It may seem odd to frame a significant dialogue about affirming a new multi-faith approach with the well known “Why did the chicken cross the road?” joke. But acclaimed author, theologian and speaker Brian McLaren does just that in his latest work “Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World” (Jericho Books, 2012).
Basing his introductory discussion of a multi-faith approach on the “anti-humor” of the original riddle, McLaren posits the question of whether “walking together, moving together, leading together” reverses expectations. McLaren writes that this reversal of hostility between religions could expose “our unspoken expectation – that different religions are inherently and unchangeably incompatible, disharmonious, fractious, and hostile toward one another” (p. 3).
Writing in appeal to a broad audience, McLaren identifies what he terms Conflicted Religious Identity Syndrome, or CRIS. McLaren posits the inquiry “To accept and love God, must I betray the God of my religion? To accept and love my neighbor, must I betray the God of my religion?” presenting the dilemma people of faith face when “trying to distance ourselves from religious hostility…opposition, the sense that the other is the enemy” (p. 19). McLaren’s central focus of hostility being “part of the problem to be overcome in the world, not the means by which problems will be overcome” (p. 20) extends beyond conflicted religious identity, reaching into notions of global identity.
While McLaren’s “real hope that a great turning is underway, a profound emergence and reformulation, a worldwide spiritual awakening, a healing of conflicted identities” (p. 22) might be deemed too optimistic, constructive responses are presented to solving the global problem of uncertain religious identity.
One such strategy McLaren employs to the Christian faith in particular is to identify three categories representing the lines between liberal, conservative and moderate Christian identities termed Strong/Hostile, Weak/Benign and Moderately Strong/Moderately Benign. Identifying a “strong, generous, benevolent Christian identity” as a “common ground on higher ground” fourth alternative characterized by hospitality toward others (p. 42).
McLaren warns of similarity causing “cycles of violence no less vicious” than the divisions created by religious differences (pp. 56) Using the suppression of differences found in secular totalitarian regimes as an example of horrifying results of sameness, McLaren writes that when we “increasingly understand who we are in relation to an enemy…we develop an increasingly hostile identity (pp. 62).” Relating to political, economic, philosophical, scientific and religious identities, McLaren focuses on hostility as a dysfunctional path to forging strong identities.
Reaching beyond the Christian faith with historical and cultural examples of identity problems within other world religions represents one of McLaren’s strengths in writing for a broad audience. Another strength rests with McLaren’s identification of new creative possibilities for rearticulating faith communities. Referencing Christianity in particular, McLaren expands upon how doctrine, liturgy and mission are ideal ways to reenergize Christianity for new and proactive approaches to lessening religious hostility.
Though McLaren’s proposal for engaging with a multi-faith world may be labeled as too optimistic, the imagery of various religious histories bringing communities to a crossroads may compel not only Christians, but people of all faiths seeking change in the midst of confusion over religious identity. As McLaren writes of imagining Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed “crossing the road,” it is easy to feel hopeful for the creation of a sacred space where hospitality and friendship – not hostility and fear – will be found.
- Read more about Brian McLaren and his recent visit to Columbia.
- Read another book review: Eben Alexander's “Proof of Heaven”