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Brian McLaren | A Galapagos Spirituality

Brian McLaren shares about his book, The Galapagos Islands: A Spiritual Journey, and about a theology that is informed by wild places and the scientific knowledge that helps us understand those places.


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waves hitting rocky shore

Brian McLaren shares about his book, The Galapagos Islands: A Spiritual Journey, and about a theology that is informed by wild places and the scientific knowledge that helps us understand those places.

Description

When Brian McLaren got a call from his editor asking if he’d like to travel to the Galapagos Islands and write about it it took all of a few seconds to agree. The book he wrote is called The Galapagos Islands: A Spiritual Journey. In this episode, Jim Stump talks to him about the book and about a theology that is informed by wild places and the scientific knowledge that helps us understand those places.

  • Originally aired on April 16, 2020
  • With 
    Jim Stump

Transcript

Brian:

If we believe that creation actually is an expression of God’s creativity, it’s God’s sculpture, it’s God’s painting, it’s God’s symphony, it’s God’s drama—I mean, any artistic expression, we could make this analogy—God’s dance. You know, just the comparisons are unending. If we actually believe that, then people are, when they pay attention to creation, they are paying attention to a message from God.

Well, I’m Brian McLaren and I’m an author. I do a lot of public speaking and I’m involved in a number of activist projects.

Jim:

Welcome to Language of God. I’m your host Jim Stump. 

My guest today is Brian McLaren. I first read McLaren years ago, when there was a conversation going on about postmodernism and the emergent church. His books, A New Kind of Christian and Generous Orthodoxy struck a chord with a lot of people who were dissatisfied with the cultural forms of Christianity they had inherited. And to be fair, there were a lot of other people who thought he went too far in rethinking faith. We talk some about that in this interview, but primarily we talk about his recent book, The Galapagos Islands: A Spiritual Journey. I stumbled onto it earlier this winter; I don’t remember where. But in this line of work, when you see a book by a well known Christian author about the place that is possibly the one most closely attached to the theory of evolution, you pick it up. And then I couldn’t put it down. What I found was delightful. Brian’s journey through the islands and surrounding reefs becomes a journey into some of his deepest spiritual questions: about the role of creation, about the relationship between science and faith, about how we should care for places such as these. 

I read the book before the coronavirus upended our lives, but fortunately, we had planned a remote interview and we were both stuck at home anyway. We talk about coronavirus briefly, and some really interesting similarities to climate change, but otherwise we found some joy in having a conversation that didn’t revolve around the virus. We hope you’ll enjoy the escape too.
Let’s get to the conversation. 

Interview Part One

Jim: 

So it’s hard to have any conversation these days without acknowledging the effects of coronavirus. How are you and the people in your inner circle doing in that regard?

Brian:

Well, my wife and I are holed up in our home here. We live in a beautiful place in Southwest Florida, so if you have to be quarantined somewhere, this is a good place to be. You know, I think like everyone, we just wake up with this sense we don’t know how bad it’s going to be. We don’t know when the next shoe is going to drop. And so I think all of us are sharing a kind of corporate or shared concern and anxiety.

Jim:  

Yeah. What have been the main effects on your work?

Brian:

Well every single speaking engagement obviously that I had set up has been canceled. I thought that might give me a bit of a rest, but every organization I’m involved with, you know, their work has been intensified, so I’ve never been on so many zoom calls and had so many requests to write something about this and so on. So I think a whole lot of people, pastors and obviously healthcare workers… Yeah, even though people are quarantined,  demands are high.

Jim: 

Yeah. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us. So a bit of background, you were an English professor and then a pastor now a full time author and speaker. Is that the career path you had planned out for yourself or how did that come to be?

Brian:

Well, it all took a weird turn after the college English teacher. That was my career goal.  And then while I was teaching, my wife and I started a little fellowship group/bible study in our home and that grew into a church and led to that first career change. And then while I was a pastor, I ended up writing a book and I thought it would be my only book. And it turned out that it became a habit. And so now I’m still at it.

Jim: 

Nice. I think I first became aware of you with your 2004 book, A Generous Orthodoxy and at that time you are one of the leaders of this phenomenon that became known as the emergent church. How would you describe that now looking back on that time? What do you make of that…movement do we call it? Or what do we even call that period?

Brian:

Yeah. I don’t know. I called it a conversation. You know, in movement theory, before a movement starts, there is something called critical conversations where a group of people become dissatisfied with the status quo. And very often a few speak up and then other people come out of the shadows and say, “Boy, I thought I was the only person asking that or thinking that.” And that it creates a time of critical conversations where people create little zones where it’s safe to ask questions, to critique certain assumptions and to start to dream of different alternatives. And that emerging church or emerging conversation that grew up in the 90s, I think all of those questions are now everywhere. I think obviously there are still people who are isolating themselves from any kind of questions, but in more and more places, people are saying, “No, we have to…people need freedom to talk.”

And a lot of us were from evangelical backgrounds and in many ways we saw evangelical gatekeepers say, “no, you can’t have that conversation here.” So other folks, some folks found a home in mainline Protestant settings, some folks have created alternative settings. Frankly, a lot of people have just given up on organized religion and joined the “spiritual but not religious.” There were also Catholic sectors of this conversation. So quite, quite interesting to watch how these conversations are ongoing. Some places shut their doors, but the conversations pop up in other places.

Jim: 

Let me read just a couple of sentences from A Generous Orthodoxy. You said, “I have realized that my deepest passion isn’t for church people. It has always been for those outside the church. I want to welcome them in to help them become part of our life and mission. But often I’ve felt like an ambulance driver bringing injured people to a hospital where there’s an epidemic spreading among the patients and doctors and nurses.” That was almost 20 years ago since you wrote that. I’m guessing it’s as relevant today as ever.

Brian:

It’s a little spooky to hear today.

Jim: 

It is. The “epidemic spreading”, right?

Brian:

That’s right. That’s right. And you know, I think 20 years ago I never would have guessed that in many of our churches there is less freedom to ask questions. There’s less freedom to, you know, look at political issues differently. There’s less freedom to look at scientific data differently. 20 years ago I would have thought that we would make a little more progress. What seems to me that’s happened is in places where people have broken out of some of those boxes, they’ve made faster progress than I would have expected. But I think I didn’t anticipate the degree to which there would be a kind of doubling down. And so if I were to change the metaphor a little bit, now I feel like an ambulance driver and I pull up to the hospital and there’s a sign that says, “no sick people allowed,” or “no people who disagree,” or you know, some set of tests, political tests or whatever. Before we’ll treat you, you have to agree with these things, something like that.

Jim: 

Well, our work at BioLogos too, we see that phenomenon where there are some that are doubling down on the ideas that they have received and think that everybody must have. That “other end” of the spectrum, you notice, or you make reference to, of the spiritual but not religious people checking out of organized religion. There is sometimes glimmering hopes of people in the middle there that are able to hold to some semblance of their religious faith in even an organized setting in many ways, without the strictures that are there. I think you call this in your book we’re going to talk about here “the pressure” that that too often comes. Are you seeing that middle section and the health and growth of that sector of religious people in America at all?

Brian:

Well, I think what I’m seeing is widespread frustration at the status quo and I take that as a good sign. In other words, the status quo isn’t good enough. And so I see that frustration as a good sign. And obviously there are wonderful people doing amazing and creative things. I was with an incredibly gifted young church planter and pastor, Oh, it was back in January. And he actually, I think he’s in his probably mid to late thirties, but he just began to weep. He said, you know, so many people are giving up and they’re throwing in the towel and they’re saying there’s no use even trying. He said and here, people like me, we’re pouring out our hearts and we’re experiencing beautiful things. He said, it’s like we showed up too late cause a whole bunch of people have given up.

And that’s why I encourage people, I encourage people not to give up for many, many reasons. But that’s certainly one of them. There are amazingly gifted people doing wonderful and creative things. The other reason I encourage people not to give up is because if we do give up on creating healthier, organized religion, then we can be sure that unhealthy organized religion will continue to expand its market share. And we will find out that unhealthy other things can fill in that void as well—nationalism, you know, different kinds of ideologies, you know, this resurgence of white supremacy and what some people call white Christian nationalism. These to me are deeply disturbing. And if people don’t find meaning, belonging and purpose in constructive ways, then sadly, these are human needs and so they’re going to fill these needs in destructive ways. So we can’t give up. That’s why to me, your work is so important and the work of so many creative, good-hearted, humble people is so important.

Jim: 

Good. Well, we are here primarily to talk about your book, The Galapagos Islands: A Spiritual Journey. So this was quite the gig a publisher pays for you to take a trip like this and write about it. How does that come about?

Brian:

I know. I couldn’t believe it when I got a call from an editor. He said, “we’re asking some theologians and spiritual writers to write a book on location.” And he said, “we can’t pay you but we can pay your way.” And I said, “well, where were you thinking of me going?” He said, “the Galapagos islands.” I said, “could I have like five seconds to think about that?” So an amazing, amazing experience. Just amazing.

Jim: 

So when you think back about the trip now—we’ll get to the book and some of the aspects of the book, but even irrespective of that, when you think back about your trip, what are the main memories, the main impressions that stand out to you now?

Brian:

Well, I mean, it’s a simple word, but it’s honest: joyfulness. You know, there’s this joy that comes when you are in a place where natural beauty is valued and appreciated. So many places in the world today are worse than they were 30 or 50 years ago. The Galapagos islands were pristine a few hundred years ago and then as soon as human beings arrived, the destruction was rapid and horrific, but starting in about 1950, 1960, things have really improved. Amazing progress has been made. And to be at a place like that where animals aren’t afraid of you because they have, it’s just something they haven’t evolved is a fear of humans, where you just sense that there’s this reverence for creation.  Oh my goodness. It’s remarkable. And of course, what you hope is that people who experience that there, will bring that back when they come home and think that’s the way we should be feeling about all of creation.

Jim: 

So tell us a little bit about the logistics of this trip. How did it work? You’re living on a boat? Maybe take us through a typical day. What’s your cabin like on the ship? What do you eat? How are you interacting with other people?

Brian:

Well if anyone goes to the Galapagos Islands there are two main ways to do it. One way is called island hopping and so if you island hop, you would stay in a little hotel or guest house there and then you would pay a guide to take you out on different kinds of excursions. The trip I wrote about in this book, we were on a boat. I went on the very cheapest way you can go. We were on a small boat with 16 passengers and crew and basically you travel at night, so while you are asleep the boat motors to the next island, where you’re going to visit the next day.

And then you usually would have an excursion in the morning then come back for lunch and excursion in the afternoon, back for dinner. And those excursions usually would involve a hike somewhere. And then the trip I was on, we were, we really emphasized snorkeling. We would spend, I would say, an hour and a half in the water, snorkeling twice a day. So it was a lot of time in the water and a lot of time out in the beautiful volcanic islands.

Jim: 

So in the preface to the book you make the case for theology that comes from engagement with the natural world, outdoor theology or external theology as opposed to the indoor theology. You say indoor theology will differ markedly from theology that arises from conversation with the wild world that flourishes beyond our walls and outside our windows and cities. Why is that?

Brian:

Well, you know, there’s a tradition in Christian theology… Augustine said a version of this. Thomas Aquinas said a version of it. Many others have as well, that we Christians understand that God has spoken to us through two books, the book of scripture—but the first book was the book of creation itself. That of course, the Psalms say this as well, that all of creation speaks to us…what, how is that beautiful phrase? “Day speaks to day.” “The grandeur and majesty of creation,” Paul says in Romans, is constantly telling us of God’s actual character and attributes. And so I think if we… What’s happened, unfortunately, and there were all kinds of reasons we could, you know, imagine an extrapolate about this, but for all kinds of reasons, we have read the Bible and ignored the first book of God’s speaking through light and gravity and sound and birds and fish and sea and the water cycle and plate tectonics and all the rest. So for whatever reasons, many of us inherited a version of theology that was ignoring what we could very literally say was the original word of God. Because if you remember in Genesis one, God speaks and there’s light, God speaks and there’s the earth and the sense that the actual creation itself is an expression of the divine artist. 

BioLogos:

Hey Language of God listeners. If you enjoy the conversations you hear on the podcast, we just wanted to let you know about our website, biologos.org, which has articles, videos, book reviews, and other resources for pastors, students, and educators. We also have an active online forum. We discuss each podcast episode, but it goes far beyond that, with lots of open discussions on all kinds of topics related to science and faith. Find it all at biologos.org.

Interview Part Two

Jim: 

I’ve done a fair bit of thinking on this two books metaphor, too. And I think one of the really interesting things—and you point at that a little bit there—is that originally when this was developing was when there was a time of much less literacy rate. So the people that could read the second book were far out-numbered by those for whom their only access to one of those books was the book of nature. And now in our time of more specialized sciences, that may have changed a little bit where our access to the book of nature seems like that’s the province of the specialists now. That it seems a little funny, doesn’t it?

Brian:

That is really an interesting thought Jim. I’ve never thought about that before, but that really is interesting. I think about this….some years ago I read a book, a wonderful book by Barbara Brown-Taylor, called Walking in the Dark and she just made the comment that through a large part of her life, she never was conscious of the moon cycle, you know, whether we were at a new moon or a full moon or a waxing moon or a waning moon. And it’s interesting for me because, where I live, in Florida, we don’t have, you know, a lot of streetlights. And if I get up in the middle of the night, I instantly know, are we in the time of a full moon because it’s bright or are we in the time of no moon? And you just realize for most of people through most of history, every day, you know, there were certain things you would just know it is as much as we know it’s Monday or Tuesday or April or May, They would know where we are in the moon’s, in the lunar cycle because it made a difference with how you lived and we would have greater sensitivity to the seasons.

And of course, when most people worked in agriculture or even before that when our ancestors were hunter gatherers, our… Just as we might need to know how to log into a computer or enter a pin number to get money out of your bank account, they actually needed to understand which plants were edible and where to find this fish at this time of the tide and so on. And it’s something we’ve lost and I’m afraid to say, but I think, I think we have evidence for this, that our loss of an outdoor theology, our loss of literacy in relation to what we might call God’s first language has resulted in some pretty severe distortions in our theology. And what’s terrible about this is people who’ve only been involved in an indoor theology in that way—a book oriented theology—won’t ever even know it because they don’t have anything to critique their theology by, except arguments and so on, that happen in that world.

Jim:  

So there’s some irony, right, that you’re writing a book about this outdoor theology experience. Would there be a better way to convey this or is this just a necessary fact of the times we live in?

Brian:

Well, of course, the best way is to do it by field trips. And it’s one of the joys in my life that I get to do that with people sometimes, whether it’s… I once co-taught a theology class in the boundary waters of Minnesota where we had a group of theology students who are studying the doctrine of creation. So they read Jurgen Moltmann and some other great theologians, Teilhard de Chardin and so on. But we also, they were out for almost two weeks on canoes. And so we were thinking about creation and pondering the depth of creation in that context. And of course, isn’t it interesting that this is how Jesus shows up? In fact, if I were to actually offer a critique of that old two books metaphor, I might say, I think we make a mistake to say that the first book is creation and the second book is the Bible. We might be more accurate to say the first book is creation And the second book is Jesus. Because, you know, for me as a Christian, I believe that Jesus is the logos, the word of God. 

And in fact, in the first chapter of John, John does this fascinating remix of creation with the revelation of God being in human flesh. But all that’s to say that when Jesus was here, he constantly taught outdoors. He brought people out on a hillside. He would see a flock of birds fly by and say, consider those birds of the air. He’d see some wild flowers over in between the rocks and say, consider the wild flowers of the field. So he did this very much. His classroom was the wild.

Jim: 

One more thing on this theme. One of the things I really enjoy about your book was all of the inset quotes you had from different people about nature. Like this one from naturalist John Muir: “I care to live only to entice people to look at nature’s loveliness. Heaven knows that John the Baptist was not more eager to get all his fellow sinners into the Jordan than I to baptize all of mine in the beauty of God’s mountains.” What is it, do you think, about nature and time spent there that so easily encourages comparisons to the spiritual realm or to spiritual experience?

Brian:

Well, so here, first of all, I’m so glad you picked that quote. I read a couple of books about John Muir over the last few years, and he’s just an absolutely intriguing character and his conflicted relationship with his father, who was a minister by the way, highlight, in some ways, this tension that we’ve been talking about between what we might call indoor or boxed religion and outdoor or wild religion. But if we believe that creation actually is an expression of God’s creativity, it’s God’s sculpture, it’s God’s painting, it’s God’s symphony, it’s God’s drama—I mean any artistic expression we could make this analogy—God’s dance, you know, just the comparisons are unending. If we actually believe that, then people are, when they pay attention to creation, they are paying attention to a message from God.

And I hope it’s not controversial to say that. But I’m a little worried that in some ways our indoor religion has acted as if God is a wholly-owned subsidiary of our theological processes rather than realizing that no, God’s first message, if I can use this term, God’s first message is open source. It is available to everybody. And that to me is just a beautiful gift. Maybe it’s contained in what John Wesley called prevenient grace or common grace. It’s there for everyone.

Jim: 

So not everybody can go to the Galapagos. People who can’t, might be able to take a less dramatic spiritual journey than yours into the ecosystems nearer to their homes. But is it harder to go out into your backyard and be amazed? Is there something about these extreme and remote environments that are better suited to spiritual revelations, or do you have any advice for people about how they can replicate at least some of that wherever they are?

Brian:

I think you’re hitting exactly the tension that we feel. I think it was Wendell Berry who said that there are not sacred places and secular places. He said there are sacred places and desecrated places and many of us live in places where the natural beauty has been desecrated. Joni Mitchell’s old song comes to mind. “We pave a paradise and put up a parking lot. Don’t it always seem to go, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” And  so many of us live in places where we have no idea the beauty that was there 200, 300, 500 years ago.

That’s why we have to travel. And there’s again, there’s all kinds of history to this. There’s politics to this where now there are many people who have never in their lives been able to walk out their door and look up and see the stars because they live in a place of light pollution and they don’t have the money to go to a place to actually see the stars.

Now, I remember one of the first times as a young man, and I’d been busy with many other things and it was one of the first times in years I gotten out under a clear night sky. And Jim, the feeling I had was terror. Like I felt how big it was. And I was an adult. I forget, I was probably 30 years old and I was scared. You know, I just, this sense, this is a huge space out there. And, you know what it does to us… I often contrast that to being in a shopping mall where they put up mirrors all the time. I suppose those mirrors tell you that you’re important and your clothes don’t look good enough so you better buy some new clothes and better buy some new shoes and all the rest, you know?

But what a difference to be in literally a hall of mirrors, or to be under a night sky that helps you feel there’s something bigger going on. This isn’t all about me and my ego or my race or my nation. This is something much, much bigger and I need to find my place in this majestic, huge cosmos. The good news: one other thing I’ll add though is that anywhere I’ve ever been, you don’t have to go too far and you can find surprising little pockets where life is happening. And that’s an opportunity for everybody to begin somewhere close to home. I was, you know, I grew up outside of Washington DC so I was part of that Washington to New York megalopolis and people would be surprised just down at the end of a street, you go past a little dead end and you walk down a little hill and there’s a stream and there are living creatures in that stream you never knew were in your neighborhood. That’s true for just about everybody.

Jim: 

Yeah. There are a couple of scientific topics here that seem to me particularly relevant for a trip like the one that you are on. Evolution because of the connection of the islands to Darwin and his discovery and then also climate change because of the conservation efforts going on there now. Let’s start with the latter, if we could. You made some reference to this a little bit earlier, but maybe give a little more detail what encouraging or even inspiring signs did you see on your trip about the care for and even stewardship for creation?

Brian:

So I was on that trip in 2000—let’s see, now I forget my math—17, I guess. And since then, two populations of tortoises that were thought to have gone extinct have been located. I mean, it’s just remarkable. And then one strain of Galapagos tortoises that was on the verge of extinction just a few months ago, they announced that they’ve completed the reintroduction project because they produced enough young that they’ve returned the population to what it was before that population was 100% decimated from its original island. And so they took a few remaining individuals to another Island. It’s really kind of a fun story about this tortoise that they named Diegito—little Diego—because they found him at the San Diego zoo. He was the last reproductive male of that species and they brought him down to the Galapagos. And he’s been a really good father.

So wonderful examples like this, you know, of populations that were on the verge of extinction, thought extinct, and yet now we’re making remarkable progress. But here’s the problem. Every bit of the progress that has been made could be wiped out by climate change and will be wiped out by climate change. Just to give it a closer at home example, I live in Southwest Florida and in the 1990s, you know, we realized that the Everglades were way more important than people would realize in the 1950s through 70s when they started putting these huge drainage canals through the Everglades. And so in the 1990s, they launched, actually under a Republican governor, Jeb Bush, the largest ecological reclamation project in history, to restore the Everglades. And so I live right on the edge of the Everglades. Just a few miles from my home I can take my kayak and be out in the beautiful backwaters of the Everglades. But here’s the thing: all of that incredible investment, beautiful, important, right investment, if the sea level rises a meter, if the sea sea level rises, you know, 6, 10 feet, all of that work is wiped away. Something similar happens, you know, for all of us who are involved in charitable work where, for example, we go to a community in Africa and we build a well, or we build a hospital or we build a school and then a civil war comes through and the whole thing is burned down. Well, that’s kind of what we’re facing with climate change. All of this progress can be destroyed in a minute if we don’t build momentum for caring for the whole world, the way we care for that one little group of islands in the Pacific.

Jim:  

It seems like that momentum had been building for our understanding and recognizing the need to take more action on climate change and the environment over this past year. That has understandably dropped off the radar here during these days of coronavirus. And it seems like that might even be a good news, bad news thing. Because if you dig around enough for news about the environment, you see that our energy consumption has noticeably dropped during these times of social isolation. But it feels like maybe we’ve lost some of the momentum for this very urgent topic and it’s not like it’s going away, right?

Brian:

Yes. Well, you know, it’s funny. It’s funny you say that because this is the thing I can’t stop thinking about in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, how similar coronavirus and global warming are. Just a month ago our own government leaders were saying, “Oh, this is no big deal. Oh, this is no big problem.” Nobody’s saying that now. And the same thing with climate change. We have a lot of people say, “Oh, this isn’t a big problem.”  And then scientists say, “no, no, you might not think it’s a big problem, but we have models that predict where this is going to go.” Well suddenly now with coronavirus, people are realizing, hey, they really can predict. Hey they really do have models.

Jim: 

Maybe the scientists know something after all.

Brian:

That’s right. And suddenly things, you know, it’s very easy for people to doubt scientists when they feel they gain something from it. But when they realize how much they can lose from trying to deny inevitable and inconvenient truths, suddenly that might wake them up. The other thing that this coronavirus did, is when you think about the change people have made in their lifestyle in a matter of a week, you know.

Jim: 

Right. It’s possible.

Brian:

You realize we really can change.

Jim: 

Large scale change is possible.

Brian:

You watched the government say, “Oh, we can’t do this. We can’t do this. We can’t do that.” And then in three days they pass a bill that does, you know, 50 times what we might’ve been asking for relating to the environment. So suddenly you realize, oh, no, these things are, it’s not that they’re impossible, it’s that people, certain people, aren’t willing to open their imagination to what’s possible.

Jim: 

Well, of course we also have to talk about Darwin a bit. Darwin visited the Galapagos islands for about five weeks back in 1835, some 25 years before his famous book came out. He’s sailing aboard the Beagle. When you visit those same places yourself, do you come away thinking, oh yeah, that evolution business, that’s just obvious now that I see this, or does it make you marvel all the more instead that somebody could just go around these islands, observe these creatures and eventually piece together the theory of evolution?

Brian:

Well, you know, it’s interesting, Jim. I had never read The Origin of the Species. Like a lot of people, I’ve heard about it. I talked about it. But I’d never actually read it. So I went back and read it and then I read some of Darwin’s…he wrote about his experiences in several different books. And then there was a posthumously published autobiography. And the feeling I had as I read Origin of the Species is I felt like he was taking every objection to his theory more seriously than any of his critics would. And it was because of his own passion to know the truth. I really came away with huge admiration for Darwin as a human being. He also was a way better writer than I realized. I mean, it really was interesting reading and although the level of detail, as I say it…

Jim: 

It’s very careful and plodding at points.

Brian:

Exactly right. But what it has made me realize is that the complexity of the world is…once we get a few keys, we start understanding, we start to see patterns. And those patterns are so theologically rich. They have so much to say to us, practical things to say to us about our own survival as individuals and as communities and as civilization and so on. They have a lot to say to us at very practical levels, but I really think they have a lot to say to us theologically. You know, I grew up in a place where it was always theology versus evolution. But I think what we have the chance to enjoy in the coming years is a theology and evolution in conversation. Of course we need to have that in relation to many scientific endeavors.

Over the last seven years, my life… A huge part of my life has been taking care of my aging parents. My dad died five and a half years ago. My mom died last year and both of them suffered from dementia in their final years. Well, anyone who’s had to deal with dementia, you know, it makes you ask a lot of theological questions. So there’s this deep conversation that’s going to happen about brain science and our understanding of how the human brain works and theology. And a lot of people are afraid about this. But I just think instead of being afraid we should be excited, we should feel like we’re all on the voyage of the Beagle and we’re all… there’s so much to learn and so much to put together and people are afraid, “oh, I might have to change some of my beliefs.” Well, that’s called growth. That’s called repentance, you know? So, I see all of this as tremendously exciting.

Jim:

So you give a quote from Darwin in here that seems applicable to that. He said, “It’s not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It’s the one that’s the most adaptable to change.” And you take that then and apply this to theology like you were just talking. I think many people sometimes recognize a tension between our need for theology to adapt to the times and our need for our theology to remain stable and rooted to something unchanging. How do you navigate that tension?

Brian:

Well, I think if we can just begin by admitting that there is a tension, that’s a good start. Because what a lot of people do is they just absolutize tradition. And we have to say what our forefathers said. And this is especially ironic for me as a Protestant. You know, all of us who are Protestant, we follow reformers who were willing to buck 1500 years of church tradition. And so, ironically we follow people who had the courage to challenge tradition, but then we just sink into saying exactly what they said hundreds of years later and are afraid to challenge that tradition. I think science actually gives us a really interesting model here. The way I say it sometimes is I say science is more loyal to its quest than it is to its facts.

In other words, what it considers to be a fact now, if it finds evidence that contradicts that fact, it’s willing to reopen the question. Was that really true? Maybe that theory was the best explanation we had at that time. But maybe there’s a better theory. What’s consistent in science is a desire, a quest for truth. Now, obviously science can be corrupted by money. Science can be corrupted by its own traditions, its own lack of imagination. And anyone who studies science finds out, you know, how it’s not just a religious problem, it’s a human problem for people to have closed minds to new ideas. But what’s consistent is the quest. And that seems to me to be what we find in the Bible as well. 

You know, in the Hebrew scriptures you never find a verse that says, hey, circumcision is a requirement for a few hundred years, but eventually you will outgrow it. Or remember the sixth day is the Sabbath for a while and then eventually you’ll outgrow it. No, those things are seen as that’s the only way it’s ever going to be. But then a time comes even in the scriptures and we see those things change. And so as we read the scriptures, we are looking for what are the enduring, what’s the enduring quest? And there are certain places, things just pop up. I think of, for example, in Micah, when Micah says, what does God really want? You know? And then he says, “Well, do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God.” That’s a pretty good summary. Jesus comes along and says, “Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself.” That’s a pretty good summary. And I think part of our challenge now is to seize on those deeper consistencies, the quest, the thing we’re really after.

Jim:

So given my work, I’ve obviously been involved in trying to understand this relationship between theology and science, and I’m always careful to make sure people understand that theology, just like science, is our attempt to make sense of our experience, right? Theology doesn’t fall from heaven. There may be revelation in some sense that falls from heaven, but our theology, our attempt to make sense of that is our doing. But is there something just like in science? So sometimes we acknowledge that science is continually changing and open to revising, but it also figures some things out sometimes that aren’t really up for revision anymore. We’re pretty sure the earth is round, right? We’re pretty sure that the germ theory of disease is accurate, right? Those are not really going to be revised. Can you say the same thing about theology? I mean, it took several hundred years to come up with, say, the doctrine of the Trinity. Is that something that we say, “No, we’ve stumbled on this here, now. We’ve come to understand that. That’s not really up for revision anymore.”

Brian:

Yes, yes. Well, you know, it’s interesting when you say that. I’m a trinitarian but I know that in the last 100 years there’s been incredibly fertile, new engagements with the doctrine of the Trinity. In fact, some, because of conversations with science. You know, as we shifted from a kind of Newtonian, linear chain of command kind of universe to an Einsteinian universe where fields and relationships were very important, that’s deepening and enriching the language of the Trinity. And in fact, the language of the Trinity that emerged in the fourth and fifth centuries had to do with a conversation that was going on among Christians of those centuries and various schools of Greek philosophy. So I think one of the things we realize is there are treasures we discover along the way that we never want to throw out.

But even over time, our appreciation of those treasures will change and grow deeper. But here’s where I think Jesus’ words are really, really striking when he’s asked what’s the greatest commandment? And he says, “Well, it’s to love God. Love your neighbor as yourself.” And then he makes it clear that your neighbor also includes the outsider, the outcast, the enemy. And that…I think there are core understandings and truths like this that do become really, really central. Unfortunately though we all have to be aware, this is certainly true in my life, things I grew up with and the denomination I grew up in, that we assumed were central and essential and could never and would never change—I’m 64 years old in a few weeks and I’ve watched those things change. So I think that creates humility in us and keeps us in the posture of, as Jesus said, being like little children, always willing to learn more, but it’s never as simple a thing as, oh, you just throw that away.

If something was precious to people, we’d better understand why it was precious and we would be fools to just glibly throw things away without understanding their great value. So, yes, there is a conservative dimension. We conserve the treasures of the past. You know, good scientists do this as you know, better than I. They also tell the story of why they thought what they thought 300 years ago and how that’s changed to now. That’s part of the history. And frankly, I think that’s a huge part of what we have in the Bible. I think the Bible contains a record of those kinds of discoveries and re-sortings and re-evaluations.

[Musical Interlude]

Interview Part Three

Jim:

Let’s go back to the islands here. Tell us about the Guinea Fowl Puffer fish. 

Brian:

Well, as I said, we spent several hours each day snorkeling and there was a fish, I think it’s pretty common in some reef systems, and it might even be common in parts of the Galapagos islands, but it was one that I’d read about in the books, I kept my eyes open for, and I never saw it until the very last day, as I recall, of our trip. And I just got the briefest glimpse of this beautiful kind of fish. It’s called the Guinea Fowl Puffer fish. Kind of chocolate brown, almost black color with tiny yellow dots. And I just saw it for the briefest second. And for some reason that image of just the second of seeing it and then it darting into a hole in the reef, stayed with me in the weeks after I returned home. And it became, in some ways for me, almost like a metaphor or an image of the elusiveness of moments of revelation and discovery and how, you know you saw it and, you know it’s real and, you know it was beautiful and you wish you could see more, but the very brevity of it was part of the preciousness of it as well. So yeah that became kind of a theme in the later chapters of the book.

Jim: 

So those were some of my favorite sections. You go on to have a sort of theological conversation with the fish. Tell us some of that.

Brian:

That’s right. When I wrote that book, well, when I wrote my first draft, I wondered if the editor would throw all that stuff out, but she told me she liked it, so that was good.

Jim: 

I’m glad she did.

Brian:

So when it comes to God… I’m actually writing a book right now, I’m just finishing a book right now called Faith After Doubt that will come out in 2021. And I’ve been, you know, grappling with the reality of doubt and the role of doubt in maturing our faith. I’ve come to realize that there are not many safe places for us to really face our doubts. So often we come out with a doubt to a friend and they want to fix it right away or they’re nervous about us or they are worried we’re going to, you know, lose everything and go to hell and it creates all this anxiety. And so what I did in the book is I tried to use an imaginary conversation with this mysterious fish in the reef as a way for me to sort through some of my own thoughts and reflections about God and God’s relationship to the universe. And what it means if evolution is as fundamental to the universe as it now appears to be, how that challenges and changes many of our inherited assumptions about God. And so that set of kind of poetic and somewhat tongue-in-cheek paragraphs of the book were my way of grappling with those questions.

Jim: 

Another metaphor you use is a suitcase, taken from a paraphrase of Matthew 13:44. The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a suitcase. You say, you treasure… You cherish the treasure, but find the suitcase has gotten heavier and heavier. Unpack that a little more for us. 

Brian:

Sure. Well, I think we all pick up extra stuff. Not just as individuals, we do it over centuries. And in fact we pick up extra stuff, baggage, we often call it, theological baggage, extra ideas that weren’t there, you know. So for example, when Paul was writing Galatians, it was very clear to him that in Christ there is neither male or female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free. Yet in American history, white supremacy took such a hold that American Christians assumed that slavery was part of God’s desire for the world. And for hundreds and hundreds of years, way more Christians defended slavery than critiqued it using the Bible. In fact, you can find documents from the 19th century, early 19th century where theologians said that they needed the Bible to be preached in a certain way in order to perpetuate slavery.

So obviously we pick up baggage and then we realize, that was a really bad interpretation. That was a really harmful, destructive, evil way of reading the Bible. And we then hopefully leave that behind forever. I also think we lose some things and we’ve got to go back and find them. You know, somehow we let the suitcase drop open and something we needed…and this concern for the earth I think is one of those things we’ve lost in recent centuries. You read all those early, all those chapters, the book of Leviticus for example, about leaving the land fallow, a lot there about caring for the earth. And then, but for the last 500 years of the industrial revolution and the whole era of conquest and conquistadors. Boy, we didn’t act much as if we had any responsibility to care for the earth. In fact, I’ve literally heard committed Christians say, Jesus is coming back, the whole thing’s going to be destroyed. As if saying we might as well return the earth to God as a, you know, empty, wasted, pile of trash. That’s something precious we lost. Our suitcase fell open and we got to go back and find that lost treasure and get it back.

Jim: 

Well, let’s come back here then at the end of our conversation here to talk a little bit more about creation and the beauty, the glory that you see in this. At the end of your book, you give a series of meditations on different species or I guess different families of animals that have been around much longer than we humans have been. And sometimes critics of evolution charge that that all just seems so wasteful, doesn’t it? But I think you help us see this as maybe lavishness rather than wastefulness on the part of the creator. Is that fair to say?

Brian:

Yes, it is. You know, I’ll tell you, I was invited to an event once and this fellow at this event literally, you know, yelled at me and said, “You’re Brian McLaren. You believe in evolution. You believe in a God of death.” And he just starts yelling at me. And of course I wanted to say to him, “Hold it. I thought you were a Christian. You believe in a God of death and resurrection.” And part of what the message of resurrection tells us is that death is not the end. So what that says to me is that…and so many of our arguments about this, they carry so many other assumptions, like for example, the assumption that everything is about human beings. Well, no, God actually thought this world was good before any human beings were here. You know, on the first, second, third, fourth day of the creation story, God doesn’t say, “Ah, this is really worthless because we don’t have any human beings with souls who can have a nice narthex and Eucharist and you know, all the rest.”  No, it’s all beautiful. It’s all good. 

And this to me is one of the things we have to recapture, is our appreciation for the goodness of each thing. To imagine, you know, I don’t know how many folks will remember that scene in Jurassic Park where the people come to the Island and they step out of a little vehicle and they see dinosaurs moving across the landscape and the beauty of it and awe of it and the grandeur of it is, you know, one of my favorite movie scenes in not a great movie series, but that scene is sure great. And I just think if, you know, we have to say all of this is good and the goodness of it to God.

God loves insects. God loves birds. God loves fish. God loves light and gravity, at least as I understand God. These things all have value. They all express that God’s signature is on every one of them because they’re all part of God’s works of art. And of course, if we take that back into our suitcase, so to speak, if we say that’s something we need to hold once again, then it’s going to change the way that we live with the earth in the future. And it’s going to make us say, maybe we’ve become captive to only valuing things based on their monetary value. And we’ve lost the value of creation as creation, the inherent goodness. You see it when Jesus says you’re of more value than many sparrows. But that very statement assumes that each sparrow has real value. And that’s part of what I hope a book like this will help people feel.

Jim: 

Well, you’re an English major. So maybe let’s end on a quote from a novelist that you include from Marilynne Robinson in the book when she was asked “what single thing would make the world in general a better place?” And she answered “loving it more.” You go on to say, “In loving these unique creatures that are unique features of this unique world, we are making the world better.”

Brian:

Yes.

Jim: 

You agree with yourself in that line I quote to you?

Brian:

In fact, I think right after that I say something like, “You know, there’s a lot of things I’m not sure about, but boy, I’m really sure of that.” And yeah, I feel that in my bones. I feel that. And this to me just confirms the wisdom of the scriptures when we stop trying to read them in some ways that I think are being largely discredited for new generations of people. But when we go back and say, what did the Bible tell us from the beginning really mattered? Well, creation mattered. It was good. And love matters. And joining God and God’s love for the world and for all people, that matters. And that to me is…I’m so glad you brought up that quote because that’s one of my favorite quotes anywhere. “By loving it more.”

Jim: 

Well, if one of your goals in writing this book was to inspire us with greater love for the natural world, and I’ll say mission accomplished, at least for me. So The Galapagos Islands: A Spiritual Journey, Highly recommend reading this book. Maybe I should end by asking, has your inner Guinea Fowl Puffer Fish said anything profound lately to you?

Brian:

Well, I must say, in this time of coronavirus, the thing I keep realizing is how deeply we’re connected. We used to think that we got sick as individuals. Now we realize, no, we get sick as cities and communities and species. And so we’re realizing how connected we are to one another and to everything else.

Jim:

Thanks so much, Brian, for talking to us.

Brian:

Thank you so much for having me. Thanks for the good work you’re doing. Please,  please keep it up.

Credits

BioLogos: 

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation and more than 300 individuals who donated to our crowdfunding campaign. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf, that’s me. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. We are produced out of the remote work spaces and the homes of BioLogos staff in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode, find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum. Find more episodes of Language of God on your favorite podcast app or at our website, biologos.org, where you will also find tons of great articles and resources on faith and science. Thanks for listening. 


Featured guest

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Brian McLaren

Brian McLaren is an author, speaker, activist, and public theologian. He is a former English professor and pastor, he is an advocate for “a new kind of Christianity”. His most recent projects include an illustrated children’s book called Cory and the Seventh Story and The Galapagos Islands: A Spiritual Journey.


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