Wednesday, October 31, 2007
Brian McLaren Clarifies
I'm currently reading Brian McLaren's latest book, Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope, In it he contrasts an "emerging view" of Jesus' gospel with the "conventional view". (Scot McKnight has a helpful summary of the two here.) Despite the fact that Brian repeatedly states that he is not completely rejecting the conventional view, and that he "sees much truth and value in the conventional view" (EMC, p. 82), I know that many critical reviewers are likely to assume he is setting up a black and white, either/or dichotomy between the two.

That is why I was glad to see Brian showed up on McKnight's blog to clarify some of his views. For those who would accuse Brian of rejecting historic, "orthodox" Christian faith (by which they probably mean their version of Evangelicalism) and reinventing his own version of the gospel, listen to Brian's unequivocal affirmation here:
I certainly believe in the need for saving faith, for forgiveness, for hope beyond death, for the pursuit of orthodox articulations of belief, for overcoming the damning effects of sin, for rejecting wholeheartedly the idea that we can be saved by our own efforts or through religion, and so on. I’m not attacking those beliefs.
It doesn't get much clearer than that.

I also appreciated that Brian clarified that he was not trying to caricature all Evangelicals with his "conventional view". In a comment on a previous post on Scot's blog, Brian writes:
I noticed that a lot of the discussion has focused on whether the conventional view as I described it accurately describes “Evangelicalism.” Some people say, “Yes, it fits,” and others say, “No, it’s a straw man.” It’s obvious that “Evangelicalism” is a very broad and diverse movement, and so if what I’m calling “the conventional view” doesn’t fit your experience of Evangelicalism, I’ll be the first to say, “Good, then I’m not even talking about your church or denomination,” or whatever. I never actually mention “Evangelicalism” in the text, although I do mention it in a footnote or two.

The best (in my opinion) of Evangelicalism avoids the problems of what I’m calling “the conventional view,” as does the best of Catholicism, Mainline Protestantism, and Eastern Orthodoxy.

In other words, if the shoe fits, wear it (and it does fit my experience of Evangelicalism), but if it doesn't, then don't assume he was talking about you and don't get offended. You're playing on the same team even if you don't wear the same jerseys.

He likewise cautions that we shouldn't assume his "emerging view" is synonymous with the "emerging church". He says:
I hope people won’t assume that what I’m calling “the emerging view” is universally held by “the emerging church.” I never presume to speak for the emerging church - it’s a term I don’t even like, for reasons I’ve explained elsewhere. I imagine that some people associated with “the emerging church” will like this book, but others won’t. We’ll see.

I prefer to talk about the emerging conversation … which tries to create safe space for good dialogue.

Personally, as a part of the emerging church, I would wholeheartedly endorse Brian's emerging view of the gospel. However, I appreciate that he leaves the emerging conversation open to differing views. It is still a conversation and not a set of doctrines that we all must endorse. As Brian says, the "emerging church" really is simply that "safe space" where these kind of questions can be raised without fear of condemnation and rejection.

In this comment Brian also addresses the common criticism that he (and others in the emerging conversation) are inventing a gospel that is entirely novel and foreign to historic Christianity. He replies:
The term “emerging view” is problematic if it implies that it is completely novel, because it isn’t - as some of you have already noted. Here’s what I say in a note to this chapter (p. 309, note 5): “This emerging view is deeply resonant with the Anabaptist and Eastern Orthodox views, so it is better understood as the recovery of ancient understandings rather than the creation of innovatitive ones.” I would also add that the thrust of this book is deeply in tune with Catholic social teaching, and resonates with the work of a lot of Evangelicals involved in CCDA and the New Monasticism, along with the perspectives of many black Evangelicals (like Tom Skinner), Latin American Evangelicals (like Rene Padilla) and quite a few British Evangelicals (like John Stott). I think this emerging view is also in synch with the work of postliberal theologians like Walter Brueggemann, whose work has had a big influence on my own.
If Brian were more of a historian I suspect he could find even more resonances with his views in other parts of the Christian Tradition as well: for instance, in the early church writings, in the teachings of St Francis, in the postmillenialist, social-reformer evangelicals of the 18th & 19th Centuries, etc. This is nothing new. It is simply a reclaiming of a long tradition that has been somewhat sidelined by a dominant strain of conservative Evangelicalism over the past half-century or so. The emerging church is not inventing this "emerging view", and we cannot claim sole proprietorship to it. And I'm not really sure why we would want to.

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posted by Mike Clawson at 11:54 AM | Permalink |


27 Comments:


At 10/31/2007 02:38:00 PM, Anonymous Karl

Good stuff Mike. Reminds me of the conversation-by-blog-post I had with you a little while ago.

If the following is true (and I think it is):

"The best (in my opinion) of Evangelicalism avoids the problems of what I’m calling “the conventional view,” as does the best of Catholicism, Mainline Protestantism, and Eastern Orthodoxy."

...then why be "Emerging Church" rather than getting on board with "the best of" one of the aforementioned traditions? What is uniquely Emergent? Or do I take you and Brian to be saying in answer to that question "nothing." In which case again, why do some choose to self-identify as part of "The Emergent Church" rather than being rooted in an existing tradition (we have plenty already), while taking part in an emerging conversation? Like Brian, I prefer that imagery.

 

At 10/31/2007 03:29:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Karl,

Most people involved in the emerging church conversation are still rooted in an existing tradition. For instance, we have Prebymergents, Anglimergents, Emerging Methodists, Emerging Anabaptists, Emerging Churches of God, etc... I'm not sure where you're getting the impression that we've all just left where we've come from in order to be a part of this conversation. Some of us have, but that's usually because we got kicked out, not because we deliberately left.

But why be emerging? Because I think the emerging conversation brings something to the table that each of these traditions doesn't on its own, which precisely is the freedom to converse about these kind of questions without fear of condemnation. It's the freedom to question, rethink, and move forward in our faith without feeling like we have to be tied to only one Tradition's particular set of answers. That's why the emerging conversation also brings the freedom to listen to people who are rooted in Traditions other than our own. That is why Phyllis Tickle describes the emerging church as a convergence of various traditions all finding common ground in a new center. And it is why Brian speaks of a "generous orthodoxy" that graciously takes the best of all these traditions. (Which is what many of us would prefer to do, rather than just signing on with only one as you suggest... that just feels too limiting.)

 

At 10/31/2007 04:07:00 PM, Anonymous Karl

I don't have time to reply at length, but thanks Mike for your response. I know there are many, maybe even most, who are in the conversation who haven't left their own tradition. I would probably qualify as an Anglimergent. My question was why isn't that the extent of it - why not gravitate to the best of your own tradition (or another existing one) and then borrow from the best of other traditions where/if your own is still somehow deficient? I like the terminology of convergence more than emergence, and the work of Richard Foster and Renovare' along those lines is terriffic. But Foster, for example, does that work as a Quaker. Not by jumping out and forming a new tradition consisting of what he's cobbled together from all the others that he likes best. Your statement of "that just feels to limiting" is probably the answer. I'll have to think on that a bit.

 

At 10/31/2007 04:53:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Yes, it's too limiting, and besides, some of us don't really feel like we have any particular tradition that we can call home anymore. Some of us were pushed out, sometimes rather forcefully, and told we weren't welcome anymore. Others come from such an extreme fundamentalist background that there really isn't much good in it that's worth going back to. And for others it would be just too painful or too much work to try to stay where we are at, when there are so many voices telling us we're not wanted.

So yes, while some people will be able to stay within their traditions as they start asking these "emerging" questions, others either don't have one, or can't/don't want to remain part of the one they're currently in.

 

At 10/31/2007 09:56:00 PM, Anonymous Karl

Mike, I can understand the feeling of being pushed out, or needing to leave. The question that still nags though is, if one is forced out either by others or by conscience, why not look for a home in another, existing tradition? If some of us self-consciously set up yet another option on the menu of options - the Postmodern Emergent Church cobbled together from what we like most about a bunch of varied traditions - isn't that impoverishing the other traditions by depriving them of needed prophetic voices, and contributing to the heritage of weak ecclesiology and ever-further-fragmentation handed down by our fundamentalist and Reformed forebears? Yet another independant Bible Church, with yet another take on the Bible and more openness than most to borrowing from extra-Biblical sources?

Stanley Hauerwas comes to mind. He told Rodney Clapp: "I want the Catholics to be more Anabaptist, the Anabaptists to be more Catholic, and the Protestants to be both." That is how I often feel. In conversation with (most of) my evangelical non-emergent friends I want them to be more open to the emergent conversation/convergence of traditions. In conversation with (most of) my self consciously Emergent friends and acquaintances, I want them to be more evangelical and truly convergent.

I have friends who grew up in Catholicism or Orthodoxy and feel those traditions hold nothing for them now. They experienced them as dead, meaningless ritual, and have abandoned them for what they have experienced as a more living and active faith. I rejoice in their quickened faith. But I mourn for the loss of the riches they have left behind because they were unable to see them and experienced the worst, rather than the best, of their own traditions. I feel the same sense of loss for my ex-evangelical, self-consciously Emergent friends.

 

At 10/31/2007 11:07:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

But I just don't see why I would want to settle on just one tradition to call home. Why do that when I can enjoy the richness of many different traditions? And why settle in a place that is likely to be just as restrictive in its own way as where I came from? If I were to start attending a liturgical church, would they be open to the more creative and interactive styles of worship that I've come to appreciate? If I settled on a more charismatic style church, would they have any clue what I was talking about if I said I wanted to do some liturgy? If I were to attend a mainline liberal church that gave me more theological freedom, would they be turned off by the fact that I still hold on to some of my evangelical beliefs? If I went somewhere more "evangelical" would they freak out if I started questioning their views of Hell or the atonement? And how could I even consider settling in the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox traditions when my wife and I are passionately committed to the full equality of women in ministry?

How can I settle when I can't find any particular tradition that really "fits" me? Committing to a particular tradition means locking yourself into their unique way of thinking and doing things, but that's difficult to do when you've come to appreciate the value of lots of different ways of thinking and doing things. Why would I want to limit myself to just one?

Again, I'm just speaking personally. Other self-identifying emerging Christians have plenty of good reasons for staying within their traditions. But having been kicked out of mine, I am currently a "free agent", and I'm happy that way. Let those who are able to stay within their tradition and work for change from within do so, but that's not the path God has taken us on. And frankly I think there is just as much need for new expressions of faith and new kinds of churches as there is for ongoing reformation within the existing traditions. It's not an either/or, it's a both/and. I just happen to personally be part of those that God has called to do the "new and different" stuff, though I know plenty of people who are doing the "reforming from within" stuff too.

 

At 11/01/2007 11:32:00 AM, Anonymous Karl

Mike, you make a lot of good points. I'm playing devil's advocate with myself as much as with you here because my experience resonates with what you say. We felt forced out of restrictive evangelicalism, then had the exact experience in the liberal mainline that you describe in your hypothetical. And now we're pushing the envelope in our (less restrictive) evangelical Anglican congregation and occasionally getting some push-back.

I do think there's something to be said though, for being part of a body larger than myself, learning things that can only be learned by practice of the humbling discipline of submisson, and having my rough edges honed by the compromises that are inevitable when one truly lives in community not just individally but ecclesially (is that even a word?) as well. Somewhere past the midpoint of your post, while much in me was resonating with what you were saying I also started to hear Frank Sinatra singing in the background. "I Did it My Way." Or a Burger King "Have it Your Way" commercial. Is some of our desire to have it all, just as we would craft, pick and choose it, a product of a not totally healthy American, Western consumer mindset? I say that to myself, not just to you.

Hauerwas describes Methodism as "a movement that accidentally became a church." The same could be said for the formation of many denominations, and the reformation itself. Maybe the same will happen with emergent. And as with the others, some things will be gained and some lost.

 

At 11/01/2007 02:13:00 PM, Blogger bpun

Mike, you can ignore my comment I just made on one of your previous posts, because you address my comment here. But what I've noticed about McLaren and others like him (and I have read most of his books) is what he usually attacks as "conventional gospel" is the perversion and over-enlightenment application of the classic gospel, and in turn he dismisses the classic Protestant Gospel. I agree with what Tim Keller basically says in that in actuality, the classic "individual/personal" Protestant Gospel when truly understood combines both the corporate and individual aspects -- I truly believed if we go back to the Reformers' discovery of the Gospel, we will see the corporate implications. We should not try to change "orthodoxy" just because we have lost "orthopraxy." We should look at "orthodoxy" more carefully and correct our practices. Thanks for your post.
- Ben P.

 

At 11/01/2007 02:46:00 PM, Blogger bpun

I should correct "Reformer's discovery of the Gospel" to the Reformer's "articulation" of the Gospel...or maybe "re-discovery".

 

At 11/01/2007 04:17:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Sorry Ben, I replied on the other comment before I saw your note here.

Anyhow, I agree with you that the "conventional gospel" is a perversion of the Protestant gospel, and I think Brian would agree with you too. But I also think Brian made it pretty clear in these comments on Scot's blog that he is not throwing out the entire "Protestant gospel" just because he rejects this "conventional" perversion of it. I think you may be reading his comments as too much of an "either/or". He repeatedly states in EMC that he sees much truth and value in the conventional view. He's not just throwing the baby out with the bath water, IMHO. I think he'd fully agree with you that we should hang on to what is good in the classic Protestant gospel.

And if he doesn't dwell as much on the subject of "personal forgiveness" as he talks about the social and global implications of the gospel, well, that's just because that's not what this book is about. I have never, ever, anywhere heard Brian deny the importance of personal forgiveness or personal transformation. In fact, I can think of many places in his other books ("Finding Faith" & "More Ready Than You Realize" come to mind, as does "The Story We Find Ourselves In") where he focuses on precisely those topics.

You seem to be a fan of Dr. Keller, Ben. I'd caution you to not make the same mistake he seems to have done in seeing disagreement and division where none need exist. If you agree that the "emerging view" is part of the gospel, and you believe that it is already being articulated within the best of the "classic Protestant gospel", then you and Brian are on the same page. You're saying the same thing.

Peace,
-Mike

 

At 11/01/2007 08:57:00 PM, Blogger KjellBjarne

I just stumbled onto this blog, and I thought I'd throw this question out.

You asked the rhetorical question, "How can I settle when I can't find any particular tradition that really 'fits' me?" To put it rather bluntly, and I honestly don't mean to offend by asking this: what if asking what fits *you* as an individual is entirely the wrong question?

 

At 11/01/2007 10:45:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Good question Kjell. Let me see if I can put it another way... Would it be fair to "inflict" myself on a particular church or church tradition if I know that I can't entirely agree with some of the things they hold most central to their identity? Wouldn't it be dishonest of me to commit to being a part of something if I know that I'm not entirely on the same page?

And my faith has already changed a lot in the past decade. What happens if I continue to grow in new ways? How could I guarantee any particular tradition that I'd still be where they are at in another 10 years?

That, I think, is my fundamental dilemma: for me faith is an ongoing journey. I'm never going to stop questioning and rethinking and moving forward in my understandings. And yet to me a Tradition is something more static, something where you say "These are the answers we have arrived at once and for all." I'm grateful to receive those answers and learn from them, but I can't honestly guarantee that I will ultimately settle there once and for all - I need the freedom to continue following Jesus wherever he leads. As they say in Narnia, "Aslan is on the move", and I need to be ready and willing to move with him.

 

At 11/02/2007 12:29:00 AM, Blogger KjellBjarne

I think we first need to define Tradition here. I know how I view it, but what do you mean exactly by Tradition? At first read, I figured you meant "denomination," but surely you'd be using that word if that's what you meant?

I'm not sure exactly what you mean by following Christ wherever He leads, either. Not to be facetious, but what is the destination to where He would be leading you? From the context, it looks like you were referring to "answers" in the previous sentence. Is it the Truth that you seek to move toward with the guidance of Christ?

Seeking the Truth is one thing, and that's perfectly understandable and commendable. What I see as problematic is looking for something with a particular worship style, theology, etc. that suits what the individual wants, as opposed to seeking the Truth regardless of what the individual wants.

It's late and I'm not sure I'm making an ounce of sense, so please bear with me if I'm not... I'm not so sure late-night theology works over the internet!

 

At 11/02/2007 10:08:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Hey Kjell, sorry it's taken me all day to reply. I've been busy writing a sermon.

I use the term "Tradition" to mean something slightly broader than just a denomination. A Tradition to me is a particular stream of Christianity such as Evangelicalism, or Anabaptism, or Catholicism, or Mainline Protestantism, or Pentecostalism, etc. (Richard Foster's book "Streams of Living Water" does a good job of identifying six broad Traditions.) While there is usually much diversity within a particular Tradition, there are also certain things that define that Tradition and delineate it's boundaries. If you step outside those boundaries, you are no longer welcome within the Tradition.

My problem as an emerging Christian is that I have come to appreciate the truth and beauty that I have found in many of these Traditions, at the same time that I have also in some ways moved beyond the boundaries set up by my own Evangelical Tradition. Thus I now find myself without a home in any particular Tradition, and not wanting to settle on one for fear of cutting myself off from the value that I've found in others.

And yes, by following Christ I mean pursuing Truth (and more than Truth, but a particular Way of life). I take John 14 very seriously in that I ultimately identify Jesus as the Truth (and the Way and the Life). So to be pursuing Truth is to be pursuing Jesus. And because I identify Truth as a person, I don't think it can be a fixed thing, a static mark that we can just apprehend once and for all. Truth is on the move. It doesn't stand still any more than Jesus does. And what he's leading us to ultimately is the Father and further into the Kingdom of God. I can't describe it any more specifically than that without getting into some hardcore philosophy and theology that I really don't have the mental energy for right now.

Anyhow, I hope that clarifies some of what I meant by my terms.

 

At 11/04/2007 12:35:00 AM, Blogger KjellBjarne

Please forgive me, because I'm just asking questions here and I'm not really trying to make any kind of point...

Now, you say that Truth is a person, Who is Jesus Christ -- YES. You have no idea how long I went through life without having realized this. And I realize we may be heading into territory that isn't so easily discussed via comments on a weblog, but you mention that truth is on the move... what do you mean by that? Does the truth change? Or, a better question is, are you saying Christ changes?

I hope I'm not bugging you; I just haven't had any contact with folks in the emerging church movement until now.

 

At 11/04/2007 02:38:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

"you mention that truth is on the move... what do you mean by that? Does the truth change? Or, a better question is, are you saying Christ changes?"

The short answer is yes. Like Jesus, Truth must be Incarnated in a particular time and place and culture; and since times and places and cultures change, so does truth.

This should be obvious. Things that were true yesterday are not always true today. Things that are true from my perspective (for example, that cats are evil), is not always true from another person's perspective. Things that are considered moral in one culture are great offenses in another.

Ultimately, if Truth is a person, then Truth is relational. And if Truth is relational then Truth changes, because people change and relationships change. If there is anything in this world that is far from static or absolute, it is the relationality of human beings.

Anyhow, that's the short version.

 

At 11/04/2007 07:26:00 PM, Blogger KjellBjarne

"Things that are true from my perspective (for example, that cats are evil), is not always true from another person's perspective."

Perspective (that is, opinion) is truth? We are fallible beings in a fallen world. We can and often do perceive things wrong.

"Ultimately, if Truth is a person, then Truth is relational. And if Truth is relational then Truth changes, because people change and relationships change."

Unfortunately, I, actually, do not understand why you say this is obvious. People may change, but we're not talking about any fallible humans - we're talking about Jesus Christ, fully man and fully God. What is it about God that you think changes?

 

At 11/04/2007 09:46:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

"Perspective (that is, opinion) is truth? We are fallible beings in a fallen world. We can and often do perceive things wrong."

Try this thought experiment: What are you looking at right now? Seriously. What is in front of your eyes? OK. Now is that answer true for you? Would that same answer be true for me? If not, then sometimes truth is relative to our perspective.

"What is it about God that you think changes?"

A short list:

- His relationship with us. E.g. Ephesians 2:12-13 "Remember that at that time you were separate from Christ... but now you have been brought near by the blood of Christ."

- His moral commands. E.g. Matthew 5:38-39 "You have heard it said... but I say to you..."

- His expectations for how we worship him. E.g. John 4:21 "A time is coming and has now come when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem."

- His mind. E.g. Genesis 18:16-33 (Abraham bargaining with God for the people of Sodom); Exodus 32:7-14 (God changes his mind about destroying the Israelites)

- His answer to the question "What must I do to be saved?" cf. John 3:16, Mark 16:16, Luke 18:22, Luke 19:8-9, Matthew 7:21, Matthew 25:31-46, Mark 2:5, etc.

- How he deals with idolatry. e.g. Acts 17:30 "In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent."

- The way in which he draws people to himself. cf. Paul's conversion story with Peter's, with Cornelius', with the Ethiopian Eunuch's, with the thief on the cross, with the Roman centurion, with the Samaritan woman.

Just to name a few...

 

At 11/04/2007 11:34:00 PM, Blogger KjellBjarne

I sense my prodding may be annoying you. That being the case, I'll resign myself to simply reading from this point forward. :)

May the Lord bless you.

 

At 11/04/2007 11:48:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Not at all Kjell. I was just answering your questions.

 

At 11/05/2007 09:15:00 AM, Anonymous Karl

Mike, I think you may be playing a little loose with the idea of God changing here.

Perspectives change and vary. Relationships differ. People grow in understanding. An infinite being can be viewed and understood from many angles and experienced in different ways. God can use different means to draw different people to himself. None of that has anything to do with God changing.

- His moral commands. E.g. Matthew 5:38-39 "You have heard it said... but I say to you..."

I would suggest that a better way of understanding this frequent saying of Jesus is to realize that he is correcting the wrong OT interpretations of the scribes, pharisees and rabbis. He never contradicts "what is written" which refers to the OT itself When Jesus says "it is written" he treats the quotation that follows as authoritative. But when he speaks of what the people "have heard" he is speaking of interpretations they have been told, which he feels free to correct. I think the message is actually the opposite of what you are arguing: he's saying that God doesn't change, and hasn't changed. Jesus knows what was meant by what was "written" and is going to set the record straight because the people have "heard" a lot of wrong stuff.

"Try this thought experiment: What are you looking at right now? Seriously. What is in front of your eyes? OK. Now is that answer true for you? Would that same answer be true for me? If not, then sometimes truth is relative to our perspective."

The correct answer to the question "what is Kjell looking at right now" is the same for both Mike and Kjell. Kjell is in a better position to know the answer than Mike is, but there is one correct answer. If you pose the question to everyone as "what are YOU" looking at right now, of course you will get differing answers. The old example of the blind men and the elephant is a better one for demonstrating the need to take into account differing perspectives but even then, there is an objective reality of elephant-ness that takes into account all of the perspectives and is more true than any of them standing alone. And differing perspectives have nothing to do with the changeability of the object encountered.

As Jerry Root is fond of saying, while there is no last word, there is a sure word. The ability to have a sure word is tied to the unchanging nature of God and reality, isn't it?

 

At 11/05/2007 08:55:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

"Mike, I think you may be playing a little loose with the idea of God changing here.

Perspectives change and vary. Relationships differ. People grow in understanding. An infinite being can be viewed and understood from many angles and experienced in different ways. God can use different means to draw different people to himself. None of that has anything to do with God changing."


Why not? Aren't God's perspectives, relationships, actions within history, etc. all part of who God is? Why separate these things from God's nature?

I think it's high time for the Christian church to move past the categories of Greek philosophy - immutability, impassibility, etc. - when we talk about God. This is not the picture of God we get from the Bible. The biblical view of God is a one of dynamic relationship in which God changes and adapts himself and his methods according to the actions and choices of his creations. We can of course say (as James does) that certain things about God's character - his love, his justice, his overflowing generosity - do not change. But how he applies these qualities in his interactions with human beings does change, and very often. If you want to strip away all of those interactions and say that they're not part of God's essential nature; well, I'd suggest that then you wouldn't really have much left to say about God at all, since the God of the Bible is a God primarily defined by his actions within history (cf. Psalm 77-78).


"I would suggest that a better way of understanding this frequent saying of Jesus is to realize that he is correcting the wrong OT interpretations of the scribes, pharisees and rabbis. He never contradicts "what is written" which refers to the OT itself When Jesus says "it is written" he treats the quotation that follows as authoritative. But when he speaks of what the people "have heard" he is speaking of interpretations they have been told, which he feels free to correct."

That's an interesting theory Karl, but unfortunately it doesn't actually fit with the passage I referenced. Matthew 5:38-39 says "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also."

This "eye for an eye" quote is directly from Exodus 21:23-24. Jesus wasn't quoting interpretations of the Law. He was quoting the Law itself, and he was super-ceding it with a higher law of non-retaliation and creative non-violence.


"The correct answer to the question "what is Kjell looking at right now" is the same for both Mike and Kjell. Kjell is in a better position to know the answer than Mike is, but there is one correct answer. If you pose the question to everyone as "what are YOU" looking at right now, of course you will get differing answers. The old example of the blind men and the elephant is a better one for demonstrating the need to take into account differing perspectives but even then, there is an objective reality of elephant-ness that takes into account all of the perspectives and is more true than any of them standing alone. And differing perspectives have nothing to do with the changeability of the object encountered.

As Jerry Root is fond of saying, while there is no last word, there is a sure word. The ability to have a sure word is tied to the unchanging nature of God and reality, isn't it?"


My apologies. Perhaps I was a little sloppy in my reply. To be honest, I resolved most of these epistemological issues for myself quite a few years ago, and I've had little reason to revisit them since. I guess I'm a little rusty.

The bottom line is that I'm not a Platonist, and with all due respect to Jerry, his epistemology (as I remember it from Christian Ed 101) is rather simplistic and naive. I don't believe in a "real world" of immutable forms where things like "elephant-ness" exist. Reality is not absolute. It changes all the time. We live in a world of change and flux and continual development and evolution - and we worship a God that inserts himself into this sea of change and interacts within it.

I actually really like the way "God" put it in the tv series Joan of Arcadia: "Everything is relative Joan... except for me, I'm absolute."

In other words, even if I agree that some aspects of God's character are unchanging, that doesn't mean anything else about Creation is. And thus our knowledge of Creation, our "truth" about it, is not absolute or unchanging either.

Which gets me to another difficulty. You seem to be equivocating "truth" with "reality". But in philosophical terms these are not the same thing at all. Reality is what exists. Truth is what we know about reality. The problem is whether we can ever know when we have accurately apprehended reality. How will you ever be able to step outside yourself to see if your perceptions and ideas about reality actually match the "thing in itself" (to use Kant's terminology)? If you ever saw the "thing in itself" wouldn't that "seeing" itself be yet another set of perceptions and ideas? The problem then is that we never have an unfiltered apprehension of reality "as it is in itself". We always, only have reality "as it appears to us". There is no escape from this - and I don't really see why we should want to escape from it. This is how God created us, as limited, situated, perspectival beings. To "escape" from this would be to assume a Godlike knowledge of reality, which is a form of conceptual idolatry - the very thing the serpent tempted Eve with in the Garden.

So the issue when talking about Truth is not whether we have an "absolute", "objective" reality (even if we did, how could we ever know?). The issue is recognizing our inherent limitations and situatedness - realizing that whatever "Truth" we have is always open for reevaluation and further development since we we never have a final word or a sure word. As finite and fallen creatures, how could we ever claim to have a sure word? From whence would we derive certainty? I think this quest for "certainty" is one of the biggest evangelical bugaboos that needs to be called out for what it is - conceptual idolatry - and rejected as antithetical to a proper epistemic humility. We need to realize that "certainty" is a myth (as Daniel Taylor puts it). We do not have "certainty", we have faith. Or to put it similar to how the writer to the Hebrews puts it, we have certainty only because we have faith.

 

At 11/06/2007 10:20:00 AM, Anonymous Karl

Mike, I'm glad for you that you solved all these epistomological questions years ago. I will probably wrestle with them for the rest of my life and never reach the level of certainty you seem to have. Though, if you are as open minded as you seem, I bet you find that you answer them at least somewhat differently at 35 than you did at 25, and differently at 45 than at 35. If not, is your epistomology in danger of becoming as rigid as the fundamentalists you've left behind, just different?

You ask: "Why not? Aren't God's perspectives, relationships, actions within history, etc. all part of who God is? Why separate these things from God's nature?"

I would say that God's actions withiin history and relationship with his creation flow out of his essential nature, and are expressions of it. Not that they "are" his nature. They are the means by which his nature is apprehended by us, but the composite picture (learning from the converging streams, for example) gives greater (though far from perfect) clarity than any one perspectivally-limited snapshot. God's nature expresses itself relationally, yes. And of course a God who is forever just, merciful, loving, etc. will bring those unchanging attributes to bear in different ways in different and changing relational contexts, with different people and in different situations. The context and what is required in it may change. God doesn't. One day (or century) you're grasping the tail of the elephant. The next, the leg. The elephant is still the elephant. Or as you say, the absolute is still the absolute.

As far as I'm concerned your discussion of truth and reality raises many good reasons for holding one's opinions humbly, even on matter of supposed or perceived truth. Although at the same time, if "my" truth is true simply by virtue of it being my perspective, what cause is there to be humble about it or ever acknowledge it might be wrong? What if it's my perspective that it's good to keep my money to myself and screw all those poor people?

You say: "The problem then is that we never have an unfiltered apprehension of reality "as it is in itself". We always, only have reality "as it appears to us". There is no escape from this - and I don't really see why we should want to escape from it. This is how God created us, as limited, situated, perspectival beings. To "escape" from this would be to assume a Godlike knowledge of reality . . ."

Mike, I believe God encourages us to escape from our own narrow, crabbed view of reality. To identify with the "other", the poor, the widow, the orphan, the marginalized. I have never been one of them. But I am called to make an effort, however imperfectly, to see things from their perspective as much as I can. And, within my human limitations, I am to at least try to see things around me from as much of a "God-like" or "Christ-like" perspective as I can, as He enables me and I cooperate by striving for something more than my own limited narrow tunnel vision. Humility and an awareness that I don't have the last word, are crucial.

We've both seen the ugly extremes of fundamentalist certainty. In the mainline church, in grad school and elsewhere I've seen the ugly extremes of postmodern perspectivism carried too far; I don't know if you have. Neither extreme is for me, though both have some valid points to add to the discussion.

You say: "we never have a final word or a sure word. As finite and fallen creatures, how could we ever claim to have a sure word? From whence would we derive certainty?"

Yet you also say: "We can of course say (as James does) that certain things about God's character - his love, his justice, his overflowing generosity - do not change." Mike, are you certain of that? Are you sure? I would suggest that those are sure and certain words about God, even if not last words, and that they are true regardless of time, place or individual perspecive. But on what basis could you agree?

As for the "eye for an eye" passage, I'll take a page from you and apologize for being sloppy and imprecise in my prior post. My understanding of that passage is that Jesus was indeed correcting what the people had HEARD said about that passage. Here's where an NT Wright or Rob Bell/Ray Vanderlaan - esque investigation into 1st century Judaism and rabinnic interpretation of the OT helped me. The OT passage cited contains a civil law that was to be administered by the civil authorities (and which was far more merciful and proportionate than the typical ANE practice of exacting greater damage in punishment than the wrondoer had committed). The oral tradition, or at least some popular interpreters in Jesus' day, had taken those OT passages and applied them to PERSONAL interactions, to justify petty revenge in interpersonal relationships and striking back at the person who just struck me, rather than letting the God-ordained authorities deal with it. Jesus doesn't address the civil side (i.e. he's not saying the civil authorities should turn the other cheek and let perpetrators of violent assault, murderers and child rapists go free and unpunished). But he's correcting the misunderstanding that the people had heard when the scribes, phairisees and rabbis applied the OT civil law to personal relationships.

 

At 11/08/2007 12:11:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

"Mike, I'm glad for you that you solved all these epistomological questions years ago. I will probably wrestle with them for the rest of my life and never reach the level of certainty you seem to have. Though, if you are as open minded as you seem, I bet you find that you answer them at least somewhat differently at 35 than you did at 25, and differently at 45 than at 35. If not, is your epistomology in danger of becoming as rigid as the fundamentalists you've left behind, just different?"

I never said I had "solved" anything, or that I was certain about any of it. Just the opposite in fact. I don't know how to resolve these epistemological dilemmas. That's the point. I'm completely open to a new way of thinking about epistemology, but so far none of the attempted answers have worked for me. And I'm okay with that, because ultimately I've got better things to do than to keep worrying about whether I can ever really know "absolute reality".


"I would say that God's actions withiin history and relationship with his creation flow out of his essential nature, and are expressions of it. Not that they "are" his nature."

Fair enough. That's your opinion. I'm more of an existentialist on these issues. I don't think you can really separate "essence" (whatever that is - again, I think these Greek philosophical categories really aren't helpful ways of talking about the world) from action. What I do is part of who I am. And if you strip away all these "incidentals" I don't think there is just some immutable "Mike-ness" underneath. I think if you strip them away, you'll actually strip away most of what makes me, me - and whatever you have left will not be my "essential nature" but just a few random and mostly worthless abstractions. I suspect the same is true of God. (Though, of course, how could we ever really know for sure? We're on really shaky ground to speculate about the ultimate nature of God like this, as if our words about her could ever encapsulate her.)

"Although at the same time, if "my" truth is true simply by virtue of it being my perspective, what cause is there to be humble about it or ever acknowledge it might be wrong? What if it's my perspective that it's good to keep my money to myself and screw all those poor people?"

I don't really get what you mean here. I wasn't saying that anyone's perspective is just as good as anyone else's. The whole point is the humility. The point is the recognition that our perspectives are always limited, so there is never a reason to say that any one perspective is sufficient or wholly "true".


"Mike, I believe God encourages us to escape from our own narrow, crabbed view of reality. To identify with the "other", the poor, the widow, the orphan, the marginalized. I have never been one of them. But I am called to make an effort, however imperfectly, to see things from their perspective as much as I can."

I agree Karl. But note that what you are suggesting is not trading a situated, perspectival view for an absolute, God's-eye view, but trading one limited, situated perspective for another limited, situated perpsective (or for several others) - like taking off one set of lenses and trying on another, or getting out of your chair and moving to the other side of a room to see what things look like from that new perspective. That was my point, that we can never escape our situatedness - but we can situate ourselves in new ways.

Even what you describe as a "God-like" or "Christ-like" perspective is (obviously) not "God-like" in the sense of being absolute or comprehensive. You seem to be using that word in a way different than how I used it, and we should be careful not to equivocate.


"In the mainline church, in grad school and elsewhere I've seen the ugly extremes of postmodern perspectivism carried too far; I don't know if you have."

No, I haven't. And frankly I'm surprised to hear you describe the mainline church as "postmodern". I admittedly don't know much about that world, but everything I do know suggests that they are as much a "Modern" expression of Christianity as Fundamentalism is, just in a different way. What did you find there that was "postmodern"?


"Yet you also say: "We can of course say (as James does) that certain things about God's character - his love, his justice, his overflowing generosity - do not change." Mike, are you certain of that? Are you sure?"

No, of course I'm not. These are things I believe, not things I can claim certainty about. We live by faith, not by sight, and I can agree with you on that basis, but I can't claim to know these things beyond doubt.


"The OT passage cited contains a civil law that was to be administered by the civil authorities (and which was far more merciful and proportionate than the typical ANE practice of exacting greater damage in punishment than the wrondoer had committed). The oral tradition, or at least some popular interpreters in Jesus' day, had taken those OT passages and applied them to PERSONAL interactions, to justify petty revenge in interpersonal relationships and striking back at the person who just struck me, rather than letting the God-ordained authorities deal with it. Jesus doesn't address the civil side (i.e. he's not saying the civil authorities should turn the other cheek and let perpetrators of violent assault, murderers and child rapists go free and unpunished). But he's correcting the misunderstanding that the people had heard when the scribes, phairisees and rabbis applied the OT civil law to personal relationships."

That's an interesting interpretation, and I agree that there is also a "personal" dimension to what Jesus is saying, but I completely disagree with you that Jesus is not also addressing the civil application of these words. In fact, I would argue that the civil/corporate application of that passage is primary. I think that is clear from the examples Jesus gives - beings slapped, being sued, being forced to walk a mile. These are all examples taken from the ways the Roman authorities were treating the Jewish people at that time. In other words, Jesus command here do in fact have a civil, even political, application. He is describing how to practice creative, non-violent resistance against foreign oppressors. Any personal application, IMHO, would have to derive from that more immediate political application.

 

At 11/09/2007 11:09:00 AM, Anonymous Karl

Mike, you're throwing me further into Greek categories of thinking than I would go myself. I'm willing to take the good wherever I find it, including Greek thinkers, and I think there's some that is helpful in Plato and Aristotle. But I don't believe in a separate world of forms and am not that interested in arguing about categories like absolute reality or essence. Either extreme looks silly to me, actually. Absolute Platonism looks as foolish as postmodern perspectivism carried to its logical conclusion. But both bring some helpful insights that give needed correctives to the other in its extreme form.

You say: "That was my point, that we can never escape our situatedness - but we can situate ourselves in new ways."

I agree to a point. But the person who has looked at something from many different angles usually has a better understanding of it than someone who has only ever looked at it from one perspective. If you walk around my house you have a better and more complete idea of it than if you just looked at it from the front. You seem to think this is so in your approach to the church and faith. No single tradition is enough - you want to learn from them all in order to have a fuller faith experience. So it's not just exchanging one limited perspective for another *equally* limited perspective. Sure, both perspectives are limited. All perspectives will be limited. But some perspectives are closer to, or understand more of, the actual thing than others. You are always limited by your "situatedness." But some situations are more limiting than others. You use that language when you object to outsiders' perceptions of emergent. You have experienced the movement/conversation from the inside, and you know the critics are just flat incorrect in some of what they say - even if that's "their perspective" you have a better and more accurate perspective on what emergent is about, although your perspective is still not perfect.

As with most individuals, the mainline in my experience was a mixture of the modern and postmodern. You are right, structurally and theologically there is a lot of modernity's influence. The anti-miracle, de-mytholigizing tendencies are certainly modern. The "we can't believe that incarnation and resurrection stuff because we live in the scientific age, an age of reason" mentality. But especially in the pews and also at the higher levels of leadership and scholarship, there's very much a buy-in to the spirit of the age, just as there was when the spirit of the age was modernism. For some it's a knowing buy in. For others its just osmosis. The person on the street these days (at least many of them) holds a lot of assumptions and knee-jerk ways of thinking that are postmodern, and that goes for the average churchgoer too. My truth is my truth; your truth is your truth. Don't be so arrogant as to push your truth on me, or our truth on anyone else. Jesus re-cast as a strongly left-leaning American university professor of the humanities in sandals. The sermon on the mount boils down to "be politically correct." Hey, let's have a liturgy to Gaia. Let's hold conferences to re-imagine god. Those things came more from a postmodern than a modern mindset. Maybe not *your* postmodern mindset. But postmodern, expressed in a different way.

Not surprisingly perhaps, I think the political ramifications of that passage we're discussing flow from the personal, rather than the other way around. Things start from the micro and move to the macro. We shouldn't create an unnecessary dichotomy though. I would affirm at least 3 things about that passage: (1) the original OT law was given as a civil law for the nation of Israel, and was to be enforced by the civil authorities. It was much more merciful and proportional than comparable ANE punishments for wrongdoers and actually DISCOURAGED taking personal vengeance; (2) Jesus corrected the misinterpretation of that OT passage that was popular in his day, saying that passage did NOT give anyone warrant to take personal vengeance; (3) Jesus' words had significant political implications because of the Roman occupation and oppression, and did apply directly to how the people should react to that oppression. Surely though, you don't suggest that he was suggesting his saying was to apply to the civil authorities?
Your examples (and the main thrust of Jesus' words) deal with how the individual lives in a civil/communal/oppressed context, which was never the point of that OT passage. He was correcting the misapplication of an OT civil law to individuals' actions with one another and in the community and political context. But the civil authorities themselves still need to apprehend and punish wrongdoers, and Jesus wasn't suggesting otherwise. He wasn't contradicting the OT passage and instituting a new law; he was saying "you've misunderstood what this is all about."

 

At 11/09/2007 12:23:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Karl, regarding perspectivalism, I think we're both basically saying the same thing. Of course I agree that some perspectives can be more accurate than others, and that a multiplicity of perspectives will give one a more complete view. I'm just wanting to make sure we always still recognize our limitations here.

However, I do think you're underestimating how much of a liberal postmodern I really am. As I've tried to tell you repeatedly, I'm not an evangelical anymore. While I still can affirm and value of the "best" of evangelicalism, the truth is that I don't have the same kind of automatic negative reactions that you do to some of the things you describe. For instance, you tried to characterize what to you seems to be extreme postmodern tendencies in some mainline churches this way:

"My truth is my truth; your truth is your truth. Don't be so arrogant as to push your truth on me, or our truth on anyone else. Jesus re-cast as a strongly left-leaning American university professor of the humanities in sandals. The sermon on the mount boils down to "be politically correct." Hey, let's have a liturgy to Gaia. Let's hold conferences to re-imagine god."

When you put them in that dismissive way, of course it makes it hard for me to affirm them - but to be perfectly honest, I think there's quite a bit of validity in most of these things (once one gets past your caricature). Truth very often is relative to individual circumstances and perspectives (see my most recent post). I think Jesus probably was a lot more "left-leaning" than many conservative evangelicals want to admit (and honestly your caricature of the university professor is actually the kind of person I want to be someday). The Sermon on the Mount isn't just politically correct, but it certainly is radically politically subversive of the same dominant power structures that political correctness tries to restrain. We don't need to be worshiping Gaia, but we do need a quite a bit more respect for the Creation in our churches and much more of a recognition of how we are all (the entire planet, humans included) interconnected (which I think is what the Gaia hypothesis is all about). And frankly, I think conferences to re-imagine God are a pretty good idea (our church had one ourselves last Memorial Day), since otherwise we can slip into the conceptual idolatry of thinking that our favorite metaphors for God are somehow absolute.

And yes, I am suggesting that Jesus' Sermon on the Mount ought to apply to civil authorities too. This whole world would be a lot better off if our nations and those in power would abandon the myth of redemptive violence and started looking for more creative, non-violent means to achieve peace and prosperity and justice.

Have I convinced you yet that I'm not just a more open-minded evangelical? I'm not speaking for all emergent folk here, or even all postmoderns, but I am speaking for myself. Those labels and categories you use just aren't that scary to me anymore. I'm okay with being "liberal" or "left-leaning". I'm okay with being a "postmodern relativist". I'm okay with saying that I don't have "certainty" about any of it. In my opinion, this is actually a lot closer to what I think is an authentically "biblical worldview". (And no, I'm not certain about that either.)

Peace,
-Mike

 

At 11/09/2007 02:18:00 PM, Anonymous Karl

Whoosh. That's the sound of us missing one another, Mike. I don't pretend to know you, certainly not well enough to understand where you are coming from on every theological, ontological or epistemological issue, but I haven't been laboring under any illusions that you are either an evangelical or an epistemological modern. I didn't mean to imply otherwise. At the same time, my limited knowledge of you keeps me from always knowing at which point you will say "hey, my postmodernity keeps me from agreeing with that." Because you do seem to agree with some things that I don't think of as particularly postmodern, and you mentioned earlier in this thread that you couldn't go mainline because you DO still hold on to some of your evangelical beliefs. I just don't know which ones those are, so excuse me for that.

As for scary buzzwords, I think your defenses are up a bit, much like mine were when I felt like you were slamming evangelicalism and I said "wait, that doesn't apply to me or to my experience with the best of evangelicalism. You are caricaturing my position." What I am saying above is that those things I mention aren't just caricatures, even if they sound that way to you. They exist in some places as hard line shibboleths, dogmatisms that are held in a manner every bit as ugly and stifling and narrow-minded as anything you could find at Bob Jones U. Lots of people would find your descriptions of actual things you've encountered in fundamentalism to be an unfair, dismissive caricature. I have said to you nearly the same thing you just said to me: "once one gets past your caricature of evangelicalism Mike, I think there's quite a bit of validity there." You rightly point out though that "the best of" isn't the only (or even the most common) way a given tradition or worldview expresses itself. The truth about fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism is sometimes even stranger, more warped and meaner than the caricature. I'm saying the same thing applies on the other side of the ideological spectrum. You seem to see an angry narrow mindedness as a conservative, modern trait. I've experienced it as a human trait, existing on both extremes of the political and theological spectrum and in both modern and postmodern circles.

As for politics, a church that teaches "Jesus is a liberal Democrat" is no more satisfactory to me than one preaching "Jesus is a conservative Republican." I don't have a problem with someone, or even a church, being liberal or conservative, or left- or right- leaning if they are striving to be faithful to scripture. I do have a problem being dogmatically told that their way is the only legitimate way of seeing things, and pushed out of fellowship if I see it otherwise. There are churches and whole denominations that are simply a left wing version of Falwell or Robertson, both politically and theologically. That's not for me any more than Falwell or Robertson is. That is one reason I have appreciated Ron Sider so much. I think he does a better job than many "progressive evangelicals" or emergents at taking both sides of the political aisle to task.

As much as I hate conservative protestants' theological line-drawing . . . at some point, to simply be accurate in using the term, there has to be some kind of bare minimum content of the faith that you hold if you want to call yourself a Christian. I'm not talking about "salvation" here. I'm an inclusivist if you need to use a label. But some churches (and individuals) remind me of a person loudly saying "I am a Muslim. I don't believe Allah is the only God nor that Mohammed is his prophet, but I am a Muslim." Um, I'm sorry but not if that's what you believe, you aren't. Simply by definition. We see the foolishness and arrogance of it in the Muslim example, but chafe against it in the Christian context. Make the definitional boundaries as broad and flexible as you can, but you still need boudaries that mean something. I've been in "Christian" circles where to suggest such a thing was heresy, treated with as much scorn as any evangelical ever treated you.

You acknowledge that there are "good" evangelicals who are a far cry from the worst of evangelicalism, and you can even learn from them. I'd say the same thing about hardcore postmoderns in the mainline or elsewhere. I'm not afraid of them, and may have some significant common ground with them. Probably more common ground with them than with extreme fundamentalism. Your use of the language of fear (saying you no longer fear the ideas I mentioned and apparently implying that I do) sounds like an all-too-common discussion avoidance tactic. I'm not afraid of something just because I disagree with it. There is a lot of discussion in emergent circles referring to evangelicals in terms like that: "they are just afraid." Well ok, I'm sure some of them are. But not necessarily all. Maybe some others of them just disagree and have good reasons for doing so.

 

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