Saturday, October 1, 2016

Lesson 2: Holistic Apologetics Trumps Rationalistic Persuasion (Part 3 of 8—Seven Lessons Evangelicals Can Learn from Brian McLaren)

In this series, we are considering seven lessons evangelicals can learn from Brian McLaren, who has been unofficially expelled from the evangelical community by many gatekeepers (see "Evangelicals and Hannibal Lecter"). The first lesson focused on maintaining relational fidelity in the midst of our differences. The second lesson focuses on the need to adopt a biblical, holistic approach to apologetics.

Apologetics has a long, rich history in the Christian tradition (For more, see Avery Dulles, A History of Apologetics). But in recent years, the legitimacy of Christian apologetics has been questioned. Some of these questions have been raised by participants in the Emerging Church Movement.

Consider, for instance, Peter Rollins, author of How [Not] to Speak of God. Rollins has proclaimed the "end of apologetics." He argues that apologetics, in the form of both "word and wonder," should be rejected in the postmodern world since both are expressions of "power discourses," designed "to forcibly bring people to their knees." This kind of imperialistic discourse is misguided since it "endeavors to compel individuals to bow their knee regardless of their motives or the nature of desire." Instead, Rollins commends a "powerless discourse," in which "the believer ought to be seen as the poem, parable and salt of God in the world rather than God's proposition to the world."

At times, Brian McLaren has offered similar sentiments. In The Church on the Other Side, he writes, "In the modern world we could wield a proposition like a sword, a concept like a hammer. In the postmodern world we have to hold a mystery like a lover, and a story like a child."

While there is undoubtedly some truth in the above statements, it would be a mistake to equate McLaren's position entirely with the view espoused by Rollins. While he resonates with aspects of the creative and non-coercive strategy proposed by Rollins, McLaren is best seen as a defender of holism rather than as anti-rational. In Finding Faith, McLaren writes, "Though a healthy faith is bigger than the intellect, the search for faith cannot bypass the intellect. The sincere spiritual seeker must engage the mind fully, even while transcending cold or calculating rationalism." McLaren goes on to point out that the "search for faith also involves noncognitive parts of us—emotions, longings, aspirations, dreams and hopes and fears, drives, desires, intuitions."

In other words, McLaren is advocating for both credibility and plausibility. He writes, "Credibility answers the intellectual questions: Is this message logical, intelligent, believable, supported by sufficient evidence? Plausibility explores additional social and emotional questions." In short, the faith journey requires the full engagement of the entire person: mind, will, emotions, imagination, intuitions, and relationships.

What we need, then, according to McLaren, is not the end of apologetics, but rather a more faithful, holistic approach to apologetics. Not the end of apologetics, but recognition that the Christian story needs to be told and lived out with comprehensive fidelity. In A New Kind of Christianity, McLaren explains, "Good thinking (orthodoxy), good being (orthopathy), and good relating (ortho-affinity) must interact with and express themselves through good work and practice (orthopraxy) in the world."

Indeed, this holistic approach to spiritual formation and apologetics is thoroughly biblical. One of the most cited apologetic texts in the Bible is I Peter 3:15-16: "But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander."

Now, in recent years, evangelicals have done a commendable job with the first part of this apologetic mandate—namely, to give the reason for the hope that we have. There is no shortage of rational apologetic resources that lay out a range of cogent arguments for the Christian faith.

That said, the evangelical community has often struggled with the second half of this mandate, to offer an apologetic with "gentleness and respect." In other words, evangelicals have often focused so much on rational intelligence in the realm of apologetics that the appropriate emotional, ethical, and social intelligence is often lacking.

So, as it turns out, the very area in which contemporary Evangelicalism has been under-resourced happens to be the very area in which McLaren excels—as an apologetic model for emotional, ethical, and social intelligence. McLaren expounds: "That's why I believe that we should test a [biblical] interpretation by reason and scholarship, using our rational intelligence—as we have traditionally done. But we must go farther, and also test our interpretations by conscience using our emotional, ethical, and social intelligence—which we've seldom done....Put differently, interpreting texts with mathematical intelligence apart from social, emotional, and ethical intelligence is unintelligent, antisocial, and unethical."

While McLaren is discussing emotional, ethical, and social intelligence in the realm of biblical hermeneutics in the above passage, this insight can be extended to contemporary apologetics in all its dimensions. It is not enough to provide rational answers for the hope that we have. These answers also must be presented with moral, emotional, and social sensitivity. As John Franke has said, "Evangelicals lose support where they might not have because of their lack of graciousness and generosity. Even Hannibal Lecter despised rudeness!"

In other words, even if evangelicals reject McLaren's theological proposals, there is still much to learn from his apologetic methodology, which emphasizes gentleness and respect. And this is an important lesson at a time when many evangelicals are mired in a no-win culture war that too often focuses on protecting the rights, privileges, and boundaries of our own in-group rather than loving and extending grace to those living outside the evangelical enclave.

So the SECOND lesson evangelicals can learn from Brian McLaren is the need for holistic intelligence when engaging in apologetics. As this blog has emphasized, an important part of holistic intelligence is ethical intelligence. This is the lesson we will explore in the next entry to this series. Stay tuned.

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