Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? Review

          The world as we know it is becoming increasingly smaller, so that cultures and religions come into contact with each other.  In the opinion of some, we face a future of cultural clashes, many of which will turn violent.  Others, however, see a more hopeful future, where increased contact among peoples will allow us to forge new relationships and thus a more peaceful future.  Although violent cultural clashes are occurring, my hope is that the second option is the more likely course.

The question that must be addressed as we forge these new relationships concerns the nature of our religious identities.   How can I be truly committed to my own faith tradition while being respecting and honoring traditions other than my own?  One way of handling this question is to simply say – all religions are essentially the same, so it doesn’t really matter one way or another.   But for others, this solution, though attractive, falls short of what is needed.

            Having finished reading Eboo Patel’s newest book – Sacred Ground, which takes up the question of forging a strong religious/spiritual identity while reaching out to others, I took up Brian McLaren’s latest book, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?  If that sounds like the beginning of a joke, the punch line is rather serious.  McLaren is stepping out into a conversation that can be difficult to sustain.  For conservative evangelicals, a community from which McLaren emerged, to pursue relationships with other faiths that don’t lead of necessity to conversion is simply a non-starter.  I’ve already seen some of the responses to the book by people who feel like he has left the fold.  Not only is he no longer an evangelical, it’s possible he’s no longer a Christian.  Of course, others may find this trajectory too narrow, too Christ-centric.    

For the rest of us Brian McLaren’s proposals for engaging in sustained conversation and bridge building across faith lines, while claiming a strong Christian identity, will be a welcome offering.  His purpose is to call for Christians to move from a position of hostility to one of hospitality.   To get there, Christians must address what McLaren calls “Conflicted Religious Identity Syndrome” (CRIS), that idea that you can’t be true to your faith without being hostile to other faith traditions.  His response is to invite us to trade this hostility for hospitality, where the Christian can then be “more loving, not more judgmental . . . more like Christ and less (I’m sad to have to say this) like many churchgoers you have met” (p. 15).  McLaren approaches this question from the perspective of one who affirms “the uniqueness and universality of Christ,” but doesn’t want to turn this “belief into an insult or weapon” (p. 20).  It’s a difficult path to tread, but he’s not the first to take this road.  The question is – can he be successful in bringing along folks who tend toward a more hostile position?  That’s his goal, but perhaps he can also speak to those who want to be hospitable, but don’t know how to do this without abandoning their Christian distinctives.  That is, what must be given up in order to achieve this balance between affirming one’s Christian identity and living with hospitality toward the other?  He calls this position the “Strong/Benevolent” approach -- in contrast to both a Weak/Benign or Strong/Hostile response.    

When it comes to my reading of the book, I’m of two minds.  I strongly support the trajectory that Brian McLaren lays out for us.  I believe he is on the money with his call to embrace principles that allow for a strong Christian identity while approaching the other faith traditions with an attitude of respect and benevolence.  Like McLaren, I affirm Paul’s message that God is Christ reconciling the world.  And like him, I’ve devoted much energy over the past decade and a half, working with people of many faiths to build bridges of respect and honor.  This is the vision that Brian shares with his readers, and one that I commend most highly.  So, I’m with him as he begins the book and I’m with him at the end, but I do have concerns and questions, and most of these deal with issues raised by the middle sections of the book.

The concerns I have aren’t new.  Although I’ve long appreciated Brian’s ministry and his willingness to support new ventures in ministry, I’ve also found his theological work to be undisciplined.  McLaren is well read and very thoughtful, but his lack of a formal theological education leads to the undisciplined nature of his theological reflections.  In the middle sections he calls for reformulations of doctrines and liturgical practices, and while I’m not opposed to any of this, and think it’s probably needed, I found myself frustrated by some of his attempts to do this.  In addition, I have become increasingly frustrated by the growing use of Constantine as a whipping boy for the decline of Christianity.  It’s true that Constantine’s embrace of Christianity gave government sanction to the church, but the trends toward institutionalization and conformity long predate this embrace.  History suggests that religious movements as they grow tend toward institutionalization and turf protection. Of course, this means that renewal and reform must be an ongoing project.   

My point in raising these qualms is simply to point out that while Brian McLaren has developed a reputation as being a theological go-to person, largely because he of his openness and approachability, he lacks that discipline that would help him deal with some of the complexity of questions that have long bedeviled theologians. For this review, I’ll skip the theological and focus on the liturgical.   It seemed to me as one who grew up with lectionary and liturgical year that there was a lack of awareness about how the liturgical year is laid out and what is intended by it.  He offered reformulations of the calendar that seemed at odds with the intent of the season, and seemed unaware that some of the themes he sought to lift up were addressed in seasons like Epiphany and the post-Pentecost season.  Although I found his discussion of the Lord’s Supper very helpful – and similar to my own – I was less satisfied with his presentation on baptism.  He goes into great detail on how John the Baptist reformulated the Jewish understandings of the various washings, but neglects to address Paul’s discussion of baptism in Romans 6 and Galatians 3, where Paul defines baptism in terms of identifying one’s self with Christ and how this identification affects our social relationships.  I think this would have been a more fruitful effort, and would have allowed him to steer away from what seemed to me statements that seemed to fall into the trap of defining Judaism as a legalistic religion. 

So, what should we make of this book?  I believe that the message inherent in this book is one we must all address.  Like Brian McLaren I believe that the most fruitful interfaith, -- or even better, multi-faith -- conversations take place when we’re willing to address not only similarities, but inherent differences, especially concerning our visions of God.  While it’s much easier to talk about God with Jews and Muslims if you’re a Christian, than with Hindus or Buddhists, this latter conversation is an important one to undertake.  These kinds of conversations can be fruitful if they allow us to learn about and respect the other tradition, but also if we allow ourselves to be critiqued by the other.  Sometimes the voice of the other calls us to more fully embody the tradition we profess.  McLaren makes this point very clearly in the closing chapter when he points to Gandhi’s advice to Christians -- that Christians should live more like Jesus, that they should practice their religion without “toning it down.” That Christians should follow Jesus’ emphasis on love, which Gandhi believes was the soul of Christianity, and finally, that we would benefit from studying other faiths with greater sympathy. These are good words.

In the end, despite my occasional frustration while reading through the middle of the book, I do think that this is an important book to read.  My suggestion is that this book be read in tandem with other sources, such as Eboo Patel’s Sacred Ground (Beacon, 2012) and Amos Yong’s Hospitality and the Other (Orbis, 2008), which seek to do something very similar.  If we do this, perhaps we will find ways of living more peaceably with our neighbors as well as more fully live into our own faith tradition. That is:

We can stand our ground here on our opposite corners and defend the frigid distance between us.  Or we can cross the road.  With outstretched hands, smiling faces, and open hearts, we can move toward one another, meet in the middle, and walk side by side beyond the limits of our suspicious, segregated spaces.  We can reject the mutual hostility by which we have defined ourselves, respect the different gifts we bring one another, and inject fresh hop into the global human situation through the unexpected factor of human kindness. (p. 272).   

Yes, we have a choice -- we can work together for the common good or go our separate ways and defend our turf.  We can choose hostility or hospitality.  In Brian McLaren's vision, Jesus crosses the road and joins his colleagues, and so should we.  I like that vision. 


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