Ask Brian McLaren…(Response)

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free
Photo by Courtney Perry

Photo by Courtney Perry

You posed some really fantastic questions for our guest today—Brian McLaren—and Brian responded with his characteristic depth, graciousness, and sincerity. The result is a truly fascinating interview. 

As you already know, Brian is an author, speaker, activist, and networker among innovative Christian leaders. He began his career as a college English teacher and then worked as a church planter and pastor for twenty-four years. His dozen-plus books include A New Kind of ChristianityA Generous OrthodoxyNaked Spirituality,and Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? Brian’s latest book, We Make the Road by Walking, releases today! I had the chance to read an early copy and it’s one of my favorites of Brian's. Organized around the traditional church year, each chapter reflects on a different story from Scripture and invites contemplation, discussion, and action. 

Brian took a lot of time and care responding to your questions. Hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I did: 


From Daneen: I love Brian's books! They have been water for my parched soul. I want to ask him about an idea I've seen recently via a friend [Ryan Bell of the “Year Without God” project] who used to be a progressive Adventist pastor, but is now exploring atheism. Recently he posted that he thinks progressive Christianity is just a slower way to admit that there isn't a God. It got a huge amount of response from others who agreed and said that had been their path to atheism. I guess that's my question, and I'm sure he's thought of this. How would he respond to that idea that progressive Christianity is just a slower path to non-theism altogether? 

Daneen, get ready for a super-long answer. I couldn't be briefer because this question is so big, important, and timely. 

I think it's worthwhile to note that when the early Christians favored God as revealed in Christ over the Roman pantheon, they were called atheists. The only gods that counted were the Roman gods, so anyone who didn't believe in those gods was an atheist. Similarly, at the time of the Reformation, I can imagine Roman Catholics saying that Protestantism was a first step toward atheism … and then when Protestant intellectuals like David Hume and others more or less embraced atheism, Catholic warnings must have seemed prescient. 

Both of these examples suggest that atheism often means "disbelief in the God of the establishment," since those in power typically define the God who is supposed to be believed in. Every new conception of God necessarily requires doubting or rejecting the prevailing conception of God. So you could say that theism only evolves through atheism. I think there's a kind of yin-yang between the two.

To put it starkly, Jesus must disbelieve in the God who loves our friends and hates our enemies in order to envision a God who manifests a compassionate perfection toward "the just and the unjust" as he does in the Sermon on the Mount.

Rachel's first book and this remarkable blogspace she has created are surfacing what my work is also surfacing: there are lots of people who are losing faith in the gods of the establishments (of which there are many). For many, the process is like peeling an onion. First they lose faith in the 6-day creationist god, then in the bible-dictation god, then in the male-supremacy god, then in the european-supremacy/western-civilization/colonialist god, then in the anti-gay god, then in the pro-war god, then in the American-exceptionalism/manifest-destiny god, then in the anti-palestinian god, then in the controller-of-everything-that-happens god, then in the design-engineer god, then in the penal-substitutionary-atonement god, and so on. Of course the detail and order of events may vary, but eventually, every layer of the onion is peeled away and one is left with nothing … but maybe some tears.

The fear of being left with nothing leaves many people desperately afraid to question anything, which might be a good definition of fundamentalism. You mentioned Ryan Bell, whom I know and like a lot. I haven't followed Ryan Bell's blog as closely as I wish I could, but I check in when I can and I was impressed by this remark he made in passing recently: "For Christians, generally speaking, faith is the virtue that makes them impervious to new evidence." I think that's an accurate - and tragic - statement, generally speaking. But I especially agreed with what Ryan said next: "But none of us have anything to fear from the truth. And even when fear is an appropriate response, I would rather confront a fearful truth than be comforted by a lie."

The establishment understandings of God are indeed under assault, and open-minded believers are forced to grapple with "new evidence" of unprecedented magnitude, as the recent photograph from the Hubble telescope made amazingly clear

To believe in God as creator of a cosmos of billions of galaxies that have developed over 13.82 (or whatever) billion years requires disbelieving the God who was creator of one world in the center of one crystalline sphere that was made 6-10,000 years ago. 

And of course, it's not just cosmology. Neurobiology … anthropology … psychology … sociology … history … semiotics … nearly every field challenges the conventional packages of concepts that are associated with the word God, whoever is speaking it.

The question, I think, is this: what happens after one peels away the onion and faces the possibility that there is nothing left? Will any concept of meaning, purpose, value, direction, and value come back? As my friend Steve McIntosh asked me earlier this year, "Can we get God back at a higher level?"

I think Ryan Bell is grappling with this challenge. In order to get God back at a higher level, we have to be willing to let the lower level conceptions of God go. Peter Rollins has been another courageous thinker in this regard. The process isn't easy. The outcomes aren't guaranteed. We have to make room for one another to be at different places, in different "time zones" if you will, which is hard for many people to do - and nearly impossible for some churches to allow, sad to say. 

I have tended to do this kind of deconstructive questioning in private, and then write about the positive conclusions I've reached. But the deconstructive work must also be written about. Maybe my approach has been more pastoral, and Ryan's and Peter's more philosophical … but both are needed.

A philosopher who has engaged with this process in a very helpful way for me is Richard Kearney. The title of his book Anatheism suggests the recovery of God after atheism - not old theism, not atheism, but a new search for God after one has lost his or her old faith. Here are a few choice quotes from Anatheism:

  • So much depends, of course, on what we mean by God. If transcendence is indeed a surplus of meaning, it requires a process of endless interpretation…. The absolute requires pluralism to avoid absolutism. (xiv)

  • If the Word was in the beginning, so was hermeneutics. There is no God’s-eye view of things available to us. For we are not Gods, and history tells us that attempts to become so lead to intellectual and political catastrophe. Hermeneutics is a lesson in humility (we all speak from finite situations) as well as imagination (we fill in the gaps between available and ulterior meanings). Hermeneutics remind us that the holiest of books are works of interpretation – for authors no less than readers. Moses smashed the written tablets; Jesus never wrote a single word (only a scribble in the sand to prevent a woman being stoned); and Muhammad spoke, after much hesitation, but left writing to others. (xv)

  • And that is, I think, a grace of philosophy. It opens a space for the questioning of God where theists and atheists may converse. It invites us to revise old interpretations and reimagine new ones. (xvii)

  • The figural saves God from the literal. For faith is not just the art of the impossible but an art of endless hermeneutics. (14)

  • … the absolute can never be understood absolutely by any single person or religion. (16)

  • The great stories of Israel are, I am suggesting, testaments to the paradoxical origins of religion in both violent conflict and peaceful embrace. This, in effect, makes every dramatic encounter between the human and the divine into a radical hermeneutic wager: compassion or murder. You either welcome or refuse the stranger. Monotheism is the history of this wager. (22)


Obviously, I could go on and on. But I want to mention two other quotes from Kearney that intersect with my own work. 

First, Kearney asks, "So what exactly did Bonhoeffer mean when he advocated an 'irreligious Christianity?' … Religion was but a ‘garment’ tailored to the needs of different historical epochs over two thousand years. So the real question for us today is What kind of God could be the Lord of a nonreligious Christianity? .. Bohoeffer’s postreligious Christianity took the form of an atheistic rejection of the metaphysical God combined with a belief in the suffering God. (66-67)"

I haven't spoken of this much, but this insight was very much behind my book Naked Spirituality. We need a spirituality that allows us to strip away old conceptions and welcome new ones … a faith that is (to evoke my new title) a road, not a warehouse or parking lot. A flexible (or naked) spirituality carries us, I think, when our bolted-down theology falls apart on us.

Second, Kearney says, "…one must, I suggest, abandon the old God of sovereignty and theodicy. That Master God must die so that the God of inteconfessional hospitality can be born. And, insofar as religious dogma has often served as vehicle of infantile fear and dependency, the interreligious God may be described as a postdogmatic God. That is why anatheism appreciates a rigorous atheistic critique of the theistic perversions of religion." (52)

Obviously, this was a big part of my last book, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? In my new book, We Make the Road by Walking, I read the Bible not as a static revelation of God in a system, but as a dynamic narrative of human discovery as old conceptions of God die and new conceptions are born in the vacuum. To be a believer is not to stop or freeze the quest for bigger and better and deeper and truer conceptions of what is ultimate and true and beautiful and valuable, but to join it. 

So … to get back to your question: Some forms of atheism, like some forms of religion, are also parking lots or warehouses. They mark the end of questioning, search, wondering, imagining, hoping, dreaming, opening. But I trust that for many, atheism is more like taking off of a suit of clothes that no longer fits. It is scary to be naked … especially when there are accusatory and mocking inquisitors out there ready to pounce, mock, criticize, and so on, motivated by the kind of fear that Ryan wrote about. 

So, Daneen, we might say that good faith is at heart not becoming "impervious to new evidence," but rather the reverse: a vulnerability to new evidence and possibilities, a nakedness of the kind we experience at birth or when we go to the doctor or when we make love, a confession that "I haven't yet arrived, but am still on the road, still seeking, still on the quest." Whatever God is, God must not be smaller than our questions! So for me, one of the meanings of the resurrection is that just after you think God has died, a surprise is in store. I would hope that whatever progressive/emergence/etc. Christianity is … it makes room both for the questioning and the surprise.


From Vanessa: Almost a decade ago, my husband picked up a copy of A New Kind of Christian and it proceeded to wreck my safe and well-ordered life. If you happen to remember meeting me, I'm the one who told you that there were times in the years that followed that I wanted to punch you in the face. Since that time, though, I've mellowed and fully embraced my new, amazing life as an emergent church planter.

My question is about our kids. In the old, established fundamentalist/ evangelical world, we knew what the product of our parenting was supposed to look like, and my husband and I were everything the establishment dreamed we would be (for awhile anyway). We are finding parenting teens in this new, un-programmed, dismantled, church environment a little agoraphobia-inducing. What does a healthy young person look like after growing up in Emergence Christianity? What are we shooting for in the faith-education of our kids?

Another tremendous question, Vanessa. I've been complaining about the same things and asking the same questions for several years, which is why I'm so grateful to a group that has come together under the name Faith Forward to grapple with exactly these questions. You can learn more at

I don't think the ideal long-term is "un-programmed, dismantled, agoraphobia-inducing" church environments. I think we need to reconstruct in the ruins of what has been deconstructed - and, of course, to do so in a wise and re-deconstructible (iterative) way. That's a big part of what my new book tries to do: propose (by example rather than argument) new ways of reading the Bible, new ways of imagining church gatherings, new ways of inviting rather than suppressing questions and dialogue.

Will it "work?" One can only hope. But it's clear for many of us that we aren't faced with a choice between a status quo that is working and a radical new proposal that might not work. Rather, we are faced with a status quo that is not working for more and more people, and new proposals that may work. We will only know by pressing on in faith.

I might add that the earliest Christians must have faced a similar situation. Could the faith possibly be passed on without circumcision, temple, priesthood, sacrifice, holy city, and so on? It was a daring risk to imagine that it could. It took ongoing experimentation to find new forms that worked. Each form created new problems, of course, as it solved others, which is why we're never finished. Again, we're on a road, not sitting in a parking lot.


From Chris: Do any current members of the evangelical establishment ever approach you discretely to show support or to receive counsel ala Nicodemus? Not interested in names as much as what that conversation tends to look/sound like.

Nobody ever asked me this before, Chris. Short answer, yes. I'll give a few quick examples.

Several years ago, an executive of an Evangelical organization met me in a hallway. "Ah, McLaren. I've read your work and I don't like it. I disagree with it on almost every page," he said. Then he paused, "But my adult sons are far from the church and far from God, and if they ever come back, I imagine it will be to your kind of Christianity and not mine." Then, almost by accident, it seemed, he added, "So I guess I wish you well." Then he walked away.

Another fellow in that same organization emailed me once and said, "Some of my colleagues are out to destroy you. I appreciate what you're doing, so I just wanted to warn you to watch your back."

When some Evangelical magazines and websites wrote snarky things about my participation in my gay son's wedding, several prominent Evangelicals contacted me in private and said, "You did the right thing." One told me that the hardest part of his job as a denominational executive was hearing from the parents of gay children who were driven out of churches in his denomination. He couldn't change the denomination without splitting it, he said, and he was glad that he could retire soon because he couldn't stand the agony of being part of causing pain for so many gay people and their families. A charismatic leader told me had had performed a wedding in private for his gay grandson. People would be shocked how many people seem to support the status quo by their public silence, but privately aren't there.

A couple years ago I was in a restaurant eating with my wife. My phone rang and it was a very prominent Evangelical writer. "I was just in a conversation with so and so and so and so." (He mentioned two other well-known Evangelicals.) "Your name came up and all three of us admitted that we read you and largely agree with you. I thought you would want to know that. There are a lot of people who are silent, but they're re-thinking things." Then he hung up and my wife and I finished our supper. It was kind of surreal.


From Jonathan: Have you seen any examples of emergent ministry in small towns or rural locations? How can ministers serving in rural areas reach the emerging generation while also serving parishioners with highly traditional and conservative values?

Yes to your first question, Jonathan. In fact, some of the most surprising experiments are taking place in these settings precisely because younger generations are being driven away in such large numbers. But your second question surfaces the problem. The people who helping "emerging generations" usually can't simultaneously help the highly conservative/traditional folks. 

It does happen occasionally, and I could imagine it happening more. The minister would need to serve the traditional congregation well, while maintaining his/her integrity by not saying things he/she didn't believe. This is often hard, but with a lot of wisdom (wise as serpents, innocent as doves?) it can be done. Then, in his/her free time - not "on the clock" so to speak - the minister could invite some people over to his/her house, or meet with them in a restaurant or coffee shop or whatever. Sometimes the people the minister would be helping in secret would be the sons and daughters of those who would fire him if they knew. That kind of ministry life isn't for everyone - but it isn't boring!


From Meagan: Brian (can I call you Brian?), I'm currently in the middle of your book Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?, and so far, it's a refreshing and interesting read (and the first of your books I've ever read). Many of the struggles and tensions you discuss describe my own faith journey right now. I come from a similar conservative background, and several of the ideas and thoughts I grew up with have been shaken down around me within the last few years (mostly thanks to writers like Donald Miller, Jen Hatmaker, and Rachel, of course). My question for you is: How do you personally handle push-back? I'm not sure what your personality type is, but I'm the type of person who is comfortable when most everyone likes me. However, much of my thinking no longer meshes well with many people from my childhood, and I've been largely afraid to "come out" as not-so-politically/theologically-conservative anymore. What advice would you give to someone like me?

Meagan, this is such an important question. I've addressed this a number of times on my own blog. If you follow this link, I think you'll find some helpful responses.  The most important post I've written on this question, I think, is this one: "If You're Getting Criticized.." 

Here's one other suggestion. When you're with friends or relatives who say something you disagree with, try saying - good naturally, "Wow! I see that differently!" They'll probably ask why. I recommend saying, "I don't need to go into it. I just wanted you to know not everybody sees it that way." That might make them even more curious, but I would try not to explain if at all possible, because in so doing, you exemplify that you can still be friends and on good terms without needing them to agree with you. If they really want to know, you might say, "It's a long story. Maybe we should set up another time and I can tell you." That won't guarantee a good outcome, of course, but it avoids two unhelpful outcomes that commonly happen:

1. You stay silent and become "complicit in your own diminishment" (as Parker Palmer says).

2. You get into an argument and fracture relationships.

Sometimes, this question is helpful: "Ok, we clearly disagree. How do you think we should deal with our disagreement?" In that way, you shift the focus from the content to the process. You might be able to agree on the process even while disagreeing on the content. Sometimes, of course, the other person will cut you off or hurt you - maybe not intentionally, but as a result of feeling they aren't being faithful unless they punish you in some way for being wrong. And when that's the case, check out that post I linked to above.

From Caddy: Hello. I grew up conservative evangelical but over the last few years have become a more progressive Christian. This has caused some friction with my family. They still love me absolutely, but it scares them that I believe different things than they do. What I want is for them to trust me to God and understand that just because I read the Bible differently that doesn't mean that I no longer love God/Jesus/the church/the Bible. I think they're wrong on a great number of topics, but I also know that they love the Lord and are trying to do what's right. I can live with our disagreements, but it's harder for them. I really want them to give me the benefit of the doubt, but they seem unable to do so. I want to be able to be honest with them about what I believe, but whenever I am, it just seems to cause them real distress. I know that this distress comes from a place of fear, fear that I'm walking away from God, though I am not. Lying to them or just keeping my real beliefs to myself seems wrong, but so does causing continual stress for our relationship by being honest.

Do you have any ideas for how I can get them to understand that that fear is only going to do bad things to our relationship (and that fear is not of God) and get them to trust me to God's hands? All my friends who have left evangelical Christianity just say, "Give them an ultimatum and if they continue to make you feel bad, kick them out of your life," but I love them so much and want them to be a part of my life. I'm having trouble figuring out how to maintain our relationships when they're so very scared for me. Thanks so much for doing this!

First, Caddy, I'm kind of with you. I'm not a big fan of giving people ultimata and kicking them out of your life if the violate them. I have one suggestion beyond what I shared in response  Meagan's question, and really, you already made it clear you "get" this.

What a lot of people need in situations like this is reassurance. So you need to keep telling them things that are obvious to you, but maybe not so much to them. "I was praying for you … I heard a great sermon … I'm reading a great book on the spiritual life … I came across this beautiful verse in Luke the other day … I was talking with a friend from church …." Often, people keep arguing when what their friend needs most is reassurance.

When Jesus talked about throwing pearls before swine or throwing holy things to dogs, the imagery seems a bit insulting … but putting that aside, I think he's saying that we shouldn't push things on people that they're not interested in, ready for, appreciative of, etc. That might mean that we focus on reassurance rather than challenge.

One other thing might be helpful to keep in mind. Let's say you're having trouble with your Aunt Jane. She's always worried you're becoming one of those depraved liberals, satanic emergents, etc. etc. You have to remember that she listens to Christian radio every day, and there are preachers constantly warning her about those horrible realities. So this isn't really about you. It's about the radio preachers she is so dedicated to. To be faithful to them, she has to be suspicious of you. With that in mind, at some point, you might need to say, "Hey Aunt Jane, you know how you really love John MacArthur and Albert Mohler on the radio? I'm a huge fan of Rachel Held Evans and (whoever) in the blogosphere in the same way." In that way, you're defining your difference differently, and you're allowing her to understand you in terms she might be able to relate to.


From Cindy: As my denomination (United Methodist) continues to tear itself apart over how we will or won't receive LGBTQ people in our midst, I despair that the losers in our struggle will be the poor and other marginalized people, who Jesus called us to be in ministry with. If you got to set a course for how we (and other denominations) could navigate through these choppy waters, what would it be?

Cindy, I share your grief … especially remembering how Southern Baptists, Southern Presbyterians, and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South separated from their northern sisters and brothers over the issue of slavery in the 19th century. That didn't turn out so well! Those divisions give meaning to the cliche "the wrong side of history."

In one sense, I understand the case for schism/separation. My conservative Presbyterian friends who have left the PCUSA are much happier now and can get on with life without having to deal with people they considered apostate, etc.

But here's the problem. Ten minutes after the splits occur, babies will be born. And over the next twenty or thirty years, about six percent of those babies will come out as gay. Add their parents (12%) and a sibling and grandparent or two in, and soon a third of the people in the denomination are or love someone who is gay. So the issue won't go away.

Not only that, but as more and more states legalize gay marriage, these churches will find themselves in the position of Bob Jones University, which distinguished itself as a holdout supporter of racial segregation until 2000. 

And I should add that "follow the money" applies in this situation too. Thousands of pastors know that if they accept LGBTA people as equals, key donors will stop supporting them. In the longer term, I think the opposite will be the case: more and more donors will refuse to support organizations that stigmatize LGBTQ people. 

As for your practical question - how to navigate the mess - I think of Solomon's divide-the-baby option, except that in this case, it's more like a divorce with lots of kids involved, and sometimes the warring parties are happy to take a few of the kids they like and let their "ex" take the others. 

But if I "got" (or was held at gunpoint and forced) to set the course, here's one approach I would consider. From the start, I'd propose at least four or five options, not just two. When people are forced to choose between two options, they often fail to see the full range of consequences because they are only afraid of avoiding the opposite choice's consequences. So options might be …

A. We accept LGBTQ people as equal, and accept that a significant percentage of people will leave, especially older and more dedicated donors, which will have results in closing seminaries, stopping mission to needy people, spending millions on lawyers, etc., etc.

B. We keep our conservative position but make allowances for congregations or conferences that differ, knowing that we will lose some people who will be against any compromise.

C. We accept a progressive position but make allowances for congregations or conferences that differ, knowing that we will lose some people who will be against any compromise.

D. We refuse to accept LGBTQ people as equal, and accept that a significant percentage of people will leave, especially younger and more educated people, which will have results in closing seminaries, stopping mission to needy people, spending millions on lawyers, etc., etc.

E. We allow current conservative regulations to continue and we create a mechanism for people to violate those regulations to remain, knowing that some people on both sides will leave because they disapprove of this option.

Then, I would institute a brief but intense study period to estimate the consequences of each option. I would spend the money on professional researches to conduct surveys so the results would be data-based.

Then, I would develop a way for the denomination to make a choice among options … with the estimated costs and benefits clearly articulated. I would also build in a review period with an opportunity to make corrections to whichever path was chosen based on unforeseen consequences that must be addressed.

I should say that I would consider a completely different line of approach as well. In that approach, I would invite the denomination not to solve this problem, but to see this problem as a symptom of much larger and deeper problems. In that light, I would invite the denomination to consider a historic restructuring - no, more radical than that, a historic re-founding.

Because at the end of the day, denominational structures are all under stress, even considered completely apart from this issue. Post offices, record labels, publishing companies, book stores, TV networks, travel agencies, education systems, economic systems, even governments are all under stress because they have transformed the conditions under which they were created. The church is not alone in facing these epochal shifts in culture. Almost all (maybe all?) institutions are in a period of stress, which is the critical ingredient of evolution … or extinction.

One other comment … when I was a pastor doing pre-marital and marital counseling, I used to encourage couple in conflict to agree on how and when they want to resolve the conflict before they tried to resolve the conflict itself. Without agreeing on the how/when questions - viciously? quickly? patiently? kindly? compassionately? by vote? by mediator? with or without outside help? in secret? transparently? - attempts to resolve the conflicts themselves are almost always controlled by the least patient, most desperate, least thoughtful, most reactive, frightened, or angry party.

Cindy, people like you can make a big difference in all this. Keep positive. Love everybody. Resist the urge to imitate the behavior of those who hurt you. Seek the guidance and empowerment of the Spirit. Welcome the opportunity for growth. Be a non- anxious presence. And know that whatever other people do, you can still do good, beautiful, kind, and loving things.


The amazing thing is Brian sent me these responses the day after I sent him the question! The guy's a writing machine.  Be sure to check out We Make The Road By Walking, which releases today. 

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