Can We Avoid Polarizing Debate while still Going Forward? A Non Contentious Response to Brian McLaren

In a recent piece by Brian McLaren on his website entitled “Emergent Reflections, Spring 2006,” Brian carries out an analysis of the current conversations surrounding ecclesiology and the emerging churches. He surveys the often-contentious debates going on and executes an analysis using two of his best trademarks: a.) his ability to summarize broad observations with a list, which seeringly proves his point without explicitly making it, and b.) his crafty ability to make the conciliatory gesture, which takes the edge off of each opposing side defusing the polarization which makes way for open conversation. Brian is a genius of the conciliatory gesture. In “Emergent Reflections” Brian surveys the ways people are taking up sides on ecclesiological concerns within Emerging circles. He then proposes “above the line” solutions that avoid the pitfalls of ”taking up sides.” Of course, as with much of Brian’s writing, we might feel he has left us with no definite solutions and again left the answers wide open. Nonetheless, I must admit, I have learned much from reading this piece, and I admit to be being very close to being convinced.
In the end however, I just cannot go all the way with Brian on his conclusions in “Emergent Reflections, Spring 2006.” What I can do is applaud the way Brian keeps us from polarizing the conversation. This is vintage McLaren. What I cannot do is leave the current debates this wide open without some specific direction I feel SOME OF US need in the current ecclesiological situation we find ourselves in, i.e. the situation where modernity is breaking down in specific parts of U.S.A. and Canada. I agree with Brian that we need by all means to prevent more polarizing debates in evangelicalism and American Christianity in general. Please, let us have no more fundamentalist graceless finger pointing! Yet we also need some specific direction for those us asking “how do we go on” after the consensus of modernity (which evangelicalism and mainline Protestantism was built upon) has disintegrated. Is there an approach whereby we can be both “generous” yet specific for our time and place for those of us who find ourselves in places post-modern?

Brian’s “above the line” solutions, as best I can tell from A New Kind of Christian, are solutions that go beyond the standard rational either/or solutions of modern thinking. For him this is the third way, thinking “outside the box,” a more “generous orthodoxy.” Sometimes it looks like compromise or a “both/and” solution, although I don’t think that is what Brian intends. For Hans Frei, who first coined the term, such a “generous orthodoxy” (p.208) is a way of transcending outmoded liberal-evangelical dichotomies. This “generous orthodoxy” resists compromise or even the both/and solutions because these kinds of solutions keep the framing of the issues within Enlightenment based thinking. For Frei, “generous orthodoxy” solutions ask us to think solutions in terms of linguistically constructed particular worlds (in particular the historically embodied narrative world of Scripture), not universal objective enlightenment reason. It asked us to think not in terms of “what is universally true,” but “how can I be faithful to what I have been given particularly (historically) in my space and time in Jesus Christ.” If this is true, “generous orthodoxy” solutions might be able to be both thankful to others for what they have done in their time and space (for example modernity of the West) while at the same time acknowledging we must discern how best “to go on” in the specific time and place we have been given. Instead of both/and or compromise third way solutions, these solutions would like like : Thank you for _______ , Now let us see that for us _______ . These kind of solutions would be graceful towards other Christian brothers and sisters in their time and space, yet give discernment for how to go on in the here and now for those us struggling with post Christendom, post modernity and post anything else for that matter. These kind of solutions have the advantage of being both graceful and directive. They keep the conversation open yet not suspended in air.

What might this look like? Well let me take a few of Brian’s “above the line solutions” from “Emergent Reflections: Spring 2006” and recast them. For instance in “1. Above the line on organization and leadership” Brian says we need to be careful both in regards to impersonal large forms of organization as well as small chaotic disorganization that is allergic to all forms of organization. We need to learn from both. What I propose to say is “thank-you to those who managed the church successfully for the enormous chaotic lives of late modernity. Now let us see the empty vacuous-ness of modern over-busy consumeristic life, and that for us we must seek deeply the ways of the simple but profound servant leadership of Jesus for faithfulness in our time.” In “3. Above the line on decision and commitment,” Brian brilliantly says we need both decision and process in holistic spiritual formation. We should not castigate those manipulative ways of evangelism that produce a decision at all cost for Christ to the extent we throw out the role of decision altogether. I think I agree with Brian and suggest we phrase it “thank you for re-emphasizing the importance of personal commitment in a time when people had allowed their Christianity to be stale and uninvolved. Now let us see that for us in our time a decision can only make sense in a context and let us invite lost souls into our homes so that they might know what following Christ might even mean in real life.” In “4. Above the line about mega church and micro church,” Brian states that mega churches and micro churches have much to give and benefit from in cooperating with each other. I would like to say, “thank you to the mega churches for pushing us to think more about what it means to evangelize and contextualize. Now let us see that for us in our present context it is vitally important to be the church visibly and missionally in ways that demand we know each other, care for each other, engage the poor as a Body of Christ. This demands we get smaller.”

Maybe these examples don’t illustrate the subtlety I am pushing for. Maybe this is all semantics. Maybe I am slicing the differences between Brian and myself here too finely. Maybe there are other ways to avoid the polarizing debates while still pushing forward towards definitive direction in these postmodern times. This may only be a feeble attempt at addressing what appears to be the excessively open ended nature of emerging conversations. But I agree with Brian, we need to quit the polarizing dividing practices. I have probably been too guilty of this and am seeking a way forward. Thanks to Brian for pushing me on this!

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