Friday, November 19, 2010

Thinking, Being, and the Validity of Generous Orthodoxy

I was reading a particular Christian periodical the other day when I stumbled across an ad for a new book written by a well-known Evangelical. The book's title and sub-title underscored "thinking" as the primary discipline and characteristic that forms a person's Christian identity. In other words, it was argued that in order to live right one needed first to think right. The book proceeds to explore this "right thinking" as a prerequisite for Christian identity, especially as it affirms a particular school of thought that is deemed true, Christian, and orthodox. I shrugged, familiar with the writings of this particular Evangelical, his particular theological convictions, and the related quest to convince others of his brand of thinking. But is right thinking really the goal of the Christian life? Is right thinking really the benchmark for Christian identity? And how can this particular individual and his followers claim to have arrived at and possess such absolute truth?

I read another book a little over a year ago that pursued the matter from a different angle. In Desiring the Kingdom [1], James K.A. Smith writes, "Being a disciple of Jesus is not primarily a matter of getting the right ideas and doctrines and beliefs into your head in order to guarantee proper behavior; rather it's a matter of being the kind of person who loves rightly- who loves God and neighbor and is oriented to the world by the primacy of that love" (32-33). Smith's running thesis throughout the book is that humans are primarily liturgical animals whose desires and imaginations are at work even before we begin to think. He writes a few pages later:
"We are what we love…humans are those animals that are religious animals not because we are primarily believing animals but because we are liturgical animals- embodied, practicing creatures whose love/desire is aimed at something ultimate" (40).
In other words, Christian formation begins not with the embrace of right philosophical ideas, concepts, and doctrines. Instead, Christian formation begins in the "fulcrum of desire" (56) whereby our imaginations and habits are reshaped and reformed so to move in rhythm with the narratives, myths, pictures, stories, and dreams that are a part of the kingdom of God. That is to say, the question must shift from primarily thinking to a way of being in and for the world.

However, it must not be misunderstood that we can escape the significance of thinking, especially theologically, nor can we underestimate the grave consequences of misinformed and irresponsible thinking. In fact, we could spend endless amounts of time and energy exploring the effects of ignorant thoughts, oppressive ideals, and dreadful theologies on the social, political, and religious landscapes of the past and present. Time must be invested in the value of thinking critically. Nonetheless, thinking alone cannot lead us into God's dreams for the world any more than my modest musings found on this blog could solve homelessness in my community. Moreover, the moment we claim to have arrived at a set system of universal truth statements and assumptions, i.e. one right way of thinking, we begin to move from faithful Christian discipleship and into imperialistic religious discourse. In essence, there must be room for dialogue, space for conversation, and opportunity for dissent without condemnation and marginalization, especially as we change the focal goal from right thinking to right being in and for the world. Said differently, a generous orthodoxy is crucial to the transformation of our thinking and being on individual, communal, and global levels.

In Brian McLaren's, Generous Orthodoxy [2], he writes, "Theology is the church on a mission reflecting on its message, its identity, its meaning" (105). That is to say, theology is a conversation that God's people have on the move, as pilgrims, who are venturing towards God's promised future mysteriously unveiled in the present through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This conversation cannot be co-opted by a singular voice, a particular culture, or a distinct tradition, and imposed upon the whole. There must be room for mystery, space for disagreement, and opportunity for debate as God's people seek truth not as statement, but follow Truth who is Person. Karl Barth once wrote, "Evangelical theology is modest theology, because it is determined to be so by its object, that is, by him [God as trinity] who is its subject" [3]. Again, the goal is not doctrinal or dogmatic certainty, but movement towards the object and subject of the faith, who is God as Trinity. We can never posses or fully contain God, no matter how right we believe our thinking to be. Therefore, we must never cease to be conversant with one another, even though we may be in disagreement, as we move more and more in rhythm with the mission of God and the gospel of Jesus. Even more so, a generous orthodoxy is vital to the Christian community as it seeks to move conversations from intellectual speculations and academic debates and into shared vocations and witnesses in and for the world.

Over the course of the next few weeks I will make a few posts in regards to significant issues of debate within the Christian conversation. My posts are to be interacted with, discussed, critiqued, and debated. However, may we maintain an awareness of our convictions as modest musings of faithful pilgrims who practice generous orthodoxy with one another. Even more, may we be reminded that thinking is not the goal; rather, may we encourage one another to fresh opportunities for being a particular people in and for the world. May we do this together as we desire the kingdom of God that is breaking in all around us, if we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear.

[1] Smith, James K.A. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009.
[2] McLaren, Brian. Generous Orthodoxy. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004.
[3]Barth, Karl. Evangelical Theology: An Introduction. Translated by Grover Foley. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans    Publishing Co., 1963. p.7.