Thursday, February 11, 2010

deconstructing mclaren

Mike Wittmer continues ...

The Defining Issue

Before I examine Brian’s next question, I think it is important to interact with the foundational thesis which grounds everything else he says in this book. Brian’s underlying point is that what Christians call the Creation-Fall-Redemption narrative actually starts with Plato and was adopted later by imperial Rome. It is this “Greco-Roman narrative” which generates the violence and oppression which Brian seeks to avoid.

Specifically, Brian says that the Greco-Roman narrative produced:

1. Dualisms, such as “matter/spirit, physics/metaphysics,
natural/supernatural, and male/female” (emphasis mine).
2. A Feeling of Superiority, where Greeks and Romans thought they were better than other, barbaric people.
3. An “Us” versus “Them” Mentality, where we exclude those who are not like us.

If you accept this thesis then everything else Brian says pretty much follows.

1. The
Bible is not our authoritative constitution because that would reinforce a dualism between God and us and enable those in the know to feel superior to those who don’t get it.
2. There is
no Fall, because that would imply a dualism between a previously good world and our present fallen one.
3. There is
no hell, for that would be the ultimate power play upon those on the outside, resulting in an everlasting dualism between the saved and the damned.
4. Jesus is forever the suffering servant and
never the conquering Lord, for that would split him into a dualism of sorts, with the returning Jesus playing the ultimate superior who casts his enemies into hell.
Other religions must be acceptable because who are we to say that we are better than them? (another dualism).
Homosexual practice is not only acceptable, it beats advocating “the Platonic dualisms in which maleness and femaleness are two absolute, eternal categories of being into which all people fit.”

Since Brian’s entire book hinges on this Greco-Roman thesis, I need to say a few words about it.

1. Brian
does not give an argument for this thesis. He simply says that it dawned on him in conversation that the traditional understanding of the biblical narrative came from the Roman Empire, which picked it up from Plato. Brian’s hubris here qualifies him for Stephen Colbert’s Alpha Dog of the Week. Brian’s entire book rests on his belief that Christians have confused the biblical narrative with Plato and Caesar, and yet he does not give an argument as to why this is so. We could just take his word for it, except that there is good reason to think that he is wrong.
2. The Christian understanding of creation, fall, and redemption
differs dramatically from Plato’s pagan version.
a. Creation: the Bible says the entire world, including its physical aspect, is good. Plato taught that the material world is evil (matter is the matter).
b. Fall: the Bible teaches that our problem is moral rebellion, with ontological consequences (such as death). Plato taught that our problem is ontological (we are trapped in bodies) and epistemological (we are ignorant of our true home).
c. Redemption: the Bible teaches that salvation is moral, with ontological consequences (e.g., resurrection). Plato taught that salvation occurred through education.
At every point in the story Christian orthodoxy contradicts Plato’s narrative. So how exactly does Brian think that our story came from Plato?
3. Brian’s explanation of the consequences of the Greco-Roman narrative looks very much like
a postmodern projecting his views (by negation) upon them (the great sin of the Greco-Roman culture was feeling superior to those who were different). With that said, I agree that we should not feel or act superior toward others and we should not strive to exclude them unnecessarily (though every meaningful set, such as a church, will necessarily have a boundary between what is inside and outside).
4. Brian’s
un-nuanced broadside against all dualisms is silly (there’s a theological term for you). I have written an entire book against Platonic dualism, so no one can accuse me of being in bed with Plato. But not all dualisms are Platonic. Even more, not all dualisms are wrong. Is Brian against all pairs? He would have made an awful Noah, with all those animals coming toward him two by two.

Is he really against a male-female dualism? Try holding that view the next time you take out your wife on a date. Is he really against a natural/supernatural dualism? This dualism is the foundation for everything we believe. Christian thought begins with the fact that there are two kinds of reality, God and everything else (creation). Brian’s point here is profoundly disturbing, and raises the question as to whether he believes that God is a separate being from creation. Is he
slouching toward a panentheism which does not distinguish God from this world?

This is a serious charge. I am not saying that Brian claims to be a panentheist, only that his denial of a natural/supernatural distinction implies as much. If he means something different, now would be a good time to speak up.

Finally, Brian’s book will persuade a lot of people because he uses a lot of Scripture. There are many biblical passages that speak to loving our neighbor and our need for unity, so the fact that Brian finds much Scripture to his liking is not surprising. However, discerning readers will notice the parts of Scripture which Brian omits or explains away (Gen. 6; John 14:6; Rom. 1:26; 5:12-21; Rev. 19:11-16), and just as important, weigh the likelihood that his fundamental assertion about the Greco-Roman argument is right. I have given several reasons to reject it, and since Brian supplies no argument for it, a wise reader will remain unconvinced.

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