The Quest for Mere Christianity
- Thursday, August 04, 2011
During an interview with theologian Michael Horton, I brought up a famous fundamentalist who has been quite vociferous in his attacks on the emerging church, charging it as being nothing more than neo-liberalism. When I asked Mike if he still has contact with this well-known radio personality, he said no. "He won't speak to me," said Mike. Knowing of their long-standing friendship and ongoing dialogue (and commitment to orthodoxy) my face must have registered surprise and shock. Mike responded to my shocked look with, "He accuses me of being a liberal." I broke out laughing. You have to be pretty far to the right to call Mike a liberal.
I guess in the hypercharged world of polemics and rhetoric, we feel we have the right to suspect anyone who does not hold our positions. This is especially true if we occupy a far-right or far-left position. Anyone to the right of a radical liberal or to the left of a radical conservative looks like a heretic. There is no room for even the slightest difference or change. The two sides become ever more polarized, stuck in their polemics and rhetoric. Is there a way to move beyond this calcification?
Yes, at least in part, if we agree on what binds us together. I have been helped in my thinking on this topic by Robert Greer's Mapping Postmodernism. After covering similar ground to Oden and Stott, particularly on the early creeds, Greer posits the need to develop a two-tiered system that divides the essentials of orthodoxy from the particularities of differing traditions within the boundaries of orthodoxy. The top tier matches the creeds of the early church that have historically and universally defined orthodoxy. The bottom tier corresponds to the distinctives of each individual church body.
This two-tiered system has a number of practical benefits. First, it minimizes, says Greer, triumphalism or denominational chauvinism. When the top tier is agreed upon, the various parties mutually trust and respect each other as orthodox. Then discussions that deal with bottom-tier teachings become opportunities to learn and grow, and not tests of
orthodoxy. As Greer aptly says:
A two-tiered system reflects the phenomenon of family resemblances within the Christian faith. The top tier establishes the overall family resemblance. The bottom tier makes room for different looks within the family. This sense of unity plus diversity offers the church an opportunity to love one another, as Christ prayed in his high priestly prayer, and thereby be an effective witness to an unbelieving world (John 17:20).
As I was working on this chapter I contacted Scot McKnight, who is a professor of religious studies at North Park University in Chicago. Scot, who is in his fifties, has attached himself to the emerging conversation as a supportive older brother. His blog continues to be the most visited blog in the emerging world. As an older brother, he is also not beyond exhorting his younger brothers when they need it, but never as a Pharisee.
"Scot," I said, "I am working on a ‘third way' book that learns from both the traditional and emerging voices and yet transcends both sides, providing an alternate choice called the deep church." he was excited, having already committed to a "third way." Scot said, "Whether you agree or not with Brian McLaren's book A Generous Orthodoxy, what it proves is that there is a huge contingent of people who are looking for a third way."
"What bothers me," he candidly added, "is that the argument has become so polarized—with the neo-fundamentalists on one side and the neo-liberals on the other. Neither side is talking to the other, save for the snipping that takes place at their respective conferences." And unless we find the common ground, this polarization will get worse. The church as a whole suffers. Our witness is compromised.
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