Suicidal vs. Life-Giving Religious Narratives

By McLaren, Brian | Tikkun, September/October 2010 | Go to article overview

Suicidal vs. Life-Giving Religious Narratives


McLaren, Brian, Tikkun


I WAS INVITED TO REFLECT HERE ON THE TOPIC OF "spiritual visions for social healing," under the general heading of "creating a caring society," but first, I'd like to turn the topic upside-down to look at religious visions for social suicide.

In the 1990s a group of respected scientists facing the accumulating data of environmental destruction, especially climate change, invited a number of religious leaders to meet with them. The meeting began with the scientists saying something like this: "Listen, we in the scientific community accumulate data that tells us we are in deep, deep trouble. But our forte is not motivating people to change their values and lifestyle- that s supposed to be your specialty. So what we're saying is, the future of the human race depends on us getting the 'versus' out from between 'faith' and 'science.' The future of the human race requires now that we leaders in science reach out to you people of faith and say, 'We can bring the data to the table, but you have to bring the motivation to the table and a vision that would help people change their values.'" That to me is why the Network of Spiritual Progressives has been so vital in articulating this kind of a vision for social change.

Three Suicidal Religious Framing-Stories

If we don't face our culpability IN THE CREATION OF THE problems that we share, I don't think we'll be able to repent deeply enough and design an alternative vision that is profound and strong enough to solve them, so I would like to tell you at the core of this what I see our job as spiritual people has been. Religious communities, among the many contributions they make, infuse narratives into communities. I call them framing-stories.

Sadly, I think there are some framing-stories that are terribly destructive- stories beyond which we now have to evolve and develop and grow and mature. One of them is the us-versus-them narrative that builds on the idea that to have a strong identity, we have to be against people of other identities. We could call this a counter-dependent identity. Now, a lot of us grew up with that kind of identity. To be a Christian is to be out to convert everyone else to your faith. To be a Jew is to remember how Christians have mistreated you and to understand them in a contrary relationship. So, our history and our theology have conspired to give us the idea that to have a strong religious identity sets us at odds with people of other strong religious identities. The time-tested solution to this, which is deeply embedded in American culture, is to say that the only way around the terrible struggles that result from "us versus them" in religious communities is to weaken people's religious identities. And in some ways, that's the dream of secularism: "If we could just reduce peoples' religious commitments and their religious identities, then we'd all get along."

Guess what we found out? It doesn't work. When we remove religious identities, other identities emerge- whether they're left/right political identities, whether they're tribal or ethnic identities, or whether they're regional or economic or ideological identities. In the absence of one kind of counter-dependent identity, others emerge. So, we who are spiritual progressives have a special obligation now to help form strong religious identities that provide an alternative to the us-versus-them religious identities that are so inherent in many of our religious communitiesespecially mine, as I come from a conservative protestant background.

That us-versus-them narrative leads to an identity of "I am right, therefore I am." "I am right" is an alternative to "I think." Unfortunately, this kind of a narrative is deeply embedded in our religious traditions.

The second narrative is based on the idea of "us versus nature." I used to be an English teacher before becoming a pastor, and back in elementary school when we started learning about literature, we learned about the "man-versus-nature" theme in literature. …

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