Faith and Tolerance Intertwined: A Theologian's Vision

Theologian and best-selling author Brian McLaren, in a lecture at Groton on December 4, boldly suggested that the world’s religions need not be in conflict and urged his audience to imagine religions committed to service and tolerance rather than to hatred.

“If the founders of our religions got together, they would surely treat one another better than their followers do,” said McLaren, this year’s Percy and Eben Pyne Lecturer.
 
McLaren explained that the day after September 11, 2001 was a turning point in his life. Then leading the nondenominational Christian church that he had founded, a random thought hit him: “Our Muslim neighbors are in danger.” 
 
Two mosques and two Islamic centers were within twenty minutes of his Maryland church, and he drove to each. He found locked gates and left a letter at the first three, but squeezed through as a gate closed at the fourth. Assuring the alarmed imam that he meant no harm, McLaren explained that he carried a letter of solidarity and promised that his congregation would be there for support should any trouble arise.
 
“His eyes filled with tears and he threw his arms around me,” McLaren recalled. The subsequent invitation to enter the mosque and the imam’s office led to a deep friendship—and to McLaren’s increasing commitment to understand why religions revolve around conflict rather than love and understanding.
 
“Can there be peace among passionately faithful people?” McLaren asked. In his world view, there certainly can be.
 
Speaking in the Sackett Forum, McLaren acknowledged that Christianity’s history “is not a good history in relation to violence” and outlined why religious factions have relied on enmity rather than friendship and why society has accepted hostility as the norm.

Christians today, he said, have mastered two approaches: having a strong Christian identity and being hostile toward other religions, or having a weak Christian identity and being tolerant toward other religions. “Could there be a strong Christian identity that is benevolent toward other religions?” he asked, even suggesting that religious tolerance could grow as religious identity strengthened.
 
Religious adherents have defined themselves by their hostilities toward others, which McLaren believes is exceptionally dangerous. “Demagoguery—its incubator is religion,” he said, then referred to Catholic theologian James Alison’s idea that giving people a common enemy gives them an identity.
 
Globalism, however, can undermine that approach. “When we’re intertwined with one another,” McLaren said, “enmity stops working.”
 
McLaren blamed religious doctrine itself for helping to build our hostile dynamic. He called the concept of original sin the most destructive doctrine of all. “It’s a dangerous idea to create an elite ‘some’ and a damned ‘other,’” he said. The concept of the “chosen” has not served humanity well either; in fact, according to McLaren, “in New England this teaching told white colonists they were allowed to take the land of the Native Americans.”
 
What, he suggested, if we understood being “chosen” as being chosen for service—not being chosen to join an elite group?
 
In a Q&A after the lecture, McLaren shared that large numbers of young adults indicate no religious identity when surveyed, and told students in the audience, “It’s not your fault if religion looks unappealing right now.” But McLaren stressed the good that religion could do given proper leadership, and wondered aloud what would happen “if there were no community of spiritual activists, filled with love for the Earth, for their neighbors, their self…if we don’t have communities that keep us from hate and greed.”
 
McLaren’s talk was titled, “Why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road: Religious Identity in a Multi-Faith World.” Besides the Sunday afternoon public lecture, he also preached in Chapel Sunday morning and gave a chapel talk during the weekday morning service on Monday. The Percy and Eben Pyne Chapel Lecture was established in 1999 by members of the Pyne family to bring “exemplary role models for thinking and acting ethically” to speak to the Groton community.
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