My blogging is going to have to slow down over the course of the summer and into next year. I will still plan to post at least one entry a week. Until then, I hope to continue several threads.
For Wednesdays or Thursdays in the meantime, I have been wanting to read Brian McLaren's Generous Orthodoxy for a while. I bought it over a year ago. But since I've been taking off on the name (my Generous Ecclesiology idea), I thought I should go ahead and read the book.
The subtitle is "Why I Am a missional + evangelical + post/protestant + liberal/conservative + mystical/poetic + biblical + charismatic/contemplative + fundamentalist/calvinist + anabaptist/anglican + methodist + catholic + green + incarnational + depressed-yet-hopeful + emergent + unfinished CHRISTIAN."
Yesterday I read John Franke's Foreward, McLaren's Introduction, and his Chapter 0: For Mature Audiences Only. Let me start off by saying, what a refreshing and uplifting read these pages were! I'm sure I won't agree with everything McLaren says, but after wading through Viola's book these last weeks, McLaren is such a breath of fresh air. If you want to know what form of orthodox Christianity has the best chance of surviving and possibly thriving in Western culture in the days ahead (the real stuff will of course survive regardless of what we do), it is this kind of Christianity.
Although it goes against the spirit and warnings of the book in terms of generosity, let me take the Wesleyan troops aside for a second and say, this book is so Wesleyan in spirit. I know there are some corners of my fellowship that see this book as part of the problem. And let me say that I hope they will reconsider. There are no doubt things associated with words like "postmodern," "emergent," "tolerant," and so forth that are worth worrying about. But the problem with using labels to dismiss ideas ("socialist," "communist," "Democrat," "Republican") is that doing so almost always ends up dismissing good things with the bad, almost always, almost without exception! Let the person wanting to honor God with their thinking beware!
I do not think that McLaren--as far as I can tell so far--embodies any of the bad you might find in any labels you might try to affix to him. I fear that using such labels to dismiss him--without engaging in what he has to say--is not only bad thinking, is a poor representation of Christ to good thinkers. But I believe it is bad Christianity, potentially giving Satan an opportunity to manipulate us to where we ignore things God wants us to hear. There are things McLaren has to say, I believe, that are what God thinks. Just in case, we should open our hearts and minds to what he has to say. If he doesn't, then close them back off.
Foreward by Franke
The phrase "generous orthodoxy" doesn't actually come from McLaren. It comes from Hans Frei, a "post-liberal" theologian. As far as I can tell, the focal difference between a "post-liberal" and a "post-conservative" is where you came from. I come from a conservative background, so if you called me a "post-conservative" you would mean that I was a person from a conservative background trying to move beyond the older stilted categories of conservative and liberal. A "post-liberal" is doing the same coming from the other direction.
A great quote from Frei is this: "Generosity without orthodoxy is nothing, but orthodoxy without generosity is worse than nothing" (14). I wholeheartedly agree and think all in the Wesleyan tradition should.
Here are some quotes from the foreward:
"... postmodern theory does not support the rejection of rationality but rather supports rethinking rationality in the wake of modernity" (10).
"Foundationalism refers to a conception of knowledge that emerged during the Enlightenment and sought to address the lack of certainty generated by the human tendency toward error and to overcome the inevitable, often destructive disagreements that followed... The assumptions of foundationalism, with its goal of establishing certain and universal knowledge, came to dominate intellectual pursuit in the modern era" (10-11).
I might say that I have no problem with looking for models that aim to encompass reality universally, so I am not so much opposed to the looking for universal foundations as to thinking of them as actual explanations for the world. Beyond our perceptions is only faith and mystery. But there is great usefulness in foundational language, as long as we recognize its limits.
Franke tells us that the book "maintains a focus on Jesus Christ as the center of the Christian faith" (12). I have actually heard of Christians who warn people who say such things. I understand what they mean--they see such rhetoric as a backdoor way of undercutting the Bible. But it seems obvious to me that this statement is beyond debate. As important as the Bible is, it is the word of God, while Jesus is the Word of God.
One controversial aspect of the book is apparently the possibility McLaren holds out (and Lessle Newbigin) that while the revelation in Jesus Christ is unique, it might be possible for some outside the faith to be saved (through him). This is a controversial issue. It is important to recognize that this position is not clearly heretical. It amounts to the old Wesleyan (and Quaker) sense that people will be judged according to the light they have. Beware, Wesleyans, of the extent to which your thinking has been influenced by other traditions without you/us realizing it. I take no official position myself on this issue, since I scarcely can speak with the authority of God. I can only say that I think a person with the heart of Christ would be hopeful that it is true.
Introduction and Chapter 0
Here McLaren positions the book in terms of audience. I like his style. He obviously likes G. K. Chesterton, and I can see elements of his style that mirror him. He tends to use hyperbole a lot and playfully puts himself down. In his "For Mature Audiences Only" he goes through all the reason why you might want to take the book back to the bookstore. Just to give you a sense of his style:
"Speaking of smoke, this book suggests that relativists are right in their denunciation of absolutism. It also affirms that absolutists are right in their denunciation of relativism. And then it suggests that they are both wrong because the answer lies beyond both absolutism and relativism. I'll bet that sounds like nonsense to nine of 10 readers, which should bring the words store credit to mind" (38).
At the end of Chapter 0 he assumes you have either taken the book back to the store before you got there and checked the box agreeing that you agree to put up with the strangeness of the book. Then he tells us who he is really writing the book for: people who are about to leave Christianity and spiritual seekers attracted to Jesus who don't think there's any room in Christianity for them (39).
Lots of great quotes and partial insights into McLaren's personality, but let me stick to some thoughts:
The approach of the book, "which might be called postcritical, seeks to find a way to embrace the good in many traditions and historic streams of Christian faith, and to integrate them, yielding a new, generous, emergent approach that is greater than the sum of its parts" (18).
The word emergent throws some people off. Beware again that labelology is bad thinking! You cannot logically dismiss an idea by labelling it. If there are bad things about emergent thought or some who call themselves emergent it is because there are bad things about emergent thought and about some who call themselves emergent. Labelling someone as "emergent" does not separate the good from the bad.
McClaren believes the Apostle's and Nicene Creeds (28) and "(this is so Protestant) that Scripture itself remains above the creeds and that the Holy Spirit may use Scripture to tweak our creedal understandings and emphases from time to time." He hasn't said anything that will allow you to call him unorthodox yet and certainly he has said nothing yet that a Wesleyan can object to.
This is a great postmodern statement--and it is exactly the attitude I think we should all have: "I'm sure I am wrong about many things, although I'm not sure exactly which things I'm wrong about. I'm even sure I'm wrong about what I think I'm right about in at least some cases" (20-21).
He quotes with approval the late Stanley Grenz quoting the late Hans Frei: "My own vision of what might be propitious for our day, split as we are, not so much into denominations as into schools of thought, is that we need a kind of generous orthodoxy which would have in it an element of liberalism...and an element of evangelicalism" (23-24). The mention of liberalism is scary, I know, but didn't the liberals of the early twentieth century pay more attention to helping the needy than the conservatives did? OK, there, I've found at least one liberal thing where they were more Christian than the conservatives. We'll have to see where McLaren takes that thought...
I should give you McLaren's somewhat unique understanding of orthodoxy. It is quite postmodern, but I think we can and should mostly go with it: "To link orthodoxy with a practice, as the previous paragraph does, further makes this book seem ridiculous because many orthodoxies have always and everywhere assumed that orthodoxy (right thinking and opinion about the gospel) and orthopraxy (right practice of the gospel) could and should be separated... In contrast... Absurdly (to some at least), this book seems to approach orthodoxy as a tool or means to achieve orthopraxy. You want to know the rules, not so you can blow whistles as a referee, but so you can have a lot of glorious good clean fun as a player, throwing passes and making assists and sinking three-pointers and layups without fouling out. In sum, this book seems orthopraxy as the point of orthodoxy--again, a concept so unorthodox as to encourage a good many readers to abandon this book right now" (30-31).
There are some American Christian traditions that are almost entirely oriented around ideas and cognitive things. Indeed, they are the power holders in neo-evangelicalism since the 40's. These are groups where "orthodoxy could be articulated and debated by scholars or officials who had little responsibility to actually live by or live out the orthodoxy they defended" (30-31). Again, as an aside to those in the Wesleyan tradition, that is not us. We have always emphasized behavior and personal piety as equally important to our ideas. Other traditions might decry McLaren on these points, but we should applaud him.
Final thought for the introductory stuff is that McLaren is obviously a pretty smart guy, no matter what he says of himself. Disagree with him we may, but it seems is heart is in the right place, and that is far more important to God than whether his head is correct on every issue... at least that's what we Wesleyans believe.