mohammed’s jihadists any day of the week, demanding that Mohammed cross behind, not beside him? Would Jesus demand the Buddha kneel at his feet and demonstrate submission before letting him cross? Or would he walk with them and, once on the other side, welcome each to a table of fellowship, not demanding any special status or privileges, maybe even taking the role of a servant – hanging up their coats, getting them something to eat and drink, making sure each felt welcome, safe and at home? (p3)
Brian would argue that Jesus’ response would be the latter. And I tend to agree.
We, Christians, have a not-so-good history of interaction with those of other faiths and religions. Think of the crusades; think of colonialism; think of the Inquisition; think even of the inter-Christian disputes such as how the Anabaptists were treated (some were killed for their practice of re-baptising people as believers). Actually, in many respects, our track record is appalling. For some, this black-marked history has meant that they abandon Christianity altogether. For others, it has meant that they abandon the name and the institution. But does this have to be our reaction? Or should we instead look to repent and rethink how to be faithful Christians in a 21st century, pluralistic world?
This is what McLaren challenges us to do. How do we still live out our Christian uniqueness, faithfully following Christ and Scripture, without using any of this as a weapon against the human family?
Think of the Christ we follow. One who ate with prostitutes and tax collectors (or, since the label ‘tax collector’ doesn’t bring the shock level that it did in the first century, maybe we could reinterpret that label as ‘child molester’). Jesus made it very clear he came for the outsiders – it’s the sick who need a doctor, not the well. And now the well are called to extend hands of healing to those who are sick.
Of course, the call to follow Jesus means that we become disciples, students of Christ. But being a disciple of Jesus Christ does not only mean we have correct doctrine (orthodoxy). It also means very much that we walk out a life that emulates Jesus (orthopraxy). They go hand in hand. And living our lives like Christ entails having compassion on those normally labelled as outcasts. Remember, Jesus had his harshest rebukes for the religious who ostracised the broken, hurting and downtrodden. His mercy was greatest for the outcasts.
Yes, yes. In time we will have to talk about issues of sin and belief. But no one has ever been accepted into the fold of Christ after they finally sorted out all their beliefs and problems.
Thus, the challenge still remains – many need to change how they engage with those of other religions and faiths, those also created in God’s image and of whom Christ calls to himself. Could we actually envision inviting a family of Muslims into our homes for a meal? Could we go on holiday with a Buddhist colleague? Could we have open and honest conversation with an atheist, not even with the intent of seeing them as an ‘evangelism project’ for which we only befriend them to convert them?
If not, why not?
But moving even further past the challenge that we reassess how we engage with those of other faiths, McLaren takes a fresh look at some of the important Christian doctrines, considering how we might practically approach them in our relationships with those of other religions. Some of these are the doctrine of original sin, the doctrine of atonement, the doctrine of the Trinity, the doctrine of election, etc. I suppose some might think McLaren desires to twist all of these doctrines away from the ‘normative’ position. Yet, I think that a) most of his perspectives are quite helpful in freshly approaching certain important doctrines and b) there is enough space within Christian orthodoxy to not demand that one fall within a particular tradition’s view on all doctrines.
Now, as I mentioned beforehand, many Christians are uncomfortable with McLaren’s position on a few issues. He is an outsider for many of my evangelical brothers and sisters. So I am happy to state my thoughts on the 2 issues mentioned at the beginning of this article – on same-sex relationships and his inclusive leanings towards those of other faiths and religions.
But I need to firstly admit that I don’t have all the answers. While some have perfectly formulated answers to the 2 issues above, and I have fairly formulated thoughts on them at this point, I like what I recently read from David Fitch, an American evangelical leader and seminary professor. He asks the question, ‘Why do you need to know where I stand?’ Or, he poses this question to the many who have asked him to clarify his position about gays. What he, and I, suspect is that this topic, at least one’s stance on gays, can become the definitive issue of whether someone should be included ‘in’ or ‘out’, at least in regards to evangelicalism. So, tell me what you think about gays [and those of other religions]. Define where you stand. I need to find out what you believe so I can decide what I think about you – are you acceptable or unacceptable? Confirm that they are on the outside.
This approach is quite warped from the beginning. We end up treating our brothers and sisters like we treat those who are not yet followers of Christ. McLaren also challenges this ‘us vs. them’ mentality. It’s been our emphasis for so long.
Listen, my understanding is that God has ordained that male and female are to be joined together in the marriage covenant. And I do believe that Jesus Christ is the greatest revelation of the Father, the only avenue by which we are reconciled with the Father. And I do believe that people are called to conversion-new birth in Christ by the power of the Spirit and gospel.
But I’m not sure that holding a clear Christian identity calls for me, or us, to identify 1 or 2 issues as the boundary markers for who is acceptable and unacceptable. Again, I’m not advocating of a mere mishmash of all beliefs. I simply trust that, when it’s all said and done, our Father knows how to faithfully deal with Muslims, Buddhists, gays, etc. Not to mention that I trust my Father knows how to correctly deal with arrogant, self-righteous and prideful bigots like myself. Sometimes God allows me a glimpse of myself…and it devastates me.
So, while I might not personally agree with some of McLaren’s perspectives, I do recommend this book as one of many valuable tools in helping us understand and dialogue with those of other faiths and religions in our world today. This is not unlike Miroslav Volf’s project entitled, Allah: A Christian Response, of which I posted a review here. Volf argues that, in our current pluralistic society, Christians should look to find common ground with Muslims, rather than uncommon ground, all that we might break down our misconceptions of one another and even consider how we might work together as bearers of God’s image to better the world we live in. It will call for a re-evaluation of our approach to Muslims and Buddhists and Hindus, one that some won’t feel they can do with a clear conscience. And that is understandable. But I think it a worthy project to consider.
As McLaren asks us to do, imagine Jesus interacting with Mohammed, Moses and the Buddha. I can only envision that Jesus would sit down with them, share a meal, wash their feet, befriend them and enjoy conversation. Yes, he would desire to make the Father known to them. But he would do so with hospitality, charity, compassion and mercy. Might we do the same?
If you would be interested in a short video introduction to McLaren’s book, you can view it on Vimeo here. Lastly, you can also listen to a 35-minute talk at Greenbelt where McLaren introduces this topic prior to the release of the book.