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Call for ‘generous orthodoxy’

24 May 2013

Martyn Percy looks at a view of Christianity amid other faiths

Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road? Christian identity in a multi-faith world
Brian McLaren
Hodder & Stoughton £12.99
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A TUTORIAL question, sometimes set for students at Cambridge in the study of religion paper, was to sketch some of the connections that might link Moses, the Buddha, Mohammed, and Jesus. For one mark, you could say they are all great religious leaders. For a few more marks, one might be able to draw some parallels in their teachings. And for one or two more marks, one could perhaps compare and contrast their active ministries as adults.

But there is also something stranger that connects them. They are all adopted. Moses was abandoned by his birth mother and left to float in a small coracle in the River Nile, and was picked up by the daughter of one of the Pharaohs, and nurtured as one of her own. Mohammed was orphaned at the age of six, or perhaps earlier, and was brought up by his uncle in the ancient city of Makka. The Buddha's mother died when he was less than a week old, and he was raised by her sister. Jesus, of course, according to Christian orthodoxy, is not exactly the child of Joseph. Although Mary is clearly his mother, Joseph is not his biological father.

When most people think about adoption, it is a habit of the heart to believe that it is the child who has somehow been rescued, and that the adopted parents are the redeemers. One of the more extraordinary things about the world's great religions, however, is that this equation is turned around - as most things are in religion - so that the adopted child becomes the redeemer, or the gift.

This is particularly true in Christian thinking, where orthodoxy teaches a kind of double adoption: in return for our adoption of Jesus, we are ourselves adopted into the life of God. Moreover, the adoption is what we might term a "cross-border risk". Here, Mary and Joseph both take a risk: "Mary said to the angel, 'How can this be, since I have not known a man?'" (Luke 1.34). But, in Mary's acceptance of something alien, rejection is avoided, and hospitality and love are shown instead. Hospitality, love, and redemption are, in turn, bestowed on humanity through God in Christ.

In this accessible and thought-provoking book, Brian McLaren sets out his stall on the foundations that he has already laid with his appeal for "generous orthodoxy". The term itself has become synonymous with forging a new rallying point for Christians who have moved between the tribal proclivities that shaped their earlier spiritual identity.

McLaren appeals strongly to post-Evangelicals, liberal Catholic Anglicans, and other emerging groups - any, in fact, that want to remain orthodox, and yet also seek to remain open and generous in their ecclesiology and theology to what God has done and is doing outside their immediate tradition. The key issue, then, with a book on interfaith relations, is how the generosity and reciprocity can be practised, Christian identity yet remaining strong.

McLaren has a sure, deft touch in his writing. He draws on the work of Rob Bell, Love Wins (2011), which despite its enormous appeal remains controversial for Evangelicals. McLaren, espousing a consistent and generous orthodoxy, argues that Christians have nothing to fear from engaging with other faiths, but much to gain and learn. His stories, reflections, vignettes, and case-studies build a persuasive case - and, to that extent, this would be an excellent book to give to those thinking through interfaith issues.

The book ends with a touching and eloquent crystallisation of Gandhi's advice to those Christian missionaries who sought to convert him from Hinduism. First, live more like Jesus. Second, don't try and tone your faith down. Third, remember that we are all united by love. Fourth and finally, treat those who don't believe as you do with real generosity.

As I suspect McLaren knows, Christian living like this - in the midst of all the challenges presented by our multifaith culture - can lead us only to a rich and generous orthodoxy.

Canon Percy is Principal of Ripon College, Cuddesdon, and the Oxford Ministry Course, and Professor of Theological Education at King's College, London.

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