McLaren "Why I am Incarnational" from A GENEROUS ORTHODOXY

cover McLarens discussion follows in the spirit of the influential missionary theologian Lesslie Newbigin who articulated his own position concerning Christ and salvation along the following lines: exclusive in the sense of affirming the unique truth of the revelation in Jesus Christ, but not in the sense of denying the possibility of salvation to those outside the Christian faith; inclusive in the sense of refusing to limit the saving grace of God to Christians, but not in the sense of viewing other religions as salvific; pluralist in the sense of acknowledging the gracious work of God in the lives of all human beings, but not in the sense of denying the unique and decisive nature of what God has done in Jesus Christ ("The Gospel in a Pluralist Society" Eerdmans, 1989, p.182-3)

* * *

I originally entitled this chapter, "Why I Am Buddhist/Muslim/Hindu/Jewish.." The original title proved excessively provocative, if not downright misleading. So the current title emerged, affirming that a generous orthodoxy takes the incarnation very seriously, affirming that God's movement "us-ward" in Jesus sends us on a similar trajectory "them-ward."

Because I follow Jesus, then, I am bound to Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics, atheists, NewAgers, everyone ( religious broadcasters, I was just reminded by a still, small voice) not only am I bound to them in love, but I am also actually called to .. in some real sense (please don't minimize this before you qualify it} become one of them, to enter their world and be with them in it.

In saying this, I am echoing one of Jesus' earliest followers Paul. The apostle Paul had been a Pharisee, a member of the religious movement most unfavorable to Jesus, and the group of which Jesus was most critical. Pharisees were the elect and elite among the elect and elite. They wouldn't eat with non-Jews; they wouldn't greet them, embrace them, marry them, or even help them if they found them beaten and left to die on the road. Pharisees didn't understand the difference between love/acceptance and approval, so, lest they be accused of approving of other religions, they refrained from loving or accepting people who were part of other religions (as well as subpar members of their own)."6

Jesus entered Paul's life, and Paul entered Jesus' way, and all this changed, to the point where Paul could say, "To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win Jews...To those not having the law I became like one not having the law... so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings" (l Corinthians 9:20-23). Can you feel the immense, shocking, almost heretical potency of these words written by this former Pharisee? (Again, if you're familiar with them, please try not to let your familiarity blunt their impact.) The gospel, the story of God's becoming "one of us" through incarnation, propelled Paul on an incarnational ministry to become "one of them. whoever "they" are.

There are two things this incarnational ministry is not. It is not a kind of dishonest spy work, where one pretends to be something one is not, like an Internet pedophile who pretends to be a teenager so he can enter their trust, or like a network marketer who pretends to be your friend so he can add you to his down-line. And again, neither is it a kind of "everybody-is-okay/all-religions-are-equally-true" relativist/pluralist tolerance, where I smoke weed with the Rastafarians, chant with the Hare Krishnas, bow toward Mecca with the Muslims, and dance with the Pentecostals because "it's all good, it's all fun, it's all mellow, and it doesn't matter which religion (if any?) you believe as long as you're sincere, man." If you take what I'm saying and turn it into either of these approaches, you're smoking some kind of weed yourself, I think.'27

No, a generous incarnational orthodoxy means something very different. It's hard to understand because it is quite new, but also so old (as old as Jesus' incarnation and Paul's "all things to all people") that it has been forgotten. In a sense, what I am asking for in relation to other contemporary religious cultures is that we give them the same freedom and respect my European ancestors were given many centuries ago, something I started thinking about when my children were small and we decided to homeschool them for a few years.

We weren't homeschoolers of the religious-right type, "raid that "the secular system" would pollute our kids. True, we had our doubts about the secular system, but we had equal doubts about the religious one. Our desire to homeschool flowed more from the fact that my wife and I were both educators, and we were excited about the prospect of giving our kids a love for learning that we feared normal institutionalized education (secular religious) might squelch. As we searched for curricula to use we of course had to wade through a lot of the religious-right type curriculum because it dominates the market.

And as we did so, this struck me; the most conservative forms of religious curricula all taught extensively on the Greek and Roman gods and goddesses. Why? Because "classical" Western culture had been adopted as part of the Christian heritage. Long ago, Christians in the West had learned to appreciate and even love Greco-Roman culture; they baptized it, integrated it into Christianity's heritage. Zeus, Apollo, Athena, Pan, Dionysius, and Mercury weren't demons to be feared or idols to be destroyed-they were part of our heritage to be redeemed, with rich symbolism and profound meaning for Christians today.

Christianity had similarly embraced much of Northern European culture, finding place in our Christmas celebrations for the evergreen tree and yule log of the pagan Scandinavians, for example. In its first thousand years, then, Christianity didn't seek to replace Greco-Roman or Northern European or Celtic cultures (of my ancestors) with the culture of its own Jewish roots; rather it sought (in its best moments) to enter these cultures, redeem them, transform them, and preserve everything of value in them. The apostles reached this conclusion in relation to the "meat sacrificed to idols" controversy very early in church history. The Celtic missionary movement followed the apostolic lead especially well in this regard (though the Romanized church often did not), with far-reaching impact.28

However, the modern missionary movement of the last 200 years did not fully follow this apostolic or Celtic path. Instead the modern missionary movement unintentionally adopted (with some happy exceptions) the Roman way, which cooperated with the spirit of its age, the spirit of colonialism, white supremacy, Eurocentrism, jingoism, and chauvinism. So now, when we think of orthodoxy in missions, we think of a colonial approach, which doesn't simply seek to drive the sin from the culture, but which seeks (without realizing it) to drive the culture from the people and replace it with a Euro-American Christian subculture.

What Muslims have tended to do with Arab culture, Christians have tended to do with Euro-American culture: impose it wherever they go. This is understandable for Muslims because they have (they believe) a divinely dictated sacred text and no incarnation. However, this cultural colonialism is illogical and inexcusable for Christians-who have a sacred text and one believed to be inspired, but not dictated, and who believe that God spoke in various times to various cultures, and then entered human culture and history lovingly, climactically, personally, and incarnationally through Christ.29

Many readers will remember the Taliban regime's decision to destroy with explosives ancient Buddhist statues, carved from a mountainside in the eastern part of Afghanistan (like Mount Rushmore in the United States). That's a vision of cultural replacement; annihilate the cultures associated with other religions and replace every memory and artifact of them with the trappings of the religion in power. This is exactly what Western Christianity has practiced in many less explosive but no less real ways in our history. This is exactly what I believe must change in a generous orthodoxy on the road ahead.

The fact is, all religions of the world are under threat from fundamentalist Islam, but more, from the McDonaldization and Wal-Martization of the world, from global consumerism, from forces that emanate not from Arabia or Afghanistan, but from New York and Hollywood-forces that make all religions equally superfluous, trivial compared to the lust for a new car or a new pair of jeans.

All the religions of the world are under threat from. reductionist ideologies emanating from our centers of modern education, whether in Boston, San Francisco, or Paris-ideologies that, often under the guise of tolerance, are intolerant of any ideology but their own. And all religions, along with everything else on earth, are under threat from weapons of mass destruction, whose buttons are fingered not only in the Middle or Far East, but also down the road from my home, in Washington, D.C., and Northern Virginia. Should the Christian faith be listed among these threats to the religions of the world? Given the chance, would Christianity eradicate every vestige of the world's other religions?

No. The Christian faith, I am proposing, should become (in the name of Jesus Christ) a welcome friend to other religions of the world, not a threat. We should be seen as a protector of their heritages, a defender against common enemies, not one of the enemies. Just as Jesus came originally not to destroy the law but to fulfill it, not to condemn people but to save them, I believe he comes today not to destroy or condemn anything (anything but evil) but to redeem and save everything that can be redeemed or saved.

Ah, but you say, there's the problem; there's so much evil in other religions. Yes, I reply, there is indeed, but not jus in other religions. There is so much evil in our own, too. (under wise advisement, recalling Chapter o) propose that be we seek to remove the splinters from the eyes of other religions, concentrate on the planks in our own. I also propose (with parable from Matthew 13:34-30 in mind) that we don't seek to root up all the bad weeds in the world's religions (including our own), but rather seek to encourage the growth of good wheat in all religions including our own, leaving it for God to sort it all out as only God can do.

Wheat in other religions, you ask? Yes.

Now, contrary to popular opinion, it is not true that all religions say basically the same things. They have much in common, but there are notable contradictions and incompatibilities, many of which become more significant as they go deeper. But in many cases (again, not all), at any given moment, different religions are not always saying different things about the same subjects; rather they are often talking about different subjects entirely. Zen Buddhism, for example, says little about cosmic history and purpose as do Judaism and Christianity (and Theravada Buddhism). Western Christianity has (for the last few centuries anyway) said relatively little about mindfulness and meditative practices, about which Zen Buddhism has said much. To talk about different things is not to contradict one another; it is, rather, to have much to offer one another, on occasion at least.

If, as a Christian, I am to love my neighbor as myself and to treat my neighbor as I would be treated, then without question one of my duties in regard to my neighbor of another religion is to value everything that is good that he offers me in neighborliness- including the opportunity to learn all I can from his religion. Another duty is to offer everything I have that could be of value to him-including the opportunity to learn from my religion if he can. This is not a compromise of my faith or his; this is a required practice of it.

The theologian/missiologist who has most helped my thinking in this regard is the South African David Bosch. Born in 1930 and killed in 1992 in a tragic car crash, Bosch (pronounced more like "Bush") was a missionary in Transkei from I957-1971, and then served as professor of missiology at the University of South Africa. He was dean of the Faculty of Theology from I974-I977 and 1981-1987. He served as the chair of the National Initiative for Reconciliation from 1989 until his untimely death. Fluent in Xhosa, Afrikaans, Dutch, German, and English, he played an important role in the white South African clergy's acknowledgement of the evil of apartheid, and in apartheid's remarkable end.

In the 1980s, recognized for his comprehensive understanding of the history of Christian mission, he was offered a prestigious and no doubt safer job teaching theology in the United States. He turned this offer down, saying, "I don't think I can leave my colleagues and the struggle for South Africa. It is a critical moment and that is where God has placed me." In several of his works, most notably his masterpiece Transforming Mission and the short but profound Believing in the Future, Bosch suggested that the modern missionary movement was coming to an end, and a new missionary movement was emerging.

Having reflected on Bosch's work, along with my own experience in the world of Christian missions (including nine meaningful years on the board of directors of International Teams, www.iteams.org), I would like to suggest eight emerging obligations of a generous orthodoxy- postcolonial, postmodern, whatever-in regard to other religions in God's world. Each builds on the previous obligation, and each enriches the others.

We must accept the coexistence of different faiths in our world willingly, not begrudgingly.

In the old modern-colonial world, Euro-American Christians could wish that everyone everywhere would just get with it and become proper Euro-American Christians like us. In fact, non-Christians could be seen as stubborn rebels who refused to capitulate to the dominating truth. They could be seen as "in the way," a problem to be removed through either conversion (forced or free) or ethnic cleansing (a euphemism the horrible reality of which has been too often perpetuated in the name of Christ). Now in the emerging postmodern, postcolonial world, it is largely only radical Islamists who speak this way-Islamists and some Christians of an ungenerous orthodoxy.

No, the fact is that different religions have been here for a long time and are here to stay for the foreseeable future. To be a Christian means that one follows Jesus' teaching of neighbor-love, especially to those whose religions are different-even those who might be considered enemies. To show love and acceptance toward people, again, is not to approve all they believe or do, as any parent knows. To show disapproval of divergent beliefs by withholding love and acceptance may be orthodox Phariseeism, and it may even be orthodox modern, Western, colonial Christianity, but it is not the generous orthodoxy of Jesus Christ. It is, rather, a betrayal of our Lord and his way.

Having acknowledged and accepted the coexistence of other faiths, Christians should actually talk with people of other faiths, engaging in gentle and respectful dialogue.

This dialogue will benefit others, but we need it as well. According to Macquarrie (quoted in Transforming Mission, 483), there are seven formative factors in theology; experience, revelation, Scripture, tradition, culture, reason-and dialogue with other religions. This has always been the case, beginning with Judaism and Greco-Roman religions in the first centuries of the church. History makes this clear: Christianity has discovered what it is about in large part through this kind of dialogue. Without non-Christian dialogue partners, there would be no Christian theology as we know t Bosch said it like this: "One-way, monological travel is out as is militancy in any form" (Transforming Mission, 483).

Many modern Christians believe that to engage in dialogue means that we sacrifice our own position, that respectful dialogue is seen as compromise. This is absurd. Dialogue is only possible among people who come to the table with commitments- along with the mutual respect required for conversation, respect that is also required of Christians in any dialogue. Again, Bosch:

"Without my commitment to the gospel, dialogue becomes a mere chatter; without the authentic practice of the neighbor it becomes arrogant and worthless" (Transforming Mission, 484)-

We must assume that God is an unseen partner in our dialogues who has something to teach all participants, including us.

Just as Peter and the early church experienced ongoing conversion through the conversion of Cornelius (Acts l0-11), God has much to teach us in and through our dialogue with others. As Bosch affirms:

"We are not the 'haves,' the beati' possidentes, standing over against spiritual 'have-nots,' the massa damnata. We are all recipients of the same mercy, sharing in the same mystery" (Transforming Mission, 484)-

We must learn humility in order to engage in respectful dialogue.

Too often the dominant-but-receding modern. Western, colonial. Christianity saw boldness and humility as opposites, not as o partners. We showed boldness and confidence in the gospel through what appeared to outsiders (though not to ourselves) as bombast, arrogance, disrespect, and insensitivity. As a result we attacked and argued too often, and we apologized too seldom.

In the emerging context, apologetics (the art of giving reasons for our faith, hope, and love) will often, perhaps always, require a prelude of apology. We will have to realize, and admit, that the line of error and injustice runs through, not between, all religions, including Christianity.

This apology can become excessive, though. We can apologize for the sins of our fathers in such a way that we render ourselves arrogantly superior to them, insensitive both to the challenges of their milieu and to our present and anticipated failures in our own. So humility also means showing respect for our ancestors in the faith, for what they have handed down to us, Bosch says, even if we have reason to be painfully embarrassed by their racist, sexist, and imperialist bias. We have no guarantees, he reminds us, that we will do any better in our context than they did in theirs.

In addition, we can become so preoccupied with our Christian failures that we minimize two realities: that every religion has its dark side, and that Christian faith has, along with disasters, produced much beauty, much goodness, and many valuable articulations of truth. Again, Bosch says it well: "We delude ourselves if we believe that we can be respectful to other faiths only if we disparage our own" (Transforming Mission, 485).

If "love your neighbor as yourself "applies in interreligious dialogue, then self-hatred is not a good path to neighbor-love. Honest, humble self-appraisal is. Christianity-bashing is a popular sport and is perhaps a needed antidote to a version of Christianity that too often bashed, but wouldn't it be a positive step to get beyond bashing altogether?

We must realize that each religion is its own world --requiring very different responses from Christians.

In this way, there is no such thing as interreligious dialogue ' general, rather there is dialogue between this Christian individua1 or community and that Jewish or Buddhist or Hindu individual or community. Practice in one kind of dialogue prepares one for the next, but each requires new learnings and new openness. Each brings new challenges and new blessings, too.

Only at this point are we ready to reassert that conversation does not exclude evangelism but makes it possible.

We share the good news of Jesus, seeking to make disciples of all peoples-always inviting, never coercing. In Bosch's words: "We affirm that witness does not preclude dialogue but invites it, and that dialogue does not preclude witness but extends and deepens it."

I must add, though, that I don't believe making disciples must equal making adherents to the Christian religion. It may be advisable in many (not all!) circumstances to help people become followers of Jesus and remain within their Buddhist, Hindu, or Jewish contexts. This will be hard, you say, and I agree. But frankly, it's not at all easy to be a follower of Jesus in many "Christian" religious contexts, either.

Vincent Donovan captured exactly what I mean in Christianity Rediscovered: '"...do not try to call them back to where they were, and do not try to call them to where you are, as beautiful as that place might seem to you. You must have the courage to go with them to a place that neither you nor they have ever been before.' Good missionary advice, and a beautiful description of the unpredictable process of evangelization, a process leading to that new place where none of us has ever been before."

At heart I think my main gift and calling is to evangelism. I want to help every person I can to become a follower of Jesus, beginning with myself. As much as I love to speak to pastors and church leaders about church health and missional vitality, I feel most alive when equipping them to speak to their undiscipled friends and neighbors about the Good News. The other statements in this list do not in any way undermine the evangelistic calling; but rather, they make it possible in our emerging context.

We must continually be aware that the "old, old story" may not be the "true, true story."

In other words, we must be open to the perpetual possibility that our received understandings of the gospel may be faulty, unbalanced, poorly nuanced, or downright warped and twisted. Here we must retain the good Protestant, evangelical, and biblical instinct to allow Scripture to critique tradition-including our dominant and most recent tradition, and including our tradition's understanding of the gospel. In this sense Christians in missional dialogue must continually expect to rediscover the gospel.

In fact, this is one of the great benefits of missional interreligious dialogue for the Christian community: it puts us in situations where we may discover misconceptions and distortions we never would have seen if we were only talking to ourselves in self-affirming, self-congratulating conversation.

This good Protestant instinct to allow Scripture to critique tradition, this desire to keep learning, is nowhere better exemplified than in the Roman Catholic missiologist Vincent Donovan: Never accept and be content with unanalyzed assumptions, assumptions about the work, about the people, about the church or Christianity. Never be afraid to ask questions about the work we have inherited or the work we are doing it. There is no question that should not be asked or that is outlawed. The day we are completely satisfied with what we have been doing; the day we have found the perfect unchangeable system of work, the perfect answer, never in need of being corrected again, on that day we will know that we are wrong, that we have made the greatest mistake of all (Christianity Rediscovered, 146).

We must live with a paradox.

But what happens in our missional dialogue when we meet others whose piety and goodness and spirituality dwarfs our own? What happens when we share the gospel and others are informed and enriched, maybe even gratefully so, but not convinced?

According to Bosch: "We cannot point to any other way of salvation than Jesus Christ; at the same time, we cannot set limits to the saving power of God...We appreciate this tension, and do not attempt to resolve it." This means that anathemas and damnation can be invoked rarely if at all, which will disappoint all who have grown accustomed to resolving the above paradox by means of their invocation. (This ingrained fire-and-brimstone rhetoric so characteristic of Euro-American revivalism persists stubbornly wherever it has been exported, and will probably come back to haunt us.)

For the rest of us, rather than resolving the paradox via pronouncements on the eternal destiny of people more convinced by or loyal to other religions than ours, we simply move on (as Jesus told his disciples to do), giving all the respect and honor due those who are not convinced by our message (with the meekness Jesus taught), rather than calling down fire from heaven on them (as Jesus told his disciples not to do).

If members of other religions are under threat, we must seek to protect them.

If through Christ, God risks all for us, then we must do the same for people of other religions. They are our neighbors, and everything Jesus said about neighbors applies to them. Even if they approach us as enemies, to be faithful to Jesus we must love them and never let their status as non-Christians reduce them to non-neighbors. When Paul says, "Let us do good to all people" and then adds, "especially to those who belong to the family of believers" (Galatians 6:10), the second clause in no way nullifies the first!

With these thoughts in mind, then, I wish I could have given this chapter its more disturbing title. As a generously orthodox Christian, I consider myself not above Buddhists and Muslims and others, but below them as a servant. Better, I consider myself with them as a neighbor and brother.

I am here to love them, to seek to understand them, and to share with them everything of value that I have found or received that they would like to receive as well. I am here to receive their gifts to me with equal joy-to enjoy life in God's world with them, to laugh and eat and work with them, so we play with one another's children and hold one another's babies and dance at one another's weddings and savor one another's hospitality.

I am here to be their neighbor according to the teaching of my Lord, and if I am not a good one, my Lord says they have no reason to believe or even respect my message. In the process of our ongoing conversation, I hope that both they and I will become better people, transformed by God's Spirit, more pleasing to God, more of a blessing to the world, so that God's kingdom (which I seek, but cannot manipulate) comes on earth as in heaven.

Ultimately, I believe "they" and "we" can all expect this transformation best by becoming humble followers of He whom I believe (as I said in the earliest chapters of this book) is the Son of God, the Lord of all, and the Savior of the world.

In this light, although I don't hope all Buddhists will become (cultural) Christians, I do hope all who feel so called will become Buddhist followers of Jesus; I believe they should be given that opportunity and invitation. I don't hope all Jews or Hindus will become members of the Christian religion. But I do hope all who feel so called will become Jewish or Hindu followers of Jesus.

Ultimately, I hope that Jesus will save Buddhism, Islam and every other religion, including the Christian religion, which often seems to need saving about as much as any other religion does. (In this context, I do wish all Christians would become followers of Jesus, but perhaps this is too much to ask. After all, I'm not doing such a hot job of it myself.32

To help Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, and everyone else experience life to the full in the way of Jesus (while learning it better myself), I would gladly become one of them (whoever they are) to whatever degree I can, to embrace them, to join them, to enter into their world without judgment but with saving love, as mine has been entered by the Lord. I do this because of my deep identity as a fervent Christian, not in spite of it.

This coming close to my non-Christian neighbor in understanding and love does not compromise my Christian commitment, but rather expresses it. If that point is missed, this chapter's original title will have confused and misled rather than stimulated thought. This is my best guess as to what the ethos of the next missionary movement will be. This is also the ethos of a generous orthodoxy.

My friend Diana Butler Bass embodies this ethos in a story from Broken We Kneel (Jossey-Bass, 2004)- Diana lives near me in the Washington, D.C., area-rich in cultural diversity, tense after the 9/11 attacks, and the context for this story.33

One day [my daughter] Emma saw a woman walking toward us covered in a veil and asked the inevitable, "What's that, mommy?"

"Emma," I answered, "that lady is a Muslim from a faraway place. And she dresses like that-and covers her head with a veil-because she loves God. That is how her people show they love God." My daughter considered these words. She stared at the woman who passed us. She pointed at the woman, then pointed at my hair, and further quizzed, "Mommy, do you love God?"

"Yes, honey." I laughed. "I do. You and I are Christians. Christian ladies show love for God by going to church, eating the bread and wine, serving the poor, and giving to those in need. We don't wear veils, but we do love God." After this, Emma took every opportunity to point to Muslim women during our shopping trips and tell me, "Mommy, look, she loves God."

One day, we were getting out of our car at our driveway at the same time as our Pakistani neighbors. Emma saw the mother, beautifully veiled, and, pointing at her, shouted, "Look, mommv, she loves God!"

My neighbor was surprised. I told her what I had taught Emma about Muslim ladies loving God. While she held back tears, this near stranger hugged me, saying, "I wish that all Americans would teach their children so. The world would be better. The world would be better."

I am more and more convinced that Jesus didn't come merely to start another religion to compete in the marketplace of other religions. If anything, I believe he came to end standard competitive religion (which Paul called "the law") by fulfilling it; I believe he came to open up something beyond religion-a new possibility, a realm, a domain, a territory of the spirit that welcomes everyone but requires everyone (now including members of the Christian religion) to think again and become like little children.34 It is not, like too many religions, a place of fear and exclusion but a place beyond fear and exclusion. It is a place where everyone can find a home in the embrace of God.

If I have failed to help you see that place of generous orthodoxy in these pages, I hope I have at least made you curious to seek it. Even if it takes you 10 years, believe me, the struggle will be worth it.

Related links:

Walter Unger surveys recent thought on inclusivism.

Clark Pinnock writes on "A Turn to the Holy Spirit."

Amos Yong writes on "The Wind that Swirls Everywhere."

Delbert Wiens writes on Luke and Pluralism.


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• © 2005 Len Hjalmarson.• Last Updated on September 9, 2006