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Center for Action and Contemplation

Introduction to ONEING: Transitions by Brian McLaren

CAC faculty member Brian McLaren shares his views on transitions by reflecting on his passion for fly fishing.
June 12th, 2023
Introduction to ONEING: Transitions by Brian McLaren

This article is from the newest issue of the Center for Action and Contemplation’s biannual journal. Both the limited-print edition of ONEING: Transitions and the downloadable PDF version are available now in our online bookstore.

I used to think that things were real, and change was something that happened to them over time. Now I think that change is real, and things are events that happen over time. Change is the constant and things come and go, appear and disappear, form and fade away.

Brian McLaren, Do I Stay Christian? 

That’s how I recently described a transition that has happened in my thinking through the course of sixty-six years on this planet. I tried to illustrate this transition by drawing from a passion of mine, fly fishing. 

There’s something about standing in the flow of a stream. There’s something about casting my fly just so, in hopes that it will drift naturally on the current, mending the line when necessary. There’s something about watching a trout rise to the surface and gently sip the fly in. There’s something about feeling its strength transmitted through the line and then netting it and admiring its shimmering beauty. There’s something about releasing it and watching it return to the depths. There’s something about the constant motion of casting, the constant shifting of currents and weather patterns, the constant movement of the trout themselves. I explained being drawn deep into contemplation as I observe: 

a seam in the water, a place where fast-flowing water meets slower or still water. What is that seam? It certainly is not a set of atoms; every second, one set of atoms is replaced by new ones. If we suddenly froze the stream to stop the atoms from moving, to capture that seam as in a photograph, the seam would no longer exist. That’s because the seam, we might say, isn’t a fixed and static thing. It’s a pattern of things, a relation and flow of things. It is temporary, contingent, more of an event than a thing. 

When my eyes move upstream, I see a hump of water in front of a rock and recognize it as another pattern, flow, relation, event. Then I broaden my view, consider the stream itself, and see it anew: a flow from springs to creeks to bays to the ocean to clouds to rain, an event in a majestic, life-giving cycle. I imagine the stream bed over a hundred years, its meandering shape shifting in the valley floor, its s-curves undulating like a graceful trout. 

I look at the rounded rocks beneath my feet: before the stream smoothed them, they were jagged boulders on a mountain, and before that, bedrock under the mountain, and before that, fluid magma deep beneath the earth, and before that, space dust drawn into orbit around the sun. What I see as a solid round rock is just one event in a long, long story. 

But my reflection doesn’t stop with water and rock: “Then I look down to see my reflection in the water, and behold! I realize that I too am an event, a flow, a pattern of relationships!” This thought process leads me to the conclusion I quoted at the beginning of this Introduction: a transition in my thinking from seeing things as fundamental to seeing change as fundamental and seeing things as events in endless transition, patterns in a stream, relationships in an eternal flow of relationships. 

Because we want to lift God to the highest level possible, many of us were taught to conceive of God in this Greek category of perfection. After all, what’s the alternative—imperfection?

Brian McLaren

Fr. Richard Rohr often recounts a story from seminary, when a professor ended the last lecture of the semester by saying that Christian theology has in many ways been more influenced by the thought of Greek philosophers than by Jesus’ thinking. A case in point is the Greek idea of absolute perfection, the idea that if something is transcendent, it is unchangeable, immovable, absolute, and incapable of transition. 

Because we want to lift God to the highest level possible, many of us were taught to conceive of God in this Greek category of perfection. After all, what’s the alternative—imperfection? 

To see God as faithful and trustworthy, must we forever think within the Greek categories that we were taught from childhood? 

I remember another kind of visionary moment that came upon me many years ago, not standing in a trout stream, but sitting at my desk, preparing a sermon when I was a pastor at a beautiful congregation in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC. I had been preaching through the creation story of Genesis, and I realized that the universe described there didn’t fit with the categories of Greek philosophy. The universe fashioned by the word and creative character of God was not immovable. It was not absolute and incapable of change. It was not immutable or static or, in the Greek sense, perfect. 

And yet this is this universe that God called good and very good.

Brian McLaren

In the Hebrew poetry of Genesis 1, God’s creation was, simply put, in process. It started simple and grew more complex. It started in chaos, and order took shape. It started without life, and life “sprang forth” and “multiplied.” A sentence formed in my head that day, and since I saw it, I haven’t been able to unsee it: “Hebrew good is better than Greek perfect.” 

In other words, Greek perfect is static, but Hebrew good is dynamic. Greek perfect is sterile and changeless, but Hebrew good is fertile and fruitful. 

This Greek understanding of perfection, it seemed (and seems) to me, had a certain logic and beauty to it—but it also hid real dangers, as Christian history has demonstrated. A monarch could claim that monarchy was God’s will, for example, and therefore, monarchy could never evolve into democracy. Similarly, patriarchy, white supremacy, religious supremacy, human domination of the environment, and other related concepts could be understood as absolute, God-ordained, perfect, unchangeable, and therefore unquestionable. 

Could this deep-seated understanding help explain why so many Christians today remain chained to the past, unable to imagine that change could be for the better, unable to accept that the present order, while superior to the past for some, is still deeply unjust for many and therefore deserves to be challenged and changed? Could sin be better understood as a refusal to accept needed change, a refusal to grow, a resistance to the arc of transition that bends toward justice? 

Sometime soon, I hope you can take a walk outdoors or find a place to sit and observe the created world. Seasons change. Trees grow. Rivers flow. Rocks roll downstream and go from rough and sharp to smooth and round. You can look in the mirror and sense the same reality in your own face: new wrinkles, new wisdom. 

Perhaps you can look at this world in transition and dare to echo God in Genesis: behold, it is good . . . it is very good. Perhaps you can see transition as an essential part of that goodness that is better than perfection.  

Italicized excerpts in this article are from Brian’s book Do I Stay Christian? A Guide for the Doubters, the Disappointed, and the Disillusioned.  

Established in 2013, ONEING is the biannual journal of the Center for Action and Contemplation. Renowned for its diverse and deep exploration of mysticism and culture, ONEING is grounded in Richard Rohr’s teachings and wisdom lineage. Each issue features a themed collection of thoughtfully curated essays and critical perspectives from spiritual teachers, activists, modern mystics, and prophets of all religions. 

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. Brian is Dean of the Center for Action and Contemplation’s Living School and podcaster with Learning How to See. He is also an Auburn Senior Fellow and a co-host of the Southern Lights conference. 

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