Al Mohler has written a piece responding to Brian McLaren, who has stepped up to defend Rob Bell's universalism. Mohler's blog post calls this a theological conversation worth having, and I tend to agree with him.
But there is also a sense in which this is a conversation NOT worth having. It has to do not so much with the content of the conversation, but the participants in the conversation. In a word, it is very difficult to see how McLaren can even participate in the conversation in good faith.
Mohler points out that McLaren's view of language and communication results in interpretive "nihilism." That is certainly the case. McLaren does not appear to believe in hermeneutical "spiral." He believes in a vicious hermeneutical "circle." Since the interpreter is himself laden down with various biases, he cannot truly "access" the true meaning of outside communication. In a "spiral," the interpreter's biases can be corrected by the communicative language of another. In a "circle," the interpreter's biases cannot be corrected. This is, as Mohler says, nihilism. And, if McLaren were to be consistent with this view of language and communication, then even "conversations" are meaningless. How does one have a conversation with someone who doesn't believe conversation is possible? That understanding the language of the other party is futile? McLaren wants his cake and to eat it, too. He denies the possibility of coming to some certain understanding of the language of Scripture, but blithely thinks that he can go on having conversations, which presuppose the ability to understand the language and communicative intent of others.
What this means practically is that the authorial intent of Scripture cannot be ascertained, in McLaren's view. This is a problem, to be sure; but McLaren makes things, if were possible, far worse. In his view, Scripture is a "community library," an historical record of often-conflicting accounts of God. Thus, the concept of biblical authority is a non-starter. But surely conversations and debates among Christians have always rested on a shared concept of biblical authority. "To the Law and to the Testimony!" A conversation between one who believes in biblical authority and one who does not is not an intramural conversation; it is a debate between two diametrically opposed worldviews. It is not, in other words, a "conversation," in which two parties can mutually benefit, be sharpened, and learn from each other. In this debate, the two views cannot simply be "tweaked" here and there in confrontation with each other. It is an all-or-nothing affair, something McLaren clearly understands and articulates in his book, A New Kind of Christianity.
McLaren has no view of Scriptural authority. His view of revelation is identical to that of German atheist Ludwig Feuerbach, who argued that the history of Christianity reveals its "secret," the revelation of "theology as anthropology." In other words, all the Bible is, all that theological reflection is, is Man projecting his ideals into a transcendent realm and calling it "god." McLaren endorses this view clearly in his book; the Bible is just a collection of what our ancestors happened to think at the time. Their views are often wrong, grotesque, and, indeed, evil, and we are in no sense bound to them.
Can a Christian have a good faith "conversation" with a person holding such a view?
The person holding this view, as we saw, doesn't even believe in the benefits of conversation (hermeneutical nihilism), and doesn't share a concept of authority necessary to have the conversation.
Questions of heaven and hell, universalism and particularism, are indeed conversations worth having. They might even be conversations worth having with McLaren, Bell, and others.
But not until they leave their hermeneutical nihilism behind.