Monday, February 22, 2010

Brian McLaren On the God of the Old Testament

(Upward-evolutionary progress of the M4 Carbine)

One of Brian McLaren's "ten questions that are transforming the faith is "the God question: Is God violent?" (A New Kind of Christianity, 19) He deals with the question in chs. 10 & 11. Brian's solution is this: Read the Bible as an ongoing conversation about the character of God.

Why does God appear so violent in some passages of the Bible? McLaren writes: "We suggest this hypothesis: if the human beings who produced those passages were violent in their own development, they would naturally see God through the lens of their experience." (106)

For Brian it's not that God's character changes, "as if God used to be rather adolescent, but has taken a turn for the better and is growing up nicely over the last few centuries. I am saying that human beings can't do better than their very best at any given moment to communicate about God as they understand God, and that Scripture faithfully reveals the evolution of our ancestors' best attempts to communicate their successive best understandings of God. As human capacity grows to conceive of a higher and wiser view of God, each new vision is faithfully preserved in Scripture like fossils in layers of sediment." (103)

What McLaren says next reminds me of good old-fashioned "progressive revelation." He writes: "Consider the Bible a collection of math textbooks. There's a first-grade text, a second-grade text, and so on, all the way up to high school texts..." (103)

McLaren seems to say that there is a biblical progression/evolution of the portrayal of God that is function of a spiritual and moral human evolution. Consider his "time machine" analogy. Imagine taking a time machine from today to the year 3013. "When we arrive, we find that people in the future are deeply spiritual. They have continued to grow in the knowledge and ways of the Lord over these many centuries. And they have grown socially as well as spiritually." For example, "they no longer fight wars. All conflicts are resolved through peaceful negotiation." (106)

If I read McLaren correctly his answer to the "Is God violent?" question is as follows.

  • Old Testament people were in "kindergarten" morally and spiritually. So, they portrayed God in a kind of Feuerbachian projection of their own moral and spiritual immaturity. McLaren's footnote on religion and brain activity is suggestive here. (273, fn. 4. See also Ib., fn 5, re. his "ontogeny recapitulates our phylogeny" quote.)
  • As people morally and spiritually advanced, so did the biblical characterizations of God.
  • When we get to the first century we have Jesus, a man of peace and love and sacrifice and humility.
  • Historically, we keep "trading up" our understandings of God. See McLaren's diagrams on pp. 112-113 that illustrate his upward-evolutionary understanding of God.
  • If we keep going at this rate by the year 3013 we'll all be vegan pacifists. (Yes, that's right - see p. 106)
I wonder about what McLaren is doing here. In these ways:
  • While progressive revelation makes some sense to me, the idea that humans have progressed and are progressing morally and spiritually does not make sense. We just left a century of unprecedented mass violence. As I read the biblical texts from a non-constitutional POV, I do not see a lot of human moral and spiritual progress. I feel certain that if McLaren tried to make a case for this kind of progress he'd find many scholarly resistors of all theological and atheological kinds.
  • If first-century humans communicated their wisest and best about God I do not think they would have come up with Jesus. So the biblical protrayal of Jesus is not in sync with human moral and spiritual development. On a "progressive revelation" viewpoint (rather than an evolutionary viewpoint) increasing revelation of God need not be in sync with human moral and spiritual development.
  • I am not convinced with McLaren's answer to the violent-God-of-the-OT question. To me it's more Darwinian, or socio-anthropological, then textual. I am quite intersted in the work Paul Copan is doing, and anxiously await Greg Boyd's forthcoming book on the subject. Plus the forthcoming text that came out of the recent Notre Dame conference on OT God vs. NT God.
  • I feel McLaren is working way too hard to fit the biblical texts into a theory, rather than let a theory emerge out of the biblical texts.
  • As I read these two chapters I could not help but think, "Am I missing something here? Why am I not buying into what he's writing? And why are there virtually no scholarly footnotes supporting what I see to be an outlandish thesis? Does he have support elsewhere? And why do I tire of all of his questions - sometimes a page or more of nothing but questions? Is he trying to model a conversational approach with me, the reader? I don't know...