Monday, January 30, 2012

Emerging Conversations

A friend suggested that I read Church in the Present Tense: A Candid Look at What’s Emerging. Published in conjunction with the Emergent Village, the book attempts to participate in the “emerging conversation” within the church.   

I reluctantly agreed.

It was my own fault because I had recommended Carson's Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church to himAnd my reluctance was not because I doubted my friend’s book recommending abilities. It was due more to the fact that the whole “emergent church” discussion has becoming somewhat frustrating to me. I don’t have a lot of appreciation for the movement and didn’t want to wade through a lot of essays championing it.

And if that weren’t enough, the subject has become passé in many ways. I don’t know any church in our area that currently labels itself “emergent.” My hope has been that the movement will die off and the good parts of it will endure and the other, far more-concerning elements will fade away.

But two things struck me as I skimmed through a preview of the book. First, strands of emergent church philosophy—if the movement is cohesive enough for such a thing to exist—are prevalent even in churches that wouldn’t consider themselves emergent. Second, the book offers a valuable perspective. It is written by those within the emergent community to describe where they see the movement currently at and where it is headed.

I finished the book this past week and found it engrossing. It’s well written and some of the authors are trying to address the concerns that others have expressed about the emergent church. Some of their responses gave me hope for a continued dialogue and other responses caused me to wonder in what sense their theology could even be called “Christian.”

Here are just a few scattered thoughts.

Philosophical Realism

According to Kevin Corcoran, the philosophical realist is one who believes that things really exist. You might think that everyone would be a philosophical realist, but you would be wrong.  The antirealist believes that we simply create things like God and the world around us.  But the philosophical realist believes that “objects exist quite apart from and independent of the conceptual contributions of minded beings like us” (8).

Corcoran addresses here one of the critiques I have often expressed about the epistemology (theory of knowledge) of emergent churches. There is a tendency within the movement to question our ability to “know” things. Even those who might admit that there are real things in the world sometimes believe “we are simply constitutionally incapable of ever coming to know [the world] as it is, independent of us” (9).

This impacts Christianity in the following way: “As this relates to God, the idea is something like this: God is so big, so wholly other, and we are so small (or finite), that to name God as loving or merciful or gracious (or whatever) is really to create an idol; it always results in an unsuccessful attempt to domesticate or tame the untameable, to name the unnameable God” (9).

This postmodern take on knowledge leads “many emerging Christians to call for a Christianity beyond belief. The idea is that committing oneself to concrete Christian beliefs places oneself in the primoridal waters of modernism.”

To his credit, in this chapter Corcoran rejects this and advocates philsophical realism.

What is the relationshp between philosophical realism and religious experience? One might think that the relation is a loose one at best. The problem is that the relation might indeed be a loose one on one level but not so loose on another. For example, one might think that what is important is not that the resurrection occurred as a historical event but that Jesus rises as a subjective, transformative event or experience in the lives of his followers.

At the level of reflective theorizing, if Jesus did not rise, then those who claim to have been transformed by an encounter with the rise Christ are mistaken…. The point is this: if the event has anything to do with a rise Christ, then Christ must be risen.
I commend Corcoran for advocating this viewpoint, but it should raise real concerns that such a defense is necessary. When he writes, “one might think” that whether or not the resurrection really happened might not be important, of whom is he talking? Who wouldn’t find that important?

What is striking to me is that this isn’t someone outside the movement claiming that emergent Christians struggle with making assertions about the character of God and the historicity. This is someone within the movement.

What Can Be Affirmed

By far the worst chapter in the book was by Peter Rollins as he discussed the “worldly theology” of emergent Christianity.

Trying to contemporize Galatians 3:28 where we read that there is “neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” Rollins writes:

You are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither high church nor low church, Fox nor CNN, citizen nor alien, capitalist nor communist, gay nor straight, beautiful nor ugly, East nor West, theist nor atheist, Israeli nor Palestinian, hawk nor dove, American nor Iraqi, maried nor divorced, uptown nor downtown, terrorist nor freedom fighter, priest nor prophet, fame nor obscurity, Christian nor non-Christian, for all are made on in Christ Jesus (24).
It’s hard to know how to describe this paragraph, but the word “absurd” keeps coming to mind. Rollins takes elements that truly are consumed by unity (ideologies, appearances, culture) and combining them with things that Christ can have no part of (homosexuality, atheism, denial of His Lordship).  While touting humity, he is actually betraying arrogance in rejecting God's understanding of unity. 


In contrast, the best chapter was on the religious aspects of our consumer culture. Jason Clark provides an excellent example of how our culture has it's own religious demands:

Recently my teenage daughter wrestled with taking part in a dance club on a Sunday that would require missing out on the regular worship life of our church community. Her dance teacher felt no restrain in “evangelizing” her, telling her that surely she could speak to God in private; why did she need church? Wouldn’t church always be there in the future? Isn’t the dance club what’s really important? Her teacher, knowing that becoming a dancer requires learning the traditions of dance and regular practice with others, didn’t realize that the logic of her argument extends to Christanity as a way of life. How often do we become captive to this consumer training and liturgy, organizing our lives around the consumer imagination of what life is really about, relegating Christianity and church to a mere supplement, a cultural accessory? Indeed, church has become nothing more than a meaningless expression of private religious association or a private club. But what if church were not just one choice among many but an ultimate and final choice (43)?
Clark is right and there are important implications for the Christian to think through as we pursue Christ in a culture awash in a different type of worship.

Two More Thoughts
There are pages and pages on which I've scribbled notes on in the book, but two concluding thoughts come to mind.  First, there is no cohesive emergent movement.  There is a great deal of diversity and, as my friend and I discussed, it's hard to critique the movement because people can quickly claim "that's not me" as you level your criticism.

But, second, if you're part of a movement where you have to defend the idea of truth...why bother?  What does it say if large segments of the movement with which you self identify believe the resurrection didn't really happen, or it doesn't matter if it did or not?  Does 1 Corinthians 15 still matter?

Is a movement worth saving if one of the central issues it is grappling with is whether or not it one make assertive statements about the nature and character of God?

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