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Finding answers to old questions

Author Brian McLaren
Journey finishes its exploration of Brian McLaren’s 10 questions which he says are transforming the church.

This final question looks at the future.

How do we explore the previous nine questions without creating division?

IN HIS BOOK A New Kind of Christianity Brian McLaren posed 10 questions to help people join the quest for a new and
better kind of Christianity for tomorrow’s world.

This quest, he tells us, is “springing up all around the world”.

The project is laudable, yet I admit that I struggle to get past some of the rhetoric.

The struggle comes partly from never having been gripped by the ’emerging church’ which Mr McLaren represents.

I’m just not part of the ‘we’ of his ten questions.

In fact, there is something disconcerting about this tenth and final question.

Mr McLaren’s ‘we’ are committed to avoiding division and generating creative and loving attitudes.

But they are warned to anticipate and prepare for resistance – presumably from those not on the quest.

Why not invite scrutiny rather than pre-empt it as resistance?

The dialogue Mr Mclaren commendably seeks requires a different posture.

Maybe the best way of opening up these questions without creating division would be to drop the high-sounding rhetoric
of “a new kind of Christianity”.

Just put the questions on the table, argue their merits, and discuss them using the resources of the whole Christian tradition.

There is also a certain romanticism about how this tenth question is posed.

Who could possibly argue with the need to generate creative and loving attitudes?

Who would not want to avoid division?

Yet, any discussion of the gospel’s truth is potent.

A more hard-nosed approach is needed if there is to be the kind of honest engagement which is precisely what these questions demand.

The Cambridge theologian Nicholas Lash, writes of the need for christians to engage the gospel’s truth through nothing
less than “thought and pain and argument … prayer and study and an unflinching quest for understanding”.

With critiques of Christianity pervading our culture, this is no time for sentiment.

Having said that, the questions are well worth asking.

Indeed, with the exception of homosexuality, Mr McLaren’s questions focus on issues which have been the basic
preoccupations of Christian theology for most of the church’s life: biblical narrative, authority, God, Jesus, Gospel, Church.

Therefore, a quite different question arises for me. Why are these questions being linked to a new kind of Christianity?

The questions are hardly new.

The history of Christian thought has already thrown up many well-developed answers to them and some of them have
been creatively re-worked during the last two centuries.

Linking these questions to a new kind of Christianity partly reflects the emerging church context.

The emerging church – especially in its North American manifestations – is often an ex- or post-evangelical phenomenon.

It is now appropriating the richness of the theologies, liturgies, histories and questions of the wider church which have often been resisted by the evangelical constituency.

So they are new to those asking them in that context.

However, I suggest that if they seem new even outside that context it is because the mainstream protestant churches slipped into a theological slumber for most of the second half of the twentieth century.

For a whole complex set of reasons theological formation was put on the backburner – despite the twentieth century
being a period of immense theological ferment.

Again to quote Nicholas Lash: there has been a “systemic failure of the Christian churches to understand themselves as schools of Christian wisdom: as richly endowed projects of lifelong education”.

Closer to home, almost a decade ago, the Report of the Three Presidents identified one of the Uniting Church’s weaknesses as “the decline in systematic teaching about our life in Christ as a central ministry in each congregation’s life”.

Whether or not that decline has been reversed remains to be seen.

But if such a ministry is to become central, we will need as individuals and congregations to commit to the thought, pain, argument, prayer, study and the unflinching quest for understanding that is required of a church called to mission in one
of the most secular nations on earth.

And let’s jettison the romance and the sentiment about a new kind of Christianity.

Being disciples of a crucified Lord is demanding enough.

Photo : Author Brian McLaren