In his 2012 book, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?, emergent church author Brian McLaren purposely evokes an old joke about, “Why did the chicken cross the road?”
But instead of introducing a joke, McLaren says the question could set up one of the most important conversations possible in today’s world: Would the founders of the world’s major religions have treated one another differently than how their followers treat one another?
“Would Jesus push Moses aside and demand to cross first, claiming that his ancestor’s failed religion had been forever superseded by his own?” McLaren writes. “Would he trade insults with Mohammed, claiming his crusaders could whup Mohammed’s jihadists any day of the week, demanding that Mohammed cross behind, not beside him? Would Jesus demand that Buddha kneel at his feet and demonstrate submission before letting him cross?”
McLaren, the author of more than 20 books, says in a post 9/11 world the question of how Christians should treat members of other religions has taken on added urgency. Rather than perpetuating a “cosmic death match” between competing truth claims, he says Christians should love followers of other faiths not in spite of their religious identity but because of their own identity as followers of Christ.
McLaren says Christians historically have approached interfaith relations in one of two ways. Some bring a strong Christian identity that responds negatively to other faiths and tends to emphasize differences. Others are positive and accepting of other religions, minimizing differences and maximizing what they hold in common.
McLaren suggests a third path of a Christianity that is both strong and kind.
“By strong, I mean vigorous, vital, durable, motivating, faithful, attractive and defining—an authentic Christian identity that matters,” he wrote. “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.”
A former college English teacher and pastor, McLaren is a principal figure in the “emerging” church, a Christian movement that challenges traditional notions of the organized and institutionalized church in order to be more relevant in an increasingly post-Christian society.
His 1998 book, The Church on the Other Side: Doing Ministry in the Postmodern Matrix, is credited with sparking the current conversation about postmodern ministry. Other books include A Generous Orthodoxy in 2004, considered a manifesto of emergent church theology, and A New Kind of Christianity in 2010, which articulates 10 questions central to the emergence of a postmodern and post-colonial Christian faith.
McLaren says healing interfaith hostility won’t come easy. It will require profound rethinking of Christian doctrine, liturgy and mission.
McLaren says the popular understanding of the doctrine of original sin, for example, separates the redeemed from the unredeemed and allows Christians to share the same preferential treatment for each other they believe God has for them. The idea that God elects some people for salvation lets Christian Zionists believe Israel has a right to dominate a certain land without concern for the well-being of their Palestinian neighbors.
McLaren says the problem is not with Christian doctrine itself, but “mutations” that developed in a faith tradition that springs from the history of “Western Roman-Imperial Christianity in the tradition of the Emperor Constantine.”
Stripped of hostile narratives, McLaren says, Christian doctrines can become “healing teachings” consistent with the idea that God’s love extends to all.