5/29/2006

Modern Ecumenism IV: Ecumenical or Wishy-washy?

Despite the fact that I think a person's life is the best indicator of his Christianity, I realize that it is a really easy position to distort by relegating all doctrine to second-class status. It is possible to be ecumenical for all the wrong reasons, and any ecumenism which ignores or minimizes doctrine as unimportant is seriously flawed. In fact, there is a whole lot of that going on now. Several months ago, I was trying to explain the emergent church to Emily. In part of my explanation, I said “they're more tolerant of Catholicism than traditional protestants.” “So,” Emily asked, “does that make them ecumenical or wishy-washy?”

It's a good question, and one that has to be asked. I've been hearing quite a bit from the Emergent church and certain corners of evangelicalism that doctrine is essentially reducible to a person's subjective and fallible interpretation of the Bible, and it is for that reason relatively unimportant how you happen to interpret certain Biblical passages, as long as you “love Jesus”. This is not what I am suggesting, and it is not what Jesus taught. He doesn't tell the Pharisees “Oh well, so you misinterpreted the law. No big deal, it's hard to understand anyway”. On the contrary, “Have you not read...” is a common refrain of His. Jesus does not simply invoke divine authority when confronting the pharisees, he argues with them from the scriptures – sometimes expressing surprise that they could call themselves experts in the Law and be so mistaken about it.

Nevertheless, this indifference toward doctrine is fairly popular. It owes its inspiration less to the Bible than to the Zeitgeist, the Spirit of the Age. The spirit of the age, influenced heavily by Postmodernism, values narratives, community and conversation over propositions and any sort of didactic truth claims. It is very tentative, preferring to express thoughts merely as personal belief, and is quick to admit the validity of other points of view. This is why some evangelicals think doctrine is not that important for the same reason the average person on the street thinks no one religion could possibly contain all truth: there is just so much disagreement about it. Both are, to varying degrees, merely expressing the Spirit of the Age.

On the other hand, there are a lot of things which are good in the emergent/postmodern approach to Christianity. The emphasis on community and on the narrative structure of much of divine revelation is welcome. Postmodernism also serves to temper certainty about doctrinal distinctives. This can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on the extent to which it is taken. It is certainly detrimental when it is used as an excuse to discount doctrinal truth as relative and irrelevant – it is hardly likely that God would provide us with revelation and remain indifferent as to how we interpret it.

But I think there is another way which appreciates the postmodern caution about certainty without reducing everything to subjective opinion. This middle way softens rather than destroys. It keeps the doctrinal distinctives uncompromising and fierce, but prefers to see the Church as those persons whose lives exhibit fierce devotion to Jesus Christ rather than as those persons who have signed a particular statement of faith.

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