Brian McLaren in Boston — April 6

I was sitting in Finagle-a-Bagel at Copley Square on Wednesday the 6th, finishing supper with my wife, when she noted in the Boston Courant events section that Brian McLaren was speaking in 20 minutes at Trinity Episcopal Church, directly across the street from where we were sitting. I had no idea that he was in town, but it seemed to me to be a God-appointment: I had to go and see for myself this man that I have heard and read so much about!

McLaren was one of several speakers in the Price Lectures 2011, which has also included Rev. David Beckmann, Dr. Walter Brueggemann and Ray Suarez. Following McLaren’s appearance, Dr. Timothy Johnson will appear, with the series concluding with Rob Bell.

In McLaren’s 45-minute presentation — complete with background PowerPoint — he discussed the essence of his latest book, “Naked Spirituality”. He said that the book was written in part because of the significant number of people who confess to him that they are, “spiritual but not religious.” It seems as if Mr. McLaren set out to provide a framework for that concept. The lecture was followed by another 45 minutes of Q&A. There were maybe 100-150 people in attendance.

Here are my recollections of what was presented:

Naked Spirituality – Life with God in 12 Simple Words

[The italicized text below is an attempt to reproduce what appeared in McLaren’s graphics, whereby he gave each stage a name, and a one-word characterization of that stage, followed by a phrase to clarify. Each stage then contained three “simple” words which indicated typical expressions within that stage. These words were followed by a phrase or two, attempting to define the context for each simple word.]

There are four stages to naked spirituality which are outlined below; they build on one another, like concentric circles, or rings on a tree trunk.

Stage 1: Simplicity (dualism)

  • Here – I am in the now, here, present
  • Thanks – a life of thankfulness
  • O! – joyful practice of wonder, worship

Most people never leave this stage

Stage 2: Complexity (pragmatism)

  • Sorry – practice of regret, grieving over our personal and cultural sickness/sin
  • Help! – reaching out for strength beyond our own, expansion
  • Please – practice of compassion

Dualism breaks down, “I want to learn for myself,” often resulting in action

Stage 3: Perplexity (relativism)

  • When? – aspiration, we’re unsatisfied, “I’m unfulfilled”
  • No! – rage or refusal, “this is unacceptable” (Job)
  • Why? – lament, no answers (Jesus on the cross)

Highly critical of dogma, suspicious about Stage 1 and 2

Stage 4: Harmony (integration)

  • Behold – practice of meditation, seeing beyond dualism, accepting what-is
  • Yes – joining and surrounding, entire sanctification, melding our will with God’s, “being with”,
  • Contemplation – Silence, “breathing”: old couples in a restaurant don’t talk as much as young; they’re just “being with.”

The mystics, integration of the first 3 stages

Goal: “Life with God” – Love: God, and neighbor

I found McLaren to come across as very likeable, soft-spoken, no rough edges, reassuring, inclusive. What he said all sounded very nice, yet I came away feeling, “is this all there is?” It’s really what he didn’t say, didn’t address that’s the issue. Most questions that were asked were requests for elaboration. None seemed remotely confrontive or disagreeable.

I was particularly riveted by a passion-filled question from a sophisticated-appearing woman with a decidedly southern accent, asking Brian to elaborate on “Social Justice”. What he did NOT do was define what S.J. actually means, but he spoke highly of it. Being somewhat familiar with what he has written in the past, I’m reasonably certain that S.J. to him — and probably to many in the audience — would imply leftist/progressive politics.

At least three of the questioners were from Harvard Divinity, and one from Berklee School of music who posited that artists seem to often create from a Stage 3 mindset: Brian agreed with that. He said both during his presentation and then again in the Q&A that he had spoken in about 40 countries around the world, including a “Pentecostal church in Africa with dirt floors”, as well as to Buddhists, clearly covering many bases.

I came away from the experience having a little better understanding of the appeal of Brian McLaren’s ideas to people who are perhaps too post-modern to accept objective truth or authoritative revelation from God in the Bible. He does support a view that people should desire a relationship with God, and that is good, but his construct — at least as expressed on that Wednesday evening — to me does not provide a suitable platform on which to base that relationship. So I’m not convinced that the takeaway for the listeners was all that beneficial.

In reality, I think that McLaren’s four stages and twelve words speak more of his own post-modern journey away from reliance on objective truth to a contemplative mode of existence where feelings of peace and acceptance of what-is are of paramount importance, rather than being an accurate description of generic spiritual progression that applies to everyone. To me, he falsely elevates the mystical stage to the top-most level, implying that this should be the desired goal for everyone, while suggesting that most people don’t get as far as he has.

I find this to be an elitist paradigm, with considerable danger in the implication that reliance on dogma is an inferior, sub-optimal approach to the spiritual life. Further, I seriously doubt that most Christians stay in Stage 1 as McLaren suggests. Does he actually believe that the vast majority of Christians don’t deal with grieving over sin, or that they don’t normally reach out to God for strength beyond their own, nor practice compassion – all Stage 2 characteristics? This is not only untrue, it’s unfair to the “vast majority” that McLaren consigns to “never proceeding beyond Stage 1.” Further, his proposed Stage 3 is actually an area that all human beings visit from time to time, when the going gets rough, tragedy happens, heavy stress ensues. And even his Stage 4 contains components that many Christians experience with no connection whatsoever to mysticism. Thus to propose Stage 3 as the “perplexity” stage to pass through after being done with “Simplicity” and “Complexity,” and on the way to Stage 4 “Harmony”, where a major component is mysticism? It doesn’t seem to be a reasonable paradigm for the spiritual life.

Now I do think that why some people find contemplative mysticism as part of their spiritual journey is a reasonable question to ponder. And there are certainly important issues to consider concerning the relation of dogma and dualistic constructs to the meditative stage, but to state that this is the highest form of spirituality is unsupportable. Further, Christian mysticism itself is highly controversial. For example, there are several prominent speakers/writers – Henri Nouwen and Tony Campolo are two – whose involvement with Contemplative Centering Prayer (praying with mantras) apparently led them to a propose a universalistic viewpoint, at odds with Jesus’ words in John 14:6. Others have reported contact with unclean spirits, once their minds have been emptied via one of the techniques. No, mysticism is fraught with danger in the spiritual realm. Incidentally, one may contrast mysticism with Christian charismatic experiences, which are identified quite specifically in the Bible. There is no similar relationship with universalism in that context; Charismatic’s tend to experience their gifts within a Biblical construct.

The truth is that there are millions of Christians who — on a daily, moment by moment basis, without mysticism — live fulfilled and effective lives, changing their world into a better place, while being kindly and brilliantly directed by God’s Holy Spirit, and informed by the reliable and effective Word of God. Unfortunately there are many people who will be drawn to the soft logic and persuasion of McLaren’s construct, and in so doing will miss the abundant and eternal life that God through Christ offers to them.

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