Communicating across paradigms …

Hi Brian,
I’m not 100% sure why I’m emailing you this, I think perhaps its partly because there’s an excitement about doing something unusual in life and this is one of those things, but a friend of mine asked me about my views on you and your work (I tend to get asked these kinds of questions for reasons you might realise in the email below – or not, as the case may be) and after a couple of days and some more research I wrote her an email). I also sent it to my family, some of whom like your work. My brother also suggested I sent it to you for your thoughts because he said you like to reply to ‘readers’. Apparently you have replied to him before. Whilst not being wholly convinced that you’d have the time to respond to something like this, also assuming this email address is really THE Brian McLaren, I thought it worth an email.
So here’s the email I sent. I would be fascinated to know your thoughts if you did indeed want to respond as my brother says you will.

Thanks for the note. Just to adjust expectations – I can’t respond to all the emails that come in. Often, people ask questions that I have responded to on the blog many times before. But I do try to respond to questions/comments that come in when I can … I’ll intersperse a few comments below:

“Sorry I didn’t call, been thinking about Brian McLaren and things ever since we spoke today and I just didn’t feel I had enough collected and distilled thoughts to serve you well, so I instead I’ve spent some time tonight reading some stuff about him and listening to him speak and now I am happy to give you my thoughts.
First I think this is well worth watching: . Although I wouldn’t watch it till the end of this email because I think the last thing I’ll say is of direct response to it, and I think he says something absolutely vital in it which explains both why he is so controversial to some and fascinating and appealing to others, and all through the lens of, which I read that he writes in his latest book ‘how did such a mild-manner guy become so controversial’? I think he must know the answer to this and he’s naive if he doesn’t.
So my experience of McLaren is really from three sources only. One, I’ve read, and lapped up, a new kind of Christian a year or so ago. At the time I was feeling quite disillusioned with Christianity (ironically because I’d had an insight into the concept of paradigms and had immediately applied it to Christianity, the irony of that will come clear later) and although I don’t remember much of what it said, I enjoyed his thinking and questioning and there was nothing I disagreed with. Two, I have heard him speak at my church earlier this year. Three, I have spent the last hour or so reading a review of this latest book and listening to an interview with him, both by Scott McKnight who is his friend but someone who disagrees with him on some things.
So what are my thoughts? First I think his intentions are good and his desires are pure. He spoke at my church about what drives his work and he spoke powerfully about the state of Christianity both historically and today demonstrating that something was amiss. It was hard to disagree with that premise and it set him up nicely therefore to propose a new way of thinking about the Bible and Jesus’ teachings. I think this is both necessary and dangerous. I think when you take someone, in this case me but in general many people who read this work, to a point of dissatisfaction, especially if that dissatisfaction is real, personal and previously ignored or misunderstood, you can create almost a complete vacuum in that person’s head to fill with new ideas which may or may not be critiqued in the way that perhaps they should. In another form is the rebound relationship. I don’t think McClaren has done this on purpose, in fact I definitely don’t think he has, but I think he’s done it nonetheless. I think it helps to show why he’s work is so popular with a select group of the church today – the authentically dissatisfied who are tired and wary of abstracted and ‘unquestionable’ doctrine and a sometimes blatant disregard for the failure of some Western Christianity to make a real difference in both individual lives and the world as a whole. However all that doesn’t in itself say anything about what he does say, it’s just my observation about the position he’s in and, like I said, helps explain why he’s captured the interest of so many.
Second, and perhaps disappointingly for you, I just haven’t read enough of this work, or indeed the background to this work (I read in the review of this latest book and he says in his interview that a bit part of this latest thesis is that the Christian church took a Greco-Roman narrative of Gods and politics to mix into Jesus’ message in order to relate it to the Roman world at the time. I don’t know enough about cultural history to know if this is true or not, but immediately I thought of Paul’s evangelistic attempts that involved the merging of Jesus’ message with cultural trends to communicate well. Without supporting his argument especially far, it certainly gives a partial precedent and dismisses any notion that Jesus’ message couldn’t possibly get caught up in local and temporal culture), although Scott McKnight makes some simple and powerful critiques of his theory of an evolving God at the end of this (

Actually, my concern isn’t that anyone needed to articulate Jesus’ good news in the terms of the culture to which they were communicating. What alternative is there? My concern is that the message was substantially changed in the process – changed in the direction of violence, domination, exclusion, and abandonment. And I don’t argue that God evolves … but rather than our understanding of God evolves.

Third, and I’d watch the video before you read this bit, I suspect there is something very interesting going on in the conversation between him and his conservative critics and it is do this with the philosophical concept of paradigms (hence the irony referred to at earlier in this email). McClaren references this himself and I think he knows its happening but few others probably do. I learnt about paradigms being taught the philosophy of science on my MSc. In a nutshell a philosopher called Thomas Kuhn argued that science moves in paradigms. A paradigm is a set of beliefs about what exists (ontology) and how we can know that exists (epistemology). Whilst these are set, the paradigm is all that people can see. The beliefs become entrenched and anyone who disagrees with them, or research evidence that contradicts or challenges them is dismissed as being nonsensical or just plain wrong. For example during a particular period in the history of Psychology, known as Behaviourism, the idea the there was such a thing as free-will was outside the paradigm, so research with mice suggesting that they made choices was dismissed immediately. Paradigms only changed when a sufficient weight of evidence built up against one of the beliefs to make it fall (on an interesting aside I think this might be happening at the moment with religion and science. I think there is an ontology that there is nothing supernatural so even scientific evidence arguing for God’s existence is largely dismissed without looking and its merit). However you may ask what on earth this has to do with McLaren and why am I telling you about it? Good question.
If you strip away the scientific part and just take the idea of a paradigm as collected ways of thinking and assumptions, then you can apply it to understandings of the whole Bible. Like scientific findings, the Bible is full of nuance and complexity, there is no undebatable overlying narrative. Therefore it took many theologians (one assumes) to propose one. However this will include a group of assumptions and ways of thinking, therefore it forms a paradigm. Over time evidence, or in this case theological argument and interpretation, builds, through these assumptions and ways of thinking, to strengthen the paradigm, and thus its own assumptions and ways of thinking. It becomes self-supporting. Now, and this is the key bit with regards to McClaren, it seems to me from what he says in that interview, that through years of working in the conservative evangelical paradigm and years of asking questions, he thinks he’s found a new paradigm, and more importantly, because he’s walked the path from one paradigm to the other, he knows precisely why, and is very confident that he’s onto something. Now again you might be asking what on earth this has to do with anything useful about McClaren, and it is this. Such is the nature of paradigms, that put side by side they will find it remarkably difficult to communicate with one another.
Brian McClaren seem to have gotten himself into such a mental position that he is now entrenched into his new paradigm, rightly or wrongly, and his assumptions and ways of thinking are now different to those of the ‘old’ paradigm that he left behind but is now trying to communicate with. You can sense his frustration of this reality in all his answers in the interview with Scott McKnight. He almost never accepts the premise of the question, whether it be ‘do you believe this or this?’ or ‘are you being vague on purpose’ because in his paradigm the assumptions behind the questions don’t apply. This idea of being unable to express how you think or feel is not especially obscure or abstract. I think most of us experiences it at one time or another. We have an insight or an experience or a learning and we exude confidence and delight as we explain it to another. However our effusion is dissipated almost instantly when the other person just looks at you blankly. You might repeat what you said, in other words or phrases, but it just doesn’t translate to them. I think it’s because there are assumptions and contextual foundations within you that made you so excited that you yourself may not know but that therefore make your conclusions entirely obvious and logical to you. But the recipient doesn’t have these and therefore cannot possibly understand what you are saying, and they will never understand while your assumptions and context remain hidden, and they will never agree until they agree with your assumptions and context.
Another good example, and a more interesting one, is that of the debate around alternative lifestyles in society. I read a lot of the liberal media at the moment, not sure why, just do. A lot of the Guardian online and New Stateman online. Within those are a lot of debate about how religion is intolerant, sexist and homophobic etc. The arguments are completely sound mainly, they are logical and often evidenced. However if I, or any other evangelical Christian, got into a debate about these things, we’d just go in circles. But why? Why doesn’t one argument win out over the other? Because we’d probably debate on a level that ignored the assumptions we’re both taking into the debate (in this case the worldviews or world paradigms we hold). They hold that there is no god, and therefore there is no concept of a right and wrong lifestyle, and their arguments about freedom of lifestyle are strong. However I would argue that from a position that there is a God, therefore there is the concept of a right and wrong lifestyle, and my arguments about the authority of God over lifestyle are strong. However most people in the media don’t debate what really needs to be decided – is there a God with the authority to dictate the best lifestyle – but instead they debate the merits of each kind of lifestyle, thus going round in circles and just annoying each other, whilst both feeling confident about their respective positions.

I think you’re right about the difficulty of people communicating across paradigms. It can only work when people are willing to stretch and try to enter the paradigm of the other in order to see from within it. I think that’s in part what Jesus meant about becoming like a child …
BTW – I probably disagree with your conclusions on homosexuality, but not because I’m working within an atheist/relativist paradigm. From within deeply committed paradigms centered on Jesus and rooted in the Scriptures, good Christians are reaching different conclusions …

I fear I may have drifted from the central point here, but I shan’t delete all that because I think it is both useful to say and I like to show off how clever I am to notice these kinds of things. I shall however re-focus back to McClaren. You see that this idea of a paradigm shift inhibits communication unless we can really understand how different the fundamentals of the two paradigms are. And worse still, when McClaren goes on step further in his books and logically extends his new paradigm to its natural conclusions, which inevitably involve the cross, Jesus, the nature of salvation etc., he inadvertently moves the focus of those he’s trying to communicate to (well some of them anyway) to these things which are understandably held so dear. This therefore means that the debate simply circles around these issues, ignoring the fact that the resolution of whether McClaren is right or not will need to come from an examination of the assumptions of his new paradigmnot just it’s implications.
I think I may have lost you again there so I will try to simplify that, and in doing so summarise this long and rather in-depth third observation I’ve given. I think McClaren believes he’s found a whole new way of looking at the Bible, and I think this much is obvious, however his whole new way of looking at it is built on a reforming of some of the most fundamental assumptions of the traditional view of Christianity, and I wonder whether he’s not being very good at communicating this well. I mentioned earlier this idea that he’s walked the path from one paradigm to his new one, which explains why he’s so calm and assured of his views, but it also explains why others are finding it so hard to understand exactly what he means. To them he appears vague and fails to fit into their categories of understanding. The most destructive part is when his hidden or miscommunicated assumptions result in implications on theology held dear to conservatives, because it means that many of them will simply focus on these challenges and debate them at the wrong level, or more likely dismiss him out of hand as a heretic. The implications need to be ignored for the time being and the foundations of this new paradigm that McClaren feels he’s found need to be communicated better. Unfortunately my guess, again I’ve not read much of his work, is that these will be remarkably hard to communicate because language and communication itself is not based in a transcendent set of assumptions but rather specific assumptions of what words mean. McClaren referred to this himself when McKnight queried him taking aspects of the old paradigm to argue his own and McClaren said he felt he needed to to try to communicate his message, and if he’d been more skilled he might have been able to do in another way. He was borrowing language and metaphor (although all language is is metaphor) from the old paradigm to try to demonstrate his new one, but the language means something wholly different in the new than it does the old. However short of McLaren making up some whole new language for his new paradigm (which no one will understand because they’re interpreting it according to their old paradigm), this is all he can try to do.

You’re articulating the struggle to communicate across paradigms very well. Two quick caveats here –
1. I don’t think I’ve singlehandedly discovered something new as you seem to say a few times above. I’m one of many struggling and stumbling and (we feel) being led into a new way of seeing things.
2. My most recent book seeks to communicate as clearly as I am able the gaps you mention here. It’s A New Kind of Christianity – I think you’d find it helpful.

The conclusion to this is that McClaren may well remain vague to many who don’t see the underpinnings of his positions, offensive to those who focus on the implications and not the assumptions of his new paradigm, and captivating to those who have grown tired of the the current state of affairs and just enjoy someone who is thinking new things.

A good conclusion!

I think I will leave it there. In a funny kind of way, if you don’t understand what I’ve tried to say in that third observation (you may well do but you may well not) then it might actually support what I’ve been arguing, that it is possible to be entirely sure of the genesis of an observation in your head but be unable to communicate it effectively because you have not properly laid out the assumptions and context that make the argument coherent.”
I hope this email finds you well,
I feel like I should sign this off with some cheesy Christian phrase like ‘In Christ’ or ‘Peace’ or ‘Amen’, but I never do that to my friends so why do it now eh? Why indeed.

Thanks for sharing this – your conversation partners are fortunate to have a thoughtful person like you willing to think and share his thinking with them. Keep up the great work!