Friday, May 17, 2013

What Kind of Christian Identity?

One of Charly’s Christmas presents was the kindle version of “Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammad Cross the Road?” by Brian McLaren. An interesting title for a very intriguing book! The subtitle, Christian Identity in a Multi-faith World, captures a key aspect of Charly’s PhD research. We’ve both read it twice and our family has discussed parts of the book together—finding some ideas that we wholeheartedly agree with and others that we don’t. One section of the book that we all especially like is McLaren’s presentation of the differences in a strong/hostile Christian identity and a kind/weak one, along with his suggestion of a third type of Christian identity that is needed in our world today.

McLaren’s book has helped us to see that Christians who come across as hostile to other religions aren’t trying to be hostile, they’re holding strongly to Truth. And Christians who seem to be watering down their faith in order to affirm others’ religions aren’t trying to be lukewarm, they’re committed to Tolerance and living in peace. Understanding these important values on both ends of the spectrum can help us not to be quick to judge or criticize Christians on either end. And our family has been challenged by McLaren’s third option: to live out a Christian faith that is both strong and benevolent.

He writes, “Simply put, we Christians already know how to do two things very well. First, some of us know how to have a strong Christian identity that responds negatively toward other religions. The stronger our Christian commitment, the stronger our aversion or opposition to other religions. The stronger our Christian commitment, the more we emphasize our differences with other faiths and the more we frame those differences in terms of good/evil, right/wrong, and better/worse. We may be friendly to individuals of other religions, but our friendship always has a pretext: we want them to switch sides and be won over to our better way. We love them (or say that we do) in spite of their religious identity, hoping they will see the light and abandon who they have been to find shelter under the tent of who we are.

Alternatively, others of us know how to have a more positive, accepting response to other religions. We never proselytize. We always show respect for other religions and their adherents. We always minimize differences and maximize commonalities. But we typically achieve coexistence by weakening our Christian identity. We make it matter less that they are Muslim or Hindu by making it matter less that we are Christian. We might even say that we love them in spite of our own religious identity.

For reasons that will become clear in the pages ahead, I’m convinced that neither of these responses is good enough for today’s world. So I will explore the possibility of a third option, a Christian identity that is both strong and kind. By strong I mean vigorous, vital, durable, motivating, faithful, attractive, and defining—an authentic Christian identity that matters. By kind I mean something far more robust than mere tolerance, political correctness, or coexistence: I mean benevolent, hospitable, accepting, interested, and loving, so that the stronger our Christian faith, the more goodwill we will feel and show toward those of other faiths, seeking to understand and appreciate their religion from their point of view.

My pursuit, not just in this book but in my life, is a Christian identity that moves me toward people of other faiths in wholehearted love, not in spite of their non-Christian identity and not in spite of my own Christian identity, but because of my identity as a follower of God in the way of Jesus.”

McLaren poses some thought-provoking questions: “How do we disassociate from the hostility without abandoning the identity? How do we remain loyal to what is good and real in our faith without giving tacit support to what is wrong and dangerous? How do we, as Christians, faithfully affirm the uniqueness and universality of Christ without turning that belief into an insult or weapon?”

Lord, I pray that you would work in our hearts and break down the walls of fear, pride, prejudice, anger, bitterness, and misunderstandings toward those of other religious backgrounds and help us to love others as Jesus did: seeing beyond religious differences—to the heart. May we reach out to people, seek to understand people, and love people the way You do.

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