Our Evolving Concept of God within A New Kind of Christianity
Second in a series of conversations with influential author Brian McLaren
In more than a dozen highly influential books, Brian McLaren has championed a progressive approach to evangelical Christianity, stressing issues of social justice and rejecting the traditionally conservative politics of the mainstream evangelical movement. But McLaren’s politics are best understood as an outgrowth of his religious thinking. His most recent book, A New Kind of Christianity, published in early 2010, sets out to reread the Bible from a 21st century perspective, deconstructing its Greco-Roman narrative, emphasizing the Jewish context of early Christian belief, and proposing a more open-ended view of Christianity’s sacred text as “an inspired library” rather than a “constitution.”
Novelist Clyde Edgerton and Rev. Eric Porterfield, pastor of Winter Park Baptist Church in Wilmington, North Carolina, went to speak with McLaren at his home in Maryland. In this, the second in a series of excerpts from their conversation, they talk with him about his belief that our concept of God continues to evolve over time. Read the first excerpt here; the entire interview can be found here.
Part 2: God Over Time
Brian: Let’s talk about the God over time issue, because to me this is one of the ones — it’s interesting to me, having written a book and watched people debating it. In my best moments, I realize that anything I say about God is wrong. However, God is — I’m sure every articulation I make is an insult to the true wonder and depth and glory of God’s being.
But what I am trying to say in the book is that our concepts of God definitely go through change and evolution. There’s just no question that our concepts go through that. That’s not the same as saying that God is evolving.
There are ways I think we can talk about God evolving if… it seems to me this is one of the underappreciated elements of Trinitarian theology. Trinitarian theology suggests that within the divine being there is oneness and otherness. And in that one and otherness, there’s dynamism. And this is why some of the early Church fathers used this image of perichoresis — of a circle of Father, Son and Spirit. As well, the whole idea of creation suggests that until somebody named Moses is born, God has never had the experience of somebody named Moses. So now the experience of God and Moses becomes transformative for both. Transformative might be an exaggeration, but it introduces dynamism into both.
So there was a time when God wasn’t the creator of this universe. And everything that unfolds in a sense adds, could we say, to the memories of God. I think there’s a way to talk about that that doesn’t in any way reduce God’s glory. But it’s very hard to talk about it that way, so what I’ve noticed people arguing about — immediately getting into arguments — is: “Are you saying God’s character has changed?” “That God wasn’t that smart before and now is smarter?” “That God wasn’t that compassionate before and now is compassionate?” And that’s not what I’m saying at all.
But I am saying that certainly our concepts of God have to evolve over time. It relates to what we were just talking about. You can’t deal with negative numbers until you’ve got the positive numbers down really well. This is really a big deal when it comes to this whole issue of violence, and that’s why I feel it’s worth getting this issue on the table. Even though it causes a good deal of pyrotechnics.
Clyde: I agree a hundred percent. Once you start talking about definitions of God, you’re not going to satisfy anybody. But that’s why it’s attractive to me to think about God existing in different ways for different people. And that interaction — when you talk about interaction between God and history… you have an interaction between an individual psyche, an individual precious soul, body, psyche… once we kind of believe that we can talk about it.
And since talking to Eric, I now have a definition of sorts, my personal definition which works for me real well, and that is God is the source of life, the mysterious source of life. Beyond that, I feel sort of like Wittgenstein talking about remaining silent about what we don’t know. That’s a paraphrase. So, what I can talk about is concepts of God and if I had to put my life on the line, I would say that God exists very much as a concept. But it’s hard for me to get beyond that.
And you just raised an interesting point that I’ve not thought through before — if we have an entity, a source of life (whatever it is) we can posit is God… we certainly know we can’t understand God and all that… but then we each have our concept that is a piece — like the blind man and the elephant. That’s an interesting way of talking about it. I get tied up in all this. But it is important in one way, and the other way doesn’t really have anything to do with how we live our lives, other than influence us individually. But I just think it’s a fascinating topic and people can talk about it as long as they can talk about anything.
Brian: This to me is one of the big things — you mentioned Wittgenstein — one of the things that’s happened in the last hundred years is that we’ve become more aware I think as a human race, at least on the popular level, than we have been in the past about the ways that language both imprisons us and empowers us. And that awareness is now having a big effect on the way we do theology.
I think a 20-year-old or a 24-year-old who gets a college degree today, and especially if he gets a master’s or doctorate, he or she is just embedded in this awareness of how much we inhabit a world of language, and that the word is not the same thing as the thing. That we all live in these imaginaries — these worlds of images.
Whether or not God exists, the concepts of God exist. And whatever God really is, concepts of God do influence human behavior. So if my concept of God is that God loves white people and hates non-white people, or that God made white people and that non-white people are abnormal, that belief is going to affect a thousand things in the way I behave; and it has over the last several centuries.
If I believe that God is with the Western civilization and against indigenous peoples and Eastern civilizations… millions of people die out of those beliefs. And this is why in many ways religion becomes this terribly ambivalent… I’m sorry, we have such deep ambivalence toward this word religion. And I think this is part of the tension you feel when you ask someone what religion are you, and they say, ‘I’m not religious, I’m spiritual.’ Part of what they mean by that is, “I’ve lost my naiveté about religion, and now I realize this dangerous dimension of religion that encodes ideas of God that are destructive.”
Of course the problem is what do we do about that. This is where, ironically, in a university a student will be sitting under the tutelage of professors who are in some ways not the liberal vanguard, but in some ways the conservative rearguard who are still holding on to the idea of modernity and secularism… that the best antidote to religion is to eradicate it and to have this world in objectivity and all the rest . This is part of our loss of naïveté. We’ve lost our naïveté about secularism as well as about religion. And now we’re trying to grapple with moving into this new context of the loss of innocence about language and objectivity and religion and secularism all together.
And this is why at the end of the day, although this depresses the daylights out of me sometimes, I think the only antidote to bad religion is good religion.
Clyde: Say that once again.
Brian: The only antidote to bad religion is good religion. And you can say the same thing in every field. The only antidote to bad architecture is good architecture the only antidote to bad engineering is good engineering. So I think there’s this — this is one of the watersheds it seems to be between whatever we mean by this modern culture and this postmodern culture. In the modern culture, among intellectuals, was this idea that we could get rid of religion. And we could come to this clean pristine objective, secular, scientific space where we would be rid of all of the ugliness of religion. I think we’ve lost that.
Coming Next: Busted McLaren, Part 3: Reading Jesus, Reading the Bible
For the complete interview with Brian McLaren, click here.
Clyde Edgerton is the author of the novel The Bible Thief and 9 other books. He teaches in the Department of Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
Eric Porterfield is the pastor of Winter Park Baptist Church in Wilmington, North Carolina (winterparkbaptist.org).