[This is the ninth part of a multiple-post review of Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity, which I introduced here. In the book, McLaren sets out the ten questions that he believes are reshaping Christianity in the West.]
How should followers of Jesus treat people of other religions?
On a practical level, this may be the most important question that McLaren addresses in A New Kind of Christianity. As our culture becomes increasingly diverse, Christians are forming relationships with neighbors and co-workers who practice other faiths, and we are beginning to feel tension between our beliefs and the experiences that arise out of those relationships. At the heart of this tension is a conflict between identity and inclusion. Many of us have inherited an “us versus them” mentality from our faith traditions – one which requires us to condemn people of other faiths and emphasize the superiority and exclusivity of Christianity. When we discover that likable, kind, hard-working people can adhere to non-Christian faiths, the “us versus them” mentality no longer seems to work. But what should we then do? Just give up and say “whatever you believe is okay”? That would seem to risk losing our own identity and distinctiveness.
In addressing this tension, McLaren begins by undertaking a brief survey of scripture involving God’s acceptance of the “other.” Some examples:
- John 1, 3, 12, and 21, in which Jesus responds to inquiries about other people’s spiritual status by saying “What is it to you?
- Paul’s argument in Romans that God blesses people who seek to do God, even though they don’t have knowledge from scripture.
- Paul’s repeated assertions in Romans that God is not holding the sins of humanity against it.
- The traditions of the “righteous outsider” from the Old Testament, including people like Melchizadek and Rahab.
- The writings of the prophets, which often emphasize that God also moves and acts among those outside the Jewish tradition (Isaiah 55).
Why, in the face of all of the evidence to the contrary, do Christians persist that they have exclusive access to God and his favor? McLaren’s answer, not surprisingly, is that the Greco-Roman reading of scripture, which pushes us toward a singular, perfect state, does not tolerate diversity.
But what about Jesus’ saying, in John 14, that “no one comes to the Father except by me” ? McLaren argues that the point of John 14 has nothing to do with whether God accepts, loves, and forgives people of other religions. Some, he argues, want to read the text like this:
You should be very troubled, because if you believe in God, but not me, you will be shut out of my Father’s house in heaven, where there are a few small rooms for the few who have the correct belief… Then Thomas said to him, “Lord, what about people of other religions or no religion at all? Will they go to heaven after they die?” Jesus said to him, “I am the only way to heaven, and confessing the truth about me is the only truth that will get you to life after death. None will go to heaven unless they (a) personally understand and believe a clearly defined message about me, (b) personally and consciously ask me to come into their heart, (c) disavow any other religious affiliation, and (d) affiliate with the new religion I’m starting and naming after myself. None can come to God unless they get by me first.”
However, if you read the text for what it is actually saying (rather than what you expect it to say), you will see that the central question is not how God treats people of other religions, but how the disciples, who have just learned that Jesus is “leaving” can follow him, and find the Father. The final answer to this question is simple: live and act as I have lived and acted, and you can find God.
In practical terms, what does this mean? Ironically, it means that we treat everyone – including those of other religions – in the same way Jesus treated them: loving them, ministering to them, eating with them, respecting them, listening to them, etc. Thus, to accept people of other faiths is not to reject Jesus’ teachings and example, but to honor them.
This is probably McLaren’s most radical departure from the conventional, evangelical mindset, but I think he has said something that needs to be considered by all Christians. Is it possible that we are most like Jesus when we are, ironically, willing to embrace and accept people who don’t believe in him? Could it be that the most important thing we can do to preserve the true “us” is to abandon our condescending mentality toward “them”? Not everyone will agree with McLaren on all points, but I think he has dramatically, and appropriately, redefined the heart of the debate.