A Generous Orthodoxy (review by Jeremy Green)
Brian D. McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy: 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. Grand Rapids: Zondervan; El Cajón: Youth Specialties, 2004. 297pp. $19.99 ISBN 0-310-25747-6.
There is no doubt that the church is undergoing a renovation. The steadfast leaders of both conservative and liberal movements are passing the torch to an up-and-coming generation unwilling to accept the labels of its predecessors. Those calling themselves "post-evangelical," "post-liberal," and, more generally, "post-modern," are seeking new avenues of theological expression that overcome the old conflicts of the former guard. While A Generous Orthodoxy is by no means the Summa of postmodern thought, Brian D. McLaren presents a theology that is definitely a worthy primer of all that this new movement stands for.
"To be a Christian in a generously orthodox way is not to claim to have the truth captured, stuffed, and mounted on the wall. It is rather to be in a loving (ethical) community of people who are seeking the truth (doctrine) on the road of mission..." (293). While this statement comes at the end the book, it is as close to a definition of what "generous orthodoxy" is in the entire scope of this near-300 page work, and it is telling of what seems to be McLaren's main theme: to claim truth is to be arrogant. Any act which may exclude those who do not agree with such truth, or sets up a group to be the insiders on truth, is foreign to the Christian mission.
McLaren warns, "If for you, orthodox means 'finally getting it right', mine is a pretty disappointing...orthodoxy," because for him "orthodoxy...means 'thinking' or 'opinion'." Thus, "perhaps orthodoxy will mean not merely correct conclusions but right processes to keep on reaching new and better conclusions, [or rather] a straight path to the next question that will keep on leading to better answers." The task of the church, if the church is to be orthodox, is to seek continually new ways to think about God. I wonder if the Bible does not already provide instruction for thinking about God. God has revealed Himself personally in Christ, but propositionally in Scripture as well. Propositional revelation is valuable because it can then be judged true or false according to how it corresponds to reality. Yet for McLaren, correspondence to objective reality is not a necessary condition for truth—truth is merely better opinion. McLaren' s pragmatism waters down the nature of the Christian truth claims to mere opinion seeking better opinion.
In his chapter "Why I am Mystical/Poetic," he continues in his pragmatic assumptions and puts forth his existentialist view of how one relates to God. McLaren describes the project of modernism as a theology where "one should reduce all revealed truth into propositions...that exhaustively contains...truth" (152). McLaren would rather see theology become an ongoing conversation, based on mysticism, about how a community interacts with God, instead of truth about who God is. Further, the Bible is simply an extended narrative of God's dealings with a specific community in the ancient Near East in phenomenological language. Since no truth about who God is can be known, McLaren reduces Scripture to ethics. However, McLaren warns against accepting traditional conservative theories of inspiration that present the Bible as a "rule book that made it objectively clear, with no subjective ambiguity, what behaviors were right and wrong for all time" (160). If the Bible is primarily ethical, and not about who God is, why should the Christian "take" on God be true to the exclusion of other religions? This understanding of theology and Scripture strips the Bible of its authority for all peoples by turning it into a localized myth.
McLaren recognizes that religions genuinely disagree, but "they are often talking about different subjects entirely," and he says that other religions "have much to offer one another" (255). He goes on to claim that people of other faiths can become followers of Christ without leaving their native worldview; sometimes it may even be beneficial to stay in that worldview (260). However, McLaren overlooks that the "different subjects" are entirely different metaphysical systems that are mutually exclusive. How can Nirvana then inform the doctrine of the resurrection? How does Christianity jibe with the polytheistic strains of Hinduism, even non-dualistic Vedantic Hinduism where there is no personal god whatsoever? How could someone covert to Christ yet remain in a competing worldview? It seems that McLaren has not taken seriously 1 Timothy 2:5: "For there is one God and one mediator between God and human beings, Christ Jesus."
McLaren's new definitions would seem to make it at least possible for a new age of understanding between Christian factions, and between Christians and other faiths. However, the pragmatic theory of truth seems to reduce to relativism. According to pragmatism, any faith system that seems to work must be true. McLaren claims that taking him as a relativist is to misunderstand his position (251). But, it is difficult to see how a "generous orthodoxy" that makes no absolute claim on objective truth, could in fact not be relativism. McLaren says himself that "I understand why people often accuse me...of pluralistic relativism"(287). How is relativism not the logical entailment of his entire philosophical and theological construct? When McLaren opts for a mystic faith over one based on propositional knowledge of a personal God who personally relates, one must allow the possibility of truth in other faiths, as well as the redefining of inspiration. The Bible must become a story about the human perspective on God's dealings instead of propositional truth about God.
Where does this "generous orthodoxy" leave the church? We seem to be at a crossroads. This text would have us ease up on claims to objective truth, and simply live good lives. More traditional streams of Christianity maintain such truth-claims, and purport that the good life is only viable within those exclusive truth-claims. Which way should the church go? Philosophically, McLaren's position simply does not work. Claiming to give up objective truth ultimately leaves him in the tight spot of incoherence. Theologically, McLaren's position may undermine the global nature of the gospel. While he does present a true challenge to modern Evangelicalism, we must ask if his "generous orthodoxy" is in fact too generous.