Re-Wilding Faith: Do I Stay Christian? | Brian McLaren

Wild Christ by Jennifer Helminski, in collaboration with MidJourney AI

When I met Brian McLaren 20 years ago, the encounter changed my life. First the person, then his books, then opportunities to collaborate with him — Brian challenged my faith, then he showed me how to make it my own: more powerful, generative, and resilient than ever.

Whether you’ve connected with Brian’s work for years or are facing a fresh crisis/opportunity of faith right now, I encourage you to check out his four-week online course ‘Do I Stay Christian?
A Guide for the Doubters, the Disappointed, and the Disillusioned.’ Co-hosted by my good friend Tripp Fuller of Homebrewed Christianity. This open online class is donation-based — including 0. If you’ve been wondering if you should stay Christian or peace-out, you’ll find in Brian a wise, honest, gentle, and incisive guide to your own deepest discernment. I hope you connect with this course. Here’s a taste of Brian’s reflections, drawn from his book by the same title…

Yesterday, I took my kayak out into the Everglades. I paddled across a lake, through a series of mangrove tunnels, and then out into a remote lagoon where I fished for a while, and then just sat. My little boat rocked in gentle waves. An alligator surfaced and upon seeing me, gently submerged and swam away. An osprey hovered, curled like a fist, plunged into the water, and then rose, shivering off spray, a fish wriggling in its talons. Then all seemed still for a while, with only a whisper of wind riffling the lake. A swallow-tailed kite appeared, swooping and soaring in silence just above the mangroves, a graceful miracle in motion. I felt full. I simply needed to be there for a few hours, out in the wild, just to listen, watch, observe, all the more because I’ve been deep in what I call “the writing cave,” a place where I am deep, deep, deep into words … the words of this book, in fact.

I felt I needed to shake off words just as that osprey had shaken off water. I have a theory. When our ancient ancestors developed the capacity for language, words became increasingly all-encompassing. Words became not only our primary way of engaging with others socially, but they also became the tool by which we each conduct our own inner dialogue. Language became so powerful, both interpersonally and intra-personally, that the web of words in our heads often felt more real to us than the web of life outside our heads.

Language, we discovered, was a tool we used to describe reality, but it also could become a substitute for reality. We might say it was the original form of virtual reality. Christianity evolved, among other things, as a language, a set of words pointing to a set of ideas. This language was necessary to liberate people from another language, the language of empire and domination. This language evolved and shaped the inner architecture of generations of Christians, furnishing them with foundational terms like sin, grace, and salvation. These terms were woven together in stories, and the stories were woven together in a framing story — another phenomenon of language.

For many people, the old language isn’t working any more. The words have been emptied of their substance. The framing story doesn’t fit the reality we experience and feels instead like a conspiracy theory or manic fantasy. The language of Christianity as a whole creates a make-believe world, a rabbit hole, an alternate reality. The gap between actual reality and the Christian linguistic reality is just too great. That’s why many can no longer stay Christian, and that’s why many of us who choose to stay Christian must deconstruct the Christianity we inherited — and shake off much of its language.

But we can’t underestimate the staying power of conventional Christianity. Even if millions of us renounce it, even if we vow never to set foot in its physical architecture again, its language is still encoded in our inner architecture, in our deepest neural pathways and many of our social networks. How can we possibly gain leverage to see, deconstruct, and change something so total, so all-encompassing? To do so, we need something even more immersive and powerful, something capable of disrupting and transforming the vocabulary and grammar that have helped make us who we are.

Where can we go for that kind of immersive experience? What can jolt us out of our addictive obsession with the virtual reality of language?

The answer may be as close as our own front doors. If we take our bodies outdoors and into the natural world, we can let our inner beings realign with the original language and architecture of creation. We can get off the theological elevators that take us up, up, and away, into the abstract sky, as Diana Butler Bass puts it, and descend from our heads into our hearts, our bodies, and our bare feet, thus becoming more grounded.

St. Augustine (Sermon 126.6) put it like this:

Some people, in order to find God, will read a book. But there is a great book, the book of created nature. Look carefully at it top and bottom, observe it, read it. God did not make letters of ink for you to recognize God in; God set before your eyes all these things God has made. Why look for a louder voice?

I’m not simply talking about going outdoors for recreation or even inspiration, as fine and healthy as those excursions can be. What we need is deeper than that, because so often, we simply bring our old linguistic architecture with us into the outdoors. As we walk through the forest or prairie, our language chatters on, naming, categorizing, and judging everything we see just as we’ve done before, noticing what we’ve been trained to observe and missing what we’ve been trained to miss. Instead, we learn to go outdoors mindfully, reverently, as silently as we can, waiting for the beauty, intricacy, and wonder of what is outside us to overwhelm and hush the barrage of words chattering inside our heads.

In this silent encounter with the natural world, we are rendering ourselves vulnerable to it so that it can impress upon us a new inner architecture, one that is shaped by and in harmony with the patterns and wisdom of the wordless natural world. We invite natural reality to shape and reshape our inner “civilized” reality. In Christian terms, we let God’s original word (or logos) outspeak our human words (or logia), to transform us into different kinds of receivers, different kinds of Christians, different kinds of humans.

By God’s original word, I mean the universe itself, the universe that expanded from the original singularity, that point of creation that resonates so beautifully with the “Let there be light” of Genesis 1. If our human words have taken on a life of their own, and if that life is out of sync with the primal logos, pattern, or wisdom of creation, then we need nature to become our teacher. And not just nature, but nature as unmodified by human interference as possible. Our name for unmodified nature is the wild or wilderness.

Of course, these days no part of the wild remains completely untouched by human modification, as attested by global climate change, the global dispersal of microplastics, the dispersal of invasive species, the extinction of native species, light and noise pollution, and other human interventions. So even the wild becomes less wild every day. That only makes its preservation more urgent … as a spiritual priority, and as an expression of the fourth desire we mentioned in the previous chapter of Do I Stay Christian?.

We each have a tiny outpost of the wild that we carry with us wherever we go, namely, our bodies. Like the wild outside of us, we constantly try to control and modify our wild bodies. We clothe, tattoo, and sculpt them. We overfeed them; then we starve them. We restrain them from the healthy stress of exercise, or we punish them with excessive stress. We’re proud and ashamed of them. We flaunt and hide them. We love them and hate them. And we do all this because of the linguistic architectures and the social constructions in which our bodies live and move and have our being. You might say that our linguistic constructions about our bodies are more real to us than our bodies themselves.

Conventional Christianity operates by and large on the “ghost in the machine” model of humanity. We often disparage our physical bodies as “the flesh,” fearing them as a temporal distraction and a moral temptation to our nonmaterial spirits or souls. This “spirit in meat” model, rooted in certain schools of Greek philosophy and picked up in parts of the New Testament, puts us at odds with our bodies, as strangers to them. In the future, those of us who stay Christian will need to make peace with our wild bodies, to listen to them and learn to love them again, to discern God’s beloved wildness in them.

This love for our wild bodies seems especially important now, because it’s becoming more and more clear that the things we associated with soul or spirit — consciousness, personality, character, morality — are emergent phenomena, arising from our bodies. We are not spiritual ghosts in machines of meat; we are embodied creatures, and consciousness, personality, character, morality, even spirituality arise in our bodies.

I know there is some truth to the statement, “We are spiritual beings having a human experience,” but there is perhaps more truth in an alternative statement: “We are biological creatures, wild animals, in which spiritual experience happens.” Our bodies are our wildness, a wildness which we are oppressing and driving to extinction as we do with every other wildness. And it is our human social constructions — our ideas, conventions, assumptions, belief systems, cultures, civilizations, religions, and all their words upon words — that drive us to do so. Rediscovering the wildness of our bodies will help us become more wise in the ways we understand sexuality, eating, illness and health — including mental illness and addiction, human development and aging, and beginning and end of life issues. In the words of Hannah Arendt, it will help us take our natality as seriously as our mortality.

(As a zealous young Christian, I was taught to fear my sexuality and to try to tame it. That guidance likely saved me from some kinds of trouble, but it created others. Despite my sincere efforts, the wildness of my body has never been fully tamed. I long considered this a weakness and felt ashamed about it, but have come to see that the wildness of sexuality is far more a gift than a problem.)

Rediscovering the wildness of our bodies will also help us live more wisely with the earth, since every molecule and atom that constitutes our bodies is derived from food, drink, and breath supplied by the sun-warmed earth.

Along with our bodies, many of us keep other outposts of the wild close at hand. Could it be that the dogs or cats that we so love are not just pets, but also emissaries of the wild? Could those house plants that we water by the window or the fish we tend in an aquarium also be wild ambassadors who teach us every day to link our well-being with theirs? Could it be that the hours we spend gardening tomatoes, peppers, and squash are not simply about feeding our bodies, but also about tending to our suppressed inner wildness?

In the wild, under the sun, in the weather, with our bare feet on soil and rock, we can begin to break through to feel the truth: we are not independent ghost-in-machine or spirit-in-meat monads; we are interdependent events that happen here, on and in and with and as part of the earth, which is part of larger solar, galactic, and cosmic systems. Every breath tells us that we are porous. Every meal at table and every trip to the bathroom tell us the same thing. What was in air and soil was captured in a zesty mango that I ate and became part of me. Both the mango and I depend on nuclear reactions within the sun to keep us alive. Sun, space, earth, soil, air, wind, rain … we are all part of one great, wild web that does not depend on our language to keep functioning.

That is why I took my kayak into the Everglades yesterday. That is why I sat in wordless wonder as the swallow-tailed kite banked, dove, and hovered over the mangroves. I, who love words and make my living by them, need to soar above words, especially my own, out in the wild.

In The Galapagos Islands: A Spiritual Journey, I wrote: “In all likelihood, wild theology is the mother of civilized theology. And in all likelihood, civilized theology is in the process of killing its mother and acting as if she never existed.… [We need] to be re-situated in the wild, unboxed, outdoor world of creation.”

How can we more consciously re-wild our theology and other inner architecture, as Todd Wynward so aptly puts it? Creative communities around the world are already stepping out to show the way.

Wild Magdalene by Jennifer Helminski, in collaboration with MidJourney AI

For example, churches and secular organizations in New Zealand and Australia have pioneered protocols for honoring the indigenous peoples of the land, whose cultures still cherish wildness.181 In these protocols, indigenous elders might speak and lead a ritual, or indigenous tribes might be named and their wisdom and stewardship of the land might be honored. I and others have added additional protocols to honor the land and its creatures, naming local watersheds and locally common — or endangered — species. These protocols become all the more meaningful when congregations build respectful and mutually beneficial relationships with indigenous peoples themselves, exploring the realities of reparations for the past and partnerships for protection of the land and its creatures moving forward. Protocols like these are only a beginning. But hopefully, they help shape our desires (as we consider in Chapter 21) so we can re-situate ourselves in the wordless language of creation, in all its wildness and wholeness.

To further help us in that process, Ched Meyers, Elaine Enns, and their colleagues are shepherding the Watershed Discipleship movement. They remind us that watersheds are our environmental neighborhood, where humans coexist with land, water, fellow creatures, and one another in mutual interdependence. We are not only disciples in watersheds; we are disciples of watersheds: we learn from them, we become their students, and we seek to live in harmony with what our watersheds teach us. Watersheds are the places where all our grand ideals of regenerative community and economy must be locally embodied, recalling the sage words of Wendell Berry: The question that must be addressed is not how to care for the planet, but how to care for each of the planet s millions of human and natural neighborhoods, each of its millions of small pieces and parcels of land, each one of which is in some precious way different from all the others.”

Seminaries around the world are offering courses and even whole degrees and other certifications that are re-wilding the faith. I’m especially grateful for the good people of Seminary of the Wild, described as “a wild seedbed of spiritual and cultural evolution.” One of its founders, Victoria Loorz, helped form the Wild Church Network, which is helping outdoor congregations find and encourage one another, to help more and more people move “from isolation to connection, from detachment to immersion, and from dualism to interbeing.” In the words of Thomas Berry, the Wild Church Network helps people see the world, not as “a collection of objects” but as “a communion of subjects.” Other seminaries — along with independent spiritual-but-not-explicitly religious programs — are involved in related innovations, offering training not in belief-management, but in deep transformation.

Sadly, some churches and denominations are shutting down their youth camps and retreat centers as kids take more interest in digital experiences on screens than wild experiences outdoors. But others are rediscovering their importance as places to preserve remaining patches of wild. And even urban and suburban churches are realizing that if they own land, they shouldn’t see it as a “landscaping expense,” but rather, they should cherish it as a place to heal, preserve, and rewild.185 Butterfly gardens, community gardens, and wetland swales are being developed, each one reconnecting us a bit more with the earth. The church I served for twenty-four years, Cedar
Ridge Community Church, has become one such example, under the wise leadership of Matthew Dyer, Melanie Griffin, and others.

Meanwhile, an amazing array of organizations are working to help us face specific environmental problems, beginning with climate change. Some organizations are explicitly faith-based, others aren’t, but we all realize that we need to work together for the common good. (’ve been honored to work alongside Eco-America and their outreach to the faith community, Blessed Tomorrow.)

And no less important, the descendants of colonizers are finally turning to indigenous people who survived and resisted colonization, knowing that our mutual survival and well-being now depend upon recovering wisdom that indigenous cultures still carry, wisdom derived from being wild, a part of the land, rather than apart from it. Indigenous wisdom is often contained in proverbs. Here are two that are especially relevant to this reflection: “When all the trees have been cut down, when all the animals have been hunted, when all the waters are polluted, when all the air is unsafe to breathe, only then will you discover you cannot eat money” (Cree), and “In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations” (Iroquois). As part of this re-wilding, many congregations are reconnecting with the original human inhabitants of the land, to return the land to the peoples from whom it was stolen.

Obviously, these are important beginnings, and we have so far to go. Imagine every religious liturgy re-wilded and rewritten from the ground up (in multiple senses of the phrase). Imagine the same being done with every curriculum in every school. Imagine in every election, leaders teaching their communities that environmental policy is an essential value to guide their voting. Imagine people taking pilgrimages to the wild as seriously as our ancestors trekked to Rome or Jerusalem, echoing our indigenous sisters and brothers who went into the wild on the vision quest. (Jesus, by the way, was an indigenous man who prepared for his public ministry with a forty-day vision quest in the wild, and he retreated to the wild whenever he could, often to the consternation of his followers.)

Imagine if part of our daily spiritual practice involved reconnecting with the wild earth each day, whether walking mindfully, barefoot in a park or garden, or observing the phase of the moon, or noticing birds and learning their songs, or tending one houseplant in an urban skyscraper, or noticing and inhabiting our wild bodies. At the very least, we can imagine letting each meal, each trip to the bathroom, and each look in the mirror become a reminder of our porosity with the wild world.

If the Logos of God truly runs through all creation, if creation is actually divine artwork and poetry, if the earth around us and the sky above us truly are preachers as Psalm 19 proclaims, and if the birds of the air and flowers of the field have essential lessons to teach us, as the indigenous man Jesus said, then we could learn in theology what we are learning in ecology: that wisdom is biomimicry, and that the way of the wild is the way of life.

I am aware that many people do not enjoy the outdoors. For them, venturing outdoors is an adventure in anxiety, with bugs, unpredictable weather, the fear of getting lost, and other adversities preoccupying them until they get safely back inside their front door. Meanwhile, others have little access to the wild, living in urban or suburban “wilderness deserts.” Those of us who love the outdoors, instead of shaming our counterparts and nagging them to join us, can simply let the wild do its work on us, and then bring home a regular dose of it to them, camouflaged in our own wild selves. We can also help them reconnect with wildness in the ways they can, including the oft-forgotten wildness of their own bodies, rediscovering their bodies as wild temples of the Holy.

The prophet’s voice, we recall, comes from the wilderness. It takes a wilderness to make a prophet. “In Wildness is the preservation of the world,” Thoreau said. In the same oft-quoted passage, Thoreau also said, “Nature is not, of course, always benign and beautiful. It can be frightening and terrifying also. Not too many generations ago, raw nature and wilderness tended to inspire fear and dread in ‘civilized’ people. They represented Otherness and the Unknown. That which is ‘wild’ is also ‘bewildering.’” But, he said, “We are attracted by wilderness, the Otherness of it, the sense it is something inevitably outside of us.”

If we are to survive as a species, it will only be through the wisdom that comes from the wild. Whether we stay Christian or not, we need to re-wild, each in our own way.

Brian D. McLaren is an author, speaker, activist, and public theologian. A former college English teacher and pastor, he is a passionate advocate for “a new kind of Christianity” – just, generous, and working with people of all faiths for the common good. He is a core faculty member of The Living School and podcaster with Learning How to See. He is also an Auburn Senior Fellow and is a co-host of Southern Lights. His newest books are  Faith After Doubt (January 2021), and Do I Stay Christian? (May 2022). You can learn more about Brian here, and enroll in his course with Tripp Fuller of Homebrewed Christianity here.

One Response to Re-Wilding Faith: Do I Stay Christian? | Brian McLaren

  1. Joe Masterleo September 20, 2022 at 4:22 pm #

    H-m-m. Seems it’s high time for someone with a knack for synthesis to at last come up with a post-modern paradigm that weaves scientific and religious cosmologies into a unified whole, inclusive of nature and all disciplines. Lord knows, it can’t be done inside of dualistic thought (separation consciousness) that still plagues Christian theology. The new wine needs new bottles (archetypes) for an integrated model whose time has come. Rohr suggested it, Teilhard anticipated it, Thomas Berry mandated it, others speak of it, and everyone is calling for it. Brian might have some idea on where to find it, Mike as well.

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