Tashlan: Brian McLaren’s Non-Islamic Ramadan

Apparently emergent church writer Brian McLaren is celebrating Ramadan:

“This year, I, along with a few Christian friends (and perhaps others currently unknown to us will want to join in) will be joining Muslim friends in the fast which begins August 21. We are not doing so in order to become Muslims: we are deeply committed Christians. But as Christians, we want to come close to our Muslim neighbors and to share this important part of life with them…[s]ince the Bible teaches us the importance of fasting and being generous to the poor, we can participate as Christians in fidelity to the Bible as our Muslim friends do so in fidelity to the Quran.”

On the surface, this is so bizarre that explaining why it is bizarre is really like explaining the very concept of religion, from scratch.  But perhaps that is precisely the point.

McLaren believes that he can participate in the rituals of other religions, because his “nonreligious spirituality” (to borrow fellow emerger Donald Miller’s term) denies the significance of religion as such.  Consequently, rituals do not have the same meaning for him they do for serious observers of most religions.

For McLaren, spirituality is about a kind of postmodern self-expression that brings him closer to his god.  “I define the gospel as Jesus,” he writes elsewhere, “and his announcement that the kingdom of God is at hand.”  With such an ambiguous foundation, which in practice seems to mean whatever he wants it to mean, spirituality becomes more a matter of seeking whatever spiritual experience makes him feel close to Jesus (that nice hippie with long hair and sandals who liked children).

McLaren contrasts his view with the views of Christians who define the gospel as “a theory of atonement.”  Their view is a religious view, in which God is a holy being to whom humans owe reverence and obedience (the word religion comes from Latin roots meaning “to bind”).  For them, Jesus provided the bridge that allowed them to grow close to God, not through an ethereal spirituality, but through the reconciliation of a broken allegiance (Jesus claimed, “No one comes to the Father but through me”).

For such people, fasting has a purpose, and a focus.  To participate in another god’s fast divorces the action from the meaning, and the allegiance – much as if they took communion from an imam who had blessed the bread and wine in the name of Allah (or perhaps in the name of “Tashlan,” as C. S. Lewis put it in The Last Battle).  But for McLaren, it was never about obedience, or about religion – it was about an expression of “peace, fellowship, and neighborliness.”  McLaren’s observation of a Muslim holiday does not invalidate the internal consistency of his beliefs, because they never comprised a religion to begin with.

Brian Brown
Brian Brown loves building the environments, habits, and networks that make people thrive. He is the founder of Humane Pursuits, where he writes a featured column and edits the Give channel. He started his consulting company, Narrator, to help great mission-driven organizations modernize and grow. He lives with his wife Christina and son Edmund in Colorado Springs, where they mix cocktails, hunt for historic architecture, and see how many people they can squeeze into their house for happy hour.

8 Comments

  • August 26, 2009

    Carolyn

    I enjoyed your insight regarding the nature and true meaning of relgious devotion. Also, I think you hit the nail right on the head when you wrote: “To participate in another god’s fast divorces the action from the meaning, and the allegiance.” Ramadan is another god’s fast! AMAZING that McLaren doesn’t see it that way, and encourages other Christians to do the same.

    Also, You might want to HT to Wilson’s blog, and maybe you’ll get some readership from his audience. Or you could go on his blog and link to yours in the comments. He’s gotten several. Just a thought. http://www.dougwils.com/index.asp?Action=Anchor&CategoryID=1&BlogID=6869

  • August 26, 2009

    Nell

    My bugaboo with “spiritual but not religious” has always been that I read it as “I don’t want to die forever, but I don’t want anything I do to have any effect on this, nor do I want to be discommoded,” and I find this dishonest. This chap seems to prove it.

  • August 27, 2009

    Brandon

    This is really a shame. I think fasting during Ramadan is a fantastic idea, just not for the reasons McLaren mentioned.

    “But as Christians, we want to come close to our Muslim neighbors and to share this important part of life with them…”

    Um, that presupposes that 1) Muslims are sharing that part of their lives with you 2) Even if they are sharing it (they are not), that its accessible to you in any way shape or form and 3) you need partake in a particular religious fast to “come close to your Muslim neighbors?” Smacks of fake, nicey-nice, huggy multiculturalism, I say.

    A few years ago I heard about a church who called its members to fast during Ramadan, not because they were partaking in Ramadan but because they wanted to fervently pray that as Muslims seek their God with fasting that the truth of the gospel would be revealed. I’ve heard many stories of Muslims having visions of Jesus himself during Ramadan, which is just beautiful in that the Koran is chock-full of visions and dreams and that God employs such things in order to uniquely call Muslims to himself. And the prayers of the saints play an indispensable role, no doubt. THAT’S what McLaren and his gang should pray for. Are they? I doubt it. In my mind, that’s the only way they could in truth “participate [in Ramadan] as Christians in fidelity to the Bible”, which is to say, not really participating at all.

    But since when can one expect the likes of McLaren, Wallis et al, to make crucial distinctions? Never. Distinctions require discrimination–the unpardonable sin of liberalism.

  • Bryan Wandel
    August 27, 2009

    Bryan Wandel

    I am reminded of a quote I just read at First Things:

    For example, at the publicly funded Hamara Centre in Leeds, England, local Muslims and Christians promote fellow-feeling by lamenting globalization, attacking the war in Iraq, and decrying Israel’s policies toward Palestine. “That is not crosscultural communication,” Caldwell dryly observers. “That is rallying Christians behind a Muslim agenda.”

    http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2009/08/the-politics-of-selective-indignation

  • Brian Brown
    August 27, 2009

    Brian Brown

    Nice line.

  • September 1, 2009

    Caitlin Barr

    This is very interesting. I have a close friend, a Catholic, who has devoted her academic pursuits to Islam and to Christian-Muslim relations. She lives in the Muslim dorm (it has rules more befitting a Catholic University than most other dorms) and fasts every year on Rammadan. She takes the time to attend Mass more frequently, and increase her daily prayers and devotions (all Christian). She does so, in part, because fasting during Rammadan enables her to invite (successfully, I might add), her Muslim friends to Mass, especially Easter Mass. Because the mystery of the holy sacrifice of the Mass is much more powerful than any words spoken by an undergrad, she knows that if her friends are ever going to convert, this would be how.

  • Brian Brown
    September 1, 2009

    Brian Brown

    Worth thinking about further. There’s no argument within McLaren’s theology against doing what he’s doing, but there is an argument within Roman Catholic theology–namely that ritual and sacrament have significance, as does the liturgical calendar. Therefore observing the “liturgical calendar” of another religion–even if claimed as the service of God as Catholics understand him–is in fact, at best, blending Christianity with another religion, cherrypicking the elements of different religions that the individual likes best.

    This is quite normal for an emergent churcher (some “emergers” and other evangelicals even try to make Christianity more like secularism, so as to make it more appealing). But such cherrypicking is highly contrary to Catholic teaching on orthodoxy and salvation both, though the notorious “cafeteria Catholics” have dampened the stigma somewhat. In any case, following the Muslim “liturgical calendar” to make Catholicism seem friendlier to Islam does seem to get away from the Roman notion of the one true Church. Thoughts?

  • September 4, 2009

    Caitlin Barr

    I don’t disagree with you, but I think the phenomenon I’m describing is a little different. This is not a “cafeteria Catholic” who “cherry-picks” the elements of Catholicism to follow. She adheres to (and has for her entire life without ever questioning the truth of the Church) the Catholic liturgical calendar in that she attends Mass every Sunday and on every other day of obligation. She adheres to the Church’s social teaching and theological teaching, even believing in the now very controversial “extra ecclesiam nulla salus.”

    In the case of my friend, she does not participate in any exclusively Muslim rituals. Fasting and feasting are common to all people; it is the reading of the Qu’ran as a spiritually authoritative text and saying Muslim prayers that makes Ramadan particularly Muslim.

    Nevertheless, as far as I know, there is no Catholic teaching (either in Canon Law, or in any Church Council) that expressly forbids a well-formed Catholic from participating in the rituals of another religion provided that doing so does not pose any threat to his or her faith.

    Finally, you say that the Church teaches that ritual and sacrament have “significance.” This is a vague word, but I’ll take it as: ritual and sacrament constitute a real connection with something ‘other’ and so affect us whether we will or no. I don’t think the Church teaches that. I think the Church teaches that CHRISTIAN (sorry, no italics available) ritual and sacrament has that kind of significance.

    Although many ancient and medieval theologians taught that all non-Christian worship put one in direct contact with demons, I don’t think this view was ever infallibly expressed in a Church Council. Non-Christian ritual, then, is empty, and cannot affect us unless we want it to, because no real power is behind it. Can the devil use non-Christian ritual to confuse us and draw us away from true faith? Sure, he can use almost anything. But the rituals themselves are utterly devoid of that power.

    To put it more simply: fasting during Ramadan (or attending a Seder, etc.) does not constitute participating in “another god’s fast” because there IS no other god, there is only God.