Comparisons with Similar BooksMany successful books have been written suggesting new approaches to Christianity, as there is a widespread interest in the topic. This interest has been all the more intense recently, with the rise to political power of the Conservative Christian Right through infiltration of the Republican Party. This has led liberal Christians to seek to re-define their position - to clarify what it means to be a progressive, thinking and loving follower of Jesus.
Most books advocating a liberal, progressive approach to Christianity discount the value of the Bible, and largely dismiss the supernatural and miraculous. Many adopt the premise that there is no spiritual reality, and that the physical world is all there is. Although they advocate tolerance of other religions, and sharing of their wealth with the poor, there is a spiritual dryness in this approach which has led many to abandon even liberal Christianity, and seek out the promise of Eastern religions to introduce them to God through meditation. In Search of the Loving God takes the new approach of combining devotion to God, and belief in the reality of spirit (in Christianity, most often found among evangelicals or Pentecostals) with the tolerance and love shown by progressive liberals. And it shows that a thorough examination and reform of Christian beliefs is necessary before this combination of the best with the best will be possible in Christianity. As far as I know, no other book takes quite this approach. There is, however, a grass-roots trend in this direction in many liberal main-stream churches, and a number of very successful books have proposed a movement in this direction.
The book most like In Search of the Loving God in its philosophy is Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, by Marcus J. Borg (HarperSanFrancisco, 1994). Its greatest similarity is its emphasis of the importance of knowing and experiencing God as a "non-material, spiritual reality." Borg claims that Jesus being a "spirit man" shows the importance of the Christian life moving "beyond believing in God to being in relationship to God." He adds that Jesus being a man of compassion, rather than a respecter of "purity" shows the way out of fundamentalism into a reformed Christianity inclusive of all, and not judging of those who deviate from the conservative norm. Jesus is shown to be a subverter of the conventional wisdom that God requires things of us, and one who taught instead of God's graciousness and compassion, as shown in the parable of the Prodigal Son. This short book is an important ground-breaking work, and deserves its considerable success. It is, however, limited in the material it covers. In Search of the Loving God, in addition to taking a similar approach and covering many of the same issues, goes a lot further: it examines the history of Christianity in order to understand why it is the way it is today; it fully exposes why fundamentalism is incompatible with the teachings of Jesus; and it not only claims we need to move "beyond believing in God to being in relationship with God," but also teaches a meditation technique enabling people to actually do it. In Search of the Loving God also examines the Bible in much greater detail, and demonstrates much more systematically that its conclusions are based on the Bible - an important point, if Christians are going to take this new approach seriously.
In a similar vein to Borg's book is For Christ's Sake by Tom Harpur (McClelland and Stewart, Toronto). Like In Search of the loving God, Harpur's book calls for a radical reform of the way Christianity is practiced, through finally taking Jesus' teachings seriously, rather than seeing him primarily as a sacrificial lamb. Harpur says:
We understand best who Jesus is for our time and for the future
It is a quite different book from In Search of the Loving God. It doesn't look for the historical causes of problems in the modern church. It doesn't teach a way to meditate. It doesn't give credence to the miraculous. Its similarity, however, is in its call for radical and wide-ranging reform of Christian belief and practice, in the claim that Jesus' teachings were about finding the kingdom of heaven in the here-and-now, rather than in the hereafter, and in its call for the necessity of having a tolerant and thinking approach to Christianity, rather than blindly following the authority of Popes, Bishops, Priests and Deacons - a power structure Jesus not only did not authorize, but one he actively subverted, and argued against, during his ministry on Earth. The popularity of this book shows there is a great interest in examining ways of reforming Christianity. The two books complement each other, in showing that a variety of slightly different approaches to the problem are possible, and can work together toward the same end, each appealing to different elements of people's approaches to the spiritual - enabling them to mix-and-match, and create their own personal version of the new Christianity.
The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels (Random House, New York, 1979), a perennial best seller in the field, shows how there was a huge diversity of belief in the early church, and consequently questions the validity of the narrowness of modern doctrine. Pagels points out that many other Christian beliefs once existed, but, because they didn't support the growing power structure of the church, they were declared heresy, and their writings (including the Gnostic gospels) were destroyed. In Search of the Loving God builds on the foundation laid by this great book. It takes the argument a step further by closely examining the historical origins of Christian belief, and showing that the belief structure hasn't even followed the teachings of the canonical Bible books (let alone the Gnostic gospels), but was established primarily to support the corrupt medieval power structure of the church, which used fear to control people, and that isolated passages from the Bible, often taken right out of context, were then used to back up the authority of this doctrine. In Search of the Loving God shows how the Bible (and especially the teachings of Jesus) really supports a tolerant loving spirituality, including our ability to personally know God by going within ourselves to the calm center of our being. Since In Search of the Loving God rests its authority on the canonical Bible, which Christians claim is the word of God, rather than on supposedly discredited Gnostic texts, it hits much harder, and much closer to the core of the problems of Christian church, and points the way to actual reform of modern Christianity.
In Face of Mystery - A Constructive Theology by Gordon D. Kaufman (Harvard University Press, 1993) is also a different type of book from In Search of the Loving God, it being a long theological treatise full of scholarly words like "epistemological." It is also different in its view of religion and God, which is very reductionist in the liberal tradition, to the point of being, in the words of its author, "in certain respects agnostic." Nevertheless, Kaufman's objective is similar to that taken by In Search of the Loving God. It is "an attempt to analyze and transform an overall faith-perspective or religious world picture," starting from the premise that: "Theological ideas often prove to be dangerous and destructive when used without critical examination and careful reconstruction." He adds: "Simply to take the innocence and correctness of widely accepted theological symbols for granted...and moving forward with banners flying in the effort to transform the world, may well only add to our deepest human problems." Kaufman is yet another recently successful author, and also a well-respected theologian, who has seen the need for radical reform of the Christian belief structure. In Search of the Loving God addresses this need in a different way - a more devotional and readable way, more aimed at the general public, and taking up more universal concerns. But, again, it is a case of different books making different contributions to the enormous new field of helping define a spiritual reformation in the Christian church which will go far beyond what happened in Martin Luther's time.
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