Why Getting Plato Right Does Matter: A Follow-up on my McLaren Review

Sometimes folks who normally impress me with their breadth of vision and maturity ways of existing in the world slip into frames of mind that I can only call adolescent.

Now normally I try to be very cautious with “appeals to maturity” when I argue against positions.  After all, as someone who believes that nonviolence is more faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ than is the use of coercive violence in the service of this or that authority, I often run across people who refuse to articulate an argument that it’s good to kill people at the behest of national governments, doing the predictable end-run around the question by citing either my age (not so much as the years go by) or my profession in an ad hominem implication that someone in my station of life just hasn’t achieved the maturity to understand the “necessity” of such a way of life for Christians.  So I’m hesitant to call such things immature because I’d rather not be called the same.  Nonetheless, the alternatives that I can imagine right now (laziness and relativism) strike me as far more comprehensive criticisms, so for the moment, I’ll use immaturity to signal a hope that some folks at least might grow out of certain, intellectually sloppy moves, or perhaps that someone will explain to me why these moves are good ones so that I can stop hoping.

Now I should get to the occasion for this essay before I lose even myself.

When I wrote a review of Brian McLaren’s latest book a couple of weeks back, I figured that I would run into criticism.  After all, McLaren is a controversial figure, meaning that, like Stan Hauerwas or Mark Driscoll or George W. Bush, McLaren does not invite lukewarm reactions.  Most folks tend either to love him or to hate him, and someone like me who sees parts of his project as helpful and others as wrong-headed is bound to disappoint everyone involved.  (That’s the case in many situations in my life.)  What I didn’t expect was that a couple of folks (whose reviews of the book one can read here and here) took issue with me not for any theological content or objections to McLaren’s theological content but because I was overly hung up on getting the particulars of Plato and Aristotle right.  “[T]hat is to be expected, given his audience,” the former holds forth, and “[He] necessarily reduces some complexities,” the other adds.  According to these folks (one of whom I like a great deal and think a comrade, the other of whom is as of yet a stranger to me and thus not anyone who’s wronged me), there’s just not much call for an account of Greek philosophy that acknowledges its complexity; it’s enough, they seem to imply, for a book aimed at a popular audience and for certain polemical ends to nod to the possibility of a slight skewing of things, then get on with using the Greeks as clubs for beating whatever theological position one prefers not to hold.


My beef, of course, is not mainly (certainly not only) with these two bloggers but with the big cultural trends in which they seem to partake.  In the rest of this brief post, I’m going to try to address two common excuses that folks exhibiting the same trends give for references to other texts that become so sloppy that I can only call them name-dropping, and I’m going to argue that neither excuse is adequate.  Then, if my strength holds up, I’ll suggest a path or two that might be more adequate to a Christian writer’s calling.

It’s Too Hard

The sense that I gleaned from the two reviews responding to my review is that, in an academic treatise, the sort that eggheads like myself pass back and forth, there might be some place for precision in one’s citations, but in a book intended for a popular audience, one that’s likely not read Plato and Aristotle, one can use such names without much concern for what might actually be in the best Greek texts or even in English translations, using their names as code-words without incurring any sort of ethical responsibility.  Folks who are concerned with Brian McLaren’s big questions, after all, don’t care that much about such historical quibbles.


The fact of the matter is that such sloppy citations only work when the sloppy citation happens in a certain quadrant of possible sloppy citations, namely that in which the names are familiar but the texts cited aren’t.  The move derives its force from familiarity and its potential to evade a generally educated audience from the relevant texts’ unfamiliarity.  To demonstrate my point, I’ll cite an excerpt from the beginning of the section where McLaren starts to lay out his version of “the Greco-Roman narrative”:

“What we call the biblical storyline isn’t the shape of the story of Adam, Abraham, and their Jewish descendants is the shape of the Greek philosophical narrative that Plato taught! That’s the descent into Plato’s cave of illusion and the ascent into philosophical enlightenment.”  Some time after that, in a conversation with another friend, I realized it was also the social and political narrative of the Roman Empire, and so I began calling it the Greco-Roman narrative.

what we call Western civilization as the project grew from a marriage between Greek philosophical tradition and from Roman political, economic, and military empire.  Greek philosophy was energized by seminal argument between Plato and Aristotle. (37)

Because most folks educated enough to want to read a Brian McLaren book know who Plato and Aristotle are, the identification of one’s opponents with them bears weight, but since a relative sliver of that demographic have read either philosopher recently or carefully, he eludes those same readers’ ability to recognize significant deviations from Plato’s and Aristotle’s texts.  Now the dynamics of the moves McLaren makes are mostly invisible, and that’s why they work.  But if one does a brief thought experiment and substitutes for the familiar-but-unread names a set of names that are unfamiliar-and-unread, the rhetorical move loses its force:

“What we call the biblical storyline isn’t the shape of the story of Adam, Abraham, and their Jewish descendants is the shape of the Existentialist philosophical narrative that William of Ockham taught! That’s the divorce of ontological intelligibility from arbitrary relationships between signs and signifiers and the resulting political suspicion of claims to metaphysical priority for monarchs.”  Some time after that, in a conversation with another friend, I realized it was also the social and political narrative of the Dutch Enlightenment, and so I began calling it the Ockham-Spinoza narrative.

What we call Western civilization as the project grew from a marriage between Nominalist philosophical tradition and from Enlightenment pantheistic, faculty-psychological, and prosaic density.  Nominalist philosophy was energized by seminal argument between Ockham and Duns Scotus.

Of course, I realize that I rather butchered both Ockham and Spinoza putting that together, but most folks wouldn’t realize that, and that’s why such a move could still elude notice.  It’s entirely false that Ockham used the language of sign and signifiers, though a relativist could argue that he was concerned about the names of things.  It’s also rather strange to connect without any more than bare assertion the Nominalist tradition and the Spinozan tradition, but again, one could make the relativist argument that Ockham and other nominalists, by some winding road, ended up influencing the philosophical scene in 17th-century Amsterdam in ways roughly analogous to the ways that the Greeks influenced the Roman Empire.  I also realize that a fair hunk of the population, even those generally educated, will have no familiarity with or opinion on Ockham or Spinoza, and that’s why such a move would have little force.  The general reading public couldn’t care less what Ockham wrote, and my citation of Ockham for this sort of audience would be pointless.  To butcher obscure figures doesn’t do any work, so that’s not what McLaren did.

In another thought experiment I’ll shift it from familiar-but-unread to familiar-and-read:

“What we call the biblical storyline isn’t the shape of the story of Adam, Abraham, and their Jewish descendants is the shape of the Jedi narrative that Yoda taught! That’s the teaching that taking the blue pill will just leave people trapped in the Matrix and the fact that what we think of as the real world is really just a construct of evil robot oppressors.”  Some time after that, in a conversation with another friend, I realized it was also the social and political narrative of the Decepticons, and so I began calling it the Jedi-Transformers narrative.

What we call Western civilization as the project grew from a marriage between Jedi philosophical tradition and from the Decepticons’ tendencies to change themselves into jet fighters, mid-eighties tape players, and firearms.  Jedi philosophy was energized by seminal argument between Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi.

More people, I would guess far more people, would realize that I just butchered that one.  Many generally-educated readers would no doubt object that I’m attributing to Yoda what rightly belongs to Morpheus, that Star Wars as a pop culture artifact no doubt existed in the same world as Transformers as a pop culture artifact but didn’t flow into it in some necessary manner, that if I were to write a book based on these basic axioms, that book would be almost worthless even if my arguments ended up resembling something based on the actual films.  The reason is that Star Wars, The Matrix, and Transformers are popular enough in our moment that most people will recognize their names, but because a greater segment of the population, either through watching the films (or cartoons) or hearing folks talk about them, nobody could get away with this kind of sloppy “paraphrase” of their arguments, so that rhetorical move would be unable to elude notice even as the familiarity of the figures might potentially have some rhetorical force.

So I’ll repeat my criticism: McLaren’s move in A New Kind of Christianity only works if he cites well-known names who wrote little-read books, borrowing force from familiarity and potential for evasion from unfamiliarity.  And that range of possible coordinates on the name-recognition axis and on the text-familiarity axis, and the corresponding range of possibilities that exist on those axes, mean that those particular moves do indeed deserve criticism because he could have done otherwise in a number of ways.  What’s at stake here is not the difference between “popular” and “specialist” but the difference between writing honestly to and exploiting a popular audience, and that is an important distinction.

Everyone Else is Doing It

Unless I’m reading the McLaren fan base wrong, one of the most frequent and significant complaints from their side of things, whenever McLaren becomes a topic of discussion, is that McLaren’s critics (and Tony Jones’s and Doug Pagitt’s, in other texts I can recall immediately) focus on one or two “incidental” passages, defining the author by a phrase or two pulled out of context in an attempt summarily to discredit the author or, in some cases, to smear the entire constellation of phenomena known as Emerging or Emergent.  I wholeheartedly agree that such moves are bad-faith moves, and those familiar with my online persona know that I’ve written against such moves.

Part of the reason why I don’t abide such moves is that, whatever one thinks of this or that twentieth-century debate over authorial intent, most folks can at least agree that such texts make certain ethical demands on a writer setting forth to criticize.  In other words, if one makes claims about a text, one should state the content of the text in such a way that, even if the summary leads to a criticism (especially if the summary leads to criticism, I’d say), the summary itself stands as something others who have read the text carefully could look at and say, “Yes, that’s basically what the text says.”  Such an ethical demand is especially important when addressing a writer or camp with whom one disagrees strongly: in a system in which texts have no inherent meanings such an agreement is unnecessary, but in such a system, there’s no sense in criticizing this or that text’s meaning.  To say that this or that text is inadequate is to assume that there’s a there there, and to make such an assumption puts on the interpreter a responsibility to interpret what is there, not what the interpreter wishes were there but in fact ain’t.  Although one could easily point to dozens of folks who neglect this basic responsibility, as Christians I should think that such duty should be a minimum expectation.

“Whether or not it’s Greco-Roman, that narrative does govern some Christians’ imaginations,” some might say (and some have said similar things), and to that I reply, “If it’s the structure that’s the point, why associate it with anything at all?”  The answer, of course, is that by baiting certain unfashionable intellectual movements and authors, and by associating one’s (sometimes unrelated) opponents with those unfashionable movements, one scores rhetorical points without the hard work.  Guilt-by-association is a powerful and deceptive means of persuasion, and if there’s no real influence from Plato and Aristotle, then one should stay away from them when one tries to paint one’s opponents with broad strokes as proponents of some kind of Pagan Christianity (a book whose scholarship is beyond sloppy–I was almost ready to break my own rule about assigning bad motives when I read the first few chapters of that one) rather than taking the time to argue against the points that you actually mean to oppose.

If the theology is bad, argue against the theology.  Don’t allude to texts with which your familiarity is inadequate.

If the theology shows bad influences, show where in both texts the influence shows up.  Limit your criticisms to points to which you can point in this or that extant text.

If you can do neither, just note that your own emotional reaction is discomfort, and be humble enough to wait on someone else to articulate rigorous arguments.  There’s no harm in such an argument; if nothing else, it might inspire some more widely read but less intuitive reader to make the real, rigorous critique that the Church needs made.

Such sloppiness, of course, is neither new nor uncommon nor the property of Brian McLaren alone.  Certainly, as I noted before, opponents of McLaren often excerpt with no concern for context, intent, or any of the marks of careful reading when they attack McLaren’s books, and what’s more, sectarian literature (Protestant versus Catholic, liberal versus conservative, Calvinist versus Anabaptist) has a long history of getting the other writer wrong for the sake of scoring easy points.  But moral relativism is not an answer to such things: if anything, criticizing a real person should be one of the basic hallmarks of the way that Christians go about intellectual dispute.  That the other feller does it worse doesn’t mean it’s right if I do it with slightly less intensity.

When moral relativism comes to govern speech within a community, the truth-seeking about which McLaren boasts and seems to take as a necessary precursor to his “violet stage” of interconnection becomes impossible; the only work that a sentence can do in that sort of Foucaultian universe is to sway the arbitrary emotions and wills of those manipulated, and there’s no room to be concerned with more adequate or more truthful means of naming and analyzing and synthesizing and evaluating ideas and theories.  If “the other guy” does this, the proper response is not to be a more ruthless Machiavellian but to bear witness truthfully, to trust that our God (Theos or Elohim, I’d take either) is a God who vindicates truth when truth suffers from the machinations of duplicity.  Such seems to be a bare minimum of what we should expect from Christian teachers.

How Then Should We Cite?

As I’ve noted elsewhere, in my own practice, I try to invite the authors about whom I write to respond should they feel the need (and as Tony Jones once did on Hardly the Last Word) and to encourage other readers of the common text to correct my own accounts of things when I get them wrong.  After all, if I’m going to take issue with a text, I want to take issue with the text, not with a strawman that I’ve set up that only bears faint resemblance to the text.  To be honest, I think that this sort of caution sets apart genuine philosophers like Jacques Derrida from the sloppy “postmodernists” that claim to follow in his wake: for the former, the reading of Plato is always before deconstruction, while the latter crew too often satisfies itself with caricatures.  Likewise I’m far more likely to respond favorably to criticisms of theologians (even theologians whose disciple I happen to be) when those criticisms stand in relation to the theologians’ texts rather than sloppy caricatures of those theologians.  If there’s falsehood, bad faith, or other sorts of duplicity going on, by all means speak boldy, but let boldness and rigor fight shoulder-to-shoulder, neither waiting back at camp like Achilles, waiting for the other to die before picking up a sword.

Please understand that I’m not calling for a moratorium on using philosophers’ and theolgians’ names to signify complexes of thought.  For one, I’m just enough of an intellectual conservative that I think that sweeping moratoria are bad ideas in general, and for two, I use that device when I write (in fact, I’ve done so in this post), and I think that, used responsibly, such moves can be very handy for locating one’s own thought relative to groups of thinkers rather than singular books.

Please note as well that I would never deny anyone the chance to speak or write about God simply for having a tenuous grasp on the Greeks, on physics, on Chicago Cubs baseball, or on any other subject of intellectual weight.  God speaks when God speaks and through which vehicle God speaks.  I would be the last to deny any possibility for divine oracles.  I would, far less radically, ask that folks with tenuous grasps on Plato, Aristotle, Julius Caesar, Seneca, and other actual writers from actual historical periods refrain from gigantic condemnatory claims about “Greco-Roman” this or that.

(While I’m in the neighborhood, could some folks read some Bacon and Locke and Kant before making grand claims about “modern” or “modernistic” this or that, and contrary to my usual distaste for moratoria, could we keep glowing praises of Evolution at least on different blog posts from sweeping condemnations of “modernism”?  Okay.  I’m done.)

On a larger scale I do call for a shared expectation among Christians that, when we discover in one another’s writing that this or that use of a philosopher’s or a philosophical school’s name in sloppy manners, we should expect of one another quick correction, an apology for the oversight, and some manner of proceeding-differently in further work.  Nobody, not Brian McLaren and not Mark Driscoll and certainly not Nate Gilmour, should be above that expectation, and no audience, least of all an educated Christian audience, should be thought so worthless that they don’t deserve a basic level of historical caution and precision.

When I slow down a bit and think about why someone’s sloppiness with Plato and Aristotle offends me the way it does, it has to do with who’s writing to whom.  If Richard Dawkins proves entirely unable to understand Thomas Aquinas’s purpose in setting forth “proofs of God” (and he proves just so), I can smirk and note that the biologist who ventures to do theology often finds himself out of his depth.  Beyond that, sloppy arguments from militant atheists don’t do anything to sully the reputation of Christians’ ability and willingness to think carefully; if anything, they make us look rather good.  But despite some of his more adolescent critics, Brian McLaren does not hate God, and he’s not a radical atheist.  In fact, as my review noted, I think he’s popularizing some genuinely helpful theological movements, and I think that’s valuable work.  But in the end, that doesn’t excuse sloppy use of well-known, little-read names.  If Brian McLaren wants to make the Hegelian argument that he eventually makes, namely that a certain strand of Christian thought has evolved beyond Augustinian orthodoxy and provides a new (if by “new” we mean early-nineteenth-century) ways of going about being Christian, that’s fine.  I welcome such books, and I’ll criticize those parts that I read as especially Hegelian.  (Did you catch that?  I just made another name-reference.)  All I ask is that, on the way, we put away Pagan Christianity and other childish things, that we read like adults, that we set out not to hoodwink the other but to reason together.

15 thoughts on “Why Getting Plato Right Does Matter: A Follow-up on my McLaren Review

  1. I wonder if there isn’t a little confusion between those who objected to your review, and yourself Nate.
    It seems that what the objectors read you as suggesting that McLaren is inaccurate, and they are responding that he is as accurate as he needs to be. In other words they regard the question as one of effectiveness; has McLaren achieved his purpose? They thus regard you as mistaken about the criteria on which the effectiveness may be judged, suggesting that you are imposing specialist criteria where “populist” criteria are appropriate.
    However I understand you to be primarily concerned about the goods of excellence; in this case the virtue of justice. Misrepresenting what Plato and Aristotle wrote, (not to mention) the history of the Roman Empire is to fail to render what is due to Plato and Aristotle, as well as to the reader, in terms of honesty, and generosity.
    Sadly it may be that pointing these differences in evaluation may do nothing to persuade those who take a Rortian approach to the truth, since from their perspective the current contest will determine the validity of your review.

  2. Thanks for the link. I just wanted to make myself a bit more clear. I actually agree with everything you’ve said here. I did not mean to glibly dismiss McLaren’s philosophical and historical moves, they were just tangential to my post and I wanted to at least make note of it while pointing to a few folks that I thought covered the bases well (and better than I could).

    When I said that what McLaren did should be expected given his audience I meant that he (and other emergent writers) tend to get away with the same sloppiness as other pop theology/religion authors. Though I consider myself “a friend of Emergent” I find that disappointing, not mention it gives the whole movement/conversation/whatever the reputation for not being very theologically robust or historical erudite. To me, that is inexcusable and I’m glad that you and others are calling McLaren to account. They should know better.

  3. “If Brian McLaren wants to make the Hegelian argument that he eventually makes, namely that a certain strand of Christian thought has evolved beyond Augustinian orthodoxy and provides a new (if by ‘new’ we mean early-nineteenth-century) way of going about being Christian, that’s fine.”

    The aside is brilliant. It’s the review of the book I’d like to read.

  4. Thanks to all for reading and commenting.

    Andrew, I think you’re right that a Rortian account of truth-as-victory would consider my objections not only pedantic but probably entirely beside the point. That said, since the interior logic of McLaren’s text has to do with getting the Bible right and seeking truth, unless McLaren is using those ideas entirely cynically (I’m not ready to attribute that to him by any means), I think that my criticisms might well stand valid within his own rather than within Rorty’s logic.

  5. Blake, thank you for reading and commenting. I didn’t mean to paint you as the root of the problem, of course; yours and Mike Clawson’s links just got me thinking about a trend in Christian reading and writing, so I built the essay up from that occasion.

    Thank you for clarifying your point–given that yours was a critique of the Christian publishing world rather than a concession to it, we’re on the same page, I think. I do think that this is one of those places where Emergent shares some of the vices of the larger industry, though I too call myself friend of Emergent.

  6. Robert, you do have a way of finding my most petulant moments and highlighting them, don’t you? 🙂

    I probably should have written more on the Hegelian angle, but I figured the Calvinist blogosphere would pick up on that more than they did. That McLaren considers himself “more evolved” than his interlocutors and that he sees the “seeds” of future developments inherent in those stages’ contradictions reads like something straight out of Phenomenology of Spirit, and it’s a progressive view of history that I don’t share. I do think that dialectic reasoning is a mighty handy tool for doing history and for other pursuits, but I suppose I’m suspicious of that particular metanarrative. (Oh, wait. I thought the people incredulous in the face of metanarrative were the… no, it can’t be.)

  7. Nate

    The reference to Rorty was a postscript, the thrust of my post was that there does appear to be an apparent misunderstanding, by those who took issue with your review, and that misunderstanding appears to be a confusion about whether you were speaking about effective or excellent (read virtuous) communication.
    It is only if there is no misunderstanding, but rather a rebuttal that there are no issues of excellence at stake, only issues of effectiveness, that the Rortian postscript will apply. If that were to prove to be the case, then your remarks would by no means be irrelevant since whether they would be regarded as valid is yet to be decided, thus obliquely raising one of the pragmatic problems with truth-as-victory which is the elusiveness of a point in time when victory may be declared.

  8. Ah, okay. I suppose I’d come back and say, expanding on your point, that what counts for victory as well as when one can declare victory are both at stake, and I’d note again that, if one derives the criteria for victory from McLaren’s own evolutionary/Hegelian scheme, then what you label as “goods of excellence” (a very Macintyre phrase, so I like it) are in fact those goods that McLaren claims to be after, so getting Plato right does in fact matter.

  9. Yes, that’s the sort of review I was hoping someone else could write so that I could remain narrowly focused on Plato and pedantry. 😉

    [addendum, 3/7/10: Robert, I do have to admit a bit of amusement that at McLaren’s own blog, he refers to McKnight’s review not as “my old buddy Scot’s take” but as “the Christianity Today review.” I shouldn’t be that way, but I suppose one should confess one’s small-mindedness. 🙂 ]

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