This is the full transcript of an interview of Brian McLaren with Leif Hansen:
Brian McLaren Calls Hell and the Cross
“False Advertising for God”
In a recent interview, emerging church leader Brian McLaren calls the doctrine of hell “false advertising for God” and berates the body of Christ and the doctrine of the Cross as he has often done before.
This interview shows a clear picture of the spirituality that has swiftly moved into churches across North America and around the world and rejects Jesus Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice on the Cross. (from Lighthouse Trails Research)
Hansen: What kind of opposition have you received? I just went to Amazon and noticed there were 107 reviews of the book. And all that tells me is it’s got to be a good book, because there’s so much—It ranges from… I know you have had some persecution, so to call it. What do you think is going on there? I mean, I have my hunches, but what do you think is going on?
McLaren: Well, you know, probably persecution is too strong a word. You think of what really, what that really would mean. Cause this is all pretty mild. Because it boils down to name calling really. I have so far received less negative feedback on the book than I expected. Part of that is because my previous book, A Generous Orthodoxy, seemed to get a bunch of people so mad and they wrote. That surprised me on how much negative response I received. As you said, it’s kind of an affirming book, but boy, people got angry about that. Well, people get angriest at me, and what seem to be some of the angriest people in general are what I call kind of the Westminster confessionalist, the hardcore Calvinist who really feel that they have everything pretty much sewed up and they’ve got the Bible figured out. They’ve got theology figured out. You can’t blame them. If you believe that then you’re just irritated by all these people who wouldn’t get with the program. And I thought I was being playful and good-natured in Generous Orthodoxy, but my goodness, some of those people acted as if I just personally attacking them. Which I certainly didn’t mean to be doing. As I said in the book I have a lot of respect for the Reformed Church. I wish we could get a little more fun back into fundamentalist.
But anyhow, I think part of what happened is some of the people who would have attacked The Last Word, sort of vented their fury on A Generous Orthodoxy. And then maybe just decided, after that point I wasn’t even worth paying attention to. So maybe that’s actually saved The Last Word from a little more punishment. I don’t know. Or maybe it will start tomorrow.
Hansen: There was some rumor floating on the Internet about an invitation being revoked to speak somewhere because of that. Is that true? What was that about if that was true?
McLaren: Well, it may have been because of that or because of some of my other books. I don’t know. But I receive invitations to speak all over the place. And I never assume that anyone agrees with me when they invite me to speak. I just assume they think I have something that would be stimulating and interesting. So Kentucky Southern Baptist had asked me to speak at an evangelism conference and then they disinvited me. It was a shame. It really made news in a lot of places. But they handled it so well. They were so kind, so gracious and the whole thing. And in fact, they had really nice outcome because they said that they were going to pay me anyway, even though I hadn’t come. You know, whatever they agreed to pay me. And then I let them know that I would donate money to help in a project to help people in great need in Central Africa. So it kind of had a nice outcome. I was happier being able to send the money to the Africans than speaking there anyway. So that worked out well.
Hansen: I guess the hunch that I had underneath some of the reactions—Well, you know, first, I wonder if it would be good to define a few terms. Because I know that you and I sometimes use terms a little differently. And I actually have probably been influenced and changed some of my definitions. So, for shorthand, if I use the term universalism or something, a synonym similar to that, what I mean by that is at minimum, more of what I would call universal reconciliation. The hope that, the hope or maybe even the trust or belief that eventually all people will come into unity with God. Now, I might be putting you on the spot in asking this. But I shared with you at some point that, you know, I had a change of beliefs in this area and that I really struggled a lot, was fearful that there was something, some part of me that was not, that was always going to resist. I guess that’s gets to the human nature question. That was always going to resist God’s saving work, God’s healing inside of me. That I would always kind of be an ego magnet. And coming to that conclusion that God loves an ability to overcome and always stick with me. That I don’t have this timeline called death that if I haven’t gotten something fixed and changed by that time, really helped on an intellectual level to remove a lot of those fears. So I guess the first question is, have you encountered a lot of people, like myself, who emotionally maybe are reacting to the more hopeful message that you have in The Last Word, because of the same fears? That’s the first question.
McLaren: Okay, well, let’s talk about that for a minute. First of all, you are—I remember when I met you, what struck me is your angst and pain over this issue of hell and eternal condemnation was not, was a reflection of your sensitive spirit. And I think anybody who would sit for five minutes and ponder the reality of hell as it’s commonly understood would either—I can say, lose their minds. I think if you actually faced it and what is really being said, I think you would—any person who faced it, really opened themselves up to it and the horror of it for five minutes would come out mentally damaged. And the result of that would either be that they, I think, would hate God—And I’ve met a lot of people who have this—the fundamentalists are right in their understanding of hell and so they, as a result, hate God. Or they become an atheist. They just say it’s better to not believe in God than to have to believe in that kind of God. Or they become a raving fundamentalist who’d be grabbing people on the street and shaking them and you know, saying you better repent. Do you understand what’s at stake? You know, what I’m saying?
One thing were would not be is this sort of easy believism that we see so common. And I think that’s one of the reason why a lot of people defend the doctrine of hell is because, on the positive side, they are worried about this kind of easy going, American Christianity that is somewhat nonchalant about people going to hell. They want to sort of rile people up one way or the other.
Hansen: They want to know that there’s going to be some kind of, so to speak, hell to pay. Some sort of judgment. I think part of the problem that you and I both react to is that an infinite amount of punishment for a finite being and a finite amount of sin, there’s something that seems to question God’s just and loving nature.
McLaren: Yeah, it’s very true. And I think that creates a rational problem. And is that rationally sensible? Would it be—Does it make sense for a good being to create creatures who will experience infinite torture, infinite time, infinite—you know, never be numbed in their consciousness? I mean, how would you even create a universe where that sort of thing could happen? It just sounds—It really raises some questions about the goodness of God. And that, to me, is the deepest issue. You know, John said in First John, God is light and in God there is no darkness at all. And I what I have to believe is that very few of us actually believe that. We all have the suspicion that there is a dark side to God. And that God isn’t truly, truly good. And I’m sure there’s all kinds of psycho pathology in that and everything else for all of us. But I think this is, in large part, why, what is so wonderful and magnetic about Jesus, is that Jesus, I think, reveals to us a God who is all light and there is no darkness at all there.
Hansen: I see that, too, Brian. But I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned this in the letter that I sent you. But there are some places where either I need that hermeneutic of love as I’m reading him. Or His editors screwed up what he said. Or something. But there is a few places. The one that always comes to my mind as an example is where he uses imagery that feels and sounds sort of violent and dark. And to me, sort of threatening. Even though it’s a parable, the example would be the servants that get cut up into tiny pieces. I’m like, what the hell is with that Jesus? Why? If you want me to have a sense that you and that God can be trusted and ultimately care for me, I know it can hurt following you also. But why would you use an image like that?
McLaren: Let’s use that example. Can we talk about that for a couple minutes? Because, first of all, wouldn’t that be great for a biblical literalist to be as literal about that as they want to be about some of the other parables Jesus told. So that we have the picture now, not only are you in literal flame, but you are cut up into pieces. So there’s however many pieces of you. I guess it’s sort of a, yeah, it’s a shish-kabob, exactly. So I think and we’re laughing. These things shouldn’t be laughed about. But, you know, I just think that’s a great example of how we have this selective literalism that’s just so stunning.
Hansen: To be honest though, that parable wasn’t about hell. He was talking about the servant that comes back. Yeah, a literalist could say well that was talking about hell.
McLaren: If what we talk about is judgment. And this is one of the things I try to do in The Last Word—and it’s interesting to me that people, for example on Amazon who claim to be so biblically centered, what their general response to me is, one of two things—The negative response is, he’s going against Christian tradition. Well, isn’t it ironic. These are mostly people who claim the primacy of the Bible. Or, they quote other Bible verses, but they don’t deal with the Bible verses I brought up. And there’s that chart in the middle of the book that I hope some people will take seriously and really go through and seriously deal with those Scriptures. Because, you know, one of my complaints is that we have found this way of weaving certain verses together, ignoring other verses and we’re not just being—You know, the traditional approach and the traditional way of reading those verses together just is not a very good reading of the Bible. It misses an awful lot and all the rest.
But one of the things that I try to do in the book, and if I were writing it again now I would even go farther on it, is talk about the fact that Jesus is in a historical context, where that kind of language already has a history. He’s not inventing the language. What He is doing is entering into a context where that language is already being thrown around. And what He does—what’s so clear to me, having XXX this research and really just living in those verses in a deep way. What’s stunning is the way He turns that language on its head. And so, in that example you are using, He is using the kind of language that the scribes and Pharisees used, but now they are the people who are in danger. Now to me that is classic reconstruction. And so what we do though, is we don’t understand the historical setting. We act as though Jesus was inventing this language, or that the Bible should be read with no reference to its historical setting and the genres into which it enters. Anyway, to me, it’s just bad reading of the Bible.
And one other piece that I would also emphasize more if I were writing the book now—a wonderful new book has just come out. I just got my copy yesterday. By a friend of mine in England named Andrew Perriman. It’s called The Coming of the Son of Man. And he is doing some things that N. T. Wright has hinted at and delved into a bit. But he is going even farther to show how we understand so much of that biblical language of destruction. And one way to summarize what Andrew Perriman is saying is to say that either the primary or maybe the only eschatological horizon that Jesus is talking about and the apostles are talking about, it’s not the end of the world. It’s the end of the world as they knew it. Which meant the end of Judaism as they knew it, which meant the end of the temple system and the priestly system as they knew it. And I think Andrew makes a very strong case for this in his book The Coming of the Son of Man. And there are some other writers, like Tim King and Max King and others, who also make a very strong case for this in some of their writings.
Hansen: Do they talk at all about the question of the how many and whether some are left out eternally?
McLaren: What they’re basically saying is Jesus isn’t talking about—That’s not even what He’s talking about. He’s telling the Jewish leaders of His day, that judgment is coming. And that if they choose a path of violence, if they reject His path of peace, if they choose to stay on the path they’re on, that there’s going to be a horrible consequence to it. And what they would say is it happened, AD 67. The Jewish people rejected Jesus—the Jewish leaders rejected Jesus’ message of peace and reconciliation. They chose the path of the zealots, which was the path of violent revolution. When they engaged in violence the Romans responded in violence and crushed them. And so, in the great Jewish war, AD 67 to 70, Jerusalem was destroyed. Not one stone was left on another. You know, all of those things that Jesus said would happen, happened. And that His language of hell fire and language of Gehenna and all that language, was fulfilled in what would happen at that time, AD 67 to 70. And I think there is a very strong case to be made for that.
Hansen: It does. I’ve read a little of that. And there were a few classes while I was at Regent College that I wish I had taken that were starting to touch on that more. I guess, while that makes sense, and experience and history seems to make sense. Violence begets violence, you know. And as Jesus would say, kind of, you reap what you sow. Kind of the short way of saying it. But, do you think there are some places where it sounds like Jesus is not just saying humanity will bring violence, but God will bring violence as a result of your violence? And that is the part where I struggle with.
McLaren: I think, first of all, I think it makes a huge difference whether you believe that that violence is waiting for everybody or whether you think that violence actually was focused on AD 67 to 70. I mean, and I would just encourage people who are listening to this, for the next couple years, as you’re reading the Gospels, to be open to the possibility that that might be what Jesus was talking about. It’s really interesting, and this is what Andrew Perriman does very well in this brand new book, he really engages with Paul. Second Thessalonians and the others places in the New Testament that are pretty fiery, you know. And he makes a very strong case that the eschatological horizon for them—you know, all of these are written before AD 67. And so when Paul says, it’s coming very soon. Or Jesus says, this generation will not pass—in this reading, it turns out that they’re right. That the generation didn’t pass and it was very soon. It was literally a couple of years from when Paul was writing and this would happen. So what you do when that happens, suddenly, those Scriptures, it’s almost like an explosion that’s already happened. And it doesn’t make sense for us to keep talking about that explosion happening.
Hansen: But again, I don’t mean to be a pain in the ass. But does the explosion come from God or does it come from God knowing how humanity, how we will reap what we sow?
McLaren: See, this also comes from, I think, a very unhelpful way of reading the Bible where, we’re going to parse every sentence and say, oh, that means God’s doing it. I don’t think that Jesus or any of the other biblical writers—and you’ve got to remember that Jesus was a speaker. He wasn’t a writer. But you know, the speakers and writers of the Bible, I don’t think that they’re working in this technical theological way that we very often push them into. I think they are speaking the way we would speak. The way we are having conversation right now. Some day if you go and parse one of your sentences or parse one of my sentences and you know, 500 years from now be making really bizarre conclusions about it. You know, you said a couple minutes ago something about being a pain in the ass. Well, 500 years from now people don’t know that that is an idiom that is used today. You can imagine a whole theological school developing from some of that. And that’s kind of what we’re saying actually happens with the biblical language.
But—and this is a huge problem with all of biblical interpretation. To what degree when things happen in the world, is it safe to say God made this happen? And to what degree is it safe to say, God wants us to interpret this happening in a certain way?
McLaren: This is, one of the huge problems is the traditional understanding of hell. Because if the cross is in line with Jesus’ teaching then—I won’t say, the only, and I certainly won’t say even the primary—but a primary meaning of the cross is that the kingdom of God doesn’t come like the kingdoms of the this world, by inflicting violence and coercing people. But that the kingdom of God comes through suffering and willing, voluntary sacrifice. But in an ironic way, the doctrine of hell basically says, no, that that’s not really true. That in the end, God gets His way through coercion and violence and intimidation and domination, just like every other kingdom does. The cross isn’t the center then. The cross is almost a distraction and false advertising for God.
Hansen: Oh, Brian, that was just so beautifully said. I was tempted to get on my soap box there and you know—Because as you and I know there are so many illustrations and examples that you could give that show why the tradition view of hell completely falls in the face of—It’s just antithetical to the cross. But the way you put it there, I love that. It’s false advertising. And here, Jesus is saying, turn the other cheek. Love your enemy. Forgive seven times seventy. Return violence with self-sacrificial love. But if we believe the traditional view of hell, it’s like, well, do that for a short amount of time. Because eventually, God’s going to get them.
McLaren: Yeah. And I heard one well-known Christian leader, who—I won’t mention his name, just to protect his reputation. Cause some people would use this against him. But I heard him say it like this: The traditional understanding says that God asks of us something that God is incapable of Himself. God asks us to forgive people. But God is incapable of forgiving. God can’t forgive unless He punishes somebody in place of the person He was going to forgive. God doesn’t say things to you—Forgive your wife, and then go kick the dog to vent your anger. God asks you to actually forgive.
And there’s a certain sense that, a common understanding of the atonement presents a God who is incapable of forgiving. Unless He kicks somebody else.
Hansen: Now, is that going to be—You know, I remember one of our emails, I had asked if you were going to bring that up in The Last Word, and it looks like you—as far as an alternative view of the cross, had got a little bit. My hunch is, I am wondering, is your new book about Jesus going to get into that alternative view of the cross? Or, I might say, an earlier historical view of the cross?
McLaren: Well, yes. It does. But not through sort of direct attack. The book is called The Secret Message of Jesus and it’s about the message of the kingdom. I really like—Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossing, have a new book coming out called The Last Week. And it follows the week of what we call passion week, or holy week. It is really a great book. And you know, evangelicals tend to think that they’re the only people who take the Bible seriously. I am so impressed with how seriously these guys take the Gospel of Mark, really the last week of Jesus. It’s really stunning. But one of the things they point out is that Mel Gibson’s film, you know, called the crucifixion, the passion of the Christ. But Jesus’ passion, the thing He was most passionate about was the kingdom. And the message of the kingdom is what I really try to explore in this book.
And that’s why, if we look at the cross as something that becomes almost the ultimate demonstration or the ultimate exclamation point about the message of the kingdom, it looks very different than if we throw the message of the kingdom away or make the message of the kingdom about something in the future and marginalize it for Jesus’ whole life. Boy, everything looks different.
Hansen: Now, I agree with you and I am starting to come to an understanding of the cross. And I have a hunch that it’s probably pretty similar to your understanding of the cross and the kingdom. But one of the places we might differ—I don’t even want to say that because I am just really exploring right now—is, weren’t there people before Jesus and since Jesus, some inspired by Him, some Christian, some martyrs, and wasn’t God, in a sense, demonstrating self sacrificial love since the beginning of time? Since God created beings other than Himself? So, I guess the reason I ask that question is two-fold. One, it has to do with this question of world religions and Christian exclusivism. Some might say, well yes, we also believe that at the heart and center of God and of reality is self-sacrificial love. But we don’t think that Jesus was the only one to teach about that and to demonstrate that in His life. Now, a more—what’s the word to use?—a more conservative Christian, whatever—someone who believes in the literal ontological divinity of Christ would have an argument and say, well yes, but this was, this was more central because it was actually God, literally, demonstrating that kind of love. However, someone, a more liberal Christian, who might think that Jesus was perfectly imaging God’s love, or totally inspired by God’s love but not literally God—To be honest, that’s the direction I am leaning more myself these days. We would have a hard time saying what makes Jesus’ life and example and living love to the death more unique than any other.
McLaren: Right. If I understand what you’re saying. These are important subjects. I understand you’re saying: Look, we could look at Ghandi’s live as an example of self sacrificial love or Martin Luther King Junior’s life. There would be a lot of people we could look at. And so wouldn’t it be better to just talk about Jesus as one among many, rather than lift Him up as some extraordinary example. Because by doing that we create, we perpetuate this Christian elitism and exclusivism, et cetera, et cetera. Is that what you’re saying?
Hansen: Bingo! Yeah, that’s really right on.
McLaren: Well, this is a subject that I am really interested in. And in fact, it’s going to be part of the book I am going to write this year that is, kind of will be sequel to this book of The Kingdom Seeker Messages of Jesus [NOT SURE IF THAT’S WHAT HE SAID] And it’s tentatively, right now, going to be titled Jesus and the Suicide Machine. And what’s it’s going to be is talking about how the message of the kingdom speaks to our contemporary situations. And to cut to the chase, I think what you’re reacting to is not, ultimately, the uniqueness of Jesus, but it is how the uniqueness of Jesus is used by a colonial, Roman Christianity.
Hansen: I definitely am reacting to that on an emotional level. But on an intellectual level, I guess, I am also saying that there are some questions that got brought up when I was studying. You know, ranging from if we do say this, how can we not be elitist? Versus, you know—to be honest with you, one of the biggest stumbling blocks to me is Jesus’ being in a literal sense the Son of God, was finding out that Paul never once mentions the idea. And his writings are the earliest. And when I found that out, I was like—wait a second here.
McLaren: See, I think I can feel your pain, Leif. And part of what I feel is this: There is a whole package. And the package ultimately is this hell package. And here’s what I would say: I think the deeper problem here is a problem of the larger narrative. And when I think there’s another way of seeing the narrative where a lot of these problems disappear. In other words, I would say, I think we see the right problems in the narrative. But I think there are different understandings of the narrative that are very, very hard to get to. Because we’ve got so much of the old narrative so deeply rooted and so deeply influencing the way we read the Bible. And I feel like I can say this. I think I’ve got to a little rise on the journey, where I got a different view of the landscape. And I want to tell you, I think it’s going to be okay.
Hansen: Very hopeful.
McLaren: But in the meantime, I don’t think I can—I struggle. I’ve been struggling with this for, you know, fifteen years. I’ve really been struggling with this stuff. And so I feel like, piece by piece you get a different vision. But you can’t rush it. And the other narrative is so deeply ingrained.
So, but one of the questions I could raise that might be helpful for you and other people thinking about this, is to say, what is the problem with sin? What’s so bad about sin? Now, I can just imagine some people quoting—See, McLaren doesn’t think sin is a problem. I take sin really, seriously. But here’s the problem, If I were to make this sort of analogy or parable. When I had little children, if one of my little children—Let’s say my son Brett, was beating up on his little brother, Trevor. Now, Trevor is bigger. But back then—What was the problem? Was the problem that I don’t want my younger son to get hurt and I don’t want my older son to be a bully. I want my older son to be a good person. I want my younger son to be a good person. I want them to have a great relationship. Then the problem of sin is what it does to my family and what it does to my boys, you know. That’s the problem with sin.
But what we’ve created is, the problem of sin is that I am so angry at my son Brett for beating up his younger brother, I’m going to kill him. So now the problem we’ve got to solve is how to keep me from killing my son. Does that make sense?
Hansen: Yeah. It’s like a step back. Yeah, the reaction.
McLaren: And so now it seems to me the entire Christian theology has shifted so now the problem is, how can we keep me from killing Brett? And I don’t think that’s the kind of God that we serve. I think the problem is God wants His children to get along with each other. He wants them to be good people. Because He’s good. And His vision for creation is that they’ll love each other and be good to each other and enjoy each other and have a lot of fun together.
So sin is incredibly serious. But I think we have shifted why it’s so important. Can I say it one more way to say the same thing is—The problem is, why does sin matter to God? And I think what has happened is through the influence of Ansolm and maybe not even really Ansolm, but the way Ansolm was interpreted by later people—We have a vision that the real problem is God wants to kill us all. And we’ve got to somehow solve that problem. And what that does to me, Leif, that is so significant, is that it then minimizes the concern about injustice between human beings. That becomes a peripheral concern. But what if that’s God’s real concern, from beginning to end, see?
And by the way, that kind of theology, it just wants to placate God. And again, I know I am over stating it and I am aware everything I say now, that I have these people who are listening to me looking to find fault and so, anything I say—And I don’t care. If they misquote me on this to some degree, because at least maybe they’ll think about it. But I think that that theology was the perfect theology to enfranchise apartheid, colonialism, segregation in the United States. It enfranchises carelessness toward the poor, disregard for the rights of homosexuals, carelessness toward people with AIDS. It shifts all the attention from God’s will being done on earth to what happens to us after we die. And I think that is the kind of thing that would make God furious, if I could use that kind of language. And I think that is exactly why Jesus uses such strong language toward the Pharisees.
Hansen: I agree with you. I don’t want to get into it. I still kind of wish there was some way that He could have used—Cause it seems to be like, don’t be violent because, you know, God’s going to get you sometime. It just sort of—Anyway, I hear you. What I am hearing you say is that this original message of reconciliation, of hey guys, God is no longer mad at you, God forgives you. We need to get back to the original focus of caring for each other and for this planet and social justice issues. Somehow—well, not just somehow—You and I would agree, it seems to come from this idea of the fear and misunderstanding of sin and how God responds to it in getting us focussed on the afterlife. And it’s just gotten completely turned upside down. I hear you.
McLaren: And if the other guys are right, then you and I are wrong. But if we’re even partially right, the other guys have some thinking to do.
Hansen: Well, can I just do a couple of personal questions? Probably more myself. I don’t know how many of my listeners are in this similar place. But—or how many people you’ve talked to are, if you talk to mostly people who have no problem calling themselves Christians and feel God’s presence and all, but I am honest with you. I am in an incredibly dry—Particularly I was involved with a charismatic church, a Vineyard. I loved it. And I still actually hold that those experiences were largely valid and good. There’s a lot of poop in the middle of it all, humanity. But that’s okay. That’s always going to happen. But right now, I don’t think it’s intellectual. I think that large enough through my thinking, and school and your writings, there sort of just this emerging view of how I can reembrace my faith on an intellectual level. There’s still a few little struggles. But there always will be. On an emotional level though, I am just really struggling trusting even God exists at all. And I can’t mental talk myself into that, I don’t think. I think I said this to you in the letter. I think part of it is I’m scared—Things have changed so many times. I’m scared that if I start saying a believe certain things and trusting and standing on things, I’m going to be humbled again and let down and disappointed. Do you know other people struggling? Do you have any other advice for those of us in that place of how to rebuild a really basic trust again?
McLaren: Yeah. Yeah. Well, first of all, I think your honesty about that will resonant to an awful lot of people who listen to this. Because I just heard a very well known pastor—again, I won’t out him on this. But a very well known pastor said exactly the same thing recently. He said, You know, half the Mondays I get up and I just think, I’m not sure I believe anything that I preached yesterday. I’m not sure I believe any of this. But he just said his struggle it keeps coming back again and again and again. So, you know, this is a terrible problem. It is especially a problem for reflective people. I don’t know if you’ve heard this song by Jill Philips. She has a song called “God believes in You.” And there is some line in the song that goes something like: On those days when you don’t believe in yourself, God believes in you. And there’s a certain sense that reflective people, we’re capable of disbelieving anything, including ourselves, you know. So, part of this I think, for those of us who are highly reflective—and if you don’t know this, Leif, you are one of the most highly reflective of the highly reflective. You know, I think it is hard, probably it is one of the curses and blessings of your, of the kind of personality that you are. And I think I have this too. Is that we’re capable of doubting and disbelieving all kinds of things.
Now, the question is, how do people like us—what does it mean for us to have faith? And I’ll tell you another great book that will be so worth reading when it comes out. It’s by a young Irish theologian. And imagine being an Irish theologian in these last twenty or thirty years, where you’ve seen religion used—not just religion but Christianity used in some of its ugliest ways. Anyway this book is called, “How Not to Speak of God.” And it is so—I found that book so helpful. In fact, I was asked to write a foreword for the book and I just was completely gushing about the book. And I thought nobody is going to believe I’m this—They are just going to think I am marketing the thing. But I really am enthusiastic. Anyhow, Pete Rolands is the author. He is part of a community in Belfast called Icon. And I think you and other people will find that book helpful when it comes out. But one of the things that I love about that book is that I think it correctly identifies so much of the problem as the way we speak of God. And if we allow ourselves to realize that God is always—the God who would really exist has to always be greater than the language that we use in speaking about God. It gives us permission to doubt the way we speak about God as an act of faith in saying that the real God would have to be better than the way we speak about God. Cause that’s the kind of thing that the mystics always were saying.
That, that God always must be greater than however we speak about God. Right? I think XXX Eichardt who said, God saved me from God. In other words, the God who really exists must be better than the concept of God that I have. And so, I have to continually call on the God who is greater than my best concept of God.
Gregory MisXXX, who wrote at time when there was so much debate about the trinity and people were ready to kill each other about this. And obviously he was involved in those debates himself. But he said, Only wonder understands; concepts create idols. And for someone like yourself and like me and so many of us who have grown up in evangelical contexts, where we argue about God in ways that would make you think that we have great confidence in our words to capture God that we’re ready to pillory somebody who doesn’t use words just the same way we do. You know, I think we are especially prone to this idolatry of ideology and idolatry of words. And I think there is a certain sense that our atheism is a desire to disbelieve the words we keep saying about God because we know that God has to be better than those words.
Hansen: I think that resonates in me. What, okay, well, if you need to go beyond words then, what kind of experiences have you had Brian, that have given you the hope to continue on? I mean it’s got to be experiences or practices or living social justice out. What is that that has helped you and can help us to go beyond the words and to have that?
McLaren: First of all, I need to say that it is so—I hesitate to say anything because—I know that I have another phone call coming in a couple minutes that I assured somebody I would take. So, I feel like that in itself should be a three day conversation. But I can say this: I have gone through periods, two intense periods in my life that you might call a dark side of the soul. Where God just didn’t seem real to me at all. And so I know what that’s like. One of those periods lasted about three years. And I did everything I could to bring it to an end and it finally came to an end and it had nothing to do—you know what I’m saying? I didn’t think I could last six months and it went on for three years. And so I know what it’s like to feel that God doesn’t exist. And the feeling relates to—You know, you can’t tell whether your thoughts come first or your feelings come first. So, I feel that.
I also need to say that for other periods of my life, the feeling of God’s reality has been so strong and so there. And I know other people who say I have never felt that once. And I don’t think I am superior to anybody. I just think, you know, I don’t know. I don’t know how to explain it. But I was just reading a book by Barbara Brown Taylor, a new manuscript of a book she has coming out that will be called Leaving Church. And a really wonderfully written book. And she describes kind of her primal sense of the experience of God. And the way she said it is, the sense that I am being carried by invisible arms. And another way I would say it is the sense of being accompanied somehow.
Hansen: And you have that right now?
McLaren: Yeah, I do. But and I almost hesitate to say it. Because I know for people who don’t that it can either say, oh that’s just some psychological thing. Well, I’m sure it is psychological. You know, I’m sure it has to do with brain waves and everything else. All experience does. But there comes some point where I just have to acknowledge, this is a true part of my experience. But so are those Monday mornings when I have woken up and felt that God—where I didn’t have that feeling and where all of those intellectual questions are there. So, I just feel like part of being a person of God is also experiencing a sense of abandonment by God. And what I am hearing from you is that you have had times when you felt these powerful experiences of God and other times when where you XX. And I guess I identify.
One of my good friends, when I went through the first of these long, dry periods, I remember he and I were sitting across the room from each other on two couches. And I just go honest with him and I said, I don’t believe any of it right now. None of it seems real. And he just looked at me and he said, I know it doesn’t seem real to you right now. I want to tell you, it does seem real to me. And he said, maybe you need to go on my faith for a while. And I just remember feeling such a relief to be able to be honest about the experience and not have any pressure to have it be fixed. And to have him stay somewhat not anxious in the middle of it. And that’s what I just wish I—That’s what I wish I could offer to people who are going through those times right now.
Hansen: You do offer that and you have. And I am able to lean, at least somewhat on your faith there. Sounds like your call is coming through. Brian, thank you so much for taking this time…
McLaren: This is one of the great experiences that when you get to travel—You know, we all see so much garbage and the garbage is so promoted. And the stupidest things get the most attention. But you know, like I was just in a little village, two afternoons ago, way up in the mountains of Dominican Republic, where a Pentecostal pastor of a little tiny church in this little village of 4,000 people was so bothered that nobody in the whole village had health care, that he has created a health care system for these poor people who have an annual, average per capita income of $50 per person per year. That’s their average income per year. And he has created an unbelievable thing. And you know, you see something like and you just are very moved. …