Published this year, Brian McLaren’s Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Spiritual Practices marks the beginning of a series of books published by Tommy Nelson. The Ancient Practices series will address disciplines such as fasting, contemplative prayer, fixed hour prayer, simplicity, spiritual reading, solitude, etc. for the purposes of transformation. According to the book jacket, “ancient practices are the means by which we prepare for grace to surprise us. They are the habits by which our souls grow weighty; actions of mind, body, and will that close the gap between the character we want to possess and the character we currently have.”
Though I’ve written reviews and reports in the past, I can call this written response neither. It is a reaction. I have termed it such because I do not intend to provide chapter breakdowns, line by line analysis, or even a sure fire positive or negative endorsement. This is a book that I’m rather lukewarm about. I’m also classifying this review as a reaction because of my disposition toward the author, toward whom I have rather strong feelings. I finished reading the book a couple of weeks ago, enjoyed it in part, found it distasteful at times, and have kept it near my computer in recent days contemplating what I might have to say about this recent work.
I met Brian McLaren through A New Kind of Christian in the spring of 2002. My wife, whom I had just begun dating at the time, suggested that we pick up that book and use it as a primer for discussion about the Christian life. I devoured the book, she read most of it, and through it both of us were introduced to”postmodernism” and how this perspective is shaping and may still shape Christianity. I credit McLaren with shifting my thinking in a new direction, I’ve read most of what he has published, I’ve tracked “Emergent” carefully over the past 6 years, and might be considered a friendly, though not entirely sympathetic, critic of McLaren and those who are of like mind.
Finding Our Way again begins with a true to life parable, in which McLaren recounts an interview which he conducted some years ago with Peter Senge, one of the pioneers of systems thinking. This interview took place at a conference for pastors. McLaren had prepared to introduce Dr. Senge. He was surprised to find out the evening before that his actual task was to interview this brilliant man. At the beginning of the interview he remarked that this audience must be rather unconventional for someone like Senge, and asked, “What would you like to say to a group of five hundred Christian ministers?”
Senge responded thoughtfully, agreeing that he did not typically speak to such audiences. It so happened that the day before Dr. Senge had been present in a bookstore and learned that the second most popular genre of books where those on Buddhism, ranking behind books on how to earn wealth quickly in the new information economy. In light of this recent experience, he responded to McLaren with a question. Senge asked the group, “Why are book on Buddhism so popular, and not books on Christianity?”
McLaren asked for Senge’s answer to this question. He responded by saying, “I think it’s because Buddhism presents itself as a way of life, and Christianity presents itself as a system of belief. So I would want to get Christian ministers thinking about how to rediscover their own faith as a way of life, because that’s what people are searching for today. That’s what they need most.”
McLaren’s presentation flows from this parable. First, McLaren chronicles why spiritual practices matter. On many points I agree strongly with McLaren. McLaren affirms that becoming a person of character does not happen instantaneously. Rather, becoming a person of virtue takes years of practice and development. McLaren argues that spiritual practices matter because they are the means by which God transforms our character into the likeness of Jesus.
Next, McLaren discusses specific practices which stand at the root of character transformation. In his discussion he attempts to address Christianity, Judaism, and Islam as ways of life that need to be recaptured for the good of the world. McLaren notes how fasting, fixed hour prayer, Sabbath, the sacred meal, pilgrimage, observances of sacred seasons, and giving are all rooted in the story of Abraham–a common root for each of these major world religions. Whereas I would see this as a central theme of any book on spiritual practices, McLaren only devotes one chapter of focus to these disciplines.
After rooting spiritual practices in the Abrahamic narrative, McLaren turns to both Jesus and Paul. To be brief, McLaren’s discussion of Jesus is mainly centered on the kingdom of God, a topic which McLaren has written about extensively in his book The Secret Message of Jesus. When considering Paul, McLaren asserts that the apostle has been commonly misread and must be seen as someone working out the teachings of Jesus. Said differently, Paul must be read in light of Jesus rather than through Wesley, Calvin, Luther, Aquinas, or Augustine. McLaren describes Paul’s ministry as teaching the way of love, highlighting the apostle’s teaching on the ingrafting of Gentiles into God’s people through Christ (a form of radical inclusivity) and the way in which we are called to practice love as persons “in Christ.”
Moving forward from here, McLaren discusses the importance of spiritual community, paints a picture of “open-source spirituality” (taking what is good from a variety of traditions), and the need for a commonality between the Activist and Contemplative ways, two polarities which have existed historically in Christianity. McLaren describes the Contemplative way as emphasizing the personal gospel, private piety, the future-reality of heaven, and the avoidance of sin. The Activist way is focused on the social gospel, the common good, present-reality of earth, and the avoidance of injustice. McLaren sees the need for these polarities to converge in a balanced spirituality which engages communally, contemplatively, and missionally. These three ways of being, which I will not treat in detail, constitute McLaren’s “Holy Trinity” of a healthy spiritual environment.
In the final 1/4 of his book, McLaren presents three other ways of thinking about spiritual practices. Katharsis (via purgativa), Fotosis (via illuminativa), and Theosis (via unitiva) are explained through a story of an interaction with a nun. In short, these practices work together to yield a healthier and more vibrant life with God. Through Katharsis the soul purges the junk, the dust, and the cobwebs which have cluttered our lives, opening the way for a fresh engagement with God. In Fotosis practices such as lectio divina are engaged so that God might lead the individual to new insights. In Theosis one moves to a place where one’s heartbeat falls in rhythm with the heartbeat of God.
McLaren concludes his book with an exhortation to the three great monotheistic faiths to find their way again so that character might be developed, persons might be more awake to the world, and individuals may testify to an experience of God. Lastly, McLaren wishes to see these practices undertaken in hope they will lead to peace. He states,”What if there is a treasure hidden in the field of our three great monotheisms, long buried but waiting to be recovered? And what if that treasure is a way…a way that can train us to stop killing and hating and instead to work together, under God, joining God, to build a better world, a city of peace, a city of God? What if our suffering and fear are not intended to inspire deadly cycles of defense and counterattack in a vain search for peace through victory and domination, but instead, what if they can serve to break and soften us like a plowed field after rain so that the seed of God’s kingdom–a few notes of God’s eternal harmony–can grow within us and among us?”
Most people would agree that peace is a worthy hope.
While many of the things McLaren describes in this book are worthy, good, hopeful, encouraging, and, on some points, true, as I read the book I continued to be plagued by the thought that something was missed, or amiss. Why is it, I asked, that Christianity continues to be pigeon holed as a “system of belief,” and not as “a way of life”? All I have ever known of Christianity has come to me within the lived context of a people. Could it be that persons in the American context are not drawn to Eastern religious traditions because of their presentation as a way of life? Could it be, rather, that as people seek after a way of life and search for an option which seems truthful, Christianity as it is being expressed in America has been found wanting? Perhaps the problem is not with our way of life or our emphasis on information to construct a system of belief. Perhaps the problem lies beneath those categories. I tend to think that it does. I tend to think that our problem has greatly to do with our theology as it is both expressed and practiced, the erosion of our capacity to be serious in the middle of an amusement culture, and the absence of vision and leadership which reflects the grandiose nature of the Kingdom of God. The problem with Christianity is not with it’s emphasis on one aspect (cognitive) or another (practice), it is that both the system and the way have become hollow and cheap, rather than weighty and costly.
One last issue: McLaren ends his treatment of spiritual practices with an appeal to the three Abrahamic faiths, petitioning them to become more disciplined in their historic rhythms for the purpose of forming people who exhibit God’s shalom, or peace. McLaren wants to see us all get along, whether we be Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, or whatever. While I agree with McLaren that within each historic religion rest resources for peaceful coexistence, I wonder if he fully realizes the magnitude of his vision. A peaceful relationship between people of varying traditions is hard work. Just because it is hard does not mean that it is not possible. Yet, religion deals with matters of “ultimate concern,” constructs maps of meaning, and makes claims of truth about existence. Sometimes religious claims come in to conflict both within and between traditions. To me, it seems that McLaren’s hope for peaceful coexistence for a “city of peace, a city of God” reflects an eschatology that minors on certain central particulars. I’m not saying that it isn’t a worthy hope. I am saying that I have questions for how this works itself out eschatologically.
Though I read this book over the course of about three days and did find some nuggets within, in the words of Homer Simpson I could only grant “Five Thumbs Up” on a scale of 10 Thumbs. Good, but not great. If you have found some of the ideas I’ve outlined here interesting and can obtain it from your public library, check it out. I wouldn’t recommend dishing out dollars to add this to your personal collection.
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