Tension in Tolerence: A Review of Brian McLaren’s “A Generous Orthodoxy” – Part II


The main problem with McLaren’s approach is that it fails to provide a concrete vision or set of beliefs that believers can attach themselves to. This “generous orthodoxy” turns into a “personal denomination” that is determined by individual preferences. McLaren does a great job of grabbing the good stuff from each of his denominational or thematic flavours of Christianity, while failing to address the shortcomings or contradictions that are bound to present themselves in such a model.

For example, McLaren offers competing stances on childhood baptism. In chapter 13, McLaren discusses adult baptism as a form of religious expression from the Anabaptist movement. He downplays the importance of the “how and when” of baptism in favour of the more important “why and whether you live the meaning of your baptism” (McLaren, 228). In this section, McLaren provides an encouraging place for Anabaptist beliefs to reside. And yet, in chapter 15, McLaren provides support for a catholic belief that subscribes to a sacramental faith and a respect for tradition that clearly, from a catholic perspective, supports infant baptism. McLaren clearly articulates the Anabaptist position pertaining to personal commitment, yet reinforcement of the catholic sacraments and traditions (without supporting each sacrament by name) does little to quell the uneasy cohabitation that this particular issue is bound to introduce.

Several other examples could be gleaned from the text, but for what point? It is sufficient to agree that Christianity has become segmented because of the sharp denominational lines that have resulted from the numerous protests that have brought us to this “Protestant soup” that we find ourselves swimming in today.

A second, and equally troubling problem for McLaren, is how to reconcile the postmodern bent that asserts, almost ironically, that absolute knowledge is unattainable. Early in the book, McLaren argues that “certainty and knowledge” are problematic in a postmodern worldview (McLaren, 28) and thus, one cannot be absolutely certain that they know right from wrong. This epistemological puzzle forces one to wonder how McLaren can be so sure that his solution is the right one. While McLaren does overstate his “completely unqualified” (McLaren, 38) status in the realm of theology, this does not excuse him from responsibility for his claims. At the very least, McLaren has provided the reader with a contradictory argument, first suggesting that we can know nothing with certainty and then offering a way forward that expects fellowship. Shouldn’t McLaren’s postmodern epistemological argument invalidate his suggestions entirely? How can his claims be discerned under this cloud of skepticism?

Thirdly, how would McLaren discern the conflicts and contradictions that present themselves in his “cherry-picking” of denominational best fruits. How can one be certain that McLaren was accurate in choosing certain denominational traits over others? And further, doesn’t this collection of denominational best practices contradict McLaren’s earlier suggestion to marginalize denominational distinctions (McLaren, 36)? Why does McLaren focus so much on those denominational best practices if his ultimate goal is to flatten the Christian experience into something that can be palatable to everyone?

Up next: “Responses to these objections”

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