Intellectual Sentimentality and the Tour

A lot of people I know are revising their understanding of the gospel. I worry about those who aren't. Much of what we learn about Christ comes from the communities in which we worship and the traditions of interpretation those communities embody. Though we say we learn truth from the Bible alone, our actual doctrines often come from other human beings, and this way of learning is not necessarily wrong.

But over time, many believers can't sustain the assumptions they inherit. I know former charismatics who question the mysticism they grew up with, former Baptists who bristle at the legalism of their parents, and former megachurch attenders who have grown weary of the showmanship they used to admire. Such believers find their assumptions challenged by spiritual failures, family struggles, and church conflicts. They either revise their understanding of the gospel or they give up on Christianity.

These crises are often healthy. No community of believers has everything solved, and learning your community's shortcomings can help you grow in Christ. We need to be disillusioned now and then.

But there's potential for a wild goose chase.

Believers can search endlessly for the solution to The Problem With Christians Today, taking a tour of various communities. The Baptist thumbs through Calvin, perhaps, to discover grace, but wonders if he can go as far as infant baptism. The megachurch refugee knocks on doors until she finds a human-proportioned body of believers. But that body proves not be as caring as she had hoped.

I don't think we were designed for rootless spirituality. Living on tour can make one's disillusionment permanent.

Brian McLaren records his own tour through communities of faith in a chapter of A Generous Orthodoxy called, "The Seven Jesuses I Have Known" (pp 43-89). He shows how Jesus is portrayed by different traditions -- which parts of Jesus' ministry they emphasize, which teachings they embrace, which they overlook.

"The Conservative Protestant Jesus" came to die, says McLaren, to save people from hell. But that's pretty much it. "The Pentecostal/Charismatic Jesus" is "up close, present, and dramatically involved in daily life," but tends to make people proud of their advancement in spiritual experience. "The Roman Catholic Jesus" rises from the dead, and so defeats everything associated with death.

McLaren says that by his mid-20s, he had incorporated all three of these views into his understanding of Jesus. He believed that "each was a new facet, a new dimension, of the Jesus I had met as a child." He proceeds through the visions of the eastern orthodox, the liberal protestants, the anabaptists, and the revolutionaries. He talks persuasively about these communities because he's interacted with each of them directly.

But the only thing McLaren seems to have taken from his tour are snapshots. His criticisms of the Jesus of this or that tradition are mostly oversimplifications (the evangelical Jesus only dies). Even when he praises a tradition, his comments are too often trite and sentimentalized. For instance: "If the Evangelical Jesus saves by dying, the Pentecostal Jesus by sending his Spirit, and the Catholic Jesus by rising from death, the Eastern Orthodox Jesus saves simply by being born, by showing up, by coming among us."

That's like a Hallmark card from Constantinople. Whatever credibility McLaren might gain by his generosity, he loses by his dilettantism. His breezy commendations of the good in each tradition imply that he has outgrown all traditions.

Our communities can teach good lessons too well. We can stop learning, and the truths we stand upon can make us lame. Other traditions within Christianity serve to remind us that the Bible has unfamiliar passages just as worthy of our devotion as the familiar ones.

But I fear McLaren doesn't make this kind of point at all.

If orthodoxy is ultimately unknowable and all traditions merely approximate what lies unreachable in God's mind, then the tour of traditions is a revelation of truth in itself. In fact, McLaren seems to honor a beatific vision conceived by intellectual sentimentality, the abstracted life. The true human being has no constraints on his mind, no prejudices, no blinders, no culture. He is free. He embraces all perspectives. He has risen above partisanship and has attained the nirvana of the holistic worldview.

This vision of life without intellectual limits is beguiling. But like all sentimental pets, it doesn't actually exist. We need our roots, constraints and all.