The New Orthodoxy

I’d like to make something clear upfront, here. I’m not completely orthodox. I have some beliefs that don’t mix well with older forms of Christian thought, even if they’re often times congruent with some of the oldest forms (for instance, I’m a universalist). I’m not saying this, however, in order to earn your accolades; I’m saying it because, generally, if I want much of today’s American church–at least Mainline and Emergent–to take me seriously, I feel I have to make such a profession of heresy. Heresy has become the new orthodoxy.

I don’t blame anybody for this transference of orthodoxy. I think it’s relatively natural. It’s a reaction to the strict Evangelical moralism and Five-Point Calvinism (if these could ever even be considered orthodox in their own right)that held tight grips over the U.S. for so many years, and under which some persons, congregations, and denominations place the whole of their intellectual stock still. Indeed, this type of intellectual movement–from “orthodoxy” to “heresy”–is precisely the type of movement that Hegel, in a much more metaphysically oriented manner, explicates in, well, the whole of his thought. Out of every position develops a counter-position, especially when that original position’s “common sense” seems to become “common non-sense.”

The good part of this type of position is that it has at least nominally rejected old labels, namely, of who is necessarily included and excluded from the church based on the particularities of their belief. Even if the development of orthodoxy, however, was vital in many ways to the cohesiveness and development of the ancient church, it has long been unnecessarily divisive, a way in which to exclude (i.e. hang or burn) those for whom one has, say, political problems. It often remains this way today, albeit, we usually don’t burn each other anymore. Accordingly, I fully support the rejection of orthodoxy, strictly speaking, as the criterion for inclusion in or exclusion from the Church or as a means of doing a violence at all. I’ll further add that creativity (which all orthodox positions were as they emerged) in theology is itself very helpful.

Heretics then…

…and heretics now. I’ll go ahead and take this one.

However, I think this new position also has some real problems. First, as I’ve already insinuated, this non-orthodox position can itself become an orthodoxy, both in upholding the trueness of its rejection of orthodoxy, but also in its rejection of those who still buy into orthodoxy. The first of these points results in the neglect of historically orthodox thought, namely, a study of the doctrines that people have found orthodox and why they have found them orthodox. This lack of study simply leads to a watering down of one’s identity as a Christian, whether one buys into the historical tenets of orthodoxy (whatever the period of study’s orthodoxy might be, because they have changed) or not.

Accordingly, it might be good to know that, for instance, Athanasius saw the necessity of Trinitarian thought for being able to posit any sense of salvation that Christ might offer humans, not simply or necessarily because he hated Arians (which he did). Everything rested for him upon affirming the divinity of Christ, whose union with humanity (Athanasius does not yet have the vocabulary of Chalcedon) makes possible the salvation of humanity—its deification—and therefore the meaningfulness of Christ at all. Take again someone like Luther (one of my all time favorite theologians) who demands, as part of the Protestant tenants, justification by faith alone. This doctrine was a freeing doctrine for him. That is, since it is only God who can give faith and, through it salvation, Luther was freed from the torments of sin found in his conscience which (rightly) told him always and forever that he was not good enough, not able enough, not faithful enough. Because of this doctrine, Luther found freedom to actually love, rather than despise, God for the first time. This list could go on.

The point, however, is that this knowledge of orthodoxy is important in understanding oneself as a Christian regardless of how one ultimately interprets these doctrines or understands their truth value; in other words, orthodox beliefs need not—rather, ought not—be rejected out of hand without some sympathetic understanding of the doctrines’ origins, meaning, and continuing relevance. To fail to understand these traditional and orthodox beliefs is to fail to understand the history, orthodox or not, of the church, which is to fail to understand oneself as a Christian. Granted, you probably won’t find yourself in the bowels of hell for such neglect (you probably won’t anyways, according to my interpretation), but certainly this point ought to be of concern to self-professed “Christian theologians,” lay or professional (I actually wouldn’t say that such concern is necessary for Christians uninterested in theology). At least part of the Christian’s identity is gained historically in the promulgation, reinterpretation, and repetition (a word that I’m using in Kierkegaard’s sense) of ancient beliefs.

The second point made above was that we, claiming orthodoxy in our heresy, end up rejecting the “older” more “primitive” believers in their continued value of orthodoxy as a criterion of church inclusion; I’ll withhold most of my comment. I think Dr. Phillip Clayton and the bearded Tripp Fuller are empirically testing the waters of what inclusion means and how far it goes in their Big Tent Christianity project. I tend to think that we draw lines of inclusion and exclusionsomewhere (after all, we heretics tend to be intolerant of intolerance, exclude the excluders, and despise those who despise persons beyond their own group, etc.), but I don’t know where, and I won’t say that we do so necessarily…or at least not quite. What I do know is that we can allow our own proclivity toward factually excluding persons–that we are always already excluding in some form– to humble us heretically orthodox, refraining  by means of this knowledge from the false belief that we are universally inclusive and tolerant (words made of gold for this particular brand of orthodoxy). At least this way, we do not merely pay lip-service to our desires for inclusion, we are simply honest with our inability to achieve such inclusion on our own.

Of course, this admission gives us over to an important Christian suggestion: that we don’t simply want God to help us but, in our sin, absolutely need God to help us. This statement, however, ought to make us all feel a bit uncomfortable because I can’t think of a more historically definitive and orthodox Christian stance.

Deacon Hall blogs on homebrewedchristianity: http://homebrewedchristianity.com/2010/11/08/the-new-orthodoxy/

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