According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater
Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger
Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton
I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – anon
Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut
Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest
People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – anon
Certainly God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater
An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater
Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton
The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – anon
The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul
The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah
If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer
God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – anon
Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson
We can’t control God; God is uncontrollable. God can’t control us; God’s love is uncontrolling! - Thomas Jay Oord
Life in perspective but always in process... as we are relational beings in process to one another so life events are in process in relation to each event... as God is to Self, is to world, is to us... like Father, like sons and daughters, like events... life in process yet always in perspective. - R.E. Slater

Monday, July 25, 2011

Why Emergent Christianity IS NOT Liberal Denominationalism!

by Roger Olson
July 25, 2011

The following is a guest blog post by Brandon Morgan, one of the organizers and leaders of the Void Collective. Brandon is a seminary student and participant in an emergent church who has attended various emergent church conferences and meetings.

Brandon’s guest post (unedited):

I just got back from a tiring drive to North Carolina where a group of my friends and I performed an event at the Wild Goose Festival-a self-proclaimed community combining the various impulses of art, justice and spirituality that reside within Emergent and Progressive Euro-American Christianity. I have been conversant with and engaged in the Emergent conversation for a few years now, mostly dealing with the philosophical shifts within post-evangelical emergent types. I have to say initially that I was raised in a Southern Baptist family who were confessedly conservative politically and theologically. And because it is vitally important that the terms "conservative" and "progressive" be defined within a specific context, I will say that the conservative proclivity dominant within my nascent Christian spiritual journey commonly held anti-gay, pro-life views mixed with inerrant views of scripture and complimentarian views of gender in family and ministry. This will sound familiar to most evangelicals, even though many self-confessing evangelicals refute these views.

I generally have qualms with much of the political and theological conservatism rampant within conservative evangelical circles. I don't feel, however, that i have much at stake in the conversation about evangelicalism, its definition, its life or death, and its connection to right-wing political policies. I do, however, have a stake in the direction of the church in America and where the Emergent folks fit in to that conversation. I have this stake because I am a Christian in America and I am fairly conversant and sympathetic with Emergent forms of American Christianity. For a while, I saw Emergents struggling to recover from their fallout with fundamentalist Christianity. Emergents wanted to be as socially engaged as some of the folks they saw in the Mainline denominations. I am sympathetic with the concerns and criticisms of conservative evangelicalism and the way this group so readily conflated Christianity with right wing political agendas. The Emergent folks eventually wanted to become, post-conservative, or post-evangelical in light of their fallout with the conservatism in their evangelical past. This need to redefine the church in America apart from conservative evangelicalism has sort of left the direction of Emergent types up for grabs. They pledge to no center, institution or affiliation. They have no infrastructure and no money. Their strive for authenticity has lead to a number of attempts to reshape the church in America (and across the pond as well) in ways that transcends the evangelical-mainline divide. (I use "mainline" perhaps unhelpfully to describe denominations who align themselves with left-wing political views and who find themselves within an American form of the tradition of liberal theology begun in 17th century Germany).

Upon returning from the Wild Goose festival, I felt that the festival was, among others things, a blatant attempt to show how well Emergent folks and mainline folks get along (particularly regarding the LGBTQ community) and how they generally have the same enemies (conservative evangelicals). (Typologies are not necessarily helpful, but they will have to do here). If Emergent folks initially sought to bring together the evangelical emphases of conversion, scripture and discipleship with the progressive emphases of social justice, inclusion, and theologically progressive approaches to Christian doctrine (which, we must admit, often amounts to a covert denial of many traditional forms of those doctrines), then the question is: have Emergent folks succeeded in transcending the evangelical-progressive division in American Protestantism. Have they formulated a holistic theological approach able to include the benefits of both sides and jettison the negative aspects? Some may question whether this is actually the goal of Emergent folks. If this is not their goal, at least peripherally, then my personal understanding of being involved with the Emergent conversation is perhaps questionable. But more importantly, if this is not at least a tertiary goal, then my question is: why haven't Emergent folks joined the mainline denominations? Why have the negatives of evangelicalism been so easy to describe and virulently rebuke, while the negatives of the mainline denominations have barely shown up in Emergent concerns? Another way to ask this question would be: Why hasn't the Emergent critique of evangelicalism's involvement with the American nation-state and it's tendency toward creating theologically exclusive boundaries not found root in a critique of Mainline denominations, whose political interests also conflate the church with nation-state interests? Yet another way to ask this question might be: Why do post-liberals (e.g. The Ekklesia Project) look so different from liberals yet nothing like evangelicals, while post-evangelical Emergents look alot like liberals?

One reason for this is perhaps economic. Evangelical churches wont fund Emergent projects and the Mainlines, who have been trying to recover from their downfall, are willing to invest. But I sense economics is not the only issue. Another issue is the inclusion of the LGBTQ community. Many Emergents unquestionably advocate the way Mainlines have dealt with this issue, which is to see the church as a tool for social justice in America whose goals, therefore, tend to be ineradicably tied to the maneuverings and structures of the American nation-state. While I have deeply sympathetic opinions about the LGBTQ community and its relationship to the church, and while I also have my opinions about economic investment in Emergent projects, my more fervent concern is to ask if Emergent folks are really going to question the Mainline denominations' political and theological liberalism in a similar way they criticize evangelicalism's theological and political conservatism. If not, then its a question whether or not Emergent folks have anything new to offer to American Protestantism. If they do have something to offer, then perhaps it should be a critique on the conflations of liberal freedom (aka pluralistic tolerance) and Christian freedom in the Mainline church, or the attempt to manipulate nation-state policy to fit with the vision of such freedom. Maybe it should be a critique on conflating love with open tolerance to anyone, which eventually leaves everyone affirmed as they are and no one converted. It could be the failed attempt to reduce theological claims to social justice claims, which forces us to ask exactly what the doctrines of the church, the Trinity, the Incarnation and the Resurrection accomplish, other than pithy symbols used to advance left-wing forms of American democracy. The critique could be the loss of Christian uniqueness within American religious and political culture that suffers from a spiritually amalgamate ethos that can be summarized by a phrase made in Paul Knitter's Wild Goose talk: "I love Buddha and Jesus, but I still go home to Jesus."

I don't necessarily mean to lay my censuring cards on the table about Progressive Christianity in America (Notice, I critique conservatives too). I just mean to say that if Emergent folks find themselves comfortable in Mainline walls, particularly the walls of liberal pluralism dominant in both theological and political aspects of American liberal protestantism, then I question what new things the Emergent conversation has to offer. If they have something new to say, then angst about a painful past with fundamentalism will need to produce theologically fruitful reflections about the church that look different than a recovery of mainline dominance in the early 20th century. Emergent folks will have to start distinguishing themselves from progressive Christianity if they want people to think that something new and important is really happening. They will also have to start caring more about the theological and political space of the church itself than they do about using the church to bolster American nation-state policies. Simply put, emergent folks need some theological sophistication that cultivates distinctiveness lest they seep into the homogenized spirituality of progressive Christianity in America or find themselves directly tied to the project, initially espoused by liberal Christianity and copied by evangelical Christianity, of trying to use the Christian church to control the history of American politics.


Russ says,

Very well put… I have said again and again to my Christian friends that unless they participate in the “re-make” of emergent Christianity instead of debunking and critizing it, then they will indirectly suffer from its ultimate failure within their own faith constructs.

Emergent Christianity has a lot to offer but it cannot align neither right nor left… it has to be on its own distinctive… neither fundamental nor progressive but Jesus through and through. I applaud Brandon’s analysis and would encourage evangelics and emergents alike to better express postmodern Christianity lest it becomes stillborn in its own cradle!


Re: Brandon Morgan’s guest post & emergent Christianity

by Roger Olson
July 26, 2011

I think Brandon’s guest post should be read by all people involved on emerging or emergent Christianity and the emergent church movement. Please spread it around and invite discussion about it here and elsewhere. I will post Brandon’s responses to comments here.

One thing I have been thinking about (in this context) is how hopeful it has been that emergent Christians might find an alternative to conservative evangelicalism and liberal “mainline” Protestantism by exploring postmodern philosophy’s possible contribution to theology and practice. Lesslie Newbigin and Nancey Murphy (among others) have called for such a “third way”–neither fundamentalist (they both mean conservative evangelical) nor liberal but postmodern in some sense (not necessarily radical). Many of us have identified both conservatism and liberalism in European and American Protestantism as too tied to modern modes of thought. We tend to define both types of theology (and practice) by stances toward modernity–either rejection or accomodation.

If the emergent church/Christianity movement has anything to offer it has to be an alternative to those two types of Christianity and their rootedness in modernity.

(Here I am ignoring another alternative that I think we too often ignore–the premodern alternative. Many contemporary Christians, both educated and not, prefer to live and worship and think as if the Enlightenment never happened. But I would argue that’s very difficult to do–especially once one begins to think and interpret and explain and write. For example, many people point to Pentecostalism as an alternative to fundamentalism and liberalism or to conservative evangelicalism and liberalism. However, I regard the “tongues as initial, physical evidence” doctrine as very modern, rooted as it is in the craving for certainty through physical evidence.)

However, disappointment sets in when we hear emergent church leaders/spokespersons sharing their excitement in “discovering” a new type of theology that turns out to be thoroughly modern. For example, not long ago a leading emergent church personality shared his excitement in finding and reading Henry Churchill King’s The Reconstruction of Theology published in 1901. The problem is, that book is a classic of liberal (Ritschlian) Protestantism! It’s thoroughly modern! I don’t understand its appeal to a supposedly postmodern, emergent Christian.

I think Brandon’s challenge to emergent church types is worthy of very serious consideration and response, but by all means let’s not get bogged down in details of his analysis. His main point is obvious and we should dwell on it. It takes the form of a question to emergent church/Christianity leaders: How is your new, different type of Christianity different (at the deep level of theology and ethics) from “mainline,” liberal Protestantism?Your reaction to fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism is clear. Now what do you have to offer European and American Christianity (and hopefully the rest of the world) that is new and different from modernity-based liberalism?


Russ says:
July 25, 2011 @ 7:34pm

Very well put… I have said again and again to my Christian friends that unless they participate in the “re-make” of emergent Christianity instead of debunking and critizing it, then they will indirectly suffer from its ultimate failure within their own faith constructs.

Emergent Christianity has a lot to offer but it cannot align neither right nor left… it has to be on its own distinctive… neither fundamental nor progressive but Jesus through and through. I applaud Brandon’s analysis and would encourage evangelics/emergents alike to better express postmodern Christianity lest it becomes stillborn in its own cradle!

Ron says:
July 27, 2011 at 10:55 pm

I didn’t get to the Wild Goose Festival this year. Like the writer, however, I, too, have been conversant with the Emergent conversation for a few years as well, and I agree with much of his characterization of the Emergent movement. I did have a couple things I wanted to suggest in response, though. First, I am not sure that “conflating love with open tolerance to anyone” leads to a condition in which “everyone is affirmed and no one converted.” I dare say that those I know who have been hurt by conservative evangelicals/evangelicalism were won (by the power of the Spirit) more through love conflating with tolerance than through “love” manifesting as animosity and intolerance. You can proof-text it as “His kindness leads us to repentance” or “you can catch more flies with honey,” but many people I know have been repulsed and scarred by evangelicals whose “love” looks so much like “hate.”

As far as what “new things the Emergent conversation has to offer,” I would respond that, on the one hand, the Emergent movement probably doesn’t care about “what new things it has to offer.” I have been to a multitude of Emergent gatherings, conferences, etc., and I have never heard any overt “sales pitch” or recruitment for the Emergent movement. Group leaders and speakers have often encouraged and challenged participants to pursue God and a relationship with Christ, but I have yet to hear any emphasis put on the unique selling proposition or member benefits of the Emergent movement per se.

On the other hand, the statement contains at least one possible response—the Emergent conversation offers exactly that: a conversation. In the churches I have attended most of my life, having an honest conversation without regurgitating the party line was the quickest way to be excluded from fellowship. I think the conversation itself, though maddening to some who want conclusive straightforward and clear cut answers, has restored faith in the possibility of faith for many of us who were taught implicitly if not explicitly that honest conversation, especially about particular topics, was not acceptable.


Brandon Morgan's Response

by Roger Olson
August 8, 2011

Here is Brandon Morgan’s response to critics of his guest post here (about the ECM):

“I would like to thank Tony Jones, Scot Mcknight and Deacon Bo over at Homebrewed (see next article below) for taking the time to respond/repost my reflections after attending Wild Goose. A number of the comments from these blogs have asked many good questions, some of which I’m afraid I won’t have time to respond to.

Initially, I suppose, I would like to clear up some concerns that Dr. Jones had with my reflection about the relationship between ECM and mainline denominations. His criticisms were more directed toward methodological or stylistic concerns, which perhaps led him to interpret my seemingly important questions (or else no one would have noticed) as rhetorical conjectures rather than substantive questions. This inevitably led to a rhetorical critique against my writing style and “methods of research” than substantive responses to my thoughts.

I am actually surprised; first, that Tony disagreed with me at all. I would have assumed that, given his thoughts in his books, podcasts (particularly that AAR podcast with McKnight and Diana Butler Bass) and blog posts, that Tony would have been similarly concerned with the ease in which conversations among ECM people collude with the underlying methods of mainline denominations.

I am surprised, secondly, that Tony’s recent follow-up asking for a new word to describe non-evangelicals other than “progressive” or “liberal” does not at least convey an attempt to promote exactly what I hope ECM folks do, namely, transcend or at least govern imaginatively the evangelical-liberal impasse in American Protestantism. It would seem that Tony does not really disagree with me as much as perhaps feel defensive regarding my reference to my thoughts about Wild Goose because perhaps he felt I was targeting him. That was not the case.

That being said, I also assume that individuals who post on blogs asking questions (or who sit in church asking questions for that matter) need not convey elaborate qualitative or quantitative data in order for such questions to be on the table of concerns. My reflection on Wild Goose was the spearhead to a number of conversations I have had with mainline folks in dialogue with ECM ideas. So my thoughts do not spawn uniquely from that meeting, nor are they unique in comparison with others who have similar analyses.

In all honesty, I do not find ECM’s similarity with mainline concerns as a problem. Interestingly enough, mainline denominations do not generally see ECM as a problem either, but a promise. They do not see ECM as controversial because the mainline has already asked the questions that post-evangelical people are asking now. Their books generally include emergent ideas as a “shot in the arm” to an already established form of denominational life. So, it would not be a negative if ECM folks decided to find a home in mainline denominations. In fact, this was the very advice McLaren and others gave to VOID in order to get monetary support. It might actually benefit ECM in an attempt to overcome what Jeremy Begbie has called “naïve anti-institutionalism.” But it would convey a contradiction regarding what Tony himself, in an interesting spat with Diana Butler Bass, claimed as being the benefit of ECM, namely that it attempts to move beyond the division in American Protestantism.

Now, in reference to Deacon Bo, I think the difference between liberal and progressive is negligible. However, I do not think they are un-theological terms. Theology is always [sociological and] political and vice-versa. We do not get to call our names theological because they are unsociological or unpolitical. They do, however, seem to have similar theological trajectories. That trajectory is one which I find to be rather similar to the kind of theology that, as Bo mentioned, someone like John Cobb would espouse. However, Cobb’s differentiation between Liberal and Progressive rests on the same premise: that experience (gender, racial, national included) is a valid location for theological reflection. I do not generally agree with this claim, and so am definitely not liberal. I also do not think one has to be a liberal in order to confess such an idea. But the take away from the conversation of titles expresses to me that, even after a number of years, the ECM has failed to contribute significantly to a well-worked theological/missional trajectory. This is perhaps the reason why I think criteria for ECM need to be laid out before any effective analysis is performed. How will we know what we are looking for when our qualitative and quantitative analyses take to the churches? I am assuming this is what some of my friends, like Gary Black, are doing when they type away in their studies. We have to agree on what something is before we ever find it. My own Baptist tradition has this same problem. This problem in ECM may likely be due to the ideas expressed in Tony’s recent comment that:

“We’ve taken a pastiche approach to church and theology — we take a little bit from here and a little bit from there. The benefit of that is a great deal more freedom than many leaders in the church feel. The other side of that coin, however, is that we inevitably disappoint anyone who comes from a particular camp, because we’re never really enough of anything.” - Tony Jones

This comment in response to David Finch’s reflections about a book on ECM seems to convey the sentiment that I find already quite prevalent within the dominant political liberalism of contemporary America. The organization of contracted individuals to freely choose what they like from the consumer line of theological and social thought is not new but is in fact an orthodox tenet of American politics, not to mention the American university. Tony thinks the pastiche model really works. I do not. It seems that David Fitch’s comment that “all we’ve done is stir the pot, and then blended in with existing structures” is perhaps an overly grouchy-anabaptist way of saying what I was attempting to claim about EMC and its relationship to the theological presuppositions that reside in the mainline denominations. I will not spell out again the ways in which ECM has at its disposal to critique liberal or progressive forms of theological collusions with specific nation-state policies, or modern presuppositions about freedom, tolerance, personhood, rationality etc. I simply want to ask again how ECM is going to make itself up on the spot. Its thoughts have to come from somewhere and they can’t come from everywhere.

Personally, I find theological liberalism/progressivism to be a highly sophisticated approach to theological reflection, albeit ill-founded. Anyone who has even glanced at the work of Gary Dorrien will see that mainline liberal presuppositions are not toss-away categories. These are serious thinkers. But they are subject to critique in a number of ways. ECM will, I think, find its place to the extent that it can avoid what I see as the mistakes of the liberal tradition to theology and its approach to the church/world relationship.

So here are the (non-rhetorical) questions again:

1 - Why haven't Emergent folks joined the mainline denominations?

2 - Why have the negatives of evangelicalism been so easy to describe and virulently rebuke, while the negatives of the mainline denominations have barely shown up in Emergent concerns?

2b - Another way to ask this question would be: Why hasn't the Emergent critique of evangelicalism's involvement with the American nation-state and it's tendency toward creating theologically exclusive boundaries not found root in a critique of mainline denominations, whose political interests also conflate the church with nation-state interests?

I will also point out in conclusion that I have not been to every church in America. I do not have the time. So a number of churches, perhaps more than we realize, fall outside the typologies I or anyone else has chosen to use. That is the nature of the beast. That is why Bass can think Mainline is on the rise and others think it’s in decline. The same fact is true of every denomination. Because of this, I do not feel the need to account for every church community in order for my questions to bear relevance.

Lastly, my use of the pronoun “they” instead of “we” is perhaps due to my recognition that, in order for there to be a “we” there must be an agreement that ECM speaks for me. Since I am, at the moment, unsure exactly who ECM speaks for, other than the plethora of leaders that ride atop its cultural wave, then I am not sure what it would mean for me to say “we”.I am not simply saying that ECM does not speak for me, but more importantly, I am currently unaware exactly on behalf of whom ECM does speak.


Progressive is not Liberal

The problem with both “liberal” and “progressive” is that they are not inherently theological categories. They are sociological and political. “Evangelical,” on the other hand, is inherently theological.
As odd as this seems – I actually disagree with Jones on all three points. Liberal and Progressive are both thoroughly theological terms and everyone from Carol Howard-Merritt to Austin Roberts has been trying to tell me that Evangelical is a sociological distinction and not inherently theological. ( I still hold out hope)

In Podcast episode 101 John Cobb makes an important distinction by explaining it this way:
  • Liberal simply means that one recognizes human experience as valid location for the theological process.
  • Progressive means that one takes seriously the critique provided by feminist, liberation, and post-colonial criticisms.

I know that when many people think of Liberals they think of a caricature of Marcus Borg and have him saying something about the laws of nature and how no one can walk on water or be conceived in a Virgin so we know those are literary devices that need not be defended literally. It is someone stuck in the Enlightenment who puts more faith in physics than in the Bible.

Similarly, I often hear a flippant dismissal by those who don’t get the Progressive concern so [they will] resort to the cliche that “progressive is just a word non-conservative evangelicals who don’t like the word ‘liberal’ hide behind as camouflage.”

Both are woefully cartoonish.

Tony Jones, on the other hand is addressing a real concern. So if he wants to say “Those of us who are not conservative need a new label.” That is fine and I would probably even join team TJ – whatever it says on our uniform.

Just don’t say that Liberal and Progressive are not theological. They are inherently so and the distinction between the two is worth the effort. They, along with the term ‘Evangelical”, come with a historical framework, a theological tradition and a social application. They are not interchangeable nor are they disposable. They come from some where and the represent a group of some ones.

I think that they are worth clarifying, understanding, and maybe even fighting for – and over. They matter.

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