Two Frustrations with New Kind of Christianity

I’ll insert my replies in the text below:

I recently finished A New Kind of Christianity and appreciated much of your thinking, as I have in the past. In particular, adjusting our perspective on scripture from constitution to communal library, and also identifying stages of faith progression (quests/colors) over history. This framework of progressive revelation helps to make sense of things. Personal stages of faith development parallel this historical progression and these are described well in a older book by Fowler – “Stages of Faith”. Perhaps you are familiar with it. If not its worth reading.

Yes, I think I mention Fowler in the footnotes. My upcoming book on the spiritual life works with a four-stage developmental process that I’ve been developing over several years –

I did have two frustrations in the read, as I might guess others would have. I’m very grateful that in past books you’ve discussed orthodoxy and orthopraxy and the over-focus many churches have on the former. I’d agree. As you explored questions in part two, especially The Sex Question and Pluralism, your focus seemed to be mainly in the realm of orthopraxy: how do we relate / how aught we to act. But, there is the need to understand our beliefs in these areas as well, and I came away wondering on this. Practically speaking, yes we love, welcome, reconcile, but are we to understand same-sex relationships as a state of wholeness or brokenness? Churches are wrestling with marriage and ordination of gay individuals. Your example of Philip is great and new to this conversation. In this example, [the eunuch] was broken (God did not intend for us to be castrated) but wholly accepted. Would that be your view on the homosexual community – broken but accepted? As a Christian that’s sounds like a reasonable and loving understanding. From the vantage point of someone who’s gay, being told you are broken may not sound as reasonable nor loving.

Well, beyond saying we’re all broken, I don’t feel an intense need to say some of us are less broken than others. I know a lot of people do … and I know that I used to feel that way. But these days, I’m ready to just say “by the grace of God we are what we are” and dispense with deciding who is more or less broken. Gay, straight, rich, poor, etc., etc. – we’re all just human beings, all in need of grace. As one of my mentors used to say, “The ground is level at the foot of the cross.” When I’m with my gay friends and family members, I don’t think, “Broken but accepted.” I think, “friend, family member, loved, respected, and accepted.”

My second frustration was the absence of any discussion on atonement for sin. Yes, we need a new and “post-everything” understanding of the gospel. But in a book about Christianity, I’d like to hear something about your take on the work of the cross – Christ’s blood. I had to explore your Web site for some view on this and the best I came up with was Dallas Willard’s views. Maybe I’m missing it.

You seem to be equating or associating three things in your question: atonement, cross, Christ’s blood. There are a lot of assumptions behind that association that I didn’t address because when you move out of the six-lined narrative I describe in the book, and when you inhabit that 3-D narrative I explore in the book … well, things are just different. Of course, being reconciled to God, Christ’s cross and his brutal and bloody death upon it are, of course, deeply important and I do emphasize them in the book. But in my reading of Romans, for example, I place them within the larger context of Jesus’ good news of the kingdom of God. I suppose you could say that for me, atonement is redefined and placed within the larger context of the kingdom of God … while I know that for many good Christians, a theory of atonement is the main point, the center of everything, and in fact it is the gospel.
When people ask me about atonement these days, here’s what I often ask in reply: where do you primarily locate God on Good Friday? Is God primarily located with the Romans who are crucifying Jesus, or is God primarily located in the man on the cross, suffering at the hands of sinners? Many atonement theories locate God in and with the Romans, and I think, frankly, this is a serious mistake. When you locate God not in or with the ones torturing and killing, but in and with the one being tortured and killed, everything changes.

I am aware these types of questions have been a source of angst because many seem to miss the point (i.e. “a billion people live on less than a dollar a day” – orthopraxy), and are inquiring about questions of orthodoxy. But there is an intersection of the two. Be patient with us.

I appreciate your question – and your plea for patience. I’m reminded of another reader who recently wrote me about the difficulty of communicating across paradigms … and sometimes I’m afraid I don’t remain patient enough. It’s all quite odd really – from “the other side” of the paradigm, even the distinct categories of orthodoxy and orthopraxy begin to become problematic!* So I really appreciate your plea for patience …
If I can be very blunt about it – not to be impatient, but just direct and clear – I think that many people are so deep within the old paradigm that they don’t even realize how much it has formed them. (Of course, the new paradigm will equally form people – for better and for worse. I think that part of being like children, to recall Jesus’ words, is to seek to remain paradigm pliant – to resist “hardening of the categories.”)
People deeply formed by the old paradigm look at the new paradigm from a distance, demanding that it provide better answers to the questions deemed important within their familiar paradigm. So they need to ask questions about atonement, about homosexuality, about orthodoxy versus orthopraxy, etc., because their paradigm demands they do so. It’s a necessary part of the process, and I don’t know any other way to proceed. Each question perhaps loosens one nail in the structure of the old paradigm. But at the same time, asking each question gives the asker more practice thinking inside that paradigm, as does evaluating each answer.
It’s almost impossible for people in one paradigm to imagine that a different paradigm could exist that doesn’t simply give a “wrong” answer to the “right” questions they’re asking, but rather that raises a radically different set of questions from the start. That might not make sense at all, but I think if you stretch to try to make sense of it, it will help you take another step to at least seeing where I and others are coming from. We’re not seeking to be evasive or unhelpful (or even impatient) – we’re just finding that a different paradigm makes more sense of the Bible, of Jesus, of our experience of God and life … and from within that different paradigm, some of those old issues simply fade from view.
Paul may have felt this way about circumcision, diet, table fellowship, and so on. He understood why these things were still so important to his countrymen, but from where he was now, those questions just didn’t matter any more. It was a paradigm thing. (BTW – do you think “covenant” might be another word for “paradigm?”)
I’m putting up another email today “from Denmark” – I think it gets at this same challenge of communicating across paradigms….

Lastly, have you been in touch with Anne Rice lately? One of my favorite authors who seems to be in a very “emergent place.” I emailed her following her declaration of departing Christianity. I suggested she give you another read.

No – I haven’t. Thanks for emailing her – I hope we’ll be in touch again someday. We had brief email exchanges some years ago about her first book on Jesus – she impressed me as a sincere and charming person.
Sorry about these two frustrations – These replies may aggravate them! But seriously, thanks for writing. I’ll bet a lot of readers of this blog will greatly appreciate your raising of these frustrations, because they felt them too.
*By the way, here’s a footnote about the word “orthodoxy” from the book I’m currently finishing up:

Kenneth Leech offers this alternative definition of orthodoxy: “Orthodoxy is about being consumed by glory: the word means not “right belief” (as dictionaries tell us) but right doxa, right glory. To be orthodox is to be set alight by the fire of God.” Kenneth Leech, True Prayer, Morehouse, 1995, p. 11.