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Over the last several weeks, we have taken a cursory look at how the leading “new atheists” are doing their very best to demolish the underpinnings of postmodernism. By publicly demonizing religion, the “new atheists” are drawing a philosophical line in the sand on the beachhead of academic debate. Their vehement denial of all things non-empirical has effectively shut the “law of non-contradiction” door on any postmoderns wishing to attend the discussion. The absolute truth of materialism is the only faith that need apply for an audience with these close-minded thinkers; all others will be shouted down, ridiculed, or ignored. Undaunted by such narrow-minded, dogmatic thinking, a “new” type of Christian is attempting to gain entrance to the battlefield of ideas. Ten years too late and sporting a fatal head wound, the postmodern Christian is “emerging” from a liberal church or seminary near you.
Borrowing from, and building on, the controversial idea of “emergence” in philosophy, the “Emerging Church” is a catch-all phrase that describes the adherents of this postmodern religiosity. Painting this trend with a broad brush is a bit like trying to nail spaghetti to the wall. No one follower sounds quite like the other, and each one has a different way of describing what “emergent” means to him (or her.) I will admit, at the outset, that this is a battle that I, or any other for that matter, can’t win. Critics of Emergent are usually scolded for their lack of understanding of postmodernism and their “straw man” arguments. Emergents pride themselves on their open minds and thoughtfulness and live by the fourth-grade maxim of “there is no such thing as a dumb question.”All views are welcomed and encouraged. As it is with the theory of emergence, the Emerging Church expects that all viewpoints, all “truths,” can be combined in a huge mixing bowl of ideas. When baked in the ovens of conversation, the resulting batter should yield…something. And herein lies the problem. The Emergents don’t know what “it” is that they’re looking for, so they will never actually know when and if they’ve found it.
If there is a leading voice coming from the Emergents, it would have to be Brian McLaren, self-proclaimed author, speaker, networker and Christian activist. His book, A Generous Orthodoxy, attempts to define what the Emergents are all about. I recommend reading this book to understand where he is coming from, and then, reading it again—backwards—to wake up all the brain cells that were lulled to sleep during the first read. McLaren is a master with words, his writing is eloquent, concise, and cerebral. The problem is: his words are meaningless. His former occupation—before becoming a “networker” I suspect—was English professor. His lessons in literary deconstruction have served him well in his current profession of Christian activist and author. After writing a long open letter to Chuck Colson, pointing out many points of disagreement that he had with an article that Colson had written, McLaren closes this way:
I know you’re a busy man doing many good things, and may never have time to read this. But if you do, please don’t feel any pressure to reply. I’m sure I’ve misunderstood and misspoken in many ways, and as I said, I’m not very skilled at debate, nor do I want to get practice. In spite of my lack of qualifications and my many faults (known and unknown), I sincerely hope that some of my responses to your column here will be of help to you (or your staff) in some small way in your continuing and important work for Christ and his Kingdom.
At first glance, this reads like a greatly humble and loving way to sign off. In reality, if words mean anything, McLaren gave Colson (and anyone else) full license to disregard everything that preceded it. One paragraph earlier, McLaren was making dogmatic assertions about Colson’s misunderstandings and wrong views regarding postmodernism. But, like a true postmodernist, he ends by calling his own views into question. If McLaren had informed his readers that even he was unconvinced of his own views at the beginning of the letter, I, for one, wouldn’t have bothered reading it. Colson’s longer response back to McLaren went mercifully unanswered.
While much has been written (most of it wrong-headed and quickly dismissive) about the Emerging Church and Brian McLaren in particular, I want to take a bit more time than most critiques have been willing to give. An honest appraisal of what McLaren is actually saying demands that we separate our views of Christians from Christianity. What biblical Christianity actually teaches can be, and often is, light years away from what certain flesh and blood individuals or groups who refer to themselves as “Christians” are teaching and modeling. While McLaren makes some good points and interesting observations about Christians and the orthodoxy that they offer, he often makes the mistake of overstating this as Christianity. Of course, we all do this from time to time. This is the “ad hominem” argument. The “new atheists” are notorious for succumbing to it. Unfortunately, McLaren and others like him believe that a rejection of rigid concrete absolutes, in favor of more elastic versions of truth, is somehow a good and beneficial thing. Take Franky Schaeffer for example:
I abandoned Protestant Christian fundamentalism many years ago for Greek Orthodoxy. I converted because the Orthodox tradition embraces paradox and mystery. For someone raised in a strict Calvinist home, relief from absolutist certainty was most welcome…
So I’m caught in the shrinking space between two calcified political doctrines of the left and right. My correspondents seem so certain of everything — especially that God is on their side.
I hope there is still room in our polarized country for Christians like me, who don’t subscribe to any one-dogma-fits-all. It seems to me that life is too short, sweet, and mysterious for us to be able to exhaustively "explain" anything much, let alone explain everything with certainty.
Like McLaren, Franky views paradox and mystery as a plus. In fact, this is the reason why he converted to the Orthodox church—absolutist certainty is so twentieth century. Schaeffer and McLaren are remaking Christianity in their own image, and then use it as a club against anyone who still believes in Truth. I wonder if Franky would use this reasoning with the “new atheists.” Postmodernism doesn’t work for them, and it doesn’t work for the church. Despite “good” intentions, these postmodern Christians are actually hindering the progress of the very gospel that they claim to believe.