A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I Am a Missional + Evangelical + Post/Protestant + Liberal/Conservative + Mystical/Poetic + Biblical + Charismatic/Contemplative + Fundamentalist/Calvinist + Anabaptist/Anglican + Methodist + Catholic + Green + Incarnational + Depressed-Yet-Hopeful + Emergent + Unfinished Christian by Brian McLaren (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004.
352 pp)

Brian McLaren, born in 1956, graduated from the University of Maryland with B.A. and M.A. degrees. He taught English before serving as the founding pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church. Apart from his church duties, McLaren is known for his contributions to the emerging church movement. Time has named McLaren as one of the 25 most influential evangelicals. He is married to Grace McLaren and they have four adult children.

A Seminary Kind of Life 

Having spent some time in seminary, I value the diversity and consanguinity of tradition in the members of such a guild. In an academy where questions strike at the core of belief and careful, considered answers provide food for lively debate, it is impossible to reject opposing theological positions a priori.

While I’ve personally heard many Christians reject theological positions as heretical, connecting those positions to the flesh and blood of a person forces a change in perspective. Christians of differing traditions the world over love Jesus, love the church, and seek to make the world a better place.

Defining Orthodoxy

Photo by Omar Chatriwala

Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy is a Christian manifesto seeking to answer why we are negative about opposing viewpoints. Based in the evangelical tradition, McLaren has been immersed in an absolutist theological system. For many in this tradition—and I admit I’ve known my fair share—orthodoxy does not mean adhering to Christianity as a whole but observing a specific system within Christianity.

“For most people, orthodoxy means right thinking or right opinions, or in other words, ‘what we think,’ as opposed to ‘what they think.’ In contrast, orthodoxy in this book may mean something more like ‘what God knows, some of which we believe a little, some of which they believe a little, and about which we all have a whole lot to learn’” (32).

Haven’t we all heard someone accuse specific traditions of claiming to be Christian while being a heretic in reality?

In this book, McLaren seeks to reinvent the idea of orthodoxy transforming it to a more inclusive position.

“The approach you’ll find here, which might be called postcritical, seeks to find a way to embrace the good in many traditions and historic streams of Christian faith, and to integrate them, yielding a new, generous, emergent approach that is greater than the sum of its parts” (22).

The Threat of Relativism

For many Christians, this previous quote unsettles. If a Christian affirms every tradition, doesn’t such a position result in relativism, especially when considering the many disagreements and tensions between traditions? A Calvinist’s belief in predestination cannot exist simultaneously with an Arminian’s view of free will. Even though many critics continue to accuse McLaren of relativism, he suggests his generous approach has nothing to do with either relativism or absolutism.

“A generous orthodoxy of the kind explored in this book, while never pitching its tent in the valley of relativism, nevertheless seeks to see members of other religions and nonreligions not as enemies but as beloved neighbors, and whenever possible, as dialogue partners and even collaborators” (39).

McLaren offers generosity as a position where people ought to talk without suffering from vitriolic debate about the absolutes of the world. Does this mean absolutes don’t exist? No! Let’s return to McLaren’s first quote in the review. The world is a place where “what God knows, some of which we believe a little, some of which they believe a little, and about which we all have a whole lot to learn.” Truth exists; we are all searching for it together.

Losing the Value of Tradition 

Photo by Sean Molin

However, A Generous Orthodoxy never pursues pluralism, where all traditions are equally valid. In this way, McLaren’s theology cherry-picks the best parts of each viewpoint. While intriguing to consider, this mentality rejects the wealth of exclusivist tradition and belief around Christian the world over. Even if McLaren seeks to unite Christians with this book, promoting what he thinks is positive about each theological approach could leave a sour taste with people devoted wholly to a certain position.

Yet, this critique might be McLaren’s point. No tradition has unlocked the absolute answers to Christian faith. Each position contains some good and some bad and has a lot to learn.

For any Christian tradition to claim all the answers is not only to reject the wealth of Christian experience outside of that tradition as false but also to assume finality on the subject. Even if it seems like McLaren only spends time in certain aspects of each position, a communal pursuit of truth not found in any tradition is his overarching point.

“To be a Christian in a generously orthodox way is not to claim to have the truth captured, stuffed, and mounted on the wall. It is rather to be in a loving (ethical) community of people who are seeking the truth (doctrine) on the road of mission (witness, as McClendon said) and who have been launched on the quest by Jesus, who, with us, guides us still… That, to me, is orthodoxy—a way of seeing and seeking, a way of living, a way of thinking and loving and learning that helps what we believe become more true over time, more resonant with the infinite glory that is God” (333-334).

Sanctification = A Generous Orthodoxy? 

Photo by Kevin Cole

In the end, McLaren’s quest for a generous orthodoxy resembles the Methodist view of sanctification. Once a Christian is justified by faith, life is a series of steps toward perfection where the more we learn, the more Christian we become, the closer we are to heaven.

McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy intrigues me. As a person always looking for middle ground, McLaren’s emerging theology affirms the good in every Christian tradition. When we affirm absolutes on one side of the spectrum or the other, we are prone to the absurd conclusions found when one tries to apply black and white principles in a gray world.

Moreover, I like the idea of sanctification—that Christians worldwide continue to struggle with truth and the meaning of life, together working toward a better understanding of Christianity within the context of life on earth. Life is a series of learning events. If ever we think we know all the answers, aren’t we akin to the child who lies when she says she’s never told a lie?

A Generous Orthodoxy provides a valuable reminder about human frailty. Too often, Christians think they have all the answers. But if we had all the answers, would we even need Jesus in the first place? A Generous Orthodoxy reminds me both to continue searching for truth and to reassess my theological assumptions. There is always room for growth.

The sooner we can realize the wealth and joy of Christian tradition worldwide, the sooner we’ll grow theologically.

If you are interested in a generous view of Orthodoxy and willing to consider the flaws in your own view of orthodoxy, A Generous Orthodoxy is for you.

Verdict: 4 out of 5

What about you? Does McLaren’s position bother you? Do you think that there’s one way to orthodoxy or are we still trying to figure it out? Is McLaren a relativist? What does orthodoxy mean to you?
Share your thoughts below.

Posted by: Donovan Richards
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