McLaren, Milgram and Modern Faith

Brian McLaren is an unpopular evangelical.  He is unpopular because he questions much of what passes as normal or orthodox in evangelical circles.  He is unwilling to go along with much of what the mainstream evangelical movement considers important or a necessary part of Christian belief.  As McLaren himself observes, “It’s not hard to fall out of the good graces of the most conservative elements of any religious community.  And those authority figures often become even more testy under stress.”

McLaren believes that the evangelical movement, and conservative religious movements generally, are under stress because increasingly, many of their adherents are questioning some of the very things that McLaren himself is questioning.  McLaren sees this in terms of a clash between the consciences of many people of faith and the religious authority figures whom they respect.

Here are some of the places where McLaren sees this clash taking place:

Many find it increasingly unconscionable to believe that they are among the elect when their non-Christian neighbors (and in many cases, their doctrinally-different Christian neighbors as well) are damned, awaiting eternal torment in hell for their failure to convert to the Christian faith.  They realize that this belief has a wide range of negative psychological, social, and political impacts, and they have questions and doubts about the whole system, but they remain silent.  Many have lost confidence in a violent God who punishes people for the sins of their ancestors, who uses tsunamis and earthquakes to visit wrath on the disgraced, who blesses wars of choice, and so on.  But they publicly defend this view of God in spite of their private misgivings.

Many are afraid to admit that they … believe in evolution, or are concerned about global climate change, or are OK with their friends being gay or priests being married, or use birth control, or wish women could be treated as equals in their church, or don’t take every word of the Bible as having equal authority and historical accuracy.

McLaren compares this divide between people’s private thoughts and the public positions of religious authorities to the Milgram experiment that was carried out at Yale in the early 1960s.  In that classic trial, people were asked by a researcher to “administer electric shocks of increasing intensity after each wrong answer given by a stranger (who was actually an actor cooperating with the test).”   While the actor pretended to receive shocks of increasing intensity, and responded in a way that convinced the person administering the “shock” that they were actually causing pain, people nevertheless complied with the researcher’s request to continue shocking the other person at an alarming rate.  In discussing the conclusions reached through this experiment, the researcher explained:  “The extreme willingness of most adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding an explanation.”

McLaren believes that the same psychological tendency is operating among many people of faith today, who despite their private misgivings, continue to push the same theological buttons that certain religious authorities have insisted must be pushed.  Not because they believe these are the right buttons to push, but because they have been told to push them, and they can’t yet see an alternative.  Of course, it is also true that many people are turning their backs on faith communities because they have decided that the buttons being pressed by religious authorities have worn out.

As I reflect on McLaren’s thinking and observations, I am brought back to an idea that has become central to my own theology, and was also, I think, central to the Protestant Reformation.  And that has to do with the authority conferred upon each of us at our baptisms, an authority that flows from our personal relationship with the living Christ.  The Protestant Reformation was built in large part upon this very principle:  that each Christian had been given the gift of the Holy Spirit in baptism, and that each person could read Scripture for him- or herself.  It is sad, but historically not that surprising, that a movement that began by uplifting the individual liberty of each Christian person should ultimately give birth to forms of Christianity that limit and dishonor that liberty.

I am convinced that if the Christian movement is to continue in modern society, we must make room for this liberty within our communities.  Churches should be places that provide space for the kinds of questions and misgivings that McLaren has pointed to, because modern faith needs the freedom to explore.  Churches should empower people in their relationship with Christ, not encourage them to transfer their authority to someone else.  And Christian leaders should not be in the business of pretending that they have unique access to and understanding of God’s will, but should rather see themselves as leaders of sacred conversations, in which we all seek together to understand where we are being led individually and as a community.

If our churches indeed become communities of empowerment rather than places of cognitive dissonance, then perhaps the Christian movement will indeed experience new life.

Quotes above from Brian McLaren and about the Milgram experiment are taken from in article in Huffington Post Religion, written by Brian McLaren.

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