This is the third post interacting with Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity. Please remember that I cannot reproduce the book in these posts. I will do my best to summarize without being overly simplistic or reductionistic. Each post will be two parts. The first will be a summary of McLaren’s discussion and the second will be my reflections.
The God question: Is God violent?
God is a tribalistic, violent, cosmic child abuser. Do you believe that? This is the question that McLaren undertakes in the third part of A New Kind of Christianity. He says that as you read the Bible we bump into God doing or at least sanctioning genocide and violence. This seems to contradict the picture that we find in the life and person of Jesus. This leads to the natural question, “how can this be?”
Beginning with this question, McLaren, begins to apply to theological questions his understanding of the overarching storyline of the Bible and his understanding of authority (how the Bible should be read). In theological terms (and here’s your ten cent word for the day) we see his prolegomena being applied. This is where the rubber meets the road (add another cliche of your choice here). We do not have two perspectives fleshed out in this section of the text, what we have is an argument that is developed for an evolutionary perspective on the revelation of God.
McLaren uses a math text book as his analogy and it makes sense to quote it at length here.
“Consider the Bible a collection of math textbooks. There’s a first-grade text, a second-grade text, and so son, all the way up to high-school texts that deal with geometry, algebra, trigonometry, maybe even calculus. Imagine opening the second-grade text and reading this sentence about subtraction: “You cannot subtract a larger number from a smaller number.” Then you open a sixth-grade text and see a chapter entitled “Negative Numbers.” The first sentence reads: “This chapter will teach you how to subtract larger numbers from small numbers.” How do we reconcile the statements? Were the authors of the second-grade text lying? Or were the authors of the sixth-grade text relativists, doubting the absolute truth of an earlier text? (104)“
The point of the analogy is that educational experts have determined that a second-grader is not cognitively able to understand the concept of negative numbers yet. Therefore, the second-grade text is teaching them where they are and preparing them for further teaching in the future. McLaren argues that this is how God has theologically trained the human race.
He argues that in the Bible what we have are developing or maturing or evolving perspectives of who God is. God is then constantly taking us through a process of understanding more of who he is based on where we are in our understanding of him. Therefore we as people are constantly on a trajectory of change and growth and never coming to the place where we have arrived. He says, “what if, in order to understand the character of God that lies behind, beneath, above, and within the agency of God, we must similarly pass through some stages in which our understanding is imbalanced and incomplete? (105)”
How does this answer the question? Like this:
“In light of the unfolding understanding of biblical revelation, when we ask why God appears so violent in some passages of the Bible, we can suggest this hypothesis: if the human beings who produced those passages were violent in their own development, they would naturally see God through the lens of their experience. The fact that those disturbing descriptions are found in the Bible doesn’t mean that we are stuck with them, any more than we are stuck with ‘You cannot subtract a larger number from a smaller number’ just because that statement still exists in our second-grade textbook. Remember the Bible is not a constitution. It is like the library of math texts that shows the history of the development of mathematical reasoning among human beings.(106)”
McLaren goes on to argue that this causes us to necessarily evolve in our understanding of God. This means that we must constantly be “trading up” in our perspective of who God is. This brings clarity to the “absolute refusal of among the Jewish people to tolerate idols: idols freeze one’s understanding of God in stone, as it were. (111)” As better understandings of God develop around us we must “trade-up” and embrace the clearer and better understanding of God. Ultimately what we are going to find is that for Christians Jesus is the highest and best revelation of God.
There are some things that I find helpful in this section of McLaren’s quest. I am thankful that he is seeking to deal with head-on an issue that is often set aside. I think that his approach here is creative and provides us with some things to consider. I also appreciate how he points to Christ as the high point. Just yesterday, my bride and I, were talking about people who place the Bible as their object of worship. McLaren’s positioning of Christ as the highest form of revelation is a helpful guard against this. I also appreciate the nuances perspective that is taken here. He does not make the easy jump to “God is evolving” but argues for development in human understanding of God.
I do have a concern though. While there are small things that I could nit-pick the greater issue for me is one of authority. With the position that McLaren is positing here we must ask who determines the better or more evolved view of who God is? Where do we get this information? Clearly (from McLaren’s perspective) we cannot find this information in the Bible for it is merely a record of human thought and development. I think that he would say we find this through conversation with one another and the “other”. However, I think that this is problematic. Should we say that Islam has a better understanding of God because it came later? And then that should be replaced by Mormonsim because it came after that? Where does this end?
If we want to say that Jesus is the climax, the best revelation of God, then all we have is the Bible. The Bible cannot simply be a collection of human thought development. It has to be something more. This means that we cannot just discard the “violent God” passages and chalk it up to those less evolved people back then. This is arrogance of the highest order. What do we do with 1 Corinthians 10 if this is the case?
I do not agree that we have evolving perspectives of God in the Bible. I think that we have God revealing himself progressively and acting in ways that he chooses. I am not comfortable with the violence that God does in the Bible. I do know that God acts justly and purposefully. I also know that with the coming of Jesus and his death and resurrection there was a radical change. The rest of it requires me to live with mystery and tension.
That’s OK. I am good with mystery.