Controversial emergent church leader Brian McLaren said recently that Christians are in "deep denial" over the continuous evolution of the Christian faith which allows the work of Charles Darwin to be celebrated, not feared.
McLaren, who argued for an overhaul of the Christian faith in his 2010 book A New Kind of Christianity, joined a panel discussion Tuesday that addressed the evolution of the church and the Christian identity in postmodern or "post-postmodern" times.
The telecast discussion is part of "The Advent of Evolutionary Christianity," a project that seeks to bring together a diverse panel of "evolution-celebrating" Christians who don't believe one has to settle on either Jesus or Darwin. Michael Dowd, author of Thank God for Evolution, is host and moderator of the series.
"Evolutionary Christianity is a fact of history about which a lot of Christians are in deep denial," said McLaren during a session entitled "Evolving Church." "The fact is the church has constantly been evolving. So many Roman Catholics are shocked to learn that priestly celibacy wasn't required for quite a while. It was several centuries ago that it became a universal requirement."
"I think of lot of Protestants assume that when the Apostle Paul was establishing house churches they had Sunday School, bulletins and hymnals," he continued. "So many of things, even doctrines that are very precious to a lot of people, particularly doctrines of atonement, for example, have evolved greatly over history."
The emergent church pastor, who views the Bible more as an "inspired library" rather than a legal constitution, also praised "Evolutionary Christianity" as a faith perspective that allows for the discussion of Darwin and evolutionary theory as opposed to orthodox views that raise arguments to the theory.
"[I]t enables us to do theological reflection on the theory of evolution and on evolution as a beautiful ark of history and ark of creation," explained McLaren. "Personally, that has freed me in so many ways. It's raised my vision of who and what God would be. It has certainly raised my excitement on what it means to be a Christian."
Though McLaren was recognized as one of Time magazine's "25 Most Influential Evangelicals" in 2005, many conservative evangelicals are happy to distance themselves from him, calling him "unbiblical" for rejecting the Bible's narrative of Eden, the fall, condemnation, salvation, and heaven or hell/damnation. Most conservative evangelicals also don't believe in Darwinian evolution but instead believe that God created Adam as a man.
And the feeling is mutual. Despite having grown up in a conservative evangelical home, McLaren constantly raises issues with evangelicalism, from the inerrancy of Scripture to orthodox ecclesiology. He often criticizes evangelicals for holding onto what he perceives as obsolete doctrines instead of making faith relevant to the 21st century.
"The call to be a Christian and a follower of God and of Jesus, that call is a call to the future and not a call to the past," said McLaren.
"My Christian identity is more about joining God in the healing, restoration and development and evolution of the world moving toward a brighter, richer and deeper future," he said. "Where as the identity of joining the Christianity apart from an evolutionary understanding is joining the ranks and we're holding the lines of something that is 2,000 years old."
During the second half of the 90-minute discussion, McLaren spoke about whether having a strong religious identity was inherently destructive. Not necessarily, he concluded.
He shared that his Muslim friends expressed to him their preference to talk with fundamentalist Christians over liberal ones. The reason, they explained to him, is that fundamentalist Christians hold and share their deeply committed beliefs, which in turn allow Muslims to do the same during conversation. But liberal Christians try to suppress their faith which make Muslims feel like they must also suppress their beliefs.
"The thing we are trying to evolve into is this: we know we have a strong Christian identity that is hostile to people of other faiths. We know how to suppress our Christian identity in a way that is benevolent to people of other faiths," stated McLaren.
He posed, "Is it possible to find a strongly Christian identity that is strongly benevolent and hospitable and friendly to people of other faiths?"
McLaren briefly mentioned his forthcoming book, Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in Twelve Simple Words, which is built around a four-stage framework of faith development.
He also predicted that "early-stage" churches are being phased out and that churches that emphasize the Christian faith as being a way of life as opposed to a list of doctrines are starting to come into being.
Other panelists that spoke during the session with McLaren included Gretta Vosper, a progressive Christian in Canada who advocates that the Bible is not the authoritative word of God for all time; Ian Lawton, a minister at C3 Exchange, a church that recently made national headlines for the controversial decision to remove the cross from their church; and Bruce Sanguin, a minister at Canadian Memorial United Church in Vancouver, who wrote a book combining science, scripture, and poetry into 21st century prayers.