Saturday, March 06, 2010
Brian McLaren Clarifies Some Questions About ANKoC: Part III
Here's the third of my questions for Brian McLaren about his most recent book, A New Kind of Christianity. You can read the rest here: Part I, Part II.

Here's my third question:

3) In both your discussion of whether God is violent, and in your outline of the seven quests you seem to offer an evolutionary/developmental history of religions in which older, more primitive and more violent forms eventually progress and evolve into "higher" forms. I have a few concerns about this view. a) Doesn't this play into the Modern myth of progress whereby we believe our current forms of religion to be inherently superior to everyone else's (even if we admit that they're not yet fully evolved)? b) Is this even historically accurate? For instance, monotheism and polytheism have coexisted throughout history, many noble forms of polytheism still currently exist in our world today, and it doesn't seem as if one necessarily developed out of the other.

Great question. The other day I read through all the comments on a couple of blogs - well over two hundred - and several people brought this up, as did the CT review itself. First, as some people have already pointed out, to make a simple equation - evolution = modernistic progress - is pretty facile. There was a modernistic kind of evolutionary theory, and there are postmodern forms, and still other forms will follow no doubt. Similarly, to say that later is always superior or that more advanced is always good and less advanced is always bad is also simply ridiculous. That's like saying that lions are superior to grass, or that lions are good and grass is bad, when in fact lions can't survive without gazelles that eat grass, and when lions die, they fertilize grass that feeds gazelles. It's all connected and interdependent. So much of our us/them thinking flows from a set of modernist assumptions that a lot of us left behind a long time ago, or started trying to leave behind. Because they're deeply ingrained in all of us. And that's not bad! It's just there.

So let's talk about evolution. Evolution produces dinosaurs, ground sloths, and mastodons. My guess is that dinosaurs were more advanced in many ways than the primitive birds that outlived them and evolved into the birds we have today. And ground sloths could have been much more advanced in evolutionary terms - I'm just guessing here - than the tree sloths that still survive today, and mastodons may have been more advanced - I don't know - than the elephants that survive today. Many times, the more advanced forms become extinct and the more primitive forms survive. The key to survival isn't how advanced you are, but how adaptable you are, or how well suited you are to an environment that may or may not change. And on top of that, there are huge variables in how change happens ... like sudden meteor impacts and gradually advancing ice ages ... that mess up any simple schemas of progression.

So just as you said regarding monotheism and polytheism, when something new develops out of something else, it doesn't always replace it. Sometimes the two coexist for millennia. So you still have very primitive crocodiles that have hardly changed for millions of years, plus many species of lizards that have been evolving constantly into many new forms from common amphibian ancestors with the crocodiles - again, I'm just making this up, not knowing the details of crocodile and chameleon evolution. And there are times when adaptation involves losing features, losing previous advances, losing previous capacities ... so snakes lose their legs, and some cave species lose their eyes, and whales lose their legs and ability to walk on land.

That, to me, is a beautiful thing about evolution in God's creation, as opposed to a facile formulaic caricature of evolution. Survival of the fittest doesn't mean what so many people think it means - that everything moves towards one form surviving by eliminating all other forms. Evolution is this amazing random factory that produces novelty, interdependence, growth and challenge and development ... story as opposed to state.

I think it's a kind of fourth-grade understanding of evolution that makes all these false assumptions ... that newer is better, that newer replaces older, that advanced survive and primitive don't, that primitive is bad (or the reverse!) and so on. By the way, in an evolutionary mindset as I understand it, it could be that a hundred years from now, Evangelicalism, Mainline Protestantism, Catholicism, Pentecostalism, and Eastern Orthodoxy as we know them could all be tiny embattled minorities, having been largely replaced by vicious, ugly, and "primitive" forms of fundamentalism or magical prosperity theology ... Or Christianity and Islam and Judaism could be reduced to almost nothing through mutually assured nuclear destruction, and nearly everyone could have decided that it's just too dangerous to believe in one God. It makes me think of Paul in Romans and Jesus in John 15, reminding the early disciples that they shouldn't be arrogant: they're a branch that has been grafted in for a time, but if they don't bear good fruit, they won't remain in their blessed position.

Which brings some other factors into the mix: power, arrogance, and complacency. Let's say that you and I agree as Christians that theism is more true and "better" than atheism. Could it still be true that atheists have an important job to do, for some time at least - to keep theists from becoming too powerful, too arrogant, too complacent, and too challenge them to greater maturity? Or could it be that the doubts raised by atheists are the only thing that will push theists to a more mature understanding of God? (And of course, if atheists were in power, they would similarly need to be challenged by theists, or they would become no less powerful, arrogant, and complacent. And if atheism were in fact truer and better - as atheists believe, we theists could still bring some blessings and benefits to atheists they wouldn't have without us.)

I started watching this science fiction show Caprica recently, and I think they're playing with these kinds of questions in that series, with monotheists and polytheists squaring off. In that light, might we even be able to talk about how the doctrine of the trinity is a way of avoiding some of the dangers of an unmodified monotheism, by keeping alive in our concept of God the idea of otherness? It's very easy to have otherness without unity, or unity without otherness, but it seems to me that in the beauty of the trinity, we have oneness and one-anotherness.

I'm sure all of this will make no sense to some people, but you asked an interesting question that stimulated these thoughts.

I have one final question and response from Brian that I'll post here on Monday.

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posted by Mike Clawson at 1:34 PM | Permalink |


At 3/06/2010 05:09:00 PM, Anonymous Autumnal Harvest

Could it still be true that atheists have an important job to do. . .

Woo, hoo!

. . .for some time at least



At 3/06/2010 08:52:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

I'm not actually sure what Brian meant by that particular phrase. I can read it in a couple of different ways. The way that seems most natural to me is that the "some time" is referring to "for as long at theists are still largely in power in our society," and not as "until there aren't any atheists anymore."

I say this because in the book Brian is explicit about saying the goal of Christianity should not be to try and eradicate every other differing belief system out there (including atheism).


At 3/06/2010 10:44:00 PM, Anonymous Chad Holtz

I took it to mean that there will come a day when there will no longer be atheists. That is, there will be a day when every knee bows and tongue confesses Jesus is Lord.


At 3/07/2010 12:59:00 AM, Anonymous Autumnal Harvest

I was just joking, wasn't trying to make a serious point. :)


At 3/07/2010 09:42:00 PM, Blogger Mike Morrell

Hi Mike,

Thanks for asking Brian these questions! I really appreciate his response here. I think that many of us are wanting to live a faith that's both deeply biblical and yet expansively responsive to the 'new universe story' as told by Thomas Berry, Brian Swimme, Michael Dowd and others.

On another note - gasp! Brian, are you saying that you actually believe in the Trinity?? You lie! :)


At 3/08/2010 09:33:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous

Great stuff. My 17 year old son has recently proclaimed that he is an atheist and it is the best thing that has happened to our spiritual life. We now talk several hours a week about the nature of man, how people can help others, how exactly does God work through people and if there is a mechanism outside of God, what is wrong with current day Christianity (his primary problem with Christianity, by the way, is that he hates the way Christians behave so by their fruit he no longer believes in Jesus). I think his atheism has more power and love than most Christianity I see.
Of course none of that means anything if your core belief is that you have to "believe in Jesus" to be saved....