A generous spirituality
Evangelical responses to the paradigm shift we are currently experiencing in the western world have focused for the most part on the deconstructionist tendencies of postmodernism. Led by philosophers such as Foucault and Derrida postmodern thinkers have challenged reigning paradigms for the past forty years, demonstrating the inconsistencies and difficulties in many of our most basic assumptions. In evangelical circles deconstruction also played it’s role: we ‘deconstructed church’ and ‘deconstructed faith.’ Critics have noted the negative or reactionary tone in the conversation, and this has caused no small amount of frustration: evangelical writers on the subject (many of whom seem to band together under the name Emergent) have articulated what is it they dislike about the old paradigms and why, but have struggled to articulate what they would like to replace it with.
It would seem though that Deconstructionism seems to have played a very functional role. In deconstructing many things it seems to have created a void, space for new dreams and visions. Now that both Foucault and Derrida have died, perhaps it is time for other people to step into the created space and outline new approaches and to present new proposals.
One person who has been wanting to do so is Brian McLaren, and his latest book, a Generous Orthodoxy, is really the first constructive proposal that is presented into this by Emergent. Albeit on a popular level, A Generous Orthodoxy is really Emergent’s first theological proposal, covering a wide range of topics including how we view God, the world, evil, history, unchurched folk and the future.
Theology breeds spirituality. The two can not only not be separated, but there is a direct causal relationship between the two. What is preached by the one is practiced by the other. Theology, if you will, is to spirituality what orthodoxy is to orthopraxy. McLaren’s Generous Orthodoxy is not only a theological proposal, but very much a proposal for a different kind (or, following one of his other titles, a new kind) of spirituality.
The title of the book is taken from G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. McLaren seeks to present a version of the Christian faith that is orthodox - but rather than arriving at his version by ways of reductionism (i.e. casting away anything that is non-essential), McLaren seeks to find unique contributions from many different theological streams (as well as the green movement) that will enrich our faith, community, worship and experience, while adhering to orthodoxy and orthopraxy. This is where McLaren’s orthodoxy becomes generous: the table is large, though we come from different experiences and emphases, the party is better with all of us there. Says McLaren: without the Anabaptists, Catholics, protestants, etc., the party is hardly worth having.
The spirituality McLaren proposes is open and welcoming. It seeks to invite others in, rather than keep them out. It is a spirituality of invitation and participation. It is historically informed and culturally deepened, leaving behind insular attitudes and approaches. The Kingdom of God, which Jesus came to announce, and which the gospel is ultimately about, is too broad in scope, too open to all, and too wild to control, for any one movement or tradition to claim all of it.
Here is a brief overview of some of what McLaren proposes. Orthodoxy for McLaren starts with Jesus, but he lists 7 different approaches to Jesus he has encountered. The Jesus from the Sunday school flanel board taught him that Jesus loves all children, regardless of colour. The Conservative Protestant Jesus comes to die for us individuals. Where he is distant, the Jesus presented by the Charismatics and Pentecostals is close and intimate. Still, he doesn’t have much to say to the rest of the world. The Roman Catholic Jesus has more to say to the world: he sends the church to the world to announce freedom. Next to this the Eastern Orthodox branch of Christianity focuses on how Jesus enters into the world, and then allows the world to enter into Him. To them, Jesus is not just saviour of the saved, but of the whole cosmos. The Liberal Protestant Jesus sends the church to the world, not just to individuals, bit also to impact societal and political structures. Lastly, the Anabaptist Jesus convenes a community of disciples that commit to being his people and doing his work. As one will understand: a spirituality that is broad enough to embrace all these perspectives on Jesus, will place emphasis on a personal relationship with Jesus, forgiveness of sin, a process of sanctification, a daily walk with Christ, a missionary zeal for the world, a concern for the weak and the poor, a desire to see the Kingdom advance in every area of life, a desire to follow Jesus’ example in daily life, and an understanding that community is core to all that we do.
McLaren’s contrasts two views of God. One view is heavily impacted by modern thinking, and presents a God that is single, solitary, dominant and all-powerful. The other view, McLaren says, is more in keeping with how God reveals himself: God is a unified, eternal, mysterious, relational community/family/society of saving Love. Our view of God impacts our spirituality: the first view leads to a spirituality that is closed and seeks to be strong; the second view results in a spirituality that invites and welcomes, builds community and appreciates beauty and mystery.
Christ is at the centre of Christianity, but McLaren wonders if evangelicals at the start of the 21st century really understand Him. He seems to have so little impact on our daily lives. Have we domesticated Jesus and made him a mascot rather than Lord? McLaren explains what it means to call Jesus Lord. A spirituality that understands Jesus as Lord is not self-centred, appreciates giving more than receiving, cares for one’s neighbour, and willingly pays a price in the process.
Salvation for McLaren is not a purely individualistic event, and it’s purpose is not just focused on the after-life. In his proposal, salvation is also for this life. In saving us Jesus restores us to do this life better. For this reason not only judgment and forgiveness are central elements to the gospel, but also Jesus’ teaching, which encourages us to leave our old ways behind and adopt the new ways of his Kingdom.
A Generous Orthodoxy expresses itself in a mission to the world. Now that we have received the love of Christ and have become part of a healing community, we are sent out to invite others into it as well. This sits in stark contrast with much of the spirituality present in churches today: rather than an understanding that we blessed to be a blessing, our behaviour reflects a belief that we are blessed and need to hard what we have received.
Generous Orthodoxy in McLaren’s mind is evangelical but not Evangelical. Evangelical (capital E) refers to a group of people who are entrenched in the culture wars, committed to seeing their agenda set the political landscape. This is an attitude McLaren does not find consistent with Christ’s attitude. Evangelical with a lower case ‘e’ refers to an attitude of passion, and readiness for action that doesn’t wait for permission to carry out the love of Christ. It is strategic and intentional in doing so, going where it has never gone before, and often where others say it can’t. It is creative and liberal in its methodology. If there is a party, says McLaren, let the evangelicals bring the passion!
Because salvation is also for this life, McLaren affirms the creative methodology Whitefield and Wesley applied to help people pursue sanctification in a lay-led movement. His hope is that we can do the same on our day and age, and says there is much in Methodism that is waiting to be rediscovered.
There is of course more that can be said about Generous Orthodoxy, but this article is not intended to be a summary that negates the need to read the book. McLaren continues to construct his Orthodoxy by combining many beautiful elements from such streams as Anglicanism and Anabaptism, Protestantism (the readiness to protest what is nor right), the Charismatic Movement, Calvinism, Catholicism (yes, including Mary), and the environmentalist (or green) movement (God’s salvation applies to God’s creation).
Lastly, McLaren presents an understanding that he calls emerging. Rather than just taking the good and jettisoning the bad from all these movements, McLaren proposes we embrace the good with the bad. He presents a ring model that develops much like a tree. Every year a tree develops new ring that envelops all this is good and bad with in – and than expands upon it. McLaren’s view is that a Generous Orthodoxy inspires a spirituality that develops and embraces, and is in turn ready to be embraced again by another wider ring in due time.
Let me make a couple of comments about the type of spirituality that emerges from McLaren’s proposal. McLaren presents a wide range of subjects, and looks at these subjects from a wide range of perspectives. He affirms what to appears to him to be the real thing, and assembles a faith mosaic comprised of stones from many different directions.
Critics might argue that McLaren sees faith as a Smorgas board, where one can pick and choose as one likes. This might lead to custom-made spirituality (“choose the spirituality that best fits you!”), instead of a spirituality that is traditionally and historically developed, maintained and guarded. McLaren presents such a wide array of elements that one is almost forced to choose. Churchplanters already struggle in selecting the right values for their project, as there are so many good values to choose from, and so many ways to express them. Now churchplanters have an additional challenge: which elements of this proposed spirituality are they going to prioritize over others? Or is it possible to develop a community that actually pursues all that McLaren proposes?
The challenge of McLaren’s proposal is putting it into practice. Spirituality is, to a large degree, learned behavior. Changing external behaviors (introducing candles and substituting synthesizers for guitars) will be hard enough. But the real challenge in our communities is to change the heart behind it. McLaren will no doubt reap much criticism with his proposal – and chances are those who try to introduce his thinking will as well.