Brian McLaren, Do I Stay Christian? A Guide for the Doubters, the Disappointed, and the Disillusioned. MacMillan, 2022.
Since the publication of his first book, Church on the Other Side (Zondervan, 1998), Brian McLaren has been on a very public journey to figure out what Christian faith means today. Over the years, I have read several of his books including the New Kind of Christian trilogy, Generous Orthodoxy, and A New Kind of Christianity. McLaren’s most recent book serves as a culmination of this 24-year publishing journey as it centers on the sober question, Do I Stay Christian? Here’s the interesting thing: by the end of the book, I wasn’t sure how McLaren had answered the question.
A Quick Overview
Do I Stay Christian? comes in three parts. In Part I, McLaren devotes ten chapters to summarizing reasons to leave Christianity. Notably absent from this survey are de facto objections, i.e. those that directly concern the truth of Christianity. For example, McLaren never considers evidence against the existence of God or the revelatory status of the Bible, the coherence of doctrinal claims like incarnation or Trinity, or the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus.
Instead, McLaren’s reasons consistently focus on evidence that Christianity is harmful to human beings, societies, and the world in which we dwell. Think, for example, of the history of Christian anti-Semitism (chapter 1), colonialism (chapter 3), patriarchy (chapter 6), and allegedly shrinking demographics (chapter 10). To be sure, these topics could be developed into formal arguments against the truth of Christianity. But that doesn’t seem to be McLaren’s interest. Instead, his interest appears to be pragmatic in nature: i.e. not so much “is the religion true?” as “does the religion make us ethically better people?” And in the case of Christianity, it would appear there is much evidence that the answer is “no.”
Not surprisingly, McLaren maintains the same pragmatic theme in Part II when he turns to survey reasons to stay Christian: for example, “Because … Where Else Would I Go?” (chapter 13) and “Because Christianity is Changing (for the Worse and for the Better)” (chapter 17). In these chapters, McLaren seeks to carve out space for those who are inclined to remain a Christian, though never with a sense of triumphalism. Despite some healing undertaken in the second part of the book, the bruises inflicted in the first part remain.
The book concludes in Part III with eight chapters offering practical tips on how to live a fuller life whether you stay in Christianity or decide to leave it. Here McLaren addresses topics such as how to “Re-Wild” the world (chapter 23) and “Re-Consecrate Everything” (chapter 25).
Some Stuff I Liked
McLaren is a good writer. His prose crackles with vivid imagery, open questions, and enigmatic analysis, all to the end of enabling the reader to reflect on their own life. As you might expect, McLaren’s many conservative critics focus upon this style as evidence that he is a subversive wolf in sheep’s clothing. However, it seems to me that Jesus had a very similar style with respect to his audience as he too employed vivid imagery, open questions, and enigmatic analysis. In that sense, at least, I think McLaren’s pedagogical style may be more thoroughly Christian than many of his critics.
I also think he is right to note the critical weight that many of these practical considerations have on people. For example, the links between the Southern Baptist denomination and slavery (14) and the twisted colonial expression of the gospel as “go into all the world and make slaves of all nations” (33), “the proliferation of Christian schlock” (15), and churches that disregarded public health protocols during covid (40), all these erode the credibility of Christian faith.
The truth is that many of the concerns that McLaren considers are far more significant factors in leaving Christianity than the range of de facto objections often debated in the philosophy seminar. So I don’t fault him for focusing on them. My concern runs deeper as it centers on a skepticism that underlies McLaren’s project which is both deep (as regards theological claims) and selective (it does not appear to extend to his metaphysical views). I’ll explain below.
Christianity: Belief or Way of Life?
At the beginning of the book, McLaren observes that there are at least eleven ways to understand a religion (pp. 3-4), only one of which is doctrinal. His summary overview of these complex dimensions to religion is one of the many factors that make this book a worthy purchase. My concern is that he appears to respond to the overemphasis on doctrinal assent in some forms of Christianity (notably, the conservative Protestantism in which he was raised) with an equally errant overreaction. He writes:
“For most Christians I encounter today, beliefs are simply what Christianity is. If I point out that in its early years, Christianity was a way of life, not a set of beliefs, they will protest that it was both, and the beliefs had priority. If I point out that the earliest Christians were widely divergent in their beliefs, they are surprised and doubtful; that’s not what they have been taught.” (p. 54)
While McLaren is certainly correct to note that Christianity was and is a way of life, that way of life has always been centered on a relationship that is framed in terms of specific beliefs. As Jaroslav Pelikan noted in Credo, his great survey of Christian creeds, Christianity is unique among the world religions in its emphasis on creeds. And while creeds are certainly not merely a means of assenting to doctrinal claims, they most definitely include assent to doctrines.
To be sure, McLaren insists, “I am not against beliefs, any more than a scientist is against facts. But I think Christianity has sabotaged its capacity to sail by hardening its identity in a heavy anchor of unalterable beliefs that it treats as unquestionable facts.” (p. 55) However, early Christians like the Apostle Paul didn’t censure questioning. On the contrary, they welcomed it (e.g. Acts 17:11). Nonetheless, they were proclaiming truth claims that they wanted their audiences to believe. And these truth claims were ordered into proto-creedal statements from the very inception of the faith (e.g. 1 Cor. 15:3-8; Col. 1:15-20; Phil. 2:6-11; 1 Tim. 2:5).
Theology as Metaphor and Orthodoxy
McLaren strongly emphasizes metaphor and mystery. With the illustration of Jesus’ enigmatic teaching on eating his flesh and drinking his blood, McLaren reflects, “I didn’t want a mysterious and metaphorical message that required me to face life’s paradoxes squarely and be humbled by them.” (p. 98) On McLaren’s view, theology just is a fundamentally mysterious mode of discourse much in the manner of Jesus’ enigmatic teaching. McLaren claims, “all theological language is metaphorical—pointing vaguely toward its subject with limping metaphors (as C. S. Lewis said) but never capturing and containing the You who is addressed.” (p. 144)
While I agree that our theological language is richly saturated with metaphor (see what I did there?), it is problematic to say that all theological language is metaphorical. For example, at one point, McLaren lauds the work of feminist metaphorical theologian Sallie McFague (p. 105). McFague claims, as does McLaren, that all theological language is metaphorical. However, this leads her to deny that Jesus was, in fact, the incarnate Son of God in keeping with orthodox Christian confession. Instead, she claims that Jesus should be interpreted as a metaphor of God’s presence with us. On her telling, to believe that Jesus was literally God incarnate is to fail to keep the metaphor in view which leads to a collapse into “Jesusolatry.”
I don’t know if McLaren would outright deny defining doctrines of Christian orthodoxy in the overtly unorthodox manner that McFague does, but his categorical claim that all theological language is metaphorical certainly sets him up to do so.
Beyond Skepticism: McLaren on Process
While McLaren appears to be quite skeptical when it comes to the truth content of Christian theological claims, he appears to hold beliefs about the metaphysical nature of reality. For example, while he never mentions the term “process theology” as such, he appears to be deeply impacted by process theology and its disavowal of substance metaphysics in favor of process and relationships. As McLaren puts it,
“I too am an event, a flow, a pattern of relationships! I used to think that things were real, and change was something that happened to them over time. Now I think that change is real, and things are events that happen over time. Change is the constant and things come and go, appear and disappear, form and fade away.” (p. 57)
Thus, McLaren thinks of the entire universe as defined by process, “It is en route, becoming, in process, always presented with the possibility of evolving into something more beautiful, diverse, alive, and conscious—or stagnating and decaying toward extinction.” (p. 105)
In short, while McLaren appears to view all theological claims as metaphorical, when it comes to metaphysical descriptions of reality that are not overly theological, he appears perfectly willing to accept literal description rather than remain in metaphor. (While McLaren’s endorsement of process invokes metaphor such as “a flow,” it also includes literal description by contrasting substance vs. process as the fundamental metaphysical constituent.) However, it isn’t clear to me what justifies this contrasting approach which pits metaphysics against theology.
Beyond Skepticism: McLaren on Pragmatism
In addition to process, McLaren’s theology is also deeply impacted by pragmatism. On this point, we can return to an interesting parallel with metaphorical theologians like Sallie McFague. McFague advocates choosing metaphors of God and our relationship to God that have prosocial benefits, and specifically which aid the environment. For example, she advocates referring to God with metaphors like “mother,” “lover,” and “friend” and to think of the world as God’s body because collectively these linguistic formulations make it less likely that we shall exploit the earth or one another.
McLaren seems to have a similar view of the function of theological discourse: we should choose metaphors when speaking about the ultimate and our relationship to it which spur prosocial behaviors such as love of neighbor and good stewardship of the environment. Thus, in the following passage he provides a vivid contrast between a Christianity focused on promoting prosocial forms of life versus one that focuses on inculcating doctrinal assent:
imagine a Christianity that deploys reflective practitioners whose quest is to follow the life and example of Jesus, teaching others by their example to live by Jesus’ spiritual method of radical, nondiscriminatory love and courageous truth-telling. These disciples would be defined by their ongoing quest or mission rather than by the beliefs they hold at this moment.
Now, in contrast, imagine a Christianity that tirelessly sends out belief teachers to promote a list of beliefs about Jesus, God, life, and the afterlife, and then deploys belief police to be sure those teachers are following the list required by their guild. Two very different Christianities, indeed. (p. 55)
I agree that those are two very different Christianities though McLaren’s framing of the issue certainly invites the charge of a false dichotomy. Why not consider a Christianity defined by those who both follow the life and example of Jesus and who tirelessly promote their beliefs about Jesus? Indeed, it seems to me uncontroversial that both emphases have been seamlessly united in the best of Christianity since Peter’s Pentecost proclamation: “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.” (Acts 2:36)
McLaren’s argument is hampered by occasionally tendentious analysis of the orthodox Christian tradition he rejects. For example, at one point McLaren writes: “all the largest institutional forms of Christianity on earth (Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Evangelicalism, including most Charismatic and Pentecostal movements) render people vulnerable to authoritarianism….” (p. 52)
What is the evidence for that extraordinarily sweeping statement? The only evidence McLaren provides is the claim that all these ecclesial communions “link the power of human authorities with God’s authority, which, they say, is absolute and unquestionable. They deride critical thinking and praise simple, unquestioning faith.” (p. 53) Unfortunately, that merely pushes the question back a step. What evidence does McLaren have that Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Evangelicalism all “deride critical thinking” while elevating “unquestioning faith”? Needless to say, he provides none. To be honest, this is the kind of rhetorical excess one would expect in a new atheist screed. It is disappointing to see it here.
To sum up, it seems to me that McLaren has journeyed far from the comparatively modest explorations of his works of twenty plus years ago. At this point, he seems to have adopted a process metaphysic coupled with a metaphorical view of theology that ranks the value of doctrines as forms of life that spur pro-individual, social, and environmental behaviors. McLaren does this as a Christian: “When we desire the good of the planet, the good of all people, and our own good, we are participating in a love that is bigger than us. As a Christian, I would say we are joining God in God’s loving desire for the well-being of the beloved.” (p. 172) But in keeping with his pragmatic orientation, he is not particularly troubled if others achieve those same ends wholly outside a Christian form of life. Indeed, one might say that on McLaren’s view Christianity is an incidental husk, one that is useful insofar and only as it aids us in loving one another.
So is McLaren a Christian? No doubt, his many fans will give a hearty yes while his many conservative evangelical critics will respond with an equally hearty no! As I read the book, I was reminded of the great seventeeth century Huguenot philosopher Pierre Bayle. While Bayle remained a Calvinist all his life, he famously defended a skepticism about the veridical status of Christian doctrinal claims. Bayle advocated the wisdom of remaining in these forms of life in the recognition of the inherent limitations of our epistemic horizons.
I submit that McLaren is a modern day Pierre Bayle, one who has, like Bayle, adopted a sweeping skepticism about the truth status of Christian doctrine but who nonetheless advocates remaining in the Christian form of life so as to increase love of neighbor and the mystery that stands behind it all. Folk will continue to debate whether that is enough to count as a Christian, but perhaps for some it is at least a start.
Pick up your copy of Do I Stay Christian? here. (Promoted Link)