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Finding Our Way Again (Brian McLaren)

Written by Michael Cline : June 16, 2008

The creative mind that birthed a “new kind of Christian” is looking rather ancient these days. In Finding Our Way Again, Brian McLaren kicks off the eight volume Ancient Practices Series being released by Thomas Nelson through the year 2010 (other authors in the series will include Scot McKnight and Diana Butler Bass). McLaren’s book acts as an introduction and a guide through the ancient practices that will be covered by the other volumes: prayer, Sabbath, fasting, the sacred meal, pilgrimage, the liturgical year, and tithing.

Starting at chapter one and carrying throughout the book, McLaren stresses the idea of an “everyday sacredness” that is the via media between secularist fundamentalism and religious fundamentalism (”the former offering the world weapons of mass destruction and the latter stirring emotions to put the suicidal machinery into motion” [p. 5]). This everyday sacredness rediscovers the Christian faith more as a way of life than a system of belief. For those weary that McLaren is falling into some “new age” mushiness, the author actually draws on the adoption of ancient practices as an alternative to such vague spirituality.

So what exactly are practices? At their core, the spiritual practices are habits we form that “close the gap between the character we want to possess and the character we currently have.” When McLaren describes his understanding of the spiritual practices, one cannot help but think of John Wesley’s teachings on the means of grace. These are actions we take that open us up to be surprised by grace. This is not an automatic, transactional event. There is no guaranteed outcome from fasting or taking a pilgrimage other than receiving the gifts God wants to give us. In the chapter on katharsis (the first movement along the spiritual path), McLaren reminds the reader that we aren’t dealing in the areas of payment and earnings which “aren’t even part of the sane disciple’s vocabulary” (p. 155). This is about practice, not penance. There were many times in flipping through the book that I could almost hear McLaren talking to himself, pacing back and forth, trying to figure out a way to snuff out bloggers’ attempts to charge him with “works righteousness,” or worse yet, “Catholic.” (Perhaps the best example, and one I benefited from greatly, is the first endnote of chapter 18 where McLaren identifies Protestant language that points towards the same spiritual experiences.)

For those who haven’t had the chance to read Compolo and Darling’s The God of Intimacy and Action, chapter eight is an excellent preamble on how the contemplative life (via contemplativa) and the activist life (via activa) can be fused together. In the same chapter, McLaren also addresses some of his most concerned critics, those who think he has completely given up on the idea of an afterlife for a liberal gospel of human progress. He confesses that there is a happy median between “seeking God’s Kingdom of Earth” and “anticipating an afterlife with God,” but that he has stopped short in order to press other ideas more strongly.

By far and away my favorite chapter in Finding Our Way Again is chapter 11, entitled “Communal Practices.” Many other authors have written at length on the via contemplativa and the via activa, but it is the via communitiva that has typically been neglected. This chapter reminds us that the spiritual journey is not just a journey into me, but the journey into we. Practicing the ancient disciplines is not about being a solitary saint. In a later chapter, McLaren recalls this theme as he defines churches as “schools of practice” (p. 145). At church, we participate in arrival practices (such as greeting neighbors different than you), engagement practices (for what else is singing?), and listening practices (demonstrated by the inner dialogue during the sermon). Seeing the common liturgy of a Sunday morning as a communal spiritual exercise is both inspiring and refreshing. Without this understanding, McLaren asserts that many of us engage in spiritual malpractice rather than spiritual practice (p. 110).

As an enthusiastic reader of the many other works by Brian, I am left with only a few questions. First, why was it important for McLaren to emphasize the connection of Christianity with Islam and Judaism? Certainly these faith traditions share many of these spiritual practices (under different names and pretenses), but the constant highlighting of this relationship will only lead many to put the book down and dismiss McLaren as a relativist (which he’s not, but the unnecessary bait is there for the taking). Second, what keeps this current fascination with ancient spiritual practices from falling into just another consumerist choice? Some have already written off the ancient-future trend as another option in cafeteria theology, where the consumer picks and chooses his/her beliefs and practices based on self need and hunger pains. I do not believe McLaren’s book openly lends itself to this critique, but he just doesn’t do enough for me to accept his thesis that the practice of the ancient disciplines is what will pave a path away from consumerist indulgence. Many will need to see evidence of this assertion.

[Editors Note: Stay tuned in for an interview with Brian McLaren on these questions and more in the coming weeks.]

[Update: See Brian's response to a view questions raised in this interview here.]

Michael Cline is a former co-editor of Jesus Manifesto. He's currently the Pastor of Young Adults at a Wesleyan Church in Minneapolis. When not contributing at JM, he's doing even more reading and writing towards his MDIV from Bethel Seminary. His blog can be found at www.reclinerramblings.blogspot.com


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    A good overview. Thanks.

    One thought I had about your "anti-consumerist" comment near the end. I don't know how much McLaren's theology deals with an *active* Holy Spirit, but it seems to me that when one is trying to make a case for practice, the proof ought to be in the pudding, not in the words his book uses to celebrate or describe it. In other words, joyful, disciplined, authentic spiritual practice should be something inspired by the indwelling Spirit, and any "evidence" or ideological argumentation about its essential (non-optional) qualities would run counter to the core of his argument: that it's in the DOING of the thing that its fruits are seen. A few anecdotal examples might qualify as evidence for some, but could be grounds for dismissal if an already biased reader is inclined toward abstract doctrine instead of concrete practice or openminded exploratory inquiry (a stance McLaren is becoming known for).

    Perhaps he's simply trying to teach and encourage those making early forays into this area, and not even trying to address the "outsider" critics who are just going to keep pigeonholing him, whether he makes a good case or not. Is the book a manual for the "new school monks", or a justification of their approach to those who would discount it? One way to sidestep the "marketplace" of ideas is to refuse (in subtle ways) to even participate in the debate as they define it, to deny doubters the power they're seeking by the mere asking of their questions, legitimate or not.

    Pursuing a singular voice and ignoring the naysayers is one of the inherent strengths of both visionaries and lunatics. Perhaps Brian's just keeping his eye on the ball here...
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    thanks for the review. i haven't heard much on this book yet. It sounds interesting.
    On your final point, to me spiritual practice is largely based on hunger pains. i'm not sure that is something to necessarily be avoided or warned against. We come to these practices out of a longing and they become a friend, guiding our journey toward the divine in everyday movements. Surely if you are attempting to market spirituality that is something that scratches at me, but we should accuse people of aching for God and searching through retail bins for a way to reconnect with God.

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