This book is nearly a decade old now. It ages well, though now what it says may not seem as immediately new and fresh as it once was. Still, I believe its diagnosis and treatment are just as relevant today as it was then.
Ultimately, as laid out in its introduction, this book (and the series of subsequent books which follow it), seek to lay out a fourth way (“third” ways are soooo 2008) “beyond a reductionistic secularism, beyond a reactive and intransigent fundamentalism, and beyond a vague, consumerist spirituality”. In this sense, this book is a great success.
Implicit in its prescribed antidote, this book offers the same diagnosis for each of the three problematic ways of existing in the world, despite their radically different orientations–a fundamental disembodying of the human person, as exemplified by their anemic relationship to practices, both communal and private.
To that end, the book outlines ancient historical and theological foundations to spiritual practices. A refreshing aspect of this is that his list goes well beyond the typical Evangelical “pray-and-read-your-Bible quiet time” approach to spiritual practices. There are treatments given to Christian mystical traditions often overlooked by contemporary American Evangelicals, especially when it comes to contemplative, apophatic, and negative theological traditions, wherein one experiences connection through the divine by stopping activity and cogitation to experiencing an emptying rather than a filling.
Charles Taylor, in his remarkable treatment of contemporary society, A Secular Age, demonstrates how the fundamental disconnect of spirituality and human experience comes from humanity having “buffered” itself against divine reality. Having filled the imminent frame with so much meaning (more than it can realistically handle), we’ve disenchanted the world, yet are still haunted by the divine.
It is no stretch to say that many of us walk out of our doors daily and do not feel an inner intuition or sense that God is an ever-present, visceral reality. It is also no stretch to say that this human experience is a complete anthropological anomaly on the global and historical stage. Something has been uniquely added to modern Western culture to de-sensitize us to things most of humanity has taken for granted as the most obvious truths.
This book seeks to re-enchant our lives and reconnect us with the spiritual dimension which haunts and hounds us in our honest moments. And to that end, this book accomplishes its mission beautifully. It is no apologetic for divine reality, or an historical survey of how we lost this sense, nor is it an argument for why people might need to experience this if they feel no nor desire for it. Instead, it assumes we’re haunted, and speaks to those thirsting for more.
The one drawback here (and it’s a big one) is that there are not only three approaches to spirituality dominant in our world to which this book tries to speak; there are four. This fourth approach is the one championed by McLaren himself and, I believe, also contributes to the spiritual deprivation present in our world.
This spirituality is most exemplified by those strains of Christianity most often labeled “liberal”, “progressive”, “emerging”, “revisionist”, or something of the like. Now, I do not think these necessarily represent heresies or people outside the Christian family. They are brothers and sisters and offer correctives and reminders to contemporary Christianity that are indeed right and true. in fact, most people that know me would likely lump me in with them.
Yet, here is the difference: communing with the divine is not only about ethos and praxis, but it also has actual theological content. Time and again, surveys show that the more faith becomes a free-for-all with no actual theological foundation–the more it is simply a reactionary movement (however ultimately correct the reaction is)–the less it uniquely has to offer to the world. People need actual, specific things to believe and hold on to. In that, the book is sorely lacking.
This is no call for undue certainty, division, or turning secondary and tertiary theological opinions and views into dogmatic creeds; it is an invitation to have actual and definite theological opinions and views in the first place. Have them charitably, winsomely, and open-handedly, but have them and hold them.
This contemporary progressive Christianity fancies itself as “retrieving” ancient Christianity and wresting it from modern, Post-Enlightenment constraints of conservativism and traditionalism. And they are largely correct, except for the fact that they pick and choose a few things to “retrieve” from the first few centuries of Christianity, skip over a thousand years of equally rich thought, and then think they’ve rediscovered it all today. The Medieval and Reformation Christian traditions have so much to offer in terms of mysticism, practices, and experiencing the Divine. But they also have specificity (admittedly arising from the scholastic contexts in which they arose), but this is not the direction McLaren wants to go in this series.
Someone from any number of faith traditions could read and benefit from this book. That’s good and beautiful. But if you are looking for a rich Christian approach to spiritual practices, this is a great starting place, but it is not robust or specific enough to guide you on its own. That is why I am excited that many of the other books in this series are written by others to whom I would not ascribe this same critique.
For that reason, I would wholeheartedly recommend this book for people already in a faith tradition looking to enrich their mystical resources. But if you’re more vague in those beliefs, or are unfamiliar with some of this already, I fear this book will do more to confuse than guide.
DISCLAIMER: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher to review.