Q&A with Brian McLaren

April 26th, 2011

Brian McLaren’s new book, Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in 12 Simple Words, is a spiritual primer that seeks to enliven the reader’s soul with a living, breathing connection to God. Here, McLaren answers a few questions about this fresh approach to spiritual practices.

Brian, this book is written for what type of reader – a church-going person of faith, one who has fallen away from organized religion, or someone who is skeptical of all matters of faith?

In different ways, for all three, and here’s why. First, many people who are involved with the church have felt the bottom drop out: their calendar is full of church activities, but their actual sense of conscious connection with God has evaporated. Second, many people who have dropped out of organized religion are still deeply interested in authentic spiritual practices. And third, many skeptics, if they are going to move beyond skepticism, are only going to do so based on personal spiritual experience. My challenge in writing this book is to seek language that creates common ground for all three groups, and I suppose time will tell the degree to which I’ve succeeded.

You write that you want to help readers distinguish the wine of spirituality from the wineskin of the religion it is experienced in. Why are these two things different? Can you share a personal example?

Jesus originally coined this distinction: he contrasted his own mission as a new-wine-producer/distributor with that of the religious establishment of his day, implying that they were in the old-wineskin-preservation business. One can faithfully preserve the language and traditions of leaders of previous generations while largely missing or subverting their first-hand spiritual experience and courageous innovation.

For me, I encountered so much of my early experience of spiritual growth in the company of fundamentalists, charismatics, and hard-line Calvinists. From the fundamentalists I gained a great love for the Bible and a fierce determination to put what I found in the Bible above human traditions – including, it turned out, the traditions of fundamentalism. From charismatics I gained a great love for the Holy Spirit, but I learned to distinguish the gentle but quiet voice of the Spirit from the hyped-up, high-pressure shouting. And from Calvinists, among other things, I learned a great reverence for God’s grace and an appreciation for the life of the mind, both of which led me to be suspect of some of the pretensions of many Calvinists I met. In each case, I had to distinguish the precious, dynamic, evernew contents from the hardening container that delivered them.

Many people these days say they are “spiritual but not religious.” Yet you say the real trouble is not with religion, but “de-ligion.” Tell us how these definitions matter in the conversation.

I think it’s a mistake to cast “organized religion” as the villain. The problem isn’t organization, which is generally an improvement over haphazardness and chaos. Nor is the problem religion, which I understand to be the rich traditions of spiritual communities over many generations. The term itself means “re-connecting” or “re-ligamenting.” The question is what purpose we’re organizing religious people for. If we’re organizing to create suspicion and fear, religion degenerates into deligion. If we’re organizing “us” to scapegoat and stigmatize “the other,” again, religion is violating its inherent higher purpose. If we’re organizing to defend the status quo instead of to welcome the incoming and blossoming of God’s will, we’re on an adventure in missing the point.

The framework of Naked Spirituality is a group of 12 essential spiritual practices you have boiled down to one word each—“sorry,” “please,” “no,” “why,” etc. Why keep the practices so simple and concise?

We live in a world of words, words, words – radio, TV, books, the Internet – we’re besieged by many words. There something about a few simple words that liberates and challenges and opens up space for something transcendent. The Lord’s Prayer, for example, weighs in at less than 70 words, whatever the translation. Yet the depth of those few simple words is, in my experience at least, unfathomable. Similarly, the Gettysburg Address was less than 300 words, and the Declaration of Independence less than 1400. In some key areas of life, less is more.

You’ve broken the 12 practices into four seasons, like our calendar year. Explain to our audience what these four seasons are, and how long does it take one to move through these seasons?

The first season, Simplicity, seems to be the place where we all start, and many people, perhaps most, spend their whole lives there, at least in terms of their religious lives. Some move on to a second season that I call Complexity, and again, many people spend most of their lives there. Higher education, travel, suffering, and love tend to push people into a third stage that I call Perplexity. Many people reach that stage and assume it’s the end of the road. Some – and this is what I think the spiritual life aims to do – are beckoned to a fourth stage that I call Harmony. My hunch is that if we spend enough time in stage four, it becomes a new simplicity, and so the process recapitulates. Of course, I’m not proposing these as some universal, rigid schema, but only as a pattern that seems to be generally true. Many folks have told me that it matches their experience, but some have told me that their path has been far less orderly and more erratic. I’m sure that’s the case.

Let’s look at the first word in the 12 practices: “here.” At times this has been called “invocation” by some theologians. How do you practice this concept?

I call this the practice of awakening and presence. It’s not that we’re calling out to God to get God’s attention: I’m sure that God doesn’t suffer from ADD as we humans all do to one degree or another!

Invocation means calling ourselves to awareness, or better put, rendering ourselves susceptible to the Spirit’s call to us. We’ve all experienced living on auto-pilot, or living “outside the moment,” or as Bono put it in one of his songs, “stuck in the moment,” and aware of nothing and nobody else. I suggest that the word “here” can help us practice this awakening, this awareness. It can become our signal to present ourselves to God’s Presence with, within, and among us.

The second spiritual practice you recommend is “thanks.” Why is gratitude a vital concept that must be learned and practiced?

In our consumerist society, people spend billions of dollars a day to make us unsatisfied with what we have and are. They make money, in a sense, by keeping us as ungrateful as possible. If we don’t have some conscious practices to counter their highly-rewarded ingratitude project, we will have more and more and appreciate it less and less. That’s a script for self-destruction on many levels, from spiritual and psychological to economic and ecological.

These 12 spiritual practices each seem connected to prayer in their own fashion. Do you see them in that light?

Yes. Really, these are twelve kinds of prayer. But sadly, for too many people, the word prayer is problematic. For many religious people, it’s quantified to a formula for guilt or selfishness – have you prayed enough? Have your prayers gotten you what you wanted? And for many non-religious or post-religious people, prayer seems like a kind of superstition or incantation that makes no sense to them.

That’s true in many areas of the spiritual life, which is why now as a writer, just as when I was a pastor, I always feel the challenge of finding fresh ways to help people experience the foment and ferment of the authentic spiritual life.


Visit the author’s website, www.brianmclaren.net, for more information and for musical resources accompanying some of these twelve practices.

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