A Stingy Orthodoxy

I hate the show The Bachelor, for many reasons, but here’s one: whenever the bachelor begins to spend serious, one-on-one time with his pool of potential partners, all they ever talk about is how they feel a connection to each other.  They seek to build a relationship on the idea of relationship.  It’s not surprising that matches made on that show rarely last.  Relationships are not built on the idea of relationship.  You cannot establish a connection to someone by sitting around talking about the connection you have.  I fear a similar mistake has been made in the church. 

Protestant liberalism has left an enduring legacy in the West: empty churches and rising secularization.  Because of its diffuse beliefs and abandonment of Christian orthodoxy, liberalism could not sustain vibrant churches (see Steve Bruce’s God Is Dead: Secularization in the West for further discussion).  Community cannot thrive without a shared commitment to something that transcends itself.  Liberalism offered nothing transcendent.  I fear that postmodern accomodation of the faith has made the same mistake by seeking to build community, not on something that transcends the community, but on the idea of community itself.

If this continues, I suspect the end result will be the same: empty churches and furthering secularization.  A generous orthodoxy will not sustain communities of believers.  Communities do not draw life from the idea of community.  They draw it from shared stories with shared interpretations. 

Yes, the postconservative movement rightly focuses on the shared narratives of communities, but they fall short on the “shared interpretations” part.  If we can’t agree on what the death of Christ actually accomplished, for example, then we really can’t agree on the same story.  It is not enough to say, “Jesus died and rose again.”  Unless we define who Jesus is, who God is, who we are, what the death and resurrection of Jesus means, and why it happened, then we are really not telling the same story.  Our beliefs are diffuse, just like they were in Protestant liberalism.  Diffuse beliefs cannot sustain close communities.  A faith accomodated to postmodernism can tell stories all day long (I once heard this referred to as “narrative therapy”), but without solid doctrinal consensus, stories are blind.  And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a ditch.

I don’t sense that the postconservative movement is really seeking to stay true to the historic faith of the church, no matter how much it tips its hat to tradition.  The heart of the Christian faith has been redefined by this “generous orthodoxy.”  Simple, straight talk about the human condition, the role and necessity of faith in Christ for salvation, and the final separation of the righteous and the wicked, cannot be pursued in this new postmodern climate.  Clarity on these and other issues is often deliberately avoided (see the preface to Brian MacLaren’s book that inspired the title of this post and note how he [ironically] clarifies his intent to be unclear!).  Without clarity, there is no shared story, and without a shared story, there is no real community. 

What I am saying is that doctrine is at the heart of the church’s cohesion.  When doctrinal fidelity slips, when commitment to orthodoxy loosens, when beliefs become diffuse, the church loses that which holds it together.  Doctrine divides, yes.  It divides Baptists from Methodists, Presbyterians from Catholics, Episcopalians from Pentecostals.  But doctrine also unites, defines, and gives identity and meaning by telling us what the story we hold dear actually means.  Without a strong commitment to the historic faith of the church, rooted in a commitment to the infallible authority of the inerrant Scriptures, our legacy will be the same as that of Protestant liberalism.

I don’t believe in a generous orthodoxy.  In fact, I see that phrase as a contradiction in terms.  By definition, orthodoxy must be stingy (better words for that are “firm,” “solid,” “enduring”).  There is life after the final rose.  I doubt that postconservative theology can offer enough to make the connection last.     

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