I remember well the Christian Ministries: Formation (CMF) courses I took in seminary a decade ago. Because I was in there with some really good people, not least my professors, they were painless enough. That said, the books that I bought for those classes, those books that we Biblical studies types and our theologian friends called “spirituality books,” were the first to go in the box and then on to Mr. K’s Used Books in Johnson City. The books weren’t in their own right bad books; they just weren’t our sorts of books. We were the sorts who preferred the Book of Common Prayer to Experiencing God and a good, difficult book of systematic theology to brief inspirational essays. In other words, when it came to “spirituality,” we preferred to dig in rather than to read about someone else’s digging in.
I write this not to elevate myself but to note at the outset that, as is often the case, I’m precisely the wrong sort of person to review Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in 12 Simple Words. When the book at times would ask me, “Please don’t simply keep reading” (48), or tell me, “it’s time to put this book aside again” (122), or request of me “to put this book aside and acknowledge the growing pressure hidden beneath the surface” (155), or suggest that, “before turning the page, [I should] pause and feel the proposal the Spirit is making to [me]” (218), I rolled my eyes. Every time. This is not the sort of book that I pick up and read on my own, for reasons other than coursework or writing a book review. And for that reason, I might be just the person to write something worth reading, so keep your eyes open.
Seasons of the Spirit
McLaren’s organizing schema in this book is a variation on the four-seasons-of-life idea that I, as an English teacher, associate with Northrop Frye. The idea is an intuitive one: just as a solar year in temperate climates has four seasons, so human existence progresses through spiritual seasons. The spring, where McLaren begins, is a time of new life and new discoveries, of wondering at the novelty of the life of faith and trusting those who brought one along in that faith. McLaren assigns the words “Here” and “Thanks” and the exclamation (or vocative, but McLaren doesn’t call it a vocative) “O” to the seasonal category “Simplicity.” Summer, the season of heat, brings with it expectations that what started out as passive reception will grow into an active, effective engagement as an agent of the God behind the spiritual experiences, and McLaren puts “Sorry” and “Help” and “Please” into the season of “Complexity.” Autumn, the season when heat turns cold, brings with it an attitude of suspicion and outbursts of anger towards God and Church. In the penultimate season McLaren sets up a season of “Perplexity” and puts “When,” “No,” and “Why” into the mix. And finally, in the winter, a season of reflection as the cycle of spiritual life comes to a close, the soul assesses what came before and meditates upon the relationship between post-critical submission to God and the ineffability of God. In this final category of “Harmony,” McLaren describes experiences of “Behold” and of “Yes” and of silence, which he marks with an ellipsis and brackets ([…]).
Readers of last year’s McLaren offering, A New Kind of Christianity, will no doubt recognize the same sort of evolutionary/Hegelian schema that McLaren deploys there to describe different sorts of Christianity that occupy the current world Church. As schemata for naming differences go, it’s not a bad one, and although such a schema requires that the writer place himself (occasionally herself but usually himself) at the end of the evolutionary process looking backwards, as long as one can put one’s Lyotardian suspicion of metanarratives on hold (which I can some days and can’t others), it’s a schema that does have some explaining power. McLaren is also careful to note that the four-stage cycle of spirituality is no simplistic one-pass succession but can occur as a spiral throughout one’s life, a post-critical season of affirmation yielding to a post-critical simplicity, then a new kind of complexity, and so on.
Such is the basic shape of the book: for those wanting a summary, the book is a walk through three words associated with each of four spiritual stages, arranged in a basically Hegelian manner, in which the contradictions of each stage produce the energy to move on to the next stage. It’s not nearly as polemic as A New Kind of Christianity, and for that reason, it stands as an even better introduction to McLaren’s particular brand of liberal-Protestant, secular-pluralist vision of the life of the spirit.
The Strangeness of Evolution
As is often the case when I read books from folks whose starting places differ wildly from my own, I found myself needing to articulate certain counter-positions in ways that were clearer than what I’ve attempted before, largely because before, I didn’t realize I needed a counter-position. That’s the joy of these sorts of books, and that’s why I recommend that process-theology types read some conservative Calvinists every once in a while and that Anglo-Catholics occasionally pick up some Emergent Village material. In the case of this book, although I have not really given much thought to biological evolution since my own journey through a violent opposition to the concept as a teenage convert to Christianity, then an accommodation to the system as a college and seminary student, then a sort of testy apathy for most of the last decade, I realized, upon reading it, that I really should have something to say about evolution, mainly because what McLaren writes about it strikes me as wrong, and I should be able to say why it does.
McLaren’s poetic paean to evolution that strikes me wrong happens in his chapter on petitionary prayer. McLaren has just come off of a paragraph saying that Genesis teaches a doctrine of creation in which human and non-human neighbors are inherently interdependent (a position which I can endorse both as a reader of Genesis and as someone who enjoys sitting on the shore of our small state park’s lake and thinking when I get a moment to do so). He then turns to evolution and writes a sort of prose hymn to it, which I quote at length:
The theory of evolution teaches the same lesson. If survival were easy, species wouldn’t develop new adaptive features. If survival were stress-free, there wouldn’t be 20,000 species of butterflies, 300 species of turtles, or 18,937 species of birds (at last count). In fact, there would be no butterflies, turtles, or birds at all, because it was stress, struggle, challenge, and change that prompted the first living things–slimy blobs in a tide pool somewhere–to diversify, specialize, adapt, and develop into the wonders that surround us and include us now. Seen in this light, evolution isn’t a grim theory of “nature red in tooth and claw”; it depicts the planet as a veritable laboratory for innovations in beauty and diversity, fitness and adaptability, complexity and harmony. It renders the earth a studio for the creative development of interdependence in ecosystems or societies of life. Put beauty, diversity, complexity, and harmonious interdependence together and you have something very close to the biblical concepts of “glory” or shalom. (108)
I’ll admit that my own first reaction to this paragraph is that McLaren seems to view biological phenomena in the same light that George W. Bush’s treasury secretary Paul O’Neill viewed economic disasters, holding that those entities who fall victim to such phenomena are simply experiencing “the genius of Capitalism.” This is a CEO’s view of “economic forces” or a modern president’s view of “military actions,” something that likely seems quite lovely from a view in the sky but really, really stinks for the living beings (among them the folks thinking they were going to retire) who are, at the ground level, victims of such systems.
That someone would be callous about such things is no shock to me: after all, I’ve read more than one article about military actions in Fallujah that framed the event in terms of “exterminating the rats” and scores of pro-abortion articles that ignore the strangely literary crime of ending a potential human character’s story before it gets past the prologue. What surprised me about McLaren’s treatment of evolution is that he can’t seem to hold onto it when it moves from the “beauty” of a deer’s being torn to shreds by a pack of wolves (this, after all, is the mechanism of McLaren’s “laboratory for innovations”) to the results of the human species and our contribution to the non-teleological order of biological change. I quote again at length:
So our compassion, if it is to join with God’s, must include all the animals, all the plants, and all the ecosystems that connect them to one another–and to us. The compassionate Spirit of God, Paul claims, helps us feel the groaning of all creation, a groaning for release from evil, decay, futility, and abuse (Rom 8:19-24). The trees groan as forests are destroyed by human greed. The seas groan as its fisheries are depleted and toxins accumulate due to careless human behavior. The forests and jungles groan as species disappear, victimes of our failure to be wise stewards of God’s good world. Even the winds groan as the earth warms due to human haste, waste, and greed. Creation’s groaning becomes part of our groaning, and it is all taken up into the Spirit of God, who in some way brings all of our intercession into God’s own heart. (134)
Thus stands McLaren’s dilemma: a population of wolves (always the model, in my memory at least, when statistical biology gets taught in high school) killing off scores of deer in a region, eventually starving their own population out because of their inability to curb their own animal desires, is a “laboratory for innovations,” but the process of altering environments so that species of life that can live in the ruins of oil spills and the abandoned cities of the Industrial Revolution is somehow a violation of divine compassion. In one case, the course of biological desire, leading to massive death, is “a studio for the creative development of interdependence” (108), in the other an occasion for creation (which suddenly cares about death rather than its lovely aftermath) to groan (134).
I’ll go ahead and say (not that people who have read much of my writing have to guess this) that I relate to the environmentalist McLaren far more readily than I do the CEO-evolutionist McLaren. As a dedicated front-porch sitter (who longs for the days when I can sit on the front porch and watch my kids play rather than chasing my daughter away from the stairs, the cars, the stray dogs, and all the other things that fascinate her from the moment we step outside to the moment I surrender and go back in), I think it’s a triumph of the moral imagination rather than any “sympathetic fallacy” when I can look up from the book I’m reading and watch the wind move the trees across the street, observe the comings and goings of the buzzards of Barrow County (yes, I’m a vulture-watcher), and even occasionally catch a family of deer wander through our neighborhood. And although I’m a strong opponent of ecological alarmism (for entirely pragmatic reasons–the more ecological concerns that strike the public as silly, the less effort elected officials are going to put forth resisting the profit-motive in the name of stewardship-duty) and a would-be hunter (I’m fine with my cousins’ and uncles’ hunting, but I can’t shoot straight), my large-scale take on the world is that we human beings have certain, real duties to the rest of creation. It’s in Genesis, after all.
What occurred to me in reflecting on these things is that Christian theology doesn’t need to pronounce a priori about the adequacy of biological evolution as a scientific theory in order to have something to say about it aesthetically. In the absence of a more adequate conceptual framework that makes sense of the vast array of biological observations, Darwinian evolution (or its descendants like Gould’s punctuated equilibria or Dawkins’s genes-and-memes theory), I’m alright with those schemata as tools for explaining the succession of physical phenomena. (I realize I just alienated about a quarter of our readers with that one. I’m about to alienate another quarter; don’t worry.) What I wonder is whether Christian theology, which at its root confesses a Christ who overcame death, should be rejoicing at such a death-driven system and calling it the glory of God. (There’s the other quarter. To the half of our readers who are still going I offer my thanks.) If in fact biological evolution is the best theory/framework at hand for the moment, and I don’t have too many good reasons to doubt that it is, then by all means Christians should admit as much and start doing our theology in light of the most adequate theory available. But my hunch as someone who reads Psalms (as McLaren suggests that folks do) is that our own groaning for creation ought to encompass the systems of death that transcend the human species, and our songs celebrating YHWH’s glory in the world should not revel in the death even of a fly at the fangs of a spider but should look forward, eschatologically, to the day when the lion lies down with, rather than kills for the sake of “innovation,” the lamb.
Because this is not an essay about the theology of evolution but a review of McLaren’s book, I’ll leave that reflection where it is for the moment, but I do want to commend this book in particular and Brian McLaren more generally for something that he genuinely contributes to my own intellectual life, namely occasions to think rigorously and rhetorically through the questions that animate popular spirituality. This marks him as significantly different from (and in my own view better than) writers like Bart Ehrman in the pop-atheist camp and Erwin McManus in the pop-Christianity camp, whose books (and I’ve not read all of ’em, so readers can suggest to me the books that redeem their literary outputs) seldom give me an occasion to think something I haven’t thought before, and the differences between the two sorts of books really should give folks pause when we look at books from folks with whom we disagree.
Thus ends that sermon.
The Big Picture
I’ve been told, in articles about classroom pedagogy, that the first things and the last things in a session are usually the ones that folks remember, so now that I’ve gotten my little rumination on evolution and spirituality out of the way, I’ll close with some of the best points of the book and a bit of praise for its overall vision even though I tend not to agree with it. I’m tempted to joke that McLaren took last year’s review on this site seriously, since in this book he actually quotes philosophers (158) rather than doing mile-high paraphrases, but in this section, instead, I’ll stick to big-picture reactions.
McLaren is right to frame spirituality as an embodied, gradual, sometimes dull and often painful, lifelong pursuit. He does well to note that Christian spirituality grows out of the conviction that the Church is God’s royal priesthood (132) and that priests are there not to save themselves but to pray and to proclaim in behalf of others. He’s right to see that, when one petitions God in prayer, the act of praying both addresses a real Person (or three) and frames the events of human life in very different terms from problem-solving or fatalistic visions of reality (116, 126-27). He even encourages people to GO TO CHURCH (79), something that I tend to be a cheerleader for. In other words, McLaren in this book articulates love rather than scorn for the normal, the regular, and the common. He wants to incorporate more of the text of the Bible into the lives of regular Church folk than sometimes pop-evangelicalism will allow (and we’re shoulder to shoulder in that fight), and in his lovely paraphrase of Plato’s Republic in his closing chapters, he asserts that the purpose of reaching a fuller vision of reality is never to remain aloof from those who have not but to return to the folks who aren’t privy to that vision and to help them out (207).
As I said before, I do think that the evolutionary/seasonal picture of spirituality has some explaining power, and I’m not sure that, without writing a book of my own, I have much of a place to say that my own vision of things is more adequate. That said, I do wonder whether his four-season picture of the spiritual life does enough to account for those folks who become more, not less, committed to bold doctrinal pronouncement in the wake of personal disaster. I wonder whether his categories “perplexity” and “harmony” really journey beyond “complexity” or simply stand as more capacious and adequate iterations of “simplicity.” And I wonder whether the category of “harmony,” standing as it does at the end of a process, is too much of a temptation for someone like me. I can’t pronounce on McLaren’s morality, but I do know about myself that, when I’ve allowed myself to think about my differences from folks who disagree with me in terms of development and maturity instead of in terms of historical contingency and rhetorical responsibility, I’ve fallen into a sort of pride (not a new kind by any means) that’s hard to shake until I pry myself loose of that belief.
Perhaps some day, when I start writing the sort of book that certain sorts of people don’t normally read, I can lay out that picture of radical contingency and rhetorical duty, citing the Bible and David Hart along the way, but that day is not today. I have finals to grade and year-end assessments to prepare, and I probably should go pray before I get too deep into ’em.