Clenched Fists and Open Hands: McLaren and Rohr get real about religion

By Alan Bean
I spent last weekend attending a conference on “the Emerging Church” held on the campus of  Texas Christian University.  Below, I have reproduced my noted from three talks, two by Brian McLaren, a clear-sighted Protestant, and one by Father Richard Rohr, a Roman Catholic priest dedicated to the contemplative life.  These three talks complement one another and inform our struggle with mass incarceration, but I will leave it to you to make the connections.  My summary is taken from my notes, so, gentlemen, if you read this and think I misrepresented your ideas, I am open to correction. 

Brian McLaren 1: Clenched Fists and Open Hands

Brian McLaren

The world runs on stories, McLaren says. It is the role of religion to provide us with our stories; but what happens when these stories no longer help us address the big issues: poverty, peace and the planet?

The primary religious narrative in Western culture, McLaren suggests, has been the domination story: stories of the clenched fist which could also be called conflict narratives, warrior narratives or sword narratives. Typically, empires appear as the heroes of domination narratives.

Domination narratives give rise to the Revolution Story in which the dominated overthrow the dominator.

Father Richard Rohr

Another form of Domination narrative is the Purification Story. If only “those people” (normally 5-20% of the population) would simply disappear all would be well. Conservatives, for example, dream of purifying the world of liberals, and vice versa.

Then there is the Victimization Story that is told from the perspective of the persecuted minority, the 5-20%.  If only the bad guys would stop picking on us.

In the Isolation Story, an in-group leader says “let’s just get away and create our own community, our own subculture. We will speak and dress differently from the dominant culture and create our own radio and television programs and schools so our distinct view will always be reinforced.

The Accumulation Story is based on the notion that we can buy, enjoy and stockpile the things that make us safe and happy.

All Domination narratives, all stories of the clenched fist, end in violence. Curiously, we are able to see the violent implications in everybody else’s story, but we can’t see it in our own story.

The only way to avoid violence is to replace stories of the clenched fist with stories of the open hand. In Jesus’ parables of the Kingdom of God, the metaphor shifts from warfare to gardening or horticulture.

Tragically, during 1700 years of imperialism and colonization we have lost sight of Jesus’ original message; we no longer understand what he meant by the Kingdom of God.

At this point, McLaren referenced the “six-line story” described in his most recent book, “A New Kind of Christianity.”

McLaren suggests that this view of religious history rests on the assumptions of Greek philosophy. A similar diagram flows from Roman power politics in which the world falls into barbarism and is restored to the “Peace of Rome” (Pax Romana). Or, in a more contemporary version, the world slides into a socialistic shadow world and is restored to the glories of capitalism and democracy, what we call  “the free world”.

An Exodus or liberation story lies at the heart of the Hebrew Scriptures, but we can no longer hear it. We are convinced that if we lose the six-line story we lose Jesus. We have become so used to thinking of Jesus and salvation in terms of the six-line narrative that to surrender one is to lose the other.

In the New Testament, McLaren asserts, Jesus turned the domination narrative on its head. His Kingdom of God narrative is a story of the open hand that speaks the language of creation, liberation and reconciliation. God’s approach to a broken world is incarnation, not isolation.

Then McLaren makes his bold move. Either intentionally or accidentally, he says, religions baptize domination narratives. But what if Jesus has come on the scene to expose our abuse of religious stories?

In that case we must open ourselves to a form of atheism or apostasy. That is, we must break faith with the domination Jesus.

For some of us that will mean breaking faith with the revolutionary Jesus, or the purification Jesus, or the isolation Jesus, the victimization or the accumulation Jesus.

In short, there must be a mass defection from the story of the clenched fist.

If the Jesus story is false, McLaren admits, we are fools. But if the Jesus story is truth, we are fools for not embracing it.

Father Richard Rohr: Beyond Dualistic Thinking

By “dualistic thinking” Rohr means the compulsive need to divide things into two categories: either/or; good/bad; terrific/terrible.

Dualistic serve us remarkably well in the mundane world of daily experience (what shirt should I buy; what should we do this evening; is life insurance a good investment?), the really big issues can’t be dealt with by dualistic thinking:

• Suffering

• Death

• Love

• God

• Eternity/infinity

All of life happens, Rohr believes, in the subtle realm in between our either/or categories.

Jesus calls us to become like a child but, our extravagant use of Jesus language notwithstanding, we steadfastly refuse to act on the suggestion.

If we move beyond dualistic thinking we will understand that faith ≠ certitude. Instead, faith is found somewhere along the continuum between knowing and unknowing.

Richard Rohr believes you cannot be a happy person with a dualistic mind. All the dualistic mind knows how to do it to split every present moment into either/or, good/bad, value judgments.

Contemplation, Rohr says, is “unitive consciousness” that transcends dualistic categories. This explains why the deeper thinking of Jesus has never been processed by the church. Dualistic thinkers, for instance, cannot love their enemies because their default mode of thought is rooted in comparison and comparison leads inevitably to competition.

When we speak of truth we really mean that which makes us feel comfortable. On a good day, Rohr asserts, we are willing to reconsider 5% of our worldview. It goes downhill from there.  Whatever makes us uncomfortable is viewed as false.

Rohr admits that Jesus didn’t use the phrase “unitive consciousness”; he simply lived it. We say we agree with the teaching embodied in the parables of Jesus because they are Scripture and we believe the Bible is authoritative. But we don’t understand the parables or, if we do, we often disagree with them.

The economy of grace, Rohr asserts, cannot be understood with a dualistic mind. “Let the wheat and the weeks grow together” Jesus says (Matthew 13:24-30). The dualistic mind insists on pulling the weeds.

God, by definition, will always be mysterious. Those who have been trained to seek certitude by eliminating mystery cannot know God.

We say Jesus is both human and divine because that’s what the creeds of Christianity tell us to believe, but we don’t really mean it. To us, Jesus is 100% divine and 0% human. If this is so, Rohr contends, there is no incarnation.

Rohr believes that dualistic thinking is rooted in the three principles of Greek logic.

1. A = A

2. A ≠ B

3. A cannot be both A and B at the same time

If this be so, the doctrine of the Trinity cannot be grasped. If  the Trinity means anything, God is a verb not a noun.

The Greek word sarx is usually translated as “flesh”, but it actually refers to the human ego. During the Protestant Reformation, Rohr contends, Europe divided into all-or-nothing armies clinging tenaciously to dualistic, either/or thinking. This was the death knell of Christian contemplation.

Dualistic thinking is completely natural. The brain is a binary system that works by comparison. What is tall? Tall is understood in relation to its binary opposite, short. Fat is understood in comparison to thin. Good is understood as the mirror image of bad. And so on. Words, by their very nature, are dualistic. Of necessity, we substitute words for rationality.

Words give the ego a sense of control and control is what the ego craves. The human ego abhors change more than anything else. Fundamentalism, Rohr believes, is a love affair with words, the right words.

Because the ego despises change, its first word will always be “no”. When you start the moment with no you can never love. The grain of wheat is never allowed to die (John 12:24).

Richard Rohr defines “soul” as the place of divine indwelling; the part of us that always says yes to God. We act as if we don’t believe in the soul. God is completely divine, and we are completely human, thus we cannot recognize the divine indwelling. St Francis, on the other hand, saw the divine indwelling everywhere, that’s why he could converse with brother sun and sister moon.

But that was St. Francis. We, on the other hand, live in a disenchanted world. We do a great job of talking religion, but nothing holds together anymore.

At this point, Father Rohr became uncomfortably practical.

Jesus refuses to form an inside group in contradistinction to an outside group, Rohr says. That we can’t see this is a sign of willful ignorance. Catholics, for instance, behave as if Jesus underwent a severe personality change after the resurrection. He once ate and drank with everyone (prostitutes, tax collectors and drunkards included); now he only eats with Catholics. Similar observations could be applied to Protestants.

Then Rohr cut to the heart of the matter. Overcoming racism is kindergarten Christianity, he said. We no longer have the time for infantile religion. Racists are generally very nice people, very friendly for the most part; but they don’t get the Gospel.  The only kind of friendliness that matters is universal friendliness.

Rohr quotes St. Bonaventure: “Ultimately, we either see the glory of God everywhere, or we see it nowhere.”

Then, quoting Bishop Desmond Tutu: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

Matter and spirit coexist, Rohr insists. Incarnation, that’s our trump card, that’s all we’ve got. The shift to unitive consciousness is the change that changes everything.  Jesus taught us that the lamp of the body is the eye.  Our goal is to teach Christians how to see; getting the ego with its constant “no” out of the way.

We have 12-step programs to combat addiction, Rohr says, but religion has taught us an addiction to dualistic thinking. To let go of that will feel like dying.

Dualistic thinking is for ordering off the menu at the restaurant; unitive consciousness is learned through suffering and love. When we love and when we suffer we are inside non-dualistic thinking and the gate of heaven is everywhere.

Brian McLaren 2: The Way Forward for the Church

Brian McLaren began his second talk with a postage stamp first released in 2001. Down one side it read, “USA First Class Forever”. The US Postal Service, he suggested, is a fitting metaphor for the Church. We have said, in essence, “The Church, first class forever” and this could be exactly the wrong kind of slogan to apply to the church.

The future is not fixed, McLaren insists. Instead of saying “This is going to happen and we will have to adjust,” we should be asking “what could happen if we behaved in certain way?”

McLaren then directed our attention to the World Missionary Conference held in Edinburgh Scotland in 1910—exactly one century ago. Prominent mission leaders anticipated a world completely subjugated to the Christian Gospel. We weren’t quite there yet; but all that remained was a simple mopping up exercise.

One hundred years later, we realize that great world religions like Hinduism and Islam are permanent fixtures. In addition, unbelief will be a live option for increasing numbers of people in the century to come. We no longer believe that Christendom will, or should, dominate the world.

When we look at the American Mainline denominations (Presbyterian, Methodist, Congregational, Episcopalian, etc.) that appeared so strong in 1910, what do we see?

• Continuing contraction

• Shrinking numbers

• Wrinkling members

• Low retention rates

• Almost non-existent evangelism

• Constrained leadership

Evangelicals regard these developments with self-assured pleasure, but they will quickly follow the pattern the mainline denominations have taken; only thirty-five years later.

When we look at 2010 American religion, what do we see?

• Conservative Resurgence

• Immigration fears

• Americans domination (American exceptionalism)

• Terrorism fears (desire for revenge)

• Playing to the base

• New alliances (global and ecumenical)

The worst scenario: Frightened people looking for a religion willing to lead them into war.

On the other hand, the current situation could be compared to perils and pains of pregnancy. We see:

• Theological reformation

• Missional reorientation

• Post-national, post-partisan identity

• Spiritual-social movements

Could all three futures coexist? Whatever the case, we are all currently participants in making one of these futures happen.

There is much on the current religious and social scene that is frightening. When we see racist specialists in the Second Coming something has gone terribly wrong. We realize that the assumptions of Dutch Calvinism led directly to South African apartheid.

The world is looking for learners, not know-it-alls.

McLaren advanced some ideas for mainline denominations to consider:

• Consider changing your denominations name (“Presbyterian” is no longer a sexy word)

• Write new commitments and compose creeds to support them

• Recruit leadership talent from your denomination, race and culture

• Close failing churches and direct funds from asset sales into new church development

• Give every leader an annual four-month learning sabbatical

• Focus on behavior, not results

• Create a future denomination within the present denomination

McLaren then shared some thoughts about the relationship between movements and institutions. We often see one as good and the other as bad; but McLaren believes that movements and institutions need one another.

For example, Martin Luther King (a movement man) and Lyndon Baines Johnson (an institution man) needed one another and they both knew it.

When institutions and movements work together, McLaren says, change happens.

Institutions are organizations which conserve the gains made by social movements. If a movement doesn’t inject its DNA into an institution it will stagnate

6 thoughts on “Clenched Fists and Open Hands: McLaren and Rohr get real about religion

  1. Thanks you Alan, particularly for the McLaren notes – I align with his call to apostasy, and look forward to the era that many are calling post-Christendom. xian

  2. Some people in every mainline church in every country (I’m in Canada) are thinking this way, and going to workshops and reading books about emerging church, and believe that a totally different Christianity is going to exist in this century. This can be frustrating, with many Church members looking back to better days, but the age of Christendom is over. We live in an age when even lip service is not being paid to Christianity by the Corporate/Government Empire in which we live. It’s easier to see outside the U.S. , where the majority still profess Christianity, but the Church doesn’t run the western world any more. Are we going to become a counter-cultural force as we were before Constantine?

  3. Thank you for these thoughtful comments. I have spent most of my adult life in the US, but I was raised in Canada. The contrast is indeed striking. When I moved to Louisville, KY to attend seminary in 1975 there were more Baptists in two or three churches than we had in the Western provinces. Evangelicalism was default identity. That remains true here in Arlington, Texas, but cracks are appearing everywhere in the plaster. Good, bad, glorious or sad, that’s the way it is and we are called to make the most of it.

  4. Some are celebrating the prospect of being set free from the Constantinian Captivity, while others–those who are complaining of the war on Christmas among others (see Gail Collins’ op. ed. in NYT 12/11/10)–are bemoaining the demise of Christendom. I’m celebrating.

  5. I’d like to celebrate the end of Christendom but there are still expensive anachronisms like tax breaks for churches and clergy housing allowances; and I notice that even “Progressives” enjoy these, no matter how often they denounce “Caesar”.
    Which means they’re either opportunistic hypocrites or they’re not paying attention.

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