So I have called myself Emergent in this blog for some time now. I dare say that anyone who has been around the church and is under 50 years old (and some who are older) has probably heard the terms “emergent” and “emerging church” without much explanation. Sometimes it refers to a way of worship that includes candles, eclectic music, and some alternative to a traditional sermon, just to name a few key features.
Now, I do kinda like music performed by those with dreadlocks. But that isn’t what I mean when I call myself emergent. Part of the reason there is so much confusion and complexity around the term goes back to the very definition of the term to begin with.
First of all, emergence is a term that comes out of systems thinking and some philosophers of science. I don’t know much about how this works in natural systems, but I can understand the concept. Emergence is a complex of interactions between simpler things which causes the appearance of something(s) which is greater than the sum or difference of the parts. Not knowing much about the other philosophies, I will just go straight to the church discussion.
Emergent, at least in one form of the definition, would describe people who believe that the truth of the Christian gospel and the Church comes out of the interaction of a multitude of traditions, not simply one tradition expounded well. Emergents generally do not want to believe that either Roman Catholicism nor Reformed Presbyterianism nor Tibetan Buddhism is a full and complete system of thought without error. Neither is Keynesian economics nor philosophical naturalism.
The natural outworking of this theory is a kind of Christian pluralism which is steeped in the various Christian traditions. Because I am not convinced that my pentecostal heritage is without error, I also intentionally worship with and engage the thought of Roman Catholics and Methodists and Lutherans. This is a new kind of ecumenism, but on somewhat different grounds than the previous versions of ecumenism. The previous ecumenical movement which is now represented by the World Council of Churches and similar bodies imagined that Christianity would be better represented by the various churches’ lowest common denominator. This new brand of emergent ecumenism encourages each Christian or church to fully embrace the complexities of their own system of thought, but to do so in dialogue with other Christians and even those outside of confessing Christian faith. Most of this comes from the disillusionment with the previous generation of leaders’ theological arrogance. This move is perceived to be an act of intellectual and spiritual humility, I think.
I think this humility is a good thing. But for me, the reason for such an approach comes directly out of my pentecostal heritage. Pentecostals embrace a “prophethood of all believers” perspective which considers every Christian to potentially speak the very words of God to the church. The church is then charged with a discernment process whereby the community will determine whether what they have heard are the words of God. Usually this discernment is an informal process and even occurs simultaneously in worship as the pastor, elders, and congregation lift their hands and hearts approvingly after the prophetic word and thank God for speaking. On one or two occasions in my pentecostal life, I have had a leader come to the front of the congregation and explain that they did not believe God had spoken through such a word. For me, being emergent is embracing this process throughout the Christian dialogue, even with voices that rub us the wrong way. The theory of emergence would tell us that the words of God which come from others have the potential to communicate truth to us.
Now this can go in two directions that I think are problematic. The first is a Christian pluralism that becomes little more than pluralism from a Christian perspective. I do not happen to think that Christians can learn as much from Buddhists or Muslims as they can from other Christians. There may be things we can learn from other faiths, but I would prefer to say that we are listening for the lost voice of earlier forgotten Christians among our brothers and sisters of other faiths. There are certainly some emergent-types who are ready to embrace everyone as if all truth is relative. I happen to think Christianity is the one true religion, I am just not sure that my interpretation of Christianity is completely true. I do think there is “absolute truth”, for whatever that term is worth, I just don’t think I have it. I do happen to think I am pretty close to it, or I would change my opinion to something closer to what I think is true. That is the reason for the dialogue.
While some emergents are ready to chuck the idea of truth beyond some subjective “true for you” concept, I think that is pretty ridiculous. Only a very small segment of philosophers and a great deal more literature academics ever really bought this concept, but someone forgets to tell that to every class of freshman undergraduates. People like Derrida and Foucault really buy it. At least if I understand Derrida, he buys it. But I don’t think even Derridians live that way. It is non-sensical. But the theories keep getting repeated in discussions by non-philosophical types over and over until people think it actually has some logical weight. I don’t think it does.
The other direction which is problematic is what I would call a spiritual consumerism. Here the problem is that emergent types think that they can just pick and choose which elements of the Church’s tradition that they want to select out for recovery. Labyrinths and cathedrals and deification are cool. Original sin and substitutionary atonement and conservative sexual practices are not cool. Now, I think we should only adopt that of the Christian tradition which we find to be truthful and life-giving and we should reject what should be rejected. And I don’t think that the whole tradition is without error or messiness. Honestly, I don’t have any good criteria by which we should engage the tradition critically and not become consumers who simply choose what is bright and shiny and reject our spiritual peas and carrots. I just know that I get nervous when I hear emergent types talking about Lectio Divina, but not talking about hell and evangelism.
So, that is my take on emergent and emerging church. Maybe I will write a follow-up post on the practical implications for the church. For now, this will do.
But, of course, if emergent is really a conversation which produces truthful dialogue, then you all need to comment and tell me what you think I have said truthfully and what I have said that is not quite there.