Embracing Diversity In A 'Multi-Faith World' In Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?, Pastor Brian McLaren explores the tension between religions and attempts to imagine a conversation between the most important figures in Western theology.

Embracing Diversity In A 'Multi-Faith World'

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It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Coming up in this part of the program, how an obscure Korean hip-hop star came to dominate the U.S. pop charts.

But first, a question: why didn't Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed cross the road? Well, Christian scholar Brian McLaren attempts to answer this question in his new book of the same name. For decades, McLaren's been a major voice in the Emerging Church. That's a Christian movement that essentially rejects the organized, institutionalized church in favor of a less-rigid environment. His book is an attempt to imagine a conversation between the most important figures in Western theology.

BRIAN MCLAREN: If Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed were to bump into each other along the road and go have a cup of tea or whatever, I think we all know they would treat one another far different and far better than a lot of their followers would.

RAZ: I want to ask about your background. You were raised in a conservative evangelical household.

MCLAREN: Yes. That's right.

RAZ: And you were taught to respect other faiths, but you were also taught to kind of maintain a distance, right, from others.

MCLAREN: Yes. You know, in my background, you kept a distance, unless you were trying to evangelize. And evangelize was defined as proselytize. So the goal was to get someone to question their faith, and then switch sides. So some in my background - or I was among them - were very eager to reach out and get connected to other people. But there was always this hidden agenda of a kind of conversion.

RAZ: You call this the conflicted religious identity syndrome. And this is something that you said you have struggled with since you were a teenager. How did you come to change your view?

MCLAREN: Well, I think a lot of people feel this conflicted religious identity syndrome. There's something good and precious in their faith that they would never want to betray. But there's also something in their faith that they feel puts static into every relationship with people who aren't of their community. I certainly felt that. I felt it in my relationship with gay people. I felt it in relationship with Hindu or Muslim or Buddhist or atheist friends.

And it was especially difficult for me because I was a pastor for 24 years. And the pastorate is not always the easiest place to go through a theological meltdown and rebuilding. But one of the great advantages of that is that I couldn't walk away from it. I had to stick with it. And so my story, really, is the story of having to rethink what it means to have a Christian identity and to be a committed Christian.

RAZ: Is there a kind of a reciprocal challenge, as well, though? I mean, one could argue that there are Muslims and Jews and others in this country and around the world who may also have views of Christianity that may mirror your views or the views that you believe many Christians have of other faiths.

MCLAREN: Yes. That's such an important point to make, Guy. You know, when you write a book, sometimes you have it all figured out before you start. But for me, usually, it's a discovery process. And I remember this aha moment that came to me as I was doing some research in writing. It's typical for people to say that what causes tension between religions is our differences. But I've become more and more convinced that the real issue is something we all have in common, and that is we build a strong identity among us by emphasizing hostility toward them.

We love to recount the stories of how they persecuted us. We love to talk about the threat they pose to us. And in all these ways, we build this oppositional identity. Well, I wrote the book, as a Christian, primarily for Christians, but I've had a lot of my Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist and other friends read the book.

And they say: Oh, my goodness. That's us as well. So I think there is this fascinating mirror image, as you said, where we, in some ways, can see our own hostility reflected in the hostility of others.

RAZ: I'm speaking with the author and theologian Brian McLaren. His new book is called "Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World." I want to ask about homosexuality.


RAZ: This has become a divisive issue within the evangelical church and within Christianity at large.


RAZ: You have four sons. One of them is gay.


RAZ: How did that change your own views on homosexuality?

MCLAREN: Well, it was such an interesting process for me, Guy, because I had gone through my change in this view before I ever guessed that any of my kids might be gay. And it was a painful process. I was a good kid. I believed what I'd been told. And as a pastor, I started having gay people come out to me. And what became clearer and clearer to me is that their experience was not explained by the theology I inherited, and that it would be unjust to continue to uphold what I've been taught.

Maybe I could say it like this: my call to love God and love my neighbor was in conflict with what I'd been taught the Bible required me to say and do. So I went through that shift in my own thinking. A couple of years after that, when I, really, in some ways, come out myself as a person who no longer supported the traditional view and one of my sons came out to me, I just remember I cried and cried because my thought is: Oh, no. If my son has been going through the same kind of pain so many other people did, and I didn't know it, I mean, I just couldn't live with that.

And when my son and I got together and had a deep heart-to-heart talk, he told me: Oh, no, Dad. I wasn't worried about you guys.


And so that was a great relief.

RAZ: Brian, you are part of a relatively new movement in evangelical Christianity called the Emerging Church. Can you explain what that movement is about?

MCLAREN: Yes. Well, what happened was back in the '90s, a lot of pastors like myself started realizing that young people were dropping out of the church. And this started among evangelicals because evangelicals love to count people. We keep better track of numbers than just about anybody else.

And what many of us have heard from hundreds and hundreds and thousands of young Christian dropouts is that they didn't want to stay part of a community that put them in a conflictual relationship with their friends and neighbors. Ironically, their Christian call to love their neighbors as themselves was in conflict with their experience of living as a Christian and experiencing something other than love with their neighbors.

RAZ: We, from time to time, have talked to other folks involved with the Emerging Church - Jay Baker and others. And we have folks on our staff who go to church on Sunday at a bar or at a coffee house.


RAZ: It's not a church.


RAZ: It's just a place where people meet, and there's a, kind of a lay pastor, and that's the service. We hear these stories with more frequency. Stories of young people who are attracted to the faith and to spirituality but not to a building where, you know, the traditional church meets and things happen. Do you find that encouraging? Do you see that as the future of where Christianity should go?

MCLAREN: Guy, as you can imagine, I get asked that question a lot, partly because I travel a lot and get to see so many of these communities. I think all of these have a bright future. Here's what I think is very different from the past. In the past, we always argued about whose form was legitimate. You know, Catholics said Protestants weren't legitimate. Protestants said Catholics weren't legitimate. Just about everybody said Pentecostals weren't legitimate for a long time.

But I think we might be entering into an era where we stop arguing with each other about legitimacy. I think this could be a very exciting new era if we look around and say, thank God for the diversity. This diversification doesn't have to mean division.

RAZ: That's writer and theologian Brian McLaren. His new book is called "Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World." Brian McLaren, thank you so much.

MCLAREN: Thank you for having me.

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