Q & R: Reactionary?

Here’s the Q:

I heard you speak recently on your UK tour and I greatly enjoyed it. However, the question I came away with was: if the whole church embraced McLarenism (for want of a better phrase) what would it look like in 100 years time, ie once it has passed through 3 or 4 generations? My concern is that a lot of post-modernist thinking has no internal structure. As such, it is great for those of us who are rebelling against modernism or conservatism. We have a traditional Christian structure, which, for good or ill, forms part of our fundamental core. Our post-modernism is inevitably built upon that. But what does your theology offer once the rebellion is over? Put another way, what happens once you have deconstructed Christianity? You cannot continue to deconstruct it. At some point, you have to build something again. These thoughts were provoked because you shared the stage with a Mohammed Ansar and it was clear what his vision was for the next 100 (or indeed 1000) years. He had no desire to deconstruct Islam, because he was happy with the way it was constructed. Indeed, his challenge was that Christians needed to be “more Christian”. Your response was that our identity was to bless others and to seek the common good. This is all great, but I simply could not envisage how your interpretation of Christianity would look once it had lost its initial impetus as a reaction against what was there before. What is your vision of a reconstructed Christianity? Perhaps I should buy and read your book!

Here’s the R:

Thanks for your question. First, let’s put aside a ridiculous term like “mclarenism.” I have no interest in that, and my original contributions to Christian emergence are quite few and minuscule, other than listening to many other voices and trying to synergize, integrate, synthesize, etc. Many, many voices are working together – some consciously and intentionally, some not – to deconstruct and reconstruct.
Second, I don’t want to speak for my new friend Mohammed Ansar, but when you say that “he had no desire to deconstruct Islam,” I imagine he might say, “It depends on what you mean by Islam.” I’m quite certain Mohammed would agree that all religions are “in the making,” in the sense that at every moment, they grow more or less faithful to God’s will. On the simplest and most obvious level, Shiites wouldn’t be completely happy with how Sunni or Sufi versions are constructed, and vice versa. I’m sure some Muslims are highly critical of Mohammed (Ansar, that is) since he is a leader, and leaders always attract criticism because they dare to point a way forward. I think you’re right that Mohammed is “happy” with the true essence of Islam … just as I am with the true essence of the Gospel. The problem comes when we naively think that one humanly-constructed version or embodiment of a religion perfectly and eternally captures that true essence. Deconstruction isn’t an attempt to destroy, but rather to disassemble that human construction so the true essence can reveal itself.
Jacques Derrida, the 20th century French philosopher, said it this way: sometimes we must deconstruct (unjust) laws so that justice may appear. You don’t deconstruct laws because you want injustice, but because you want a justice even more essential than this or that law promotes. (I think this is what Jesus meant when he said, “Do not think I have come to destroy the Law or the Prophets, but to fulfill.”)
Third, I’m a little disappointed that you perceived the evening as nothing more than deconstruction. In the US tour, I varied my presentations from night to night, one night focusing on “the historical challenge,” another on “the doctrinal challenge,” another on “the missional challenge,” and another on “the liturgical challenge.” The only one that could be seen as primarily deconstructive is the historical challenge. But in the UK, I hardly talked about the historical challenge at all … so I’m a little surprised that you would have experienced the night as deconstructive.
Like you, I think that deconstruction is not enough. I do think it is necessary, just not sufficient: we can’t make way for the new until we’ve cleared some space … but I would much rather be known primarily as a constructive rather than deconstructive theologian, and anyone who has read my books would, I think, agree that’s the case.
When you summarize my whole presentation in contrast to Mohammed’s, saying that I want nothing more in Christian identity than to bless others and seek the common good (which wouldn’t be a bad start, but is hardly the sum total of my presentation!) … it’s clear to me that, yes, I do hope you read my book! In the doctrinal, liturgical, and missional sections of the book, deconstruction prepares the way for constructive work of thoughtfully re-examining Scripture, tradition, and experience to articulate a meaningful, faithful, and generative Christian identity that could help us moving into the future.
Finally, I should add that your question warms my heart because my next writing project – in which I am deeply engaged at the moment – is all about that constructive articulation. I hope you’ll read it in July 2014. But for now, how about reading Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed? And I hope you’ll notice the subtitle too … and see how it is a book about constructive Christian identity. The project of articulating and embodying a more faithful and authentic Christian identity is huge. No one person can do it alone. That’s why your participation and help is needed. Again, thanks for the question.