McLaren the Intellectual Defines Orthodoxy

Intellectuals thrive on complexity. They regard certainty and simplicity as signs of immaturity, and they have some good reasons. Take Brian McLaren's critique of mainstream evangelicalism. McLaren has identified an attitude that is a hindrance to everything from effective persuasion to loving fellowship. The attitude is the us v. them, chip-on-the-shoulder, we're-right-they're-wrong impatience with which evangelicals tend to deal with the wide surrounding world. From his writings, one gathers that McLaren has had enough.

The problem with evangelical pomposity is that it has preempted learning. If we're right and they're wrong, then all we have to do is stay right. Tell the unbelievers one more time why their views on abortion, education, government, and values are heinous. Our fidelity to the truth can reduce to repeated talking points -- say it again, this time with feeling! -- a tactic that shuts out feedback and degrades relationships to mere exchanges of rhetorical bullets.

McLaren wants to change this attitude, and he is right. I have devoted many posts to the cultural backwater that is evangelical populism, where applications of truth are stagnant.

But McLaren's desire for greater openness seems to have led him to oversimplifications of his own, and ultimately to a redefinition of truth itself. The book is, of course, A Generous Orthodoxy.

His now-famous modification of orthodoxy with generous suggests that orthodoxy by itself is petty. When he comes to defining what orthodoxy is, McLaren starts this way (p 28): "For most people, orthodoxy means right thinking or right opinions, or in other words, ‘what we think,' as opposed to ‘what they think.'" For McLaren, orthodoxy tends to be petty because most people view it in adversarial terms.

The sentence is an early bit of slippage. I know many self-satisfied Christians who like few things better than to hear the us v. them story again and call it Christianity. But their pettiness does not determine what orthodoxy is. McLaren is building up to his redefinition by implying a simple choice between orthodoxy alone (petty) and orthodoxy plus generosity (loving).

His alternative definition comes in the next sentence. "In contrast, orthodoxy in this book may mean something like ‘what God knows, some of which we believe a little, some of which they believe a little, and about which we all have a whole lot to learn.'" The truth is beyond our reach, in God's mind, and the various factions of human spirituality each have pieces of it. To follow orthodoxy, according to this definition, is to be generous to the other factions and to learn from them.

Orthodoxy may mean that. It may mean something like that. In this book.

The care with which McLaren poses as tentative and playful is necessary to disguise the enormity of what he puts over in that definition. Orthodoxy is inaccessible. It's "what God knows." This is a romanticist punt, even transcendentalist. Emerson could've written it, irony and all. Intellectuals may feed on such continually evolving knowledge, but the gruel is too thin for simple believers.

Actual Christian orthodoxy teaches that God himself is incomprehensible, but that he has given us a revelation of his nature and will by which he is knowable. Orthodoxy is not in God's mind. It's in his Word, both written and incarnate. It's accessible. The distinction between the living God and the doctrines about him --the distinction that ought to keep us humble -- already thrives where theology is a scholarly discipline rather than a grass-roots rallying point.

But I just ran smack into another sentence closing McLaren's paragraph on orthodoxy. McLaren says, "Most people are too serious, knowledgeable, and busy for such an unorthodox definition of orthodoxy." So he makes an intriguing definition tentatively and then bluffs his way out of being examined, an escape-hatch from accountability that he seems to open pretty often.

The definition I've analyzed comes in a chapter titled, "For Mature Audiences Only." How would McLaren define mature? I'll venture a definition for him: "For most people, maturity means being accountable for what you say. In contrast, maturity in this book may mean something like being comfortable with irony."

I hope we can learn and grow as human beings without intellectual games.