Interview by Deborah Caldwell
You say that Christianity in North America and Europe is going through a paradigm change-that a new vision of how to be Christian is emerging. What is it and why is it happening?
Broadly speaking, there are two different visions of Christianity in North America today. The earlier vision is the product of the last few hundred years, especially the last 150 years. This earlier vision of Christianity is literalistic in its understanding of the Bible, absolutist in its understanding of the ethical teachings of the Bible, and exclusivist--meaning Christianity is the only way.
That's the vision of Christianity that the majority of us grew up with, whether we are mainline Protestant, Catholic, or conservative Protestant. But that way of seeing Christianity has become unpersuasive to millions of people--who can't be literalists or absolutists or exclusivists. But now there is an emerging vision, an emerging paradigm.
The conflict between these two paradigms can be seen in many different places. In the second half of the 19th Century and early in the 20th Century we saw conflict over evolution. Thirty years ago the conflict was over ordination of women in mainline denominations, and of course today we see the conflict about gays and lesbians in the church. For Protestants, the two visions have everything to do with biblical authority. The earlier vision sees the Bible as divine product with a divine guarantee to be true. The emerging vision sees the Bible as a human historical product, the product of two ancient communities [Judaism and Christianity]. It tells us what they thought, not what God thinks.
My book has almost an evangelistic purpose--to show that Christianity makes persuasive and compelling sense, that the intellectual stumbling blocks that many people experience with Christianity are unnecessary and artificial and largely the creation of the last few hundred years. I'm persuaded that Christianity, rightly understood, makes sense--and so do Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. And they make very much the same kind of sense.
You say the original way of seeing Christianity has become untenable for a lot of people. How do you know this?
Mainline denominations have seen a membership decline of roughly 40% over the last 35 years. But most of the people leaving mainline denominations have not joined more conservative churches. They've simply dropped out. Presumably, a major reason many of them dropped out is that the form of Christianity they learned growing up ceased to make compelling sense to them. If it had made sense, they still would be in the church.
Another example: The vast majority of Americans, according to polls taken in 2002, cannot be religious exclusivists. Only 18% of people surveyed in two different polls taken in 2002 said yes to "My religion is the only true religion." Another example: In a Gallup poll taken in 1963, 65% of the sample were biblical literalists. By 2001 that figure had gone down to 21%.
But hasn't this issue of the paradigm shift, how to make Christianity relevant, been going on for at least 35 years? What is different now?
The shift has been going on in seminaries for over a century. It actually began a couple hundred years ago, but then it was a tiny circle of theological elites. Maybe in the last 10-15 years it's become a major grassroots movement among the laity. If you look at the number of religious bestsellers on the New York Times list, all of them reflect the emerging paradigm, with the exception of the Left Behind series.
But the churches are still not reflecting that, right? People are still not going to church.
Well, mainline denominations stopped losing members around 1993 and since then have shown very modest growth, less than 1% a year, but they're not hemorrhaging anymore. Increasingly, the people left in mainline denominations are very intentional Christians, as opposed to simply conventional Christians.
I believe the appetite for what I call the "emerging paradigm" is very large in terms of the number of invitations that I and other [liberal biblical] scholars get. We all receive maybe three to four times as many invitations as we can accept. And these invitations are mostly from congregations. So I see a strong appetite in the church for a different way of looking at Christianity.
I notice you dealt with the issue of being "born again," which is such a loaded term. Can you describe what it is to be a born-again liberal Christian?
My way of describing it is "dying to an old identity and being born into a new identity." Or to use language from Thomas Keating, dying to the false self and being born into one's true self. All of us acquire an identity by growing up in a culture. The identity we acquire produces what is called the separated self, a self that is aware of being distinct from the rest of the world. The natural result of that is self-preoccupation. We need to die to that old identity and be born into an identity centered in the sacred or God or the Spirit or Christ-which for Christians are essentially synonymous terms.
Why do we need this experience?
A very young infant experiences the world as an extension of itself. But at some point that infant or toddler becomes aware the world is separate, and not always responsive to us and our needs. That produces self-consciousness and therefore self-preoccupation. That's one of the things the Genesis story of the Fall is about. So we live our lives "east of Eden," outside of connection to God, and we become self-centered. To be born again is to undergo a transformation that leads to an identity that is a source of freedom and peace and joy, a kind of serenity.
This sounds a lot like other religious paths.
The Christian Way, or path, of being born again, and of dying and rising with Christ, is very similar to the path of transformation found in other major religions.
Why do you say that if Christianity is unique in its claims, it is "suspect"--and that because it teaches ideas, expressed a different way, that are similar to other major religions, that is comforting?
I don't want to deny the uniqueness of Christianity. I want to speak of the uniqueness of Christianity, as well as Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, and Hinduism. They are all unique in the sense that they are not exactly alike. But what I'm affirming is that beneath their differences is this common path of transformation. For me, seeing that all the major enduring religions know this path of transformation gives Christianity much more credibility than if it were to claim to know something that no other religion had ever known.
Yet that is almost exactly the opposite of what a lot of Christian leaders say.
In the mainline denominations, I'm not at all sure of that. The Roman Catholic church during Vatican II essentially declared there is saving truth in all the major world religions. I think the majority of Episcopalians, Methodists, and Presbyterians would say that.
Is Christianity one of the world's great religions, or the only true religion? This is the difference between the old paradigm and the emerging paradigm.
How do you talk about a word like "salvation" in this new paradigm?
In the Bible, salvation is mostly concerned with something that happens in this life. Even in the New Testament, the primary meaning of the word "salvation" is transformation in this life. One can see this in the roots of the English word salvation, which comes from "salve," which is a healing ointment. Salvation is about healing. We all grow up wounded, and salvation is about the healing of the roots of existence.
Sounds like a mid-life crisis.
Well, yeah. And the Bible has specific images of salvation. Salvation is about light in the darkness, liberation from bondage, return from exile, or reconnection with God. It's about our hunger being satisfied, our thirst being quenched, and so forth. The identification of salvation with "going to heaven" in much of popular Christianity not only impoverishes the meaning of salvation but I also think really distorts what being a Christian is all about.
Whenever the afterlife is made central to being Christian, it invariably turns Christianity into a religion of requirements. If there is an afterlife, it doesn't seem fair that everyone gets to go there regardless of what they do before death , so there must be something you have to do or believe. And then suddenly Christianity ceases to be a religion of grace and instead becomes a religion of measuring up to what God requires.
Do you believe there is an afterlife?
You know, I'm very happy to leave that up to God.
That's very politic of you.
Well, the answer is that I'm convinced when we die we die into God, but I don't know what that means in terms of survival of a personal identity or reincarnation. I'm not inclined to believe in reincarnation, but I have no idea what happens after death.
So how do you now look at faith?
Faith is not primarily about believing a set of claims to be true-that's what goes with the earlier vision of Christianity. The understanding of faith that goes with the emerging vision is about a relationship of trust in God and faithfulness to God. The ancient meaning of the word "believe" is "to commit oneself, to be loyal to." The Middle English word is "beleve," and that means to love or be loved. So faith is about loving God and loving that which God loves--which is the whole of creation.
How do you answer the question, then, of why be a Christian?
A big part of my answer has to do with the value and importance of being part of a religious community that gives us a new identity. It's the same notion behind being born again, with the added role of community. Being part of a religious community puts us in touch with the wisdom of the past, which I value very much. A religious community of the enduring religions-not one made up 20 years ago-are typically communities of beauty. At their best they are communities of truth, beauty, and goodness. Even though I think one can be an individual seeker, that's like going out and hunting for food when there's a banquet set right in front of you.
So why am I Christian? The biggest reason is that it feels like home to me in a way no other religion could. Beyond that, I greatly admire the richness of the Christian tradition.