Brian McLaren on Atheists: “They Have Data Everybody Needs”

Brian McLaren and Mike Lehmann

I met Brian McLaren last week.

What’s in Brian McLaren’s new book? What did he tell me about dialogue between Christians and atheists?

Find out now. 

We Make the Road by Walking

Brian McLaren, a former pastor, is a prolific author and speaker.

He’s (in)famous for his prominent role in the emerging church, a movement that started in the ’90s or so. The movement consisted of disillusioned evangelicals, and others, who wanted to explore new ways of expressing their Christian faith.

The controversial part? This new exploration often included shifts toward more liberal theological views on hell, the Bible, and the role of evangelism.

For an example of the criticism Brian receives, see Neo-Reformed author Tim Challies’s recent post—which calls McLaren a false teacher. McLaren’s gracious response to Challies is worth reading. Full disclosure: I’m more conservative than Brian, but I think that if we focus on the positives, he’s got a lot of great stuff to say.

Friday night, McLaren discussed spiritual community and his new book, We Make the Road by Walking: A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation, and Activation

The book has 52 chapters, each of which features a short reading, as well as questions and suggested practices. McLaren uses the term “aliveness” to refer to spiritual growth and fulfillment:

What we all want is pretty simple, really. We want to be alive. To feel alive. . . . We capture this kind of mindful, overbrimming life in terms like well-being, shalom, blessedness, wholeness, harmony, life to the full, and aliveness. . . . When people say, “I’m spiritual,” what they mean, I think, is simple: “I’m seeking aliveness.”

I like this way of putting it, not least because it reminds me of You, Me and Dupree. Why is that? Because Owen Wilson’s character also talks about “ness”: “What’s ‘ness’? It’s your name, plus ‘ness.’ “ This clip is hilarious; the whole movie is underrated.

Back to McLaren. I like his description of aliveness. He has many great lines in the book, but I want to focus on a wonderful passage he wrote about faith:

Faith is stepping off the map of what’s known and making a new road by walking into the unknown. It’s responding to God’s call to adventure, stepping out on a quest for goodness . . . True faith isn’t a deal where we use God to get the inside track or a special advantage or a secret magic formula for success. It isn’t a mark of superiority or exclusion. True faith is about joining God in God’s love for everyone.

Faith is trusting and responding to God. I love Brian’s insistence that true faith means participating in God’s love for all.

Reading We Make the Road by Walking is a worthwhile investment, even if you quibble with some of his theology. McLaren encourages you to embrace true faith—which means loving God and loving others. Somebody else said that, I think.

Nic Cage book rating scaleCon Air

“[Atheists] have data everybody needs”

After McLaren finished his talk about spiritual community Friday night, he opened up the floor for questions.

He was kind enough to field one of mine. I asked him about strategies for encouraging respectful and illuminating conversation between Christians and atheists about God. (Which is the goal of this blog, by the way.)

McLaren responded by sharing two anecdotes.

First, he mentioned a recent conversation he had with Ryan Bell, a former Christian pastor, which he said I might find helpful. In January, Bell “began a yearlong journey exploring the limits of theism and the atheist landscape in the United States.”

In this video, Bell and McLaren cover some great topics: what counts as “evidence,” if liberal theology leads to the death of God entirely, and the evolution of religious belief.

Second, he told me about a new friend of his.

An incredibly well-educated person read one of Brian’s books, and then reached out to him. (Brian didn’t want to divulge many details, out of privacy concerns.) The person had been an atheist, but expressed newfound confusion to Brian. How does the universe start with hydrogen gas, and wind up producing opera? Doesn’t it look like there is some arc, some purpose to the whole thing? Brian then said that the person was curious about bringing back belief in God “at a higher level.”

You can check out a video of Brian describing this story to Bell.

McLaren’s anecdotes were very helpful, as was his line that “[atheists] have data everybody needs.” What is this data? Why folks become atheists in the first place.

What causes atheism? Many things, but I think bad Christian theology is at the top of the list. How many people are forced into the false dilemma between accepting science and worshipping Jesus? How many people are discouraged from processing their sincere theological doubts, only to have those doubts drown them when life hits a bumpy road?

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that Brian McLaren, someone who appreciates these questions, admires “faitheist” Chris Stedman. Both of them realize the prerequisite for respectful and illuminating dialogue: focusing on what you have in common with the other, and working together toward a common goal.

What do you think of these Brian McLaren quotations and anecdotes?

If you’re an atheist, what data do you have? Why are you an atheist?

What’s the best strategy for dialogue between Christians and atheists?

2 thoughts on “Brian McLaren on Atheists: “They Have Data Everybody Needs”

  1. Thanks for the post Mike! I do think it’s good and helpful that Brian, and likewise Ryan, are honest and cordial about what they believe and have trouble believing. I very much believe this is more helpful and pleasant than if they were dishonest and/or mean.

    I listened to the interview with Ryan as well as read some of the quotes from Brian. I actually thought Ryan was a little more understandable and clear about his thoughts. I do think in the terms in which they described Christianity it makes little sense to hold onto. The heart of Christianity and the scriptures is that God has revealed himself through Jesus Christ and his plan for restoration through Jesus Christ. So we find out who and what God is like through Christ revealed in the scriptures. Now that doesn’t make it true. That’s just its claim. You can certainly believe that it’s not true but in doing this you are no longer believing in Christianity. You can pick and choose certain things that you like about what the bible says too as long as you don’t call it Christianity. Its just now something else… i believe religion 3.0 as they put it.

    One of the things i think they miss in their discussion of Christianity is any talk of why it’s hard for us to understand or know God. Christianity believes that its hard to know God because man is more concerned about himself than he is about God. It does not believe that man is really trying to find God but things are just too difficult to believe. Christianity believes that at the heart of man he doesnt really want to know God or love others… he really just wants himself to be lifted up. The bibles message here is that Christ’s love for us can change that in us. Now just because the bible says this doesn’t make it true but it certainly completely changes the message when you take it away.

    Ultimately i think cordial conversations between anyone when it comes to belief is most helpful. But i think it’s also important that each position is accurately defined and communicated. I felt like there was a little bit of a straw man argument going on in their discussions…

    Liked by 1 person

    • AJ, thanks for the great response!

      I like your thought about “religion 3.0”:

      You can pick and choose certain things that you like about what the bible says too as long as you don’t call it Christianity. Its just now something else… i believe religion 3.0 as they put it.

      Your point reminds me of Scot McKnight’s great review of one of Brian’s books, A New Kind of Christianity. McKnight wrote that “Brian McLaren’s ‘new’ Christianity is not so much revolutionary as evolutionary.”

      I read the book when it came out, and I still agree with McKnight’s conclusion:

      I read this book carefully, and I found nothing new. It may be new for Brian, but it’s a rehash of ideas that grew into fruition with Adolf von Harnack and now find iterations in folks like Harvey Cox and Marcus Borg. For me, Brian’s new kind of Christianity is quite old. And the problem is that it’s not old enough.

      Harnack was a German theologian and major figure in Protestant liberalism, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This comparison is not a compliment. I recommend reading McKnight’s review, if you haven’t already.

      I find some of McLaren’s points very compelling, like his definition of faith, and some points very unpersuasive, like his re-interpretation of hell.

      I just watched a great, short discussion between McKnight and McLaren, provocatively titled “Conversations on Being a Heretic.” You might find it helpful.


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