The following is a conversation between author Brian McLaren; Victoria Loorz, co-founder of Seminary of the Wild; Kate Davis, director of the Center for Transforming Engagement; and Christ&Cascadia editor Forrest Inslee. Together, they discuss Brian’s new book, Do I Stay Christian?: A Guide for the Doubters, the Disappointed, and the Disillusioned. This was originally recorded as a webcast for the Earthkeepers Podcast.
Victoria: Brian, thank you so much for being here. I was lucky enough to get an early copy of your new book, which is going to become required reading for Seminary of the Wild participants. So many people, in my bubble at least, are asking this exact question that is the title of your book: Do I Stay Christian? I wanted to give you an opportunity to share a little bit about why this book at this time was so urgent and important.
Brian: Victoria, I think you and folks who have a sensitivity to the natural world will understand why so many people who are affiliated with the Christian religion are just wondering whether that investment of time and energy is unproductive and therefore not worth continuing—or whether it’s actually counterproductive, and thus a moral necessity to withdraw from it.
So much of the Christian religion is still focused on escaping the earth, and is focused on treating the earth kind of like a candy wrapper; the important thing is souls that will be sucked up to heaven after death and, really, just the entire universe and all its intricacy is seen either as a distraction or just non-recyclable garbage. This sort of love of the spiritual world and disdain for the natural world, or this love for eternity and disdain for history—I think we just realize that we can’t afford it anymore. So, there are a whole lot of people who are thinking about leaving or who have already left the faith.
I did not want to write a book to persuade them to stay, because they have really good reasons to leave. Yet I also wanted to make the point that those people who still identify as Christians are part of the religion that has the most power to make things worse or, potentially, make things better. We all need to discover a new way of relating to this earth of which we’re part. That is a deeply spiritual work. So, the ecological transformation that I think is deeply needed in the Christian faith is really one of the purposes of the book.
Victoria: This is the time, isn’t it? Spiritual leadership in earth care is just so needed.
Brian: Exactly right. I can’t think of another historical necessity that has the kind of consequences of inaction that this one does. I think those of us who are awake and aware feel this. And those of us who have a Christian background are also aware that there are elements in Christian faith that have fueled the kind of destructive attitudes that we currently see. Yet there are even more resources among Christians that could do the opposite. We all are people who are trying to rediscover and redeploy those assets.
Kate: Part of what I hear you saying is the dilemma of hope and especially hope that’s collective–hope that’s in institutions. I love the title question, Do I Stay Christian? It’s one that we hear so often at the Center for Transforming Engagement. People have told us that we’re the last stop on the express train out of Christianity, and if they’re going to find a way to stay in the church and make it work for them, it’s going to be here. Otherwise they’re gone. On the one hand, there’s so little hope that people just want to be done with it and say, “I don’t identify as Christian anymore.”
On the other hand, when you do that—when you abdicate—you lose the ability to influence the institution for the positive change that you want to see. And that question of hope which, really, I think is what people come to us looking for is, How do I have enough hope to stay in this work but not so much that I’m going to be heartbroken in it? Of course, you’re going to have your heart broken in it—but I’m curious: for you, what sustains that hope for the future of the church, enough to at least keep the question active?
Brian: I love what Greta Tunberg says about this. She says, “I don’t want you to have hope. I want you to panic because the house is on fire.” And that actually leads me to a deeper definition of hope: hope for me, increasingly, happens when I am able to commit to doing something whether or not it will succeed, or whether or not it feels like it will succeed. Where I disconnect my commitment from the likelihood of successful results. And here’s the irony about this: if you give up when positive results don’t look likely, then you increase the chances that nothing good will happen. If you keep doing the right thing irrespective of the likelihood of success, you infinitely increase the chances that things could get better; your action and your involvement could be a critical factor. So, I don’t know if that helps, Kate, but I just think this question of hope is really important because despair has a whole set of unintended consequences. At the same time, a naive hope that only looks for encouraging evidence…I don’t think that is a strong enough kind of hope.
Forrest: Brian, I want to follow up on this theme of transformation. Both Circlewood and Earthkeepers Podcast are committed to helping people understand that earth care has everything to do with faith life. We believe that a reorientation of our relationship to creation is inevitably going to mean that our faith practices and faith communities are going to be changed. But while Circlewood is committed to helping folks work for reform from within the traditional church, we also encourage people to imagine new expressions of faith community outside of the church. I’m wondering: when you think about the future of church, do you have more hope for change that comes from within the system, or are you more hopeful about experimental movements happening outside the mainstream?
Brian: I love this question because it requires me to say that writing this book changed me. The term “the church” has virtually no meaning to me anymore. What’s become absolutely clear to me is that the church is full of contradictions and it is hard to say what “church” is or does. For example, in the name of the church refugees are taken in and cared for and given dignity. And in the name of the church, refugees are turned away and treated as subhuman. In the name of the church guns are melted down and turned into garden implements. And in the name of the church people celebrate owning more and more guns. Every single issue I can think of, the church contradicts itself.
For this reason I try to encourage people to have realistic expectations. I think under the auspices of the church, things will get worse and worse and worse. I think that in terms of current failings and abuses that are associated with church, we should expect that we haven’t gotten anywhere near rock bottom. So to come back to your question then, when it comes to the elements of faith community that are open to change, how do we do that? And here is where I think you’re identifying the challenge of embracing necessary change. There may be some opportunities to work with established churches, but we must also be ready to admit: when we don’t have time for those slow changes, we have to go outside the boundaries of traditional church if we want to make anything happen.
Because here’s my little motto: I think institutions imitate, and movements innovate. I think it’s very rare for an institution to innovate. It needs to see a movement of people who don’t wait for permission or funding or whatever before they go out and innovate. Innovation can, in turn, stimulate the imagination for imitation, both dynamics can work together. I’m really glad that you all are acknowledging and encouraging both of those possible modes.
It’s very easy for people in both of those categories to despise each other, though. The innovators ask, “Why aren’t you joining us in the freedom of change outside the institution? This is where the action is.” And the institutional folks demand, “Why aren’t you making change here on the inside? This is where the power is.” They’re both right, I think. But it is important to fully commit to whatever approach you value more. I will say though, that for those innovators and visionaries who let themselves be held back by a misplaced loyalty to the institution—well, I hesitate to use this language but it’s language Jesus used—those people need to find courage to let the dead bury the dead. And to those who know they must be about institutional reform from within, these people must let people who want to walk away, walk away. We just need to figure out what we are for, get on with our work, and find the places where people are ready for the work to be done.
This is certainly true concerning this current movement toward a reconnection with the earth—and a re-earthing of God, a change in our very understanding of who we are as children of the earth. We do what we need to do to pursue that, and rather than obsess about being in or out of the church—well, the important thing is to embody the changes we want to see first in ourselves. Then we find and join with others for whom this movement is also happening. And then we can invite other people who feel drawn in this direction to celebrate it and discover it and embody it—embody it in institutions, embody it in movements, embody it in communities, embody it in art and in every way we can. If we care about investing in faith community, that’s the very best thing we can do for all those people who don’t “get it” yet; they won’t be able to get it until they see it embodied.
Victoria: At one point in your chapter on re-wilding you write, “Seminaries around the world are offering courses and even whole degrees and other certifications to help us re-wild our faith. I’m especially grateful for the good people of Seminary of the Wild, described as a wild seedbed of spiritual and cultural evolution.” So, I just want to say publicly, thank you for that nod! But I also wanted to ask if you’ve been experiencing that same hope and seeing those signs of change in other places. What have you been noticing? What other kinds of innovation and re-imagining of seminary education have you seen?
Brian: In the world of the academy, there really is important scholarly work to be done. Some people might write off what goes on in that realm, and say “Oh, that’s just academic, that’s just ivory tower.” Yet I think that the academy is one of the places where we unscrew the bolts of a current suicidal machinery. Those bolts of entrenched worldviews and value systems get unscrewed, and that in turn makes some new things possible. This is happening.
For example, the living theologian I quote a lot in the book is Ilia Delio, a Franciscan nun. She’s bringing important discussions from evolutionary biology into the world of theology, and from process philosophy into the world of theology. This is really important work because it eventually allows those outside of academia to make shifts in thought and praxis. I think of someone like Karena Gore and the work she’s doing at Union Seminary; that school has been a leader both in the area of advocating for race as an important category of theology, as well as the environment as a super important category.
Victoria: In terms of “academia,” I am not sure where Seminary of the Wild fits into what you are saying—since we are so oriented to experiential learning. We do read some books, but we help people to learn in more embodied ways. In terms of teaching about relationship to the land, for example, we help people to learn what being connected with the land looks and feels like. More often, then, when we engage a theological question that invites scholarly engagement, we also help our students to bring that question to the land—to bring it to the rivers, and bring it to the stars—in order to seek insight and wisdom.
Brian: That is one of your really unique contributions to this movement of re-wilded faith. Can you imagine how that would affect theological education and spiritual formation if we took that experiential dimension more seriously? I just think we are at the beginning of a revolution.
Kate: When I was reading your chapter on re-wilding, you have this beautiful sentence about needing to make peace with our wild bodies—and you’re calling out Christians, specifically, there. As I was reading, I realized that, of the examples that came to mind in my world for making peace with our bodies, most of them were from the not-Christian world. I was wondering if you had a story that might help us imagine what making peace with our wild bodies looks like in our own faith communities.
Brian: You know, what’s interesting to me is how many church people there are for whom yoga has become an important part of their life; they know they might not be able to talk about it with some people at church, but these little secret networks form. I will be interested to see if we eventually develop a kind of theology of yoga. That will take committed Christians being willing to say, “Let’s talk about our experience in and of our bodies, and the practices that connect us.”
My daughter is a gifted yoga teacher and I was with her in a yoga class not long ago and someone said, “the point isn’t touching your toes, the point is what you learn on the way down.” I just thought, there’s something about the experience of inhabiting your body here where real transactions are happening and real breakthroughs are happening that we have to acknowledge and engage.
Yet embodiment isn’t new; it has been there in the gospel the whole time, even if we don’t often talk about it this way. Think about it, though: Jesus went on a 40-day vision quest to begin his public ministry. And I think it’s unfortunate that we use the word “wilderness” in the Bible to mean a desert and a dangerous, inhospitable place. I think a better way to say it might be, “Jesus went to school of the wild for 40 days.”
There is a learning that you can only experience by extended time engaging with the wild world. That it’s the experience of standing in the middle of a thunderstorm where you know there’s nowhere to hide, and you could be killed at any second. That does something to you that you maybe can experience in no other way. I guarantee you can’t experience it through reading a book. That experience may be a necessary part of what it means to become a human being, a mature well-balanced human being fit to live in this world. And it goes beyond experiences of dread or smallness or fragility; there are also the experiences of delight and joy and dignity and wonder. David Lana the poet, biologist calls it awe-gasm. That we need to have an explosion of delight in awe of the natural world.
Victoria: Getting through the present climate crisis can’t just be about figuring out the right technologies, or how to dismantle destructive systems. We also need to discover the sacred reality that is between all things. We need to learn how to listen once again.
Kate: And to recognize that listening is centered in our bodies. I love, Brian, that you went from yoga to nature to this list of emotions we might feel in our bodies. All in the realm of physical experience.
Brian: Well, consider that the traditional Christian understanding of sex has been mostly tied up with what you’re not allowed to do. Yet what would it mean for us to talk about sex as the wildness of our bodies—even as a reflection of God that has to be rediscovered in a healthy way? We’ve had generations of “purity culture” and centuries and centuries of body shaming and body hatred that has encouraged so much animosity toward the body—especially the female body. But there has been a sort of self-hatred in male sexuality, too. What if sexuality and our relationships to our bodies could be looked at in a fresh way?
Or what if we more fully engaged the experience of aging, or even of dying? I’m not at home right now. I’m sitting in the office of my brother-in-law who passed away a few days ago. In a time like this, I am faced with the reality of death—but my understanding of death, I find, has been shaped by the Christian impulse to shortcut death rather than to understand death as a necessary part of wildness. Death is part of embodiedness; yet we are more interested in solving death as a problem before we would ever allow it to become our teacher.
Forrest: In the chapter of your book on re-wilding, I was intrigued by your conversation about Indigenous folks. Let me read a passage and ask you about this. The descendants of colonizers, you write, “are finally turning to Indigenous people who survived and resisted colonization knowing that our mutual survival and well-being now depend upon recovering wisdom that Indigenous cultures still carry, wisdom derived from being wild, a part of the land rather than apart from it.” I’m really curious about what you mean by “recovering wisdom” and how you would describe this wisdom derived from the wild.
Brian: First, I think about relationships I’ve been blessed with, with Indigenous people both here in this country and in other countries. I think we have to remember there are so many more colonizers than descendants of the colonized. If we were all to seek them out as teachers, that in itself could be a form of oppression—as if people exist just to teach the rest of us lessons. There’s a kind of “reclaiming homework” that we have to do on our own, and often that means being willing to not bother people but to learn what we can from what they’ve written, or learn what we can by observing them from a respectful distance.
If we’re invited to come in closer—well, we would need to cherish that opportunity in relationship as a treasure. I think about Native American teachers like Randy Woodley, who’s known to many of us, and about the late Richard Twiss, a dear friend who has made a huge mark in my life. I think, too, of the writer Robin Wall Kimmerer and her amazing work. We live in a time when so much of that indigenous wisdom is available to us, if we take the time to learn and have the humility to be formed.
Forrest: Our friend-in-common, Randy Woodley, has a really intriguing idea that, I think, offers a way into that learning place. He would say that by learning from Indigenous people, we might also learn to recover our own indigeneity. Because we all come from a place where we were connected to the land at one time in our ancestry. He would say that Indigenous folks (capital I), model for us what that looks like to still live integrally rooted in a place. We’re not to appropriate that model, but instead let it inspire us to ask, “What does this mean for me to love the land, to belong to the land, to listen to the land?”
Brian: You know, that strikes me as so wise because very often it’s not imitating behavior that gets us where we need to go, it’s imitating desire, or perhaps imitating a value. It’s the desire for reconnection that will motivate us to recover what can be recovered, and to create new ways of living as and with and in the earth.
Forrest: Amen to that.
Victoria: Those reconnections can be very intimate, small steps. It can be with a tree in your yard; it can be with a spider in your shower. It’s remembering that humans are part of the wild. If we can reframe it in those terms, we can begin to intentionally establish kindred relationship with particular elements of creation. I know that has been part of your journey, Brian, so I am intrigued to ask: Is there a particular story of a kindred relationship that really expanded this sense of sacred relationship for you?
Brian: There are so many. What I love about just being alive is that there’s always more to learn and new connections to make. But I’ll just tell you a story from today.
So, here I am in this room in my brother-in-law’s home, and six feet from me is a window, and two feet on the other side of the window is a robin’s nest. I live in Florida now where we don’t have robins and I miss them. I love the robin’s song, even though it’s one of the most common songs; it just always makes me happy. Anyhow, I’ve been sitting here doing podcasts and other interviews all day for many, many hours. And I’ve been watching a pair of robins build their nest; they come with a mouthful of grass and weave it into the perfect shape for their eggs, and it’s just been a great day watching this happen. I’ve never witnessed nest-building from this close vantage point. And I never noticed how so much of their building involves scrunching their bodies down and using the shape of their bodies to actually shape the nest. It makes beautiful sense, of course, because it’s their bodies that are going to be protecting the eggs. And I keep thinking to myself: My brother and sister robin are with me today, and that is a gift.
Kate: There is something poetic in the metaphor of the robin’s body making a home for the robin. Thinking again about what it means to have to stay in Christianity and how we’ve not necessarily made an institution that has space for our bodies. And perhaps how we need to use our bodies to build a home that’s more capable of holding us spiritually.
Brian: Thank you, that’s so beautiful. I think that’s a freedom that we need to receive. One of the consequences for me of writing this book—and I’m not happy about this, I’m not sad about it, it’s just an observation—is that the kind of “magic” of Christian authority structures has really dissipated for me. It’s not that I have disdain for all these great figures that we all study and learn about…it’s just that I see them so clearly now as just people who were doing the best they could. The more aware I’ve become of their mistakes, the more the magic has really gone. But here’s the interesting thing: the magic was not allowing me to be a full member of the community, or to shape the nest to fit me. So in a sense, maybe their imperfections and their failures are part of the gift to all of us that can help us to say, “OK, it’s time for us to quit being limited by what we’ve been told to do and be, and time to stop complaining. Now is the time to actually say and do the things that are needed in this moment.”
Kate: Time to start weaving our own grass.
Brian: That’s it, that’s it!
Cover photo credit: Robert Thiemann