Tikkun Magazine

Tikkun Magazine, September/October 2010

Suicidal vs. Life-Giving Religious Narratives

by Brian McLaren

McLaren’s three life-giving  narratives can be summarized as God for creation, people with nature,  and religions with each other. Above:Ten faith traditions signed an  EarthKeeper Covenant in Northern Michigan and in 2009 planted 12,000  trees across the region. Credit: Greg Peterson.
McLaren’s three life-giving narratives can be summarized as God for creation, people with nature, and religions with each other. Above:Ten faith traditions signed an EarthKeeper Covenant in Northern Michigan and in 2009 planted 12,000 trees across the region. Credit: Greg Peterson.

I was invited to reflect here on the topic of "spiritual visions for social healing," under the general heading of "creating a caring society," but first, I'd like to turn the topic upside-down to look at religious visions for social suicide.

In the 1990s a group of respected scientists facing the accumulating data of environmental destruction, especially climate change, invited a number of religious leaders to meet with them. The meeting began with the scientists saying something like this: "Listen, we in the scientific community accumulate data that tells us we are in deep, deep trouble. But our forte is not motivating people to change their values and lifestyle -- that's supposed to be your specialty. So what we're saying is, the future of the human race depends on us getting the ‘versus' out from between ‘faith' and ‘science.' The future of the human race requires now that we leaders in science reach out to you people of faith and say, ‘We can bring the data to the table, but you have to bring the motivation to the table and a vision that would help people change their values.'" That to me is why the Network of Spiritual Progressives has been so vital in articulating this kind of a vision for social change.

Three Suicidal Religious Framing-Stories

If we don't face our culpability in the creation of the problems that we share, I don't think we'll be able to repent deeply enough and design an alternative vision that is profound and strong enough to solve them, so I would like to tell you at the core of this what I see our job as spiritual people has been. Religious communities, among the many contributions they make, infuse narratives into communities. I call them framing-stories.

Sadly, I think there are some framing-stories that are terribly destructive -- stories beyond which we now have to evolve and develop and grow and mature. One of them is the us-versus-them narrative that builds on the idea that to have a strong identity, we have to be against people of other identities. We could call this a counter-dependent identity. Now, a lot of us grew up with that kind of identity. To be a Christian is to be out to convert everyone else to your faith. To be a Jew is to remember how Christians have mistreated you and to understand them in a contrary relationship. So, our history and our theology have conspired to give us the idea that to have a strong religious identity sets us at odds with people of other strong religious identities. The time-tested solution to this, which is deeply embedded in American culture, is to say that the only way around the terrible struggles that result from "us versus them" in religious communities is to weaken people's religious identities. And in some ways, that's the dream of secularism: "If we could just reduce peoples' religious commitments and their religious identities, then we'd all get along."

Guess what we found out? It doesn't work. When we remove religious identities, other identities emerge -- whether they're left/right political identities, whether they're tribal or ethnic identities, or whether they're regional or economic or ideological identities. In the absence of one kind of counter-dependent identity, others emerge. So, we who are spiritual progressives have a special obligation now to help form strong religious identities that provide an alternative to the us-versus-them religious identities that are so inherent in many of our religious communities -- especially mine, as I come from a conservative protestant background.

That us-versus-them narrative leads to an identity of "I am right, therefore I am." "I am right" is an alternative to "I think." Unfortunately, this kind of a narrative is deeply embedded in our religious traditions.

The second narrative is based on the idea of "us versus nature." I used to be an English teacher before becoming a pastor, and back in elementary school when we started learning about literature, we learned about the "man-versus-nature" theme in literature. Now we wouldn't say "man," but that narrative is still very much alive and well. We even play into it on those Discovery Channel nature shows about "Survivorman" -- in fact there's a show called "Man vs. Wild." And we're still intrigued by sharks and any animals with fangs and claws because they help us keep that ancient narrative alive.

One of the transitions that we're having to come to terms with is that we've won the battle of humanity versus nature. Now the danger is that we've won and are going to continue winning, not that we're going to lose -- because by winning, we have the worst loss of all. But this humanity-versus-creation narrative is still so deeply embedded in many of our religious communities. No doubt it solved problems one thousand years ago or five thousand years ago, but now it's creating problems, and we have to find a way to transcend that narrative.

The third narrative, which is especially deeply rooted in our monotheistic faiths, is the "God-versus-us" narrative that sees God as our enemy and religion as saving us from God. I grew up with that. The purpose of my religion was to save me from an angry, scary God, who, whether because of holiness or whatever other reason, inherently was in opposition to my existence. This idea is deeply rooted in American history. Probably many of you (in an American literature context rather than a religious one) have read Jonathan Edwards' famous sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." This is a mainstay of revivalist preaching, and it's deeply embedded in Christian faith, especially in the Western tradition of Christian faith.

When we present God as enemy and religion as what saves us from a hostile God, religion becomes a kind of mafia and a protection racket. We know how protection rackets work: you live in a poor neighborhood and someone comes along and says: "Look, you can't trust the police and you can't trust those gangs and all those crooks. For a mere $500 a month I will protect you from all those bad people." And you say, "I don't have it." Then you find out, "Well, if you don't pay me $500 a month, you need to be protected from me, you understand?" That's what we call a protection racket. So when religion fosters the narrative of God as enemy, it becomes a forgiveness racket, an atonement racket. It needs to keep the narrative of the enemy God alive in order to have a product that you desperately need.

The first narrative, the us-versus-them narrative, says, "I am right, therefore I am." The second narrative says "I consume, therefore I am" or "I exploit, therefore I am" or "I transcend nature, therefore I am." And then this third narrative says, "I'm an insider, therefore I am" or "I've figured out a way to get on God's good side to become one of the holy few -- the saved, the favored, the blessed -- and because I'm in, I exist and I can feel safe."

Those three narratives, to the degree that they fuel religious communities, continue to bend those religious communities into being part of the problem that leads us not toward social healing but toward social damage or maybe even social suicide.

These are suicidal narratives. That may help explain why so many people don't want to identify themselves as religious but are drawn to the word spiritual. Those of us who have made a living in religious institutions know better than anybody that organized religion doesn't have all the answers, and we know that secular institutions alone don't have the answers.

The Opposite, Life-Giving Spiritual Framing Stories

I believe that a healthy, authentic, deep, profound, vital spirituality provides us alternatives to those three suicidal narratives. Let's consider them in reverse order and take first the God-versus-creation, God-versus-us narrative. I feel that I should talk here as a Christian because one of the dimensions of the Christian faith that has been especially destructive is the idea that God wants to destroy the world as soon as possible. This is the Left Behind mentality that says, God's finished with this world, creation is a failed project, and the slate needs to be wiped clean as soon as possible. I mean, talk about a suicidal narrative. It's deeply rooted in a lot of American Christianity and certain strains of Islam (though I don't think there are many strains of Judaism that would have anything to do with that kind of narrative).

A spiritual alternative is the narrative of God for creation, God with creation, God in creation. This healing narrative, it seems to me, is actually even more deeply rooted in our religious traditions, it's just that they've been subverted. This is clear when contrasting the creation narratives of Genesis with the other ancient Middle Eastern narratives, which generally involve a bunch of gods creating the universe in the middle of bloodshed and violence. My favorite is the myth of Tiamat, in which there's a giant primeval crocodile. There was nothing there before the crocodile -- it was the reptilian, carnivorous, violent, terrifying threat that suddenly appeared out of the water, the chaos of water, the chaos of depth, and the chaos of a ravenous reptilian appetite. In that narrative, there's an argument among the gods. One of them takes the upper and lower jaws of the primal crocodile and splits the jaws open, and the upper half becomes the sky and the lower half becomes the earth. So we live, in a sense, in the aftermath of the violent creation of the universe in the midst of warfare at the highest and ultimate levels of existence.

You cannot find a more different narrative than the biblical story of a garden being created, and the story of the Word -- "Let there be light." There's creativity, not violence, there. You might say the ultimate and most profound choice that human beings make is the choice between a narrative of a garden and a narrative of a fight. At the core of what I identify as authentic spirituality is the rediscovery of the God-for-creation, the God-with-creation, the God-in-creation narrative. It's deeply there in the Hebrew Scriptures, so beautifully pictured in the spirit of God, the breath of God, hovering over the waters. In the biblical account, the waters aren't the source of the crocodile that's going to come out and grab you by the leg; they are the source of creative possibility that will be evoked from them by the spirit of God.

The identity of Jesus in Christian faith is the revelation of God with us and God for us. It's the subversion of the God-as-enemy myth. It's the vision of the prodigal son returning to the gracious father who isn't going to beat the tar out of him but is instead going to welcome him back and throw a party. It's the subversion of that violent myth, not the reinforcement of it.

All of you who love Islam know that at its highest, Islam presents itself as a way of life: a way of ordering life toward peace and harmony with our fellow creatures.

So all of our religious traditions have at their deepest root this narrative of God for creation, God with creation, God in creation. That is something that we who call ourselves spiritual have to celebrate and elevate as a saving alternative to the suicidal narrative that's all too common among us.

Second, as an antidote and remedy to the us-versus-nature narrative, we have to discover the narrative of us for creation, us with creation, and us in creation. And of course, that's the narrative in the first chapters of Genesis: human beings caring for the garden and human beings having responsibility for the garden.

Finally, we can transcend the us-versus-them narrative, which makes having a strong religious identity synonymous with having a counter-dependent religious identity with other religions. We can transcend it with another narrative expressed in a couple of different ways. One is to say, "There is no them." In the Hebrew scriptures, at the center of our three monotheistic faiths, there's not one God who creates some people over here and another God that creates other people over there, leaving us inherently irreconcilable. Instead, the story of Adam is the story of our shared common humanity, our common source. Even the idea of God as judge is a grossly misunderstood concept in most Western Christian theology because we lost the Jewish ancient understanding that a judge isn't the one who comes to condemn you, a judge is the one who comes to bring you justice. When you're an oppressed person, the bringing of justice is really, really good news. So this idea of God as the universal judge says God has every other human being's well-being in mind. God is interested in the interests of the other, not just our interests. And that realization changes the narrative: you cannot have an us-versus-them narrative.

Suicidal religious narratives have to be converted into these kinds of healing narratives -- this has to happen in our faith communities so that we can begin to live in a way that makes a difference in our world.

There are three stories from the Christian gospels, the New Testament, that illustrate these narratives. One is the story of Jesus' encounter with a woman at the well. It's in John 4. It's a fascinating story because the woman is an outsider. She's a Samaritan, a member of a group that was considered sort of halfway out and halfway in, and those are the people liked the least. As someone who is a sort of a marginal evangelical, I find I'd be way better off if I were just known as a liberal, because being sort of on the fence means I mess up the boundaries of in and out and I get in trouble. This marginal threat is what the Samaritans represented -- they were in the way. So, Jesus interacts with this woman, and as soon as she perceives there's something spiritual about him, she asks him the hot-button divisive religious issue of her day. If it were today she'd say, "So, what do you think of homosexuality?" The hot-button issue at that time was, "Which mountain do you worship on? That mountain? Or that mountain?" And Jesus does something absolutely fascinating. He says: "Woman, a time is coming, and now is, when it won't matter which mountain you worship on. Because what God is looking for is people who will worship in spirit and in truth." The metaphor that Jesus weaves into that conversation is about living water. Now, if I were a better preacher than I am, I could go to town with this. I could talk about how she wanted to talk about mountains but Jesus wanted to talk about fountains. She wanted to talk about things that stick up out of the earth and are visible, and he wanted to talk about things that flow up from under the earth from the invisible. I could contrast the mountains that are fixed and static with the living water, fountains that are fluid and mobile -- a contrast that to me represents this alternative between different approaches to our religious narratives.

The second story is about Paul and Silas coming to the city of Philippi, which is identified by Luke, the author, as a Roman colony. It's absolutely fascinating that this first encounter with the Roman Empire -- you can read it in Acts 16 -- starts with the most powerless, marginal, excluded person possible: not a man, but a woman; not an adult, but a child; not a free person, but a slave. A slave girl. And she is liberated from slavery. And then you watch the message spread upward until the magistrates of the city are confronted for their hypocrisy and their injustice. And so it becomes a message that comprises all of society, not just an us-versus-them part of society.

The third story is about a vision of the future, a vision that I actually don't think is as much about the future as it is about the present: the Apocalypse, or the Book of Revelation. It's a vision of a garden city: the cities of humanity are fused with the original garden, coming back into harmony with creation; human cities that have become the locus of oppression and evil are converted back into a garden city again. Christians celebrate this every year in the Christmas season with Handel's Messiah. In that beautiful piece of music, my favorite moment is not the hallelujahs of the hallelujah chorus. My favorite moment is the next line, which is so seldom appreciated, when the dynamic drops from fortissimo back to about mezzo forte and the basses and baritones come in: "The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our lord." It's this idea of the transformation of this world into a more equitable and just world. That's what spirituality is about and what spiritual progressives are about.

Brian McLaren on How to Build the NSP

Michael Lerner: Brian, I'd like your advice on how best to build the Network of Spiritual Progressives. We had hoped to get more open response from the various Christian denominations and the evangelical world, and we've found that the people who would be our natural allies, let's say those from the Sojourners world, haven't been open to us. There's a struggle that's going on in various Christian denominations between the Right and Left, but as a result the national leadership doesn't want to seem as though it's identifying with either side: it wants to stay neutral, which actually weakens it because it's not standing for very much. It's then very hard for us to come in and make alliances there unless we find the right path. So I was just wondering if you can give us advice on how to build a network, because we are certain that there are literally millions of Christians who would love to be part of a place they could go alongside their denominations (not in opposition to their denominations) to find others who share their spiritual and progressive vision.

Brian McLaren: The first thing that comes to my mind is not to underestimate how effective you in the NSP already are, because there is an inherent difference between what I would call a postmodern network and a modern organization. If you fail to make the distinction between a network and a traditional organization, you end up subverting the potential of a network because you measure its success by the measures of an organization.

The success of a network is measured not by how many people you pull together for events, but by how many people you touch and how many people have some connection to any node that has any connection to you. Connectivity is really the measure of success in a network.

I'm certain that the NSP has a much wider reach than people who are trying to get these key stakeholders involved would think.

I would say there is a great deal of work for everyone to do. I don't want to speak for Sojourners. I was on their board for several years and I have great respect for them; I just want to make it clear I'm not speaking for them. But here's something I think is true of almost all religious organizations: you sometimes have to make a choice between whether you will have your primary influence inside or outside your community. Because of the us-versus-them narrative, if you are seen as being too friendly with people outside, you're violating one of the identifying narratives of the insiders, and you lose your credibility with them because you're violating that narrative.

So what some people choose to do is to inhibit their involvement with outsiders so they can keep a hearing with insiders. Now, I'm not saying that's wrong, I'm saying it's probably necessary. To the degree that I, from an evangelical background, have violated that taboo, I am marginalized and the message is very clear: you are not welcome in our circles anymore. So, it's a choice that people make. And my guess is, it's probably a fullness of time issue too. There is probably a right time for them to focus inside and there might be a right time for them -- can I use some gospel language? -- to shake the dust from their feet, in a sense saying, "I'm not stuck here, there are people who will listen if you won't."

Networks grow by pulling people in from the margins, not by pulling people in from the center. And that's what my advice would be: the people at the center will be the last to come; it's the people at the margins who will come. And the people at the center will find it possible to change their position once something close to a majority of their margins have already moved on.

One thing I've learned about these organizations is that the right wing of any group exerts disproportionate influence on the group. Let me say it this way: this could be just as true of "liberals," but whoever is willing to be mean has disproportionate influence. They don't have the self-restraint. Often what makes them mean is the fear of losing something precious. That fear causes them to be in a life-or-death battle. This is why I think the issue of religious identity is extremely important, because if people feel their only choice is a fundamentalist identity or no identity, then they'll choose the fundamentalist identity. Or say it this way, choosing between a strong fundamentalist identity and a weak identity, they'll choose the stronger. That's why I think we have to infuse people with the possibility of a strong but not counter-dependent identity. A strong -- can I use a very biblical word? -- neighborly identity, where at the essence of our religious identity is a call to love our neighbor. So that would be the basis of a lot of our conversations. There's a fear that what we're doing will weaken the identity, and what I'm trying to say is I think that our current strong identity is destructive and it has a limited shelf life, and I think there's a new identity we have to find. You cannot be involved in discussions like this if you aren't willing to be insulted, misrepresented, etc. You have to be willing to let that happen. If you take umbrage at that, then you're out of the game right away. You just have to be able to say, this is going to happen. In this world that we seek to infuse with love, we can't just be against the destructive narratives -- we have to replace them with healing narratives. And this is our great challenge.

Brian McLaren is one of America's most significant progressive Evangelical thinkers and preachers. His many books include A New Kind of Christianity; The Secret Message of Jesus; Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope; and Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices.

Source Citation: McLaren, Brian. 2010. Suicidal vs. Life-Giving Religious Narratives. Tikkun 25(5): 65

tags: Christianity, NSP, NSP Conference, NSP Speeches, Spiritual Politics