(A three-part series critiquing Brian McLaren’s book, A New Kind of Christian)
Brian McLaren relays a story of two individuals on a spiritual journey in an attempt to parallel his own experience as a pastor who has become disenchanted with Christianity. His own crisis of faith led him to two alternatives: either practice a version of Christianity that he had reservations about, or leave Christian ministry.[i] McLaren found that he would “hear preacher after preacher be so absolutely sure of his bombproof answers and his foolproof biblical interpretations (in spite of the fact that Preacher A at 9:30 A.M. usually contradicts Preacher B at 10:00 A.M. and so on throughout the day).”[ii] Yet he knew that nothing is that sure. He discovered that theological systems did not fit all the biblical passages as neatly as he expected. He also noticed that nothing was substantially different between Christians and non-Christians or the culture at large. The world is changing and “either Christianity itself is flawed, failing, untrue, or our modern, Western, commercialized, industrial-strength version of it is in need of a fresh look, a serious revision.”[iii]
According to McLaren, we have a modern faith which needs to transition (via a paradigm shift) to a postmodern Christianity. The Modern World (A.D. 1500-2000) is characterized as an era of conquest and control – in that we wish to conquer and control everything from people, risks, economies, nature, and the weather. This involves thinking and analyzing while aspiring to absolute objectivity to know everything with certainty.[iv] McLaren calls this a critical age because “if you believe that you absolutely, objectively know the absolute, objective truth, and you know this with absolute certainty, then of course you must debunk anyone who sees differently from you.”[v] Although, McLaren does not utilize philosophical language to describe the solution, the shift that he advocates as critical for postmodern Christianity is to abandon foundationalist epistemology, the dominant theory of the justification of knowledge in Western philosophy. The replacement epistemology is a postmodern one that is a variety of coherentism, which justifies knowledge based upon a coherent set of propositions. For McLaren, truth is not something about factual accuracy, but instead means being in sync with God.[vi] Thus everything (including truth) is contextual i.e. meaning does not exist without a context. This context is embodied in the language we use such that “truth” is inherent in the language community that we are part of.[vii] McLaren’s solution involves helping people construct their own model of reality to understand the universe that we find ourselves in and to find their place in God’s story (whether this is another reality construct or not, McLaren is not clear).[viii]
To engage with McLaren’s highly influential book, I will begin by analyzing his assessment of modernism, specifically in regards to its influence on Christianity and the traits he sees characterized in the church. Secondly, it is important to ascertain if foundationalism as an epistemology is dead and whether postmodern claims to knowledge can deliver or end up falling to the charge of relativism. What the Bible presupposes as an epistemology will be investigated as well. Next, the possible implications of this shift to postmodern Christianity will be considered. Lastly, some good observations and suggestions by McLaren will be outlined.
McLaren (through his fictional character Neo) outlines human history into five categories: Prehistory, Ancient World (2500B.C), Medieval World (A.D.500), Modern World (A.D.1500) and Postmodern World (A.D.2000). At the transition between each of these ages, rapid changes occurred to force humanity into the next stage via a paradigm shift. We are currently in one of those tumultuous times in a shift from the Modern World to a Postmodern World. The earlier age (modern) is characterized as the age of reason and science, individualism, consumerism and institutional religion.[ix] In a modern mindset, the church has tried to make everything rational (even trying to dissect God) and has stipulated that religious truths are something we can know with certainty. Theological systems were developed as well during this age in an attempt to put order onto God and his revelation. For McLaren, however we have learned that the modern model does not work. There is no such thing as the Christian worldview because every model is limited by the finite human mind and influenced by the “tastes of that particular age”.[x] Things are not as certain as we once thought, including distinctions between liberal and conservative Christians, as they both emphasize different parts of Scripture from their own perception. The modern version of Christianity is dead or almost dead. McLaren challenges the reader, “Will you continue to live loyally in the fading world, in the waning light of the setting sun of modernity? Or will you venture ahead in faith, to practice your faith and devotion to Christ in the new emerging culture of postmodernity?”[xi]
One wonders if McLaren’s characterization of both of these periods is accurate. D.A. Carson disagrees and states that the emerging church’s understanding of modernism is too reductionistic and wooden. Carson states, “The modern period is treated as if it were all of a piece, consistently devoted to the rational, the cerebral, the linear, the absolute, the objective. But history is not that neat.”[xii] How is it that McLaren ignores the Romantic period as well as the poets in the modern period? McLaren’s analysis distorts history to make his points.
In the modern era, the most influential philosopher Immanel Kant himself denied that we have access to objective knowledge (as the postmoderns do) by positing the phenomenal world and the noumenal world. Nietzsche also stated that truth is a metaphor long before postmodern philosophers Jacques Derrida or Richard Rorty did.[xiii] Postmodernism has been the accepted view in the media and in academic circles, yet “postmodernism is nothing but the popularization of one strand of modernism thought, which itself was a reaction against other strands of modernist thought.”[xiv] In fact, this movement was popular in Europe four decades ago and was made popular in our American campuses twenty-five years ago, yet McLaren and others are trying to sound prophetic with it now. Serious thinkers in philosophy have long ago dismissed postmodernism although our culture is reaping the rewards of this thought from past modern thinkers. No one doubts the changes in our culture, but let us not fool ourselves into thinking it is somehow disassociated from modern thought rather than an offshoot of it.
McLaren’s impetus for this change is related to our pluralistic world, but is this warranted? Are we living in an age that has just figured out that cultures differ from each other? Missionaries from every age have experienced difficulties in moving from one culture to another culture. Paul himself recognized these differences as his preaching changed between cultures. For instance, he appealed to the law when speaking to Jews, but when addressing Gentiles, he appealed to moral laws that God has written in their heart (Romans). In being relevant in his approach, Paul did not shy away from judging false teachers, proclaiming the truth and laying out many moral absolutes. Are the culture shifts that Paul endured any different than the world in which we live now? To understand the culture and to make the necessary adjustments in order to communicate its language is admirable of the postmodern movement, but to suggest that Christianity itself needs a rehaul from the ground up seems to be an overreaction and potentially dangerous.
Although McLaren suggests he is criticizing modern Christianity in general, most (if not all) of his attacks are directed at particular Christians (e.g. conservative fundamentals). One example is Neo explaining to pastor Dan, “I don’t dislike fundamentalists, taken individually – they tend to be pretty nice folks. Get them together in a group though, and I get nervous.”[xv] In another conversation, Neo relays a conversation with one of his students who hoped he would never become born-again (an obvious reference to conservative evangelicals), because another student “became born-again, and now she is always criticizing everyone and has become so negative and stuck up, nobody can stand her.”[xvi] Later, when Neo is criticized for preaching on the doctrine of hell, he retreats to an ad hominem attack accusing the criticizer as being “discipled” to be angry. Neo states that his upbringing was similar in that “the more ‘mature’ you are, the angrier you are, the more negative, the less gracious, the more suspicious.”[xvii] What is noticeable in these attacks is that McLaren is doing the same thing that he criticizes modern Christianity of doing – judging and being intolerant. This is hypocritical at best.[xviii]
Carson has noted that a high number of leaders in the emerging church movement were previously part of intensely conservative or fundamentalist backgrounds. McLaren fits this profile and is guilty of overgeneralizing based upon “the mistaken assumption that most of traditional evangelicalism is just like the conservative churches from which [he] they came.”[xix] In another book, McLaren admits his bias, “My own upbringing was way out on the end of one of the most conservative twigs of one of the most conservative branches of one of the most conservative limbs of Christianity, and I am far harder on conservative Protestant Christians who share that heritage than I am on anyone else.”[xx] Carson makes a good point by suggesting that McLaren should refrain from projecting his twig onto most of the tree.[xxi] Related to this is McLaren’s friendliness to every competing view to Christianity in an attempt to appear more open and less absolute, yet he is hostile to any form of Christianity that suggests there is objective truth that God has revealed to us and we can know. This becomes what Carson calls intellectually incoherent as “toleration” has been redefined. Instead of following Voltaire’s famous dictum, “I may disagree with what you have to say, but I shall defend to the death your right to say it,” toleration instead becomes refusing to think that any opinion is bad, evil, or stupid.[xxii]
[i] Brian D. McLaren, A New Kind of Christian (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2001), ix.
[ii] Ibid., xiii.
[iii] Ibid., xv.
[iv] Ibid., 16-17.
[v] Ibid., 17.
[vi] Ibid., 61.
[vii] Ibid., 106.
[viii] Ibid., 161-162.
[ix] Ibid., 14-18.
[x] Ibid., 36-37.
[xi] Ibid., 38.
[xii] D.A. Carson, Becoming Conversant With The Emerging Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 59.
[xiii] Ibid., 59.
[xiv] Ibid., 60.
[xv] Brian D. McLaren, A New Kind of Christian, 9.
[xvi] Ibid., 104-105.
[xvii] Ibid., 158.
[xviii] I owe this insight to a friend Allison Collins as her reaction to the book.
[xix] D.A. Carson, Becoming Conversant With The Emerging Church, 86.
[xx] Brian D. McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 35-36.
[xxi] D.A. Carson, Becoming Conversant With The Emerging Church, 161.
[xxii] Ibid., 69.