The wing of the evangelical church that is most concerned about the loss of truth and about compromise is actually infamous in our culture for its self-righteousness and pride. However, there are many in our circles who, in reaction to what they perceive as arrogance, are backing away from many of the classic Protestant doctrines (such as Forensic Justification and Substitutionary Atonement) that are crucial and irreplaceable—as well as the best possible resources for humility.1
This paper engages a few of the core philosophical and theological commitments of the Emergent Church, a movement that is attractive to dissatisfied, current and former Christians. Since the movement is broad, and to some extent indefinable, Brian McLaren's works will serve as a representative of its general concerns. One of these primary concerns is how to respond to the enormous quantities of injustice and suffering that have been wrought throughout modernity. According to McLaren, this suffering and injustice flows out of arrogance grounded in normative metanarratives; therefore, the ultimate sin resides in absolute confidence in a worldview. This absolute confidence can be defeated utilizing a postmodern, deconstructionist methodology, and the Emergent Church is the natural outworking of applying this methodology to the modern, Christian metanarrative. While this approach does not entail a comprehensive rejection of absolute truth or a descent into moral nihilism, as some have suggested, it does fundamentally redefine the orientation of sin and salvation toward earthly, rather than heavenly, concerns. A return to a Biblical conception of humility will allow Christians to have both strong levels of confidence and a meaningful concern for others and the cause of justice.
Defining the Indefinable: McLaren's Emergent Project2
There is a sense in which the Emergent Church, based as it is on a postmodern framework, is indefinable.3 This makes a systematic response and engagement of its core commitments difficult. However, the Emergent movement has leaders, and these leaders have articulated certain positions which can be understood and engaged in at least some capacity. Broadly speaking, it seems the Emergent project is an attempt to apply a postmodern, deconstructionist methodology to Western Christianity. While there are various emphases available in the application of such a methodology, Brian McLaren in particular, a prominent voice in the Emergent Church, believes that any epistemic certainty—defined here not as the bald ability to know truth, but rather the willingness to be fully confident we have arrived at the truth—leads to injustice and must be the focus of deconstructive efforts.4 This emphasis on increasing justice and reducing suffering5 through admitting our fallibility is attractive to both a secular audience and McLaren's target audience6 of current or former Christians dissatisfied with the modern church, and so deserves a critical assessment.
McLaren is sometimes difficult to pin down, and it is likely because he is self-consciously avoiding an absolutist position communicated in a systematic manner.7 He also admits to purposefully writing in an unclear manner.8 However, this anti-absolutist stance is subject to critical qualifications and nuances, for this lack of clarity does not seem to arise from a disdain for absolute truth or morality, but of a concern for the tendency for absolutist language to lead to immense injustice and oppression. It is this concern that drives the need to deconstruct the absolutist, objective framework out of which oppression arises; in this fold can be found Western Christianity, in both its liberal and conservative forms. Given this deconstructionist posture, which appears to draw on postmodern thinkers in a qualified sense,9 McLaren is successful in being cognizant of, analyzing and critiquing the philosophical assumptions of his worldview, especially the case in his rejection of his fundamentalist, conservative background. Of course, this does not mean the Christian Church should automatically embrace his recommendations. It does mean, however, that his position merits attention.
From What Are We Emerging?
The context of McLaren's broadly emergent critique finds its roots in the reaction of Christianity to the problem of modernity. Painting a history of philosophy in which individual reason arises to replace the authoritative church as the great legitimizer of truth,10 McLaren sees the rise of conservative and liberal perspectives of Christianity as two distinct, yet fundamentally similar attempts at responding to and surviving the problem of modernity.11 These attempts, however, have failed to deal with the root epistemology of modernity, as both are still foundationalist in their orientation.12 Here McLaren's concern resides in an uncritical acceptance of metanarratives—of overarching, normative worldviews that lead to enormous social injustices, examples of which include Manifest Destiny, Anti-Semitism and Radical Marxism:
I became convinced that, yes, many of our world's worst atrocities were indeed the result of overconfidence. And yes, overconfidence was indeed resourced by foundationalism. And yes, deeper still, destructive framing stories [metanarratives] fueled the hatred and fear and greed that perpetuated so much human suffering—whether in Africa, Latin America, or my own nation.13
In other words, this postmodern perspective interprets absolutist values to be a mechanism of control and dominance. (Applied to Christianity, this is a lens through which we might analyze otherwise valid concerns; we need only look back at the corruption of the "infallible" Catholic Church throughout middle ages, where religious truth was used to suppress and subdue the populace, to understand this circumspection toward overconfidence.14)
In McLaren's view, Christianity today, in both its liberal and conservative forms, is another absolutist metanarrative out of which injustice springs.15 In clinging to foundationalism, these groups responded to the modernist project on its own terms; on the one hand, conservatives sought objective, absolute knowledge of the religious through an inerrant Word, while, on the other hand, liberals grounded their absolute knowledge of God in inviolable experience. McLaren argues that we need a third way which goes beyond the confident, oppressive, modernist paradigm, and it is out of this paradigm a new, more humble, and therefore more just, Christianity will emerge.
Does a Postmodern Epistemology Undergird McLaren's Theology?
If McLaren openly rejects a modernist epistemology, with what does he replace it? It is tempting to say that that the only logical course of action after rejecting absolute certainty is to embrace (tentatively or definitely) relative uncertainty, a course of action that reduces us to the absurdity of relativism. This inference is superficially supported by several of McLaren's statements about confidence, arrogance, exclusion, etc.,16 and it seems at least one prominent Evangelical leader has attributed such views to McLaren and the Emergent movement.17
However, McLaren is not an epistemological relativist, and he explicitly repudiates such a position.18 In fact, such a description fails to account for the entire purpose of his project, fundamentally misunderstanding it. Part of the confusion may reside in the fact that a postmodern progress narrative assumes that you can never finally arrive at your destination, even if you can discover you are on a correct path.19 There is, therefore, a subtle, yet critical, distinction between saying that there are no correct paths, and saying that progress on a correct path, or even a series of possible paths, is never completed.20 One particularly helpful articulation of this distinction can be found at the end of A Generous Orthodoxy:
So here's the tension: we must always be discontented with our portraits of orthodoxy, but we must never, in frustration, throw the Subject of our portrait out the window. Otherwise, the revolution fails and falls, sprawling facedown in the dirt, and the whole whirling adventure is over. Until God's kingdom comes in fullness, the revolution of generous orthodoxy must continue...21
This understanding of McLaren's philosophical commitments and theological objectives allows us to dispense with another critique as well: that McLaren is merely returning to nineteenth century liberalism.22 This misses the mark,23 at least in part, since McLaren sees liberalism as absolutist in fundamentally the same manner as conservatism. The only difference is in the form—liberalism claims confidence via absolute truth found in subjective religious experience, while conservatism claims confidence via objective revealed revelation.24 While there do exist some similarities between theological liberalism and McLaren's theological and political conclusions, this relationship is superficial and coincidental, rather than inherent and necessary.
Thus when McLaren writes passages decrying absolutist language, these are not to be taken as a systematic rejection of absolute truth; these passages are not the deadly specter of postmodern epistemological and moral absurdity.25 Rather, such passages signify a desire to avoid confident and absolutist terminology and belief, as through an absolutist posturing great injustice is wrought throughout the earth. Terms can, and perhaps should, be redefined not because all terminology is relative to time and place, but because, on McLaren's understanding, absolutist terminology is indicative of an unwillingness to question terminology, which leads to arrogance, and this arrogance leads to injustice.
Again, because it bears repeating, to properly interpret such remarks, we must recall the role of absolute truth in McLaren's postmodern evaluation. The concern for the Emergent movement and their sympathizers is not primarily epistemological, but ethical, even if the former is intimately connected with the latter. Consider two examples which will be offered without further commentary:
The last thing we need is a new group of proud, super protestant, hyper puritan, ultra restorationist reformers who say, "Only we've got it right!" and thereby damn everybody else to the bin of five minutes ago and the bucket of below-average mediocrity.26
Of course I believe that some things are morally good and others are morally evil. Of course!....So here's my concern: If a person or group pushes the "we've got moral absolutes absolutely figured out" button too fast or too often, they run an increased risk of behaving in immoral ways, and they are the last to know it because of their excessive self-confidence. If conservative Christians would acknowledge this pattern at work in their own history more openly, and if they would show how they have taken corrective action to avoid similar patterns of misjudgment in the future, a lot of us would feel more confident in their moral judgment....Postmodern-leaning folks are concerned whether this or that preacher's claims to have "absolute certainty" about this or that moral viewpoint of his are "absolutely justified," and whether his confidence will increase the chances of behaving immorally.27
Commendable Components of McLaren's Emergent Movement
In addition to McLaren's broad concern for justice, there are a variety of other aspects to commend in his work, only some of which will be mentioned here. For example, a lack of absolute confidence produces a hermeneutical willingness to understand (if not ultimately accept) Scripture on its own terms. For example, McLaren's approach to concepts like masculinity, kingship and sovereignty (cf. 82-85; 88-89) takes great pains to understand the original context in which they appeared. That these concepts are rejected as applicable today is unfortunate, yet that does not diminish the important and necessary step of understanding Scripture on its own terms. Being too absolutist can lead to unwittingly behaving as if your worldview is normative even on Scripture itself, and so we unconsciously read into the Bible our categories, experience and knowledge without any due diligence to how the original audience would have received the text. (Jesus becomes a white American, the United States becomes "blessed" by God, and the Bible is merely a proof-text for capitalistic individualism.)
Additionally, it is clear that McLaren reads widely, a trait lacking in many conservative Christians today, and that he even appreciates materials from the conservative perspective against which he rebelled. Whether from insecurity, arrogance or simple bigotry, conservative Protestants can be prone to a reactionary and defensive, even combative, posture, and we must rid ourselves of this trait if we are to reasonably understand, engage and love the world with the truths of the Gospel.28
Deconstructing Sin: The Horizontal Orientation of Transgression
There are, however, serious reasons to be concerned about McLaren's postmodern methodology. If your position commits you to a belief that the greatest forms of injustice flow from incontestable normative worldviews, you must necessarily reject utilizing the Bible's prima facie absolutist statements and categories about sin and salvation, which Jesus himself often uttered. This can lead to some unfortunate consequences; in McLaren's case, his rejection of his fundamentalist background, which preferred to ignore the plight of the physical world and focus exclusively on the next world,29 leads him to see sin as no longer a primarily vertical concern—an offense against divine righteousness—but rather the brokenness of horizontal relationships between earthly individuals and communities. Consider his diagnosis of the human condition, which he first likens to a snapping turtle that has grown hideously deformed due to a ring—a plastic bottle top—it acquired when it was a hatchling:
A ring of selfishness, greed, lust, injustice, fear, prejudice, arrogance, apathy, chauvinism, and ignorance has similarly deformed our species. When I say that Jesus is Savior, I believe he snipped the ring by judging, forgiving, teaching, suffering, dying, rising, and more. And he's still working to restore us, to lead us, to heal us. Jesus is still in the process of saving us. Because I have confidence in Jesus as Savior, I'm seeking to be part of his ongoing saving work, sharing his saving love for our world.30
Salvation is similarly leveled, becoming primarily concerned not with restoration to God in eventual heaven, but the more immediate flourishing of human communities and all creation:
More and more of us are realizing something our best theologians have been saying for quite a while: Jesus' message is not actually about escaping this troubled world for heaven's blissful shores, as is popularly assumed, but instead is about God's will being done on this troubled earth as it is in heaven. So people interested in being a new kind of Christian will inevitably begin to care more and more about this world, and they'll want to better understand its most significant problems, and they'll want to find out how they can fit in with God's dreams actually coming true down here more often.31
Out of this understanding orthopraxy becomes orthodoxy.32 The practical outworking of belief in matters such as social justice and environmental stewardship is equally, if not more, important than the beliefs that lead to these actions. As McLaren has asserted, "...I'm more interested in a gospel that is universally efficacious for the whole earth before death in history.”33
Recommendations to McLaren: Recovering a Biblical Conception of "Humility"
Whereas McLaren perceives humility as an unwillingness to hold any absolutist position toward overarching metanarratives, Scripture defines humility as being confident in our proper relation to God's metanarrative, that we are deeply sinful, God is immensely holy, yet Christ willingly suffered in order to forgive this sin and reconcile us to God.34 Grasping this truth with our entire being allows us to see that we have every reason to be confident in our high standing with God, yet every reason to be gracious to others, for we did not earn one drop of the mercy poured out for us. At the cross, confident orthodoxy meets radical generosity. Indeed, it begets it.
When Christ and his disciples commend to us radical, sacrificial love in the face of the brutally oppressive policies of Pax Romana, it is not grounded in a deconstruction of the confidence we have in our understanding of the message and Gospel of Christ, but rather we are exhorted to recall and stand firm in Christ and his work. Consider 1 Peter 2:18, where the apostle Peter, writing to the heavily persecuted Christian diaspora, commands, "Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust." Where will his fellow believers, many who have already lost all of their earthly comforts, find the strength to obey it? Here is where Peter directs his suffering brothers and sisters to before giving his command:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.35
Indeed, as he claims later, our gracious and loving response to injustice is based in our confidence in the proposition, not merely the fact, that God loves us, has a purpose for our suffering, and will one day bring final justice to the earth:
For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.36
It is not in spite of absolute confidence that love will prevail, but because of it. The overwhelming confidence in the unmerited, merciful love of God for us, in the face of our vast, immeasurable sinfulness, gives us the ability to respond to suffering and promote justice and mercy to all peoples, friends and enemies alike. Christ's death for us is the fount of joy from which we must confidently drink, the only metanarrative that will level injustice and promote the kind of mercy and grace for which McLaren and the whole of the Emergent Church longs.
Although we can be sympathetic to McLaren's attention to justice,37 and can commend him for his ability to be critical of his worldview, he seems to allow postmodern philosophical preferences and secular emotional desires to define his fundamental conceptions of faith, rather than letting Scripture inform these conceptions. A better alternative to questioning absolutist language is to recover a Biblical conception of humility, which will allow us to hold to absolutist terminology while simultaneously avoiding the enormous injustice sometimes associated with such language. The Gospel allows us to be simultaneously certain yet humble, supremely confident yet dependably loving. Any view removed from this paradox of faith will fail to reduce aggregate injustice, having an untenable understanding of human sinfulness. Let us return to the Biblical conception of humility, out of which a steadfast love of God, humanity and creation will flow.
1. Timothy Keller, "The Advent of Humility," Christianity Today (December, 2008), http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2008/december/20.51.html (accessed 4/22/11).
2. This critique draws on several of McLaren's written sources, both in physical print and electronic media. While the majority of this appraisal is based on arguably his most influential book, A Generous Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), it was valuable to consult McLaren's blog and website to find written materials that were geared toward two diametrically opposed audiences: (1) adherents and sympathizers, and (2) critics. Responses to each of these audiences provided helpful elucidation of otherwise complex, if not murky, philosophical commitments, bringing clarity to statements and positions prone to mischaracterization.
3. "That postmodernism is indefinable is a truism. However, it can be described as a set of critical, strategic and rhetorical practices employing concepts such as difference, repetition, the trace, the simulacrum, and hyperreality to destabilize other concepts such as presence, identity, historical progress, epistemic certainty, and the univocity of meaning.” Gary Aylesworth, "Postmodernism," The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2010 Edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta, http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2010/entries/postmodernism/ (accessed 4/21/11).
4. Examples of this attitude can be found throughout McLaren's work. Cf. A Generous Orthodoxy, 22-24, 28, 34, 79, 99, 343.
5. While these are terms that would be better defined, it suffices for our purposes to note, however crudely, that the secular world conceives of justice approximately along the lines of that which promotes pleasure and reduces pain for everyone.
6. Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, 20.
7. Cf. Ibid., 329. McLaren explicitly prefers narrative theology over systematic theology, preferring the telling of stories to the pronouncement of timeless, objective truths. This rejection of explication through propositional knowledge tends toward a lack of clarity.
8. Ibid., 27.
9. There are some flavors of postmodern thought that do deny objective and absolute truth in toto. As will be seen below, McLaren explicitly rejects this line of thought.
10. Ibid., 146ff.
11. Ibid., 152.
12. "Foundationalists maintain that some beliefs are properly basic and that the rest of one's beliefs inherit their epistemic status (knowledge or justification) in virtue of receiving proper support from the basic beliefs." Ted Poston, "Foundationalism," Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (June 10, 2010), http://www.iep.utm.edu/found-ep/ (accessed 4/21/11).
13. Brian McLaren, Everything Must Change (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2007), 39.
14. Consider the similarities between the arrogance of the Pharisees and an attending neglect of justice toward those who were beneath their position as keepers and final interpreters of the Law. E.g., Luke 11:37-52, esp. v. 42.
15. A Generous Orthodoxy, 28.
16. Ibid., 23, 32, 84, 91, 93, 97, 129, 142, etc.
17. Chuck Colson, "The Post Modern Crackup: From Soccer Moms to College Campuses, Signs of the End," http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2003/december/24.72.html (accessed 4/21/11)
18. Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, 33, 344, 36 implicitly with his comments that correct doctrine matters. See also McLaren's clear remarks in "An Open Letter to Check Colson," http://www.brianmclaren.net/archives/000269.html (accessed 4/20/11).
19. It may also reside in the fact that McLaren does not always provide detailed answers to critical questions. Cf. "Q & R: Postmodernism Redux,” http://brianmclaren.net/archives/blog/q-r-postmodernism-redux.html (accessed 4/20/11).
20. As John R. Franke describes him, Brian is a pilgrim on quest, rather than someone who has arrived at a new destination: "Brian does not present himself as one with 'all the answers,' but rather as a pilgrim thinker seeking after truth in the midst of missional Christian work." Forward, A Generous Orthodoxy, 17.
21. Ibid., 338.
22. Cf. Albert Mohler, "A Theological Conversation Worth Having," http://www.albertmohler.com/2011/03/23/a-theological-conversation-worth-having-a-response-to-brian-mclaren/ (accessed 4/20/11).
23. A Christianity Today article notes that there are "real differences between emerging-church leaders like McLaren and those who led the charge for liberal Christianity." Andy Crouch, "The Emergent Mystique," (2004).
24. John R. Franke's comments are helpful here Cf. A Generous Orthodoxy, 14.
25. Cf. Brian McLaren, Everything Must Change, 6. McLaren tries to forward his own worldview and understanding of Jesus as superior in quality to previous conceptions of Christianity. This would be glaringly nonsensical if he was committed to the kind of relativism some claim he holds.
26. Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, 23.
27. Brian McLaren, "Q & R: Postmodernism and Moral Absolutes," http://brianmclaren.net/archives/blog/q-r-postmodernism-and-moral-abso.html (accessed 4/20/11).
28. A purely reactionary posture is ironically restrictive; overreaching opposition to a hostile idea creates a paradoxical result in which the idea completely controls the terms of the debate. A community thus responding to the idea comes to define itself purely in opposition to that idea. Whereas a positive articulation of faith might be broad and along multiple lines of thought, a negative articulation limits itself to whatever the opposition has asserted.
29. "But most of what I have heard religious people say about Jesus related to (a) how some individuals could go to heaven after death, or (b) in the meantime, how some individuals could be more personally happy and successful through God and the Bible." Everything Must Change, 12.
30. Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, 107. The turtle analogy is given on the previous page.
31. Brian McLaren, Everything Must Change, 4.
32. "Absurdly (to some at least) this book seems to approach orthodoxy as a tool or means to achieve orthopraxy." A Generous Orthodoxy, 35. The discussion on 33-35 fleshes out this idea.
33. Ibid., 124. Emphasis in original.
34. "As the absence of self (Matt 10:38-39; Luke 9:23-25), it is a bankruptcy of spirit (Matt 5:3) that accrues no merit but depends solely on God's righteousness for salvation (Luke 18:9-14; Luke 18:15-17)." "Humility," Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, ed. Walter Elwell (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1996).
35. 1 Peter 2:9-12, ESV.
36. 1 Peter 2:20-25, ESV (emphasis supplied).
37. My Chinese mother and her family suffered under a Marxist metanarrative in communist China. McLaren must be commended for attempting to offer solutions to troubling social crises, even if we ultimately find these solutions problematic.