God Alone Is Good

In the latest season of the podcast Learning How to See, Brian McLaren, Richard Rohr, and CAC staff member Paul Swanson discuss the ways a dangerous façade or “cult of innocence” can be used to claim superiority over others and even deny reality:  

Brian: We’d like to talk about innocence. . . . We’re trying to help people get an assessment of our Christian faith that in no way minimizes or negates the beauty and the wisdom and the depth and the insight, but also in no way minimizes the horrors that have been done in the name of our religion, in the name of our Church, in the name of Jesus, in the name of the Trinity, in the name of God. One of the things we want to talk about is this idea of Christianity as a cult of innocence. [1]

Richard: Seldom have I evoked so many implications and ramifications by one phrase, at least in the realm of theology, then when you gave me this phrase “cult of innocence.” I said, before even you explained it to me, “That’s it. That’s what Christianity allowed itself to become.” And it’s so triply ironic, because the Latin word innocens means “unwounded.” Here we worship a wounded man, and we said, “in his wounds are our salvation,” and yet much of our moral concentration is on proving we’re notwounded, we’re not wrong, we’re not at all bad, we’re not unworthy. Whereas Jesus, in utter freedom, says to the rich young man, “Why do you call me good? God alone is good” (Luke 18:19). That is such a line of inner freedom, where there is no need to be thought of as good. . . . 

Brian: One of my friends years ago said to me (we were both pastors), “Brian, I think the biggest challenge that we pastors [face] is whether we want to be better than we appear or appear better than we are.” He said, “I’m really trying to make it my goal to be better than I appear, but it’s such a temptation.” . . . But [the way Jesus just dismisses it] is for him to say it’s a game I don’t even want to play. . . .  

Paul: Richard, what you just said reminded me of something you had taught on a while ago about Christianity being a religion that has this amazing medicine called grace, but the way to succeed in the church is to say that you don’t need that medicine. That you can survive without it.  

Richard: Yes, you can put in the word mercy, or unconditional love, all the things we’re supposed to be about. We convince people that we don’t really need it, because we’re not sinners. Oh, come on! Pope Francis’ first public talk when he was elected, this strange bishop from Argentina, they said, “Who are you?” The first words out of his mouth were, “I’m a sinner.” What liberation, my goodness! [2] 

[1] The phrase “cult of innocence” is inspired by a tweet from Nadia Bolz-Weber and explored in chapter 16 of Brian McLaren’s new book Do I Stay Christian? A Guide for the Doubters, the Disappointed, and the Disillusioned.

[2] Adapted from Brian McLaren, Richard Rohr, and Paul Swanson, “Christianity and the Cult of Innocence,” June 17, 2022, in Learning How to See, season 3, episode 5 (Albuquerque, NM: Center for Action and Contemplation, 2022), podcast.

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