A Generous Orthopraxy?

August 3, 2011

Yes, that is a play onto McLaren’s well-known book which gave rise to fingers being pointed towards heresy, but this post has little to no reflection on McLaren’s book.

A few years ago conversations on “orthodoxy and orthopraxis” was quite common. The parts of the conversation which I enjoyed basically boiled down to the idea that orthopraxis (“right living”) was more important than orthodoxy (“right doctrine”). Obviously critiques came in stating that orthodoxy shouldn’t be read in such a narrow fashion, not to mention the various critiques from those who believed that the correct doctrine (narrowly defined as the thoughts we have concerning God) was indeed the most important part of being Christian. I generally found myself comfortable with voices arguing that in reading the gospels our lives as followers of Jesus seem to be more important than getting the facts and details right (thus the orthopraxis rather than orthodoxy argument as it was popularly formulated).

In the meantime the conversations has evolved, suddenly everyone went missional, the emerging label died a silent death to a certain extend, we have American’s teaching Africans about postcolonial theology and what have you more. But I experience a certain amount of tension growing with this newly discovered orthopraxis. More and more it would seem like we get a form of Christian boastfulness where some are “more missional” than others. “I feed more poor people than you” seem to be the new scale along which God’s favour for certain groups are to be measured. The idea that “we have found the real radical Jesus while you are still struggling with the old institutional Jesus” end up not very far from the many debated which we’ve seen over the past two centuries where various groups have declared themselves to be the true bearers of the correct faith, only now, the correct faith is equated with the correct way of fixing the world.

Annemie Bosch once shared a story of what David Bosch used to say during Apartheid. She gave permission that I can share it, although she hasn’t read these words, so mistakes in this paragraph are my own, but nonetheless, it goes something like this:

During Apartheid David Bosch would often say that in the struggle against apartheid, and in the work of transforming the mainline church and it’s relation to apartheid, we need to voices of Carel Boshoff, Johan Heyns, David Bosch as well as Beyers Naudé. Those who aren’t able to listen to the one, might listen to the other, and although they are voicing seemingly contradictory opinions, each in his unique way is contributing towards the end of apartheid and a just society.

This is no generous orthodoxy (in the strict popular interpretation of the word), but might rather be described as a generous orthopraxy. Tony Jones wrote a brilliant piece a number of years ago where attempted to describe a broad understanding of a changing orthodoxy where all role-players (I believe in a blogpost on the paper he used the words “from Benny Hinn to the Pope”, although I can’t find it) co-determine the definition of orthodoxy, and we remain open to the possibility that our consensus might change.

Within the complex reality of our world today it might be important to remain skeptical of the person with the “perfect plan for poverty”. Within the broad discussion of those who believe in justice for all we might want to recognize the role played by everyone from American short-term mission teams to Africa right through to Marxist analysts. Working with a fluid orthodoxy assume a robust debate, but it is a debate where we remain generous on who we consider to be a “legitimate voice” within the ongoing discussion. In our quest for justice, for ethics, I’d suggest we remain generous on who we consider to be partners on our quest for “right living”. This will require a robust debate, a clashing of ideas, but it assume that those I differ with are a necessary voice, and more important, a necessary body, in our quest for justice.

Annemie Bosch kindly rewrote the story to better reflect what was actually said, and agreed that I could add it here:

During Apartheid, David Bosch maintained that in order for us to attain justice for all in South Africa, we needed, in the Afrikaans-speaking section of our nation, the voices of Beyers Naudé, David Bosch, Johan Heyns, Carel Boshoff and Andries Treurnicht. Each of them was, in his own way, campaigning for a just society and for true equality and equity. Those who, because of their background and upbringing, could not hear what Beyers said, would perhaps be able to hear what David said – and so on, all along the line, up to the stance which A.P.Treurnicht took. So each one of these people, and others like them, were contributing towards a change in South Africa so that we could have justice and peace for all…. Which, even up to this day, we have not achieved. So once again we need the voices of many people at different levels of “the Stuggle for Justice” in the New South Africa. Let’s not write off those who differ from us in some or other way. Lets rather use our energy to do what our hand finds to do, and do it well. Let’s take hands and stand together against that which is wrong in our society – and especially in THE CHURCH – which is so much bigger than our little part of it!

Edit (3/8/2011)


Albert Nolan wrote brilliantly on how Jesus is not merely the object of our spirtuality, but was also a subject that stood in relation to God, and from whom we can learn about spirituality. The basic thesis of Jesus Today was the historical Jesus research has enough to offer that we can reconstruct the spirituallity of Jesus. Andries van Aarde built his book, Fatherless in Galilee, around the assumption that Jesus found a Father in God, since he didn’t have an earthly father, which also say something about Jesus’ spirituality.

But while this quest for finding Jesus, that prophet, the human guy, who walked around Galilee and Jerusalem roundabout 30 AD, goes on both in the academic world, and also with a growing group of Christians in pews, coffeeshops and slums, another group of Christians is opting for an extreme divinization of Jesus. As someone told me earlier today, in response to my saying that we can learn from Jesus how to live in relationship with God: “Jesus had an unfair advantage, he was divine”.

This is not a new idea, and probably we’ll find this underlying an interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) which says that the Sermon on the Mount was never meant to be followed, but to show us that we are unable to live as we should, only Jesus could follow that – it should remind us how sinfull we are so that we’ll turn to God, to Jesus. Out of fear that we’ll turn Jesus into just another moral teacher, we divinized Jesus up to the point where both the life Jesus had with God, and the way he lived, is something totally undervalued, ignored, and rather exchanged for a Jesus which is purely the object of faith.

I remember Tony Jones saying back in 2006 that our generation is the WWJD generation. Thinking back on my primary school days I could see where he was coming from. Although on the other side of the world, and definitely less extreme, Adam at Pomomusings probably did an accurate description of the WWJD culture of the time (I never wore more than one, but basically everyone in our school had one). Critique can be delivered against the idea, but in our 12-year old minds we were opposing the idea that Jesus was merely divine, that the way of Jesus couldn’t be lived, and that he’s teaching was impossible to follow.

How we’ve come to this point I don’t know. How we got the church so polarized I don’t know either, maybe it’s always been like this. But somehow I can’t seem to think that the early church ever thought other than that we were supposed to follow the example of Jesus. They talked about the son of God, and about us being children of God. They said that our minds should work in the same way as that of Jesus Christ, we should hold the same view (Phil 2:5). Trying to live life in the way of Jesus is not denying the divinity of Christ (oh how I hate having to qualify things like this, but I’ll do it since I know that some tend imply this), it is simply trying to reconnect with the thinking of the early church. I guess this is part of my attempt at a “Christology from the side“…

What determine who will come together in our conversations about church and God? I spent most of last week at the assembly of the Northern Synod of the Dutch Reformed Church (a much more positive experience than I expected, I must add), and we made quite a lot about different generations. They invited about 60 theological students which sat all over the place, and the facilitator stressed that we should listen to everyone. I tookpart in a dialog between me and my one collegue, where we talked about the changes which are happening in society, and stressed that the changes is much more complicated than people generally would like to know, and I linked this to generational differences as well.

But upon reading Attie’s critique on this generational thing, I realised that this is not what I really meant. I myself live in the illusion that a younger generation will neccesarily portray this single vision on the future of church. Reality is that I find more and more that what bind people together is not generational identity. So, here is a few things that I believe run deeper than generations, which will bind people over different generations, or drive people apart, even when from the same generation:

Top-down or Bottom-up theology: From what vantage point do you do theology? Is it theology from the perspective of the powerful, or the powerless? Most trained theologians come from the world of the powerful, from the societies with money, power, with a loud voice, and obviously most do theology from the perspective of this group (the most extreme example being prosperity theology). Some come from a society of powerless, those without money or a voice, and attempt theology from the perspective of this group, and some, although from the first group, attempt to do theology as far as possible from the perspective of this group. Those who attempt to do theology from the bottom-up, and those who do theology top-down, believing that this is the only possible way, might have a struggle to find each other, even if from the same generation.

Those who get it: In The New Christians Tony Jones tell the story of the emergence of emergent in America. Brad Cecil did a presentation on worldviews (find it here), and this basically divided the group into those who “got it”, and those who didn’t. What’s it? Do you get it that our worldview is changing? Some believe it is, others don’t. Some believe this change run very deep, other see it simply as a new way of communicating, or what have you. I don’t mean this arrogantly, as if some ain’t able to understand it, simply want to point out that not everybody like the idea of a change in our worldview. But OK, since most people are by now convinced that something is changing, maybe Doug Pagitt’s three categories of emerging ministry will help us here. First, those who do ministry to postmoderns, I believe will be isolating themselves more and more, since they will be attempting to evangelize or minister to the the third group, maybe even the second. Second, those who do ministry with postmoderns, will be like my Ethics professor who would admit that he ain’t a postmodern, but who listen to those who have made a more natural transition into a differing worldview (may I add that I have a lot more respect for those who admit that they ain’t postmodern, but are open to listen, than towards those who clearly don’t get it, but attempt to make as if they do). And then lastly, those who do ministry as postmoderns… I’m sure you can figure this part out for yourself. So, although this might sound similar to generational differences, it’s not, you’ll find all three these groups in both Gen X and Y, only time will tell how future generations will look.

Denominational differences I believe will become less and less of a determining factor. Many of the very influential conversational partners in my life I don’t even have any idea what denomination they are from, or what theological education they had. What I know it that we agree that we should attempt to do theology bottum-up, and that we have a gutt feel that we might be doing ministry as postmoderns. Many of the books I read I find myself differing on many dogmatic assumptions, and even find myself to be from differing generations, but when we agree on some of the above-mentioned, we tend to find each other.

What other factors would be more important than generation?

Year is coming to an end, so I thought I’d post something on blogs I’ve been following through the year. First, I have to admit, I don’t always get to reading blogs, so I like is if what I’ve read was really reallyworth it. Obviously, that doesn’t always happen, since it is blogging, and blogging is… well, blogging. And sometimes you just write, just to write, and others read it and think “what the hell was that about?”. And you just shrug and go on, and blog again, and think that “you know what, maybe nobody actually read this, but what the hell, I’m just writing anyway!“.

So, here is some of the blogs, the people who write them, and some of the posts I remember really having a profound influence. Now, this means that I’ve remembered that specific post since it was written.

I’ll start out with Glenn Hager. I don’t get round to Glenn’s blog that much anymore, but we started out blogging about the same time, more than a year ago, about the same stuff. I got onto his blog through wordpress tags, and we followed and commented on each others blogs for a while. He wrote this one post once, which I really struggled to find, on a woman named Kimberley which he met, just practical story on what we do with the Kimberleys in our society, with the poor, those with no hope.

Tony Jones was the direct influence that got me blogging, and although I knew about emerging church and stuff, he was the one that pushed me in a direction which I liked. His post on orthodoxy got me thinking, along with the article, which I found again (thank you google). He first blogged here, but recently moved to a new blog.

Then there is my good friend Tiaan. Constantly pointing out my English errors when  Maryke couldn’t get to the post first (that’s a full time job), and faithfully commenting just to comment. For the moment he is the only other student from the theological Faculty at TUKS actively blogging.

My dad‘s also a blogger, he is a missionary in Swaziland, and does a lot of work on AIDS. But one post that really stood out was this one. Telling the story of how the people from one of the little congregations in Swaziland was caring for a man, building him a home, although he was a drunkard, because they wanted to show him that God loves him. Wow!

I sometimes take part in the conversation going on at emergentafrica, although I’m a bit worried about the direction it is sometimes taking, I think Roger is doing some great stuff. Personally I think Cori wrote the best post which I found there this year, really challenging us to get away from the philosophical stuff for a while and go to what really matters. She also has her own blog, but only blogs sporadically.

There is a few people in this life who has really had some profound influences on my life. I’m not going to name them here, but many of the names you wouldn’t have ever heard, they are just people I’ve met somewhere, friends. One of them, Nadine, is also blogging. She is 18, and has been a great mentor to me on all things teenager.

There was a number of other blogs I’ve read through the year, but let’s stop here. This is the blogs, and especially the posts, which I immediately think of if I think of this year. Next year we will be starting a new blog, so if your an Afrikaans reader, look out for it. A couple of theological students from TUKS will be joining hands in a group blog teo@up, but currently you won’t find anything there.