Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A Good Offense is the Worst Defense

Seems like I’ve spent most of my life arguing. Call it discussion if you want to be generous. Arguing with my parents, with teachers, with fellow students and co-workers, with professors and pastors and what feels like half the world. All I’ve ever wanted was the right to my own life, my own understanding, my own belief, my own faith. I guess I always thought I had to fight for it, defend it from everyone who wanted to trample on it, tear it down or take it from me.

This morning I was reading through A New Kind of Christian by Brian McLaren. I realize I’m a little late. It was published ten years ago. I’ve owned it for two years. I just never got around to it until now.

Yesterday I read the first two chapters. I sincerely wish I had read it long before now. I found myself on the verge of tears before I had finished the introduction. It was like listening to my own voice, like someone else telling me the story of my own life over the past 4 years. A happier ending I suppose. McLaren had several books published and is recognized as a spokesperson for a generation of the struggling postmodern faithful. I was just asked to leave my church. No publishing deals have been forthcoming. Then again, I haven’t seen the end of my own story yet, so I should reserve judgment.

My Honey Oat Blenders cereal patiently soaked up milk as Neo (McLaren’s fictional history and science teacher) described the key historical elements of the development of Modernism. Modernity was/is:

1. An age of conquest and control
2. An age of the machine
3. An age of analysis
4. An age of secular science
5. An age of absolute objectivity
6. A critical age
7. An age of organization and the modern nation-state
8. An age of individualism
9. An age of Protestantism and institutional religion
10. An age of consumerism

In his discussion of Modernism’s critical tendency (point #6), McLaren points out that amidst the spirit of conquest inherent in Modernism, “if your ideas don’t win, they lose.” At those words, I almost dropped the spoon that had been hovering over my cereal bowl for an indeterminate amount of time. In a moment I understood why I’ve been defensive all my life. The church exists under the rule of an intellectual and theological Darwinism - "survival of the fittest." We’ve all been trained to immolate everyone else’s beliefs in order to maintain our own. It's not simply a perception that others are attempting to destroy my belief system, they really are. They're not evil. They just believe they have to disassemble my beliefs if they are going to ensure the survival of their own. And they believe its for my own good. What is worse... I have been far from innocent in this spiritual game of “king of the mountain”; the consequence of developing a good offense as your best defense.

Of course, every age has been critical when it comes to competing truth claims or, more specifically, competing agendas and power struggles. War, violence and martyrdom (Christians can be fine oppressors too) testify to the consequences of such struggles. This is no less true in theological circles. Looking back at the aftermath of many of the early church councils, there is a disturbingly Darwinist trend in the competition of theological ideas in the church; the consequences of a lost battle not infrequently including condemnation, excommunication, exile, and worse. Consider the following:

St. Eustathius of Antioch - banished at First Council of Nicaea (325 AD).
Arius of Alexandria - excommunicated and banished at the first council of Nicaea (325 AD); legend says he was even slapped by Santa for his heresy!
Nestorius of Constantinopleexiled after the Council of Ephesus (431 AD), a tragic story.
Pope Vigiliusimprisoned at Second Council of Constantinople (553 AD).
Jan Huss - burned at the Council of Constance in (1414–1418 AD).

Maybe we should consider the possibility that fighting to promote our own doctrinal orthodoxy is not the answer. Not that I disagree with the decisions made at the councils. They have come to define “orthodoxy” as we know it. And I’m not saying that there is no objective truth in these matters, though I think objectivity may often be highly overrated and overstated when it comes to issues of faith. Rather, maybe “survival of the fittest” is the wrong way to go about getting at the truth. Maybe healthy humility and acknowledgment of the tension between ideas is more important than getting a set of answers by which we can measure who is “out” and who is “in” our spiritual clubs.

As for me, I think it’s time I laid down my defensiveness, if I can manage to override my programming, and focus my energies in a more positive direction of creating a theological alternative to many of the commonly held ideas which trouble me. Maybe that’s still a form of arguing, but at least it’s constructive instead of destructive.

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