Preoccupying Questions


In Brian McLaren’s Everything Must Change, chapters two through five attempt to flesh out chapter one’s introduction by offering “two preoccupying questions:”
(1) What are the biggest problems in the world?
(2) What does Jesus have to say about these global problems?

In the first question, McLaren hopes to identify the root causes of global crises. In the second, he continues criticizing Western Christianity’s preoccupation with the afterlife and inattention to global issues.

McLaren’s conclusion is that Christianity appears a failed religion, stemming from faulty framing stories. His hope lies in his belief that these framing stories are inconsistent with Jesus’s Kingdom of God message, and that revisiting Jesus’s message may provide a framing story that will address today’s global problems.

But enough McLaren (smile). Jeff and Juvenal have been leading our conversation down a fascinating road already (but oddly enough, I think we can still use McLaren’s questions).

It takes very little time for most of us to identify Jeff and Juvenal’s intellectual abilities. It takes most of us much longer to understand what they have been saying, and even longer to summon up the bravery to engage the conversation. Let me be brave enough to attempt to frame the conversation, and then let it loose for everyone’s contributions.

Jeff points to a positive evolution of the human species as evidenced by positive changes occurring in global social systems. Juvenal claims that the positive changes in global social systems are tied to unsustainable economic prosperity and have not changed basic human nature. Jeff sees the fact that McLaren has an audience as evidence of humanity’s positive evolution (with religion evolving, too). Juvenal sees McLaren’s message as cyclical (nothing new), and influenced by economics.

Where both seem to agree is that improvements in global social systems would be helpful. They seem to disagree as to how helpful these would be over time…

And both seem to agree that the Christian emphasis on the afterlife is inconsistent with the message of Jesus. They seem to disagree on how effective Jesus’s “this world” message would be…

So back to the questions:
#1: What are the biggest problems in the world?
* I’m not sure (yet) of Jeff’s answer to this question, mostly because his comments have tended toward the positives…
* I believe Juvenal’s answers are (a) unsustainable economic systems, but on a deeper level, (b) problematic human nature

#2: What does Jesus have to say about these global problems?
* Jeff would offer “a lot” I’m thinking…
* Juvenal would counter with “less” than Jeff…

I’m really interested in hearing from both Jeff and Juvenal (in correcting my summaries, and offering answers to McLaren’s questions), and also from others as I try to work this all out myself (I’m particularly interested in the continued discussion on the interplay between human nature and social systems for anyone scoring at home).

NEXT WEEK: “Suicidal System” (chapters 6-9)

10 Responses to “Preoccupying Questions”

  1. alsturgeon Says:

    I’d like to go ahead and offer my personal answers:

    #1: I think the biggest world problem reduces to human nature
    #2: I think Jesus has a LOT to say about it – the move from selfish, prideful human nature to kenotic (self-emptying) love

    (I believe Jesus purposefully steered away from social systems and focused primarily on changing individual human nature. For fun reading, try The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder.)

    But here’s the deal: Jesus wasn’t successful on a large scale in changing human nature. Nor do I believe he expected to be (remembering the narrow/broad gate metaphor).

    I’ve struggled wtih all this for a long while now. Not that I know much about it yet, but the thoughts have been many. McLaren is a new Social Gospel proponent (and Jim Wallis, and others), and this is not a horribly bad thing at all. But long term, I see the cycle to which Juvenal refers. And what I don’t see is Jesus as a Social Gospeler (in the institutional sense).

    I no longer see great hope in institutions and movements. I’m not anti-institution, or anti-movement, but I just don’t get all happy about their potential. I’m for a bottom-up approach to institutional change (not bottomS up!): while fighting for people, elicit change. Not top-down: fight for change, end up helping people. Does that make sense?

    To risk sounding like a Coke commercial, I believe what the world needs is love, and that occurs personally, not institutionally.

    (The Will Campbell book would help explain: there is one passage that is the best in giving a memorable example of what I’m saying, but it is a little long – I’ll either do a new post or a new comment just for it.)

  2. Jeff_R Says:

    Al –

    I appreciate your comments. I’ll take a shot at clarifying your summary of my views in a later post. I’d like to just comment on your comment above.

    If you’re right, and I’m not saying you aren’t, then McLaren’s idea is nonsensical. The only hope is supernatural intervention to override our hard-wired, inalterable human nature that is hell-bent on self-destruction.

    It may sound harsh, but there are quite a few folks who believe that’s exactly the case and the only possible endgames are a “divine reboot” (if you’re into theism) or self-extermination (if you’re more of the nihilist bent).

    Juvenal’s point is that love hasn’t worked. Humanity is just as screwed up now as it ever was. And 2,000 years after Jesus started the revolution, no forward progress has been made.

    Now, from my comments on the earlier post, you know I don’t exactly believe that – and I think it’s readily and demonstrably proved untrue. But if I’m correct, then your proposal isn’t workable either. At least not if I understand it correctly.

  3. alsturgeon Says:

    Here’s the section from Campbell…


    “The civil rights gains we have made are largely cosmetic,” my old friend, Kelly Miller Smith, told me just before he died. One would have expected to hear those words in earlier times, when the gains of black people had been more modest than it seemed to me they had been during his lifetime and mine. He had been a pivotal figure in it all. Buses and taxicabs, schools, restaurants, theaters, parks, swimming pools, as well as participation in the political process had all been desegregated since he and I had come to Tennessee from Mississippi in the rigidly segregated decade of the fifties. He from a black church in Vicksburg, I from a white university in Oxford. His little daughter had been one of the nine brave children who faced the violent mobs to begin the slow and painful process of integrated education. The church he pastored for thirty-four years was headquarters for the massive sit-in movement. Quietly or obstreperously, whatever the situation indicated, he negotiated with mayors, governors, merchants, and owners such issues as employment, housing, fairness, and decency in general.

    All that he had been party to and more. Yet here he lay, a few weeks from death, saying that all his efforts had produced no more than a cosmetic coating over an inveterate malignancy as socially lethal as the one claiming his life. I protested with a roll call of the improvements he had presided over. He listened in his usual smiling, affable manner as I listed them one by one, beginning with public transportation in 1956 and concluding with his being a dean and teacher in one of the most prestigious universities in the South where he could not have been more than janitor not many years earlier.

    “But they still don’t respect us,” he said sadly. After a long pause for needed oxygen, he continued. “Look at the television shows. Listen to the rhetoric on the streets. They still don’t respect us.”

    His words were a startling awakening. How far I had missed the point of it all. How dissimilar the promised lands two Mississippi men had envisioned. To grant the truth of his words would be to acknowledge that the years of both of us had been wasted. He spoke with approval and gratefulness for the things I recited, but as he did it became clear to me that the one thing which was behind all else was never his. Respect.

    Freedom is respect.

    I recalled another conversation with an activist of equal vigor but different orientation in which I was told, “I don’t give a damn if I make them sick. I don’t care if they vomit in their plate when I’m eating in that restaurant. Just so they don’t try to stop me from being there.” Were too many of us partly persuaded by that era of anger? And by our own academic platitudes of, “We’re not trying to change attitudes, just behavior”? If so, black and white together must now share in the responsibility. Both should have known better. Watching without daunt a neighbor vomit in a plate because of one’s presence is not part of the human make-up. For surely we are created to love one another. It has to be all right that the other is there, or old attitudes will some way, some time recapitulate old behavior.

    Freedom is reconciliation.

    “They still don’t love me.” That was what my dying friend was telling me. Freedom is love.

    When our last tearful embrace was over and I was about to leave his hospital room, I could think of but one thing to say. “I thank you, Kelly. You gave me my freedom. I’m sorry I couldn’t do more to give you yours.” Though the words were spontaneous and cumbersome, they might have been a brief summary of the Civil Rights Movement of the sixties. I know I am more free than when it began, but I do listen to the rhetoric on the streets as Kelly advised me, and I know that he spoke the truth. The Civil Rights Movement may be over for black people. It is far from over for whites.

  4. alsturgeon Says:

    Thanks, Jeff. I’m not totally sure if you understand me correctly or not. Mostly because I’m not sure if I understand me real well. (Mikey, will you come out and play? I feel lonely with all the self-confident people around.)

    I definitely don’t think our human nature is hell-bent on self-destruction. I believe it is hard-wired for self-preservation. Which makes it all the more unfortunate that we all die of course. But we sure aren’t hard-wired for self-emptying love. That seems to go against everything (although it consistently emerges in literature, movies, legends, etc.). Anyway, Jesus seems to propose that as his ethical standard. As the path.

    Not to sound obtuse, but I don’t think Jesus’s way has even been tried very often. Much less worked.

    Alright, let me try it this way: I think Jesus was most interested in getting to the heart of the matter – how a person thinks/feels/dreams in his or her respective heart. Not global hunger.

    Did I just say that?

    I’m going to my Habitat for Humanity board meeting in a little while. We are now the largest affiliate in the world. (Yea us!) But what I believe matters more than the number of houses we build is whether we all are learning to love.

    I like Eugene Peterson’s take on the temptations of Jesus (in The Jesus Way): that each encouraged Jesus to take a systemic approach to the world (feed it, wow it, take it over) rather than a personal approach. He chose the personal approach (feed the hungry in front of him, etc.). I think he teaches humanity to choose this way.

    Anyway, I’m probably full of bull. At least I ingest bull with utmost sincerity. 🙂

  5. urbino Says:

    The only hope is supernatural intervention to override our hard-wired, inalterable human nature that is hell-bent on self-destruction.

    As I pointed out in the previous thread, and as Al says on his own behalf above, and as I’m now pointing out again, nobody here is saying we are “hell-bent on self-destruction.” The fact that I don’t agree with your ever-rising sine wave thesis doesn’t mean I think everything’s going to hell in a handbasket. I realize you’re coming at this very much from the perspective of Christian theology, and in Christian theology human history is directional — either you’re going one way, or you’re going the other; but I’m raising a perspective from outside Christian theology, that human history might be and likely is essentially nondirectional, like the history of every other living thing on the planet.

    It’s possible, yes, that we’ll nosedive and wink out of existence at some point. It’s happened to other species. History suggests there’s always a new Plague or Ice Age or whatnot coming along. OTOH, a lot of species have been around for a very, very, very long time, and there’s reason to believe we’ve got as good a shot at that as at going extinct. The fact that we’re able to both alter our environment through technology, and use culture to pass adaptive knowledge and behaviors along to future generations without having to wait for evolution to weave such adaptations into our DNA suggest we have, perhaps, a better shot at longevity than most.

    It even suggests the possibility that we’ll invent some kind of sustainable system for living in widespread relative comfort. If we do, then we’ll have culturally generated a kind of progress that really does tilt the sine wave upward. But only if it’s truly sustainable, by which I mean sustainable regardless of population. Otherwise, we’re still operating on the same rise-and-crash cycle as every other species; we’ve only increased the wavelength — maybe even shortened the recovery time for some kinds of crashes. And that would be a genuinely good thing, in itself. But it doesn’t give the graph of human history an upward slope.

    Our technological and cultural transmission capabilities, just as they suggest the possibility that we’ll invent sustainability, also suggest the possibility that we’ll self-destruct. Become an evolutionary blind alley. But I’m not arguing that’s necessarily the case, or even more likely than the positive scenario. I’m only arguing that, looking at history, I don’t see the ever-rising sine wave you see.

    Juvenal’s point is that

    I’ll address these one at a time:

    1. love hasn’t worked.

    Although I haven’t explicitly addressed love in our conversation, I do think that love — the kind Jesus prescribed, anyway — hasn’t worked. (For that matter, I think it can’t work.) That is, it hasn’t changed human nature. Love is one aspect of our nature, but it doesn’t seem to be the dominant one, nor does it seem to be any more dominant now than 2,050 years ago.

    2. Humanity is just as screwed up now as it ever was.

    Not quite. Human nature hasn’t fundamentally changed in recorded history. To the degree that that nature is screwed up, yes, we’re as screwed up as ever. To the degree that that nature is good, we’re as good as ever. We’re a mixed bag, but basically the same bag we’ve always been.

    3. And 2,000 years after Jesus started the revolution, no forward progress has been made.

    On human nature, yes. Technologically, economically, and therefore culturally, we have made forward progress. However, the last is dependent on the first two, and indications are that our approaches to the first two are not sustainable; therefore, I see no reason to believe the upward trend of the past few hundred years will continue on the same slope indefinitely into the future.

  6. urbino Says:

    #1: What are the biggest problems in the world?

    I’d say it’s the problem of limited resources. The combination of limited resources and population growth makes real sustainability extremely unlikely, IMHO.

    #2: What does Jesus have to say about these global problems?

    He doesn’t directly address the problem of limited resources vs. population growth, as best I can tell. Which is not surprising, I guess, since nobody he was talking to would’ve known what the heck he was talking about, anyway, except on the most local scale.

    He certainly has a lot to say about many of the human problems created by that overarching problem. And many of the things he says have a certain appeal. I just don’t think, ultimately, his system works.

    Now, I don’t know about anybody else, but I’d like to hear less of me and more of McLaren’s argument, Al. What are the faulty framing stories Christianity has run aground with? What are the correct ones? How does he propose reviving them? (Or, if he’s not proposing but rather observing something already in progress, what is it?)

  7. alsturgeon Says:

    Personally, I like hearing from you more than McLaren. But my plan of taking his book section by section is making for a slow start delivering his thoughts. He hasn’t said much yet.

    So far, he has gone to Burundi on a little trip and discovered poor people. He was invited there by a guy who read his books and liked how he talked about Christianity not simply being about going to heaven someday and actually dealing with problems such as poverty and violence.

    Thus, his faulty Christian framing story is “the gospel of avoiding going to hell” where his counter is “the gospel of the kingdom of God – on earth as it is in heaven.” He gives a few (social gospel) examples of this: a Dominican Republic pastor opening a gym in a poor neighborhood, a Costa Rican church addressing pollution, a Filipino church helping poor people start businesses, and an Indian church confronting the caste system.

    As might be expected, he spends a significant section on the word “postmodern,” and how this has been a positive trend. McLaren believes postmodernism is a reaction to the problem of “excessive (Western) confidence,” which he traces back to a combination of Descartes (foundationalism) and “fearful, vengeful, or dominating framing stories,” a combination he believes leads to global suicidal tendencies which he purports to address in the next section.

    Here is verbatim how he concludes this particular section:

    “…I became convinced that, yes, many of our world’s worst atrocities were indeed the result of overconfidence. And yes, overconfidence was indeed resourced by foundationalism. And yes, deeper still, destructive framing stories fueled the hatred and fear and greed that perpetuated so much human suffering – whether in Africa, Latin America, or my own nation. / I took the next natural step from these conclusions. I returned to my two original questions and began wondering: Is it possible that at the heart of the life and message of Jesus was an attempt to expose, challenge, confront, transform, and replace the unhealthy framing stories of his day? And could there be a resonance between the unhealthy framing stories of his day and their counterparts in our day? / At that moment, I felt some new electricity beginning to flow between my two original questions.”

  8. urbino Says:

    If we could generate electricity by rubbing two questions together, now that would be helpful.


    So far, he has gone to Burundi on a little trip and discovered poor people.

    made me laugh out loud.

    In general, I like where he’s going with this overconfidence thing. As you well know, I’ve always called it a lack of humility, but, hey, it amounts to the same thing. And I think he’s right that religion has made it worse, not better.

    I’m not so keen on the Cartesian origins business, though. I mean, I can see the affinity with postmodernism’s diagnosis of Enlightenment modernism, and the latter is often traced to Descartes, but still. I’m not sure the source of overconfidence is anything as complicated as foundationalism. Personally, I think it’s just laziness.

    his faulty Christian framing story is “the gospel of avoiding going to hell”

    Okay, I’m on board with him there. Is that the only one? Given his beef with overconfidence, there’s another one that’s sort of glaringly obvious.

  9. alsturgeon Says:

    So far that’s been the only one emphasized.

    Just out of curiosity, how’d the Campbell passage grab ya? (and anyone else reading along, too…)

  10. urbino Says:

    It was moving. I think “love” may be too strong a word for what’s needed, but “reconciliation” and “respect” seem spot on. And this:

    It has to be all right that the other is there, or old attitudes will some way, some time recapitulate old behavior.

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