A Nearly Forgotten Exemplar of Generous Orthodoxy

estanleyjonesLike a number of other words, “orthodoxy” (or “orthodox”) has become a fighting word.  People who call themselves “orthodox” (as I do) get taken to task by others suspicious of our motives.  Apparently, we are hellbent to impose our narrow, outmoded, beliefs on others and either force them to capitulate or force them out of the church.  Apparently, what we “really” want is power, power over others.  The consistency with which I hear this rejoinder in debate reminds me of the old adage that, to a hammer, everything looks like a nail.  It also calls to mind Jimmy Swaggert’s harangues about sexual immorality.   Turns out he knew that problem up close and personal.  Those who see illicit power moves in every attempt to talk about the importance of Christian orthodoxy may be too interested in power themselves.

We should remember that not that many years ago Brian McLaren wrote a book by the title A Generous Orthodoxy.  He thinks it is quite possible to be both orthodox and gentle.  I realize that it has been a few years since he wrote that book and McLaren has moved on to other concerns.  But the reality of generous orthodoxy is still with us and it has been around a long time.  So, while I acknowledge (again) that people can use doctrine in abusive ways (a problem not limited to the orthodox, but certainly some orthodox are guilty), in this post I want to (re)introduce folk to a grand exemplar of generous orthodoxy.  His name is E. Stanley Jones and he is likely American Methodism’s most famous missionary.

Jones was born in 1884 and died in 1973.  He was a missionary in India and while there developed some very unusually effective means to engage people in conversations about Christ.  Jones believed Christ was there in India long before he (Jones) arrived and that Christ was fully capable of bringing people to himself.  He wrote a number of very profitable books, one of which I want to use as but one example of Jones’ generous orthodoxy.  The book is titled Christ at the Roundtable, published in 1928.

The introduction names what seems to be a perennial challenge:

Until a few years ago the usual attitude toward other faiths and cultures was criticism and lack of appreciation.  Now the pendulum has swung back the other way to an attitude on the part of many of unqualified approval or to the attitude that all faiths are more or less the same.  The time has now come for an attitude…of appreciation with appraisal (emphasis added).  But this evaluation must not be merely intellectual, it must be deeply experimental.  What does religion bring in experience?  What is its value for life?

“Appreciation with appraisal:” this phrase captures two necessary attitudes.  We can appreciate the convictions and honest critiques of those with whom we disagree.  We remain open-minded, willing to learn, epistemically humble.  That’s the generous part.  But we also evaluate.  We assess.  We appraise, to use Jones’ word.  Anyone who has an opinion about anything has done some appraising.  It is an inevitable part of human relations.

I offer an odd case in point.  A recent article in The Guardian narrates a controversy in the  United Church of Canada over whether an atheist pastor, Greta Vosper, should continue serving her congregation.  She has come to the conclusion that “God” is a metaphor for good, for justice and compassion.

The Toronto conference of the United Church has decided it must carry out a review to see whether Vosper “was being faithful to her ordination vows.”  Appraisal.  But Ms. Vosper has something to say about the matter,too.  The article says that she considers this review “a betrayal.”  Her response: “I’m a product of the United church. It taught me to critique the Bible as a human construction … This means everything that it says is up for grabs, including God.”  She is doing some appraising of her own.

In each appraisal, a set of beliefs, though not specified (except a reference to Vosper’s saying in her ordination service that she believed in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in a metaphorical sense), stand behind the debates.  As a nontheist, Vesper has a view of reality that can be described in a set of propositions.  We could easily find a community of shared beliefs for her.  The United Church of Canada, though known as a very progressive and open denomination, apparently has a set of beliefs, too.  Someone’s orthodoxy is at stake.  You cannot be an atheist and a Trinitarian Christian at the same time.  At least not logically.

To be generous (“appreciative”) and orthodox (“appraising” according to a set of beliefs – inevitable) is exactly what Jones embodied.  He invited (often) the elite and best educated of India to talk of their experience of God or religion.  He tells this story in Christ at the Round Table.  Christians were invited to share their experience of Christ.  Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, the same.  No debates.  No criticisms.  Just narratives of experience.  And Jones came away with the even stronger conviction that the Christ we find in scripture is real.  He is the Savior who is Life itself and who transforms life.  Orthodox.  Generous.

Jones’ definition of being Christian: “A Christian is one who through faith in and fellowship with Christ, is becoming Christlike in character.  [The Christian] represents nothing less than a new species of being.” (75)  Later, in describing the goal his evangelistic work, Jones says, “We defined our evangelistic objective in this way: The production of Christlike character, through faith in and fellowship with Christ the living Savior, and through corporate sharing of life in a divine society.” (185) “Christlikeness is the goal.” (186)  Followers of Jesus should exemplify the openness of Jesus.

Because Jones talks so much about experience (see chapter 7, “The Trend Toward Experience”) and the “experimental,” (we probably would say “experiential” today) it would be easy to extract from his writing the conclusion that he thought experience was paramount.  In one sense it is, but not untethered from what we might call tradition, though Jones uses the word “historical.”  To that point Jones had this to say:

There is a danger of cutting the experimental from the historical.  If the connection is cut, or held too loosely, there is invariably a withering of the experimental.  As one has illustrated: It is like the kite that tugs at its string to get loose in order to find greater freedom to fly higher, breaks the string, and instead of flying higher comes down with a thud.  I think experience will show that the experimental must keep in close touch with the historical Christ in order to remain experimental. (157)

E. Stanley Jones had a very orthodox view of Jesus Christ, even though he did not get into the minute nuances of Christology.  He knew by experience that Jesus Christ changes lives.  The Bible was Brother Stanley’s guide.  He today would be considered a very traditional, orthodox believer, albeit an incredibly influential one, one who’s life demonstrated the power of the life surrendered to Christ.

He was also expansively open to people of all faiths and of no particular faith.  Generous.  Orthodox.  Both.

If you would like to know more about E. Stanley Jones, I invite you to visit the web site of the United Christian Ashrams.  You’ll be able to see the books and booklets that Jones wrote and get to know a bit about his lasting legacy.

If you think “orthodox” means narrow, mean and power-hungry, I invite you to study Brother Stanley’s life.  And maybe look around for others like him.  They do exist.

 

About Stephen Rankin

Professionally I am an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. I currently serve as University Chaplain at Southern Methodist University. Personally I am married to Joni and we have four grown children and four grandchildren. You can find my personal thoughts on this site, as well as on twitter at @stephenwrankin.

Comments

  1. Your discussion of Appreciation with Appraisal is thoughtful and appreciated. However, in the current climate of the UMC is that possible? At CG 2016 we either change the Discipline to allow practicing homosexual ordination, and marriage privileges, or we don’t. What middle ground is there short of dividing the denomination? I try to read and listen with appreciation for opposite views, but like many others, I believe appraisal comes to the point where the integrity of scripture is a stake. Are all things open to varying opinions such as Greta Vosper’s atheism in the pulpit? At what point are we simply guilty of heresy by calling ourselves Christian and discarding the fundamentals of the Christian faith?

    • Regarding the debates about sexual expression, I think your point is well taken that, for the church to find a consistent ethic, we have an either-or situation. Either we will do same sex marriages, etc., or we won’t. There is no middle ground, because the question has to do with policy/practice.

  2. In January, 1981, I was sitting in the library of West Market Street UMC eating my lunch (my law office was right across the street) when a silver-haired gentleman in the thickest three-piece blue-black pinstripe suit I’ve ever seen, watch and all, strolled into the library walked in and introduced himself: “D. Elton Trueblood here, young man. What’s your ministry?” Trueblood (I had no idea who he was) was in town for a “pastoral call” on our then Senior Minister, Ernest Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald was walking from his office to the receptionist and saw Trueblood in the library. The two men were gracious enough to sit down with this clueless young lawyer and begin their conversation. I remember Ernest asking Dr. Trueblood if he had known E. Stanley Jones. I cannot remember anything Trueblood said, but I remember sensing that Jones must have been a remarkable man who was compelling in his Christlikeness.

    Thanks for reminding us that vital fellowship with the living Lord must be our constant passion.

    Jim Lung

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