A Lovely Spiritual Journey You Can Take from Your Armchair

The Galápagos Islands

A Spiritual Journey by Brian D. McLaren (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2019)

          Today I want to tell you about a book I have recently read: a lovely non-fiction book by a favourite spiritual writer, Brian D. McLaren. I have read a number of Brian McLaren’s books over the years. While we were born around the same time, and hence are both second-wave Baby Boomers, our early experiences of religion were largely dissimilar. He grew up in an ultra-conservative Christian home, where he experienced religion as “pressure”. Although I did witness this kind of Christianity as a youth when I joined my best friend’s Evangelical Youth Group, I had the moderating influence of my home denomination, the more liberal United Church of Canada, which has had its problems too! I also had a father who was faithful but not afraid to question his religious faith. My  friend left the church for good when she moved away from home for precisely the same reason McLaren gives for leaving his home church: “It was just too high pressure!” That was exactly the way McLaren described his early religious life:

“Pressure. Pressure to avoid being punished — or punishable if not by adults, by the Supreme Adult. Pressure to be morally perfect and doctrinally right in the eyes of God and the religious authority figures who represent him (a fitting pronoun in that context). Pressure to be different and set apart from ‘sinners’ and the world, and especially the liberals. Pressure to evangelize and convert everyone I can so they will go to heaven with us. Pressure to be vigilant against science and ‘secular’ education because they dare to challenge our inerrant Bible. Pressure to be grateful for the amazing grace that saved a wretch like me (and would damn everybody else). Pressure to keep my inner being under strict vigilance and control because I could at any moment slip into desire, which could mean slipping into sin. Pressure not to question because questioning could lead to doubt and doubt could lead to heresy and heresy could lead to hell. Literally.” (pp. 186-187)

Clearly, location matters. As McLaren writes at the outset of his book, theology and spirituality are influenced by where you do them. (p. xi). As he notes, most of western theology has been done indoors, not from the perspective of Creation. It’s also been written largely by white, heterosexual men in highly controlled settings and not in the wilderness of the great outdoors. This is one of the reasons McLaren chose to make a second trip to the Galápagos  Islands. Invited by his friend, theologian Tony Jones, to write a book on the islands that would be part travel guide and part spiritual reflection, McLaren chose to feed the “wild” side of his theology and head for the Galápagos. He could not have found a more beautiful – or more remote  venue – in which to undertake his spiritual adventure. Consisting of five large volcanic islands and many smaller ones, the islands are located about six hundred nautical miles off the coast of Ecuador. Known for their large number of endemic species, the Galápagos Islands are famous also because it was here that Charles Darwin spent a significant time studying the wildlife. His research was to contribute to his later formulation of the theory of evolution.

The first seven or eight chapters are full of interesting pictures of the various species of birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians that make their home in the Galápagos. These chapters read like one of Rick Steves’ travelogues. I smiled as I read about the white sand of the beach that derived from thousands of years of parrotfish poop! I marvelled at McLaren’s description of the large black marine iguanas, remembering many years ago holding one of their cousins in my hand while on a visit to Mexico as a young person. The large tortoises, that can live for 120 years (to die at 70 is to die young!), the colourful flamingos, puffer birds, and variety of finches that Darwin had also observed,  all formed part of the colourful and fascinating wildlife. As McLaren writes,  “…for eight days in the Galapagos islands, I swam in everything I loved about God. It was genuinely ecstatic.” (p. 188)

But it is in the second half of the book, chapters 9 to 14, that we discover the real treasures that this little book holds. Here he delves into Darwin’s theory of evolution based on natural selection. He notes that Darwin said that it was not the smartest or the strongest who survived, but rather those who were “most adaptable to change.” (p. 144). There is a message in here for those of us who love the Church and want to see her survive, namely, that we have to be willing to adapt and change if we are to continue. This means being willing to expunge those bits of our tradition which continue to oppress peoples and destroy the planet. It means recognizing and acknowledging that our Christian faith has drifted far away from the teachings of Jesus, and instead of loving our neighbour, it has often caused untold harm and destruction. Today, as McLaren notes, we still carry the colonial legacy of racism and slavery, with its subjugation of native peoples (which even Darwin found appalling back in the early 1800s), the brutal annihilation of many species, and wanton killing of wildlife like the merciless killing of pelicans by the local fisherfolk because their feces was so acidic it burned the paint off their boats! (p. 234)

Reflecting on the legacy of colonial, imperial Christianity, McLaren admits that it is now painfully difficult to talk about God. (p.178) Like Darwin, he questions his faith. Like Darwin, he questions the whole notion of anthropocentrism. (p. 153). Like Darwin – and St. Francis of Assisi before him — he invites us to remember that the rocks, the trees, the lakes, the birds, reptiles, fish, insects and mammals are all part of the created family. They are, as the Indigenous peoples have always believed, our kin. What’s more: they have been around far longer than us. “For 245 million years , there were zero people around, but lots and lots of reptiles.” (p. 210). It seems God was happy to spend 99% of God’s time without human beings on the earth. If, for example, we were to look at a diagram of the evolutionary tree, humans represent only “the tip of one small branch of a very huge, verdant tree, and all created things are our grandparents, cousins, and siblings.” (p. 214) As he further writes, “the addition of humans to the [family] tree has been a net loss for the rest of creation, so far at least.” (p. 215)

McLaren lays the blame for the destruction in the Galápagos and many other parts of the world squarely at the feet of Euro-centric, Christian colonialism and exploitive international capitalism. He invites us to question biblical literalism and to re-think our Christian understanding of God. The only response, he argues, is that of love — love of all peoples and all Creation. The task of Christianity – and indeed all religions – Is “to become more fully human, fully alive, fully members of the planetary neighbourhood we share with all creatures, all our relations.“ (p. 269)

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