Generous orthodoxy: A theological resource for a way forward

August 10th, 2017

I have an increasing clarity about a Christian faith that is generously orthodox.

The word orthodox here has a distinctly lower case “o.” It is about my trust in the scriptures, the creeds and the faith of the church. I am carried along by a great current of Christian tradition that is deep and wide, ecumenical and global, trinitarian and liberationist. It is a faith that articulates the cries of God’s people, that breathes life into a valley of dry bones, that endures weeping in the night but awakens to a joy that comes in the morning. It wanders in the wilderness, experiences the dark night of the soul, knows a peace which surpasses human understanding and discovers the empty tomb.

The word generous is about charity toward others in the body of Christ, patience with them in their own spiritual journeys, openness to the possibility that we see through a glass darkly and humility that we consider others more highly than we do ourselves. Generosity creates a space for reciprocity, giving and receiving. Generosity acknowledges a dark side to orthodoxy, one that draws too sharp a division and too strong a boundary, and in the process people who worship, pray, learn, serve and witness together are separated.

The phrase “generous orthodoxy” was coined by the Yale theologian Hans Frei a generation ago, and influenced a number of his students, many of whom would later teach at Duke, where I studied. Frei commented that “we need a kind of generous orthodoxy which would have in it an element of liberalism — a voice like the Christian Century — and an element of evangelicalism — the voice of Christianity Today. I don't know if there is a voice between these two, as a matter of fact. If there is, I would like to pursue it.”

Generous Orthodoxy is the title of a blog by the brilliant Episcopal preacher and priest Fleming Rutledge, who writes, ”We cannot do without orthodoxy, for everything else must be tested against it, but that orthodox (traditional, classical) Christian faith should by definition always be generous as our God is generous; lavish in his creation, binding himself in an unconditional covenant, revealing himself in the calling of a people, self‐sacrificing in the death of his Son, prodigal in the gifts of the Spirit, justifying the ungodly, and, indeed, offending the "righteous" by the indiscriminate use of his favor. True Christian orthodoxy therefore cannot be narrow, pinched or defensive but always spacious, adventurous and unafraid.”

More recently, generous orthodoxy is the title of podcast by Malcolm Gladwell (Revisionist History), in telling the story of a same-gender wedding in the Mennonite Church tradition, and how that community navigated the claims of received truth and expressed conscience. The story itself is narrated in a gracious way, especially given the medium of popular culture. In his own reflection on the events narrated in the podcast, Gladwell notes that “You must respect the body you are trying to heal.”

What great things God could accomplish if we rediscovered an orthodoxy in service of the healing (and not dividing) of our bodies, that is, our churches? Such a generous orthodoxy would help us not to become immersed in the emotional processes that pit people against each other. Such a generous orthodoxy would keep us from becoming stuck in cycles of harmful collusion and escalating conflict. Such a generous orthodoxy would know that the source of our capacity to be healed of our schisms is a miracle beyond our human power or goodness or intelligence.

I do empathize with those who do not see or hold the faith as I do. My way is not the superior way or the only way. I do believe, however, because of experiences, teachers, relationships and vocational calling that this is the way God has given me to walk.

Because my faith is orthodox, I can learn from and listen to voices many would characterize as moderate, evangelical, catholic and traditional. These theological streams have always been life-giving to me.

Because my faith is generously orthodox, I believe that the heart and soul of orthodoxy is grace. This grace is a broad, deep river, a wide reservoir of divine love, a fountain filled with blood that overcomes all of my resistance and rebellion. It is a grace greater than all my sin. And this grace is for all people.

Because grace is for all, a generous orthodoxy knows that God can never be tribal. The God of the Bible, the God of the Old and New Covenants, is never tribal. From Abraham to Ruth to Isaiah to Jesus and Paul and the Revelation given to John, the tribal is always an interim form of community on the way to something greater that God is wanting to do. At our best, and at our most biblical, we know this.

Please hear this confession less as an attempt to spin something politically and more as a statement of faith. I have been formed by Sunday School teachers and hymns, seminary professors and books, my conversion and baptism, family and missionaries, pastors and activists, by friends much more conservative and much more liberal than I will ever be. I simply refuse to give in to the idea that Christian faith and practice in the United States must conform to the same political and cultural boxes that divide us so profoundly. I push back against some of those assumptions and some of ways we label each other. Generosity persuades me to believe that the church (the United Methodist Church, the ecumenical church, your church and my church, the church that will be recreated by the generations coming along) has a better and more faithful future.

The recovery of a generously orthodox faith matters. When we are generous, we are not closed off from each other. This is for our good. When we are orthodox, we are not separated from the God who speaks, is incarnate and breathes in Scripture and in our own lives. This is our salvation. If we know the history of how God has moved for millennia over the face of this creation, why would we imagine that the renewal, reform and healing of the church would not be a recovery of how we think about God and how we therefore live in transformed ways with each other?

Kenneth H. Carter is resident bishop of the Florida Area for the United Methodist Church and a moderator of the Commission on a Way Forward.

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