The Emerging Church: Day 1

Well, I’ve learned something. Fran and I are not as young as we once were.

We got up our normal time this morning (5 AM Atlanta time = 3 AM Albuquerque time) and got pretty much had our normal morning routine — only at 8:30, instead of leaving for our respective workplaces, we drove off together to catch our outbound flight. Of course, the Atlanta airport is itself a workout, and we probably walked a good two miles (luggage in hand) before we boarded our flight.

We arrived in Albuquerque at 12:30 PM local time, and caught a taxi to the Hotel Albuquerque in Old Town where the conference is being held. Because the conference is sold out, so too is the hotel — which meant we couldn’t have access to our room until 4 PM. No place to go crash for a mid-afternoon catnap. We grabbed a quick salad in the hotel café and then went into the conference.

I mentioned in my earlier post that some 900 people are in attendance. In other words, it’s huge. In fact, I think it’s too big. The ballroom where the speakers do their presentations is cramped, thanks to the fact that most of the conferees are seated around tables (the tables are great for fostering dialogue among participants, but they sure clutter up the space. We ended up sitting in the back, where we had to rely on the large projection screens (dimly lit in the bright ballroom) to see the presenters. It all felt very — how shall I put it? — old paradigm. In other words, one person has control of the microphone and gets to do all the talking while 900 others listen. Sure, that’s the dominant paradigm in our world, but is it really the strength of the Emergent vision? Maybe I’m naive, but I had hoped the conference would be small enough for some truly meaningful interaction with the presenters. But that’s not how this conference works.

Alas, Fran was exhausted (and I didn’t feel much better), so the first two presentations — by Phyllis Tickle, looking at the historical context of the “Great Emergence” and Brian McLaren discussing the need for metanoia in how we think of, and relate to, Jesus — were kind of a blur. Frankly, having read both Tickle’s and McLaren’s most recent books, the talks were a bit of a wash — no mind-blowing new insights. That being said, I’m sure what they had to say was interesting enough to all the folks who weren’t familiar with their work, and Phyllis Tickle in particular is a truly funny speaker, so she kept us all laughing for an hour. But I still felt a little bit of cognitive dissonance: hearing the new paradigm message of Emergent Christianity delivered in such an old-paradigm way. I told Fran over dinner, “This is making me homesick for the Monastery in Conyers, where a retreat with 50 participants is considered huge!”

The evening presentation by Richard Rohr was clearly the most engaging of the three, in which he (in a very digressive, right-brained way) led us through a history of contemplation in Christianity. I personally disagree with his assertion that contemplation was “lost” after about the 12th century — I prefer a more Wilberian approach, seeing contemplatie consciousness as historically only attained by a small number of persons in each generation, and our generations today represent the first real opportunity for contemplation to be embraced in a mass scale. But aside from that, I think pretty much everything Rohr has to say is valuable, and can be especially helpful in efforts to bring Christians from different denominational backgrounds together. After he finished speaking we had about a half hour for discussions around the table, and the group Fran and I sat with (including our dear old friend Mike Morell, along with some new friends like Gareth Higgins and Barry Taylor), did engage in some truly insightful conversation. It’s heartening to see such a cross-section of folks all willing to engage in both the promise and the challenge of contemplative practice. Hmmm, am I contradicting myself? I’m whining about how big the conference is, and yet if it weren’t so big, would I be able to meet so many interesting folks?

Perhaps there is no perfect way to engineer an “Emerging” conference. Whether I like it or not, the big conference is certainly one way to gather folks together and get some good ideas bouncing around. And who cares if I get to interact directly with the big names or not? After all, the “ordinary folks” like you and me are ultimately where the juice of Emergent spirituality is going to happen anyways.

So… to summarize: the conference is too big for my taste, especially when I’m exhausted and jetlagged. But the message: that we are living in the midst of a radical transformation of Christianity that includes new ways of thinking about Jesus and a new (or renewed) emphasis on contemplation, is certainly one I wholeheartedly endorse. The attendees of the conference seem to be interesting and perceptive folks. So… I’m looking forward to more of it tomorrow, even though I’ll be jostling elbows with 899 other people.

At least I’ll be well-rested.

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  1. Linda Nicola says:

    ::smack:: be grateful you are there. I’d love to have that experience and I’m afraid of crowds.

    You’ll feel better after a little sleep.

    Enjoy the rest of the conference. Try to keep us informed, but don’t make a duty of it. Again…enjoy.


  2. Hang in there, Carl. I’m sure I would have had much the same reaction, especially when you’ve been looking forward to it for so long.

    My hope is that it will get better as the weekend progresses. I’m betting it will.

  3. Thank you for record.
    I felt frustrated, because I did not get any insight from what you said.
    It was whining about the inadequacies of the ‘old paradigm’ v the new paradigm.
    What is this new paradigm.
    when I read something I expect to get an insight

    • I think the “new paradigm” is really a code for the insights of a wide variety of Christian leaders who see the Church as only benefiting from a constructive dialogue with science, with philosophy (especially postmodern thought) and with non-Christian religious traditions. As people like Brian McLaren and Richard Rohr are quick to point out, this is not meant to be a repudiation of tradition or orthodoxy! If anything, it is an effort to honor the treasures of the tradition by working to keep the church organically faithful in our time, and in response to the particular questions of our time. As for which authors contribute to this “emerging” paradigm, certainly all those who were present in Albuquerque, as well as Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, N.T. Wright, The “Radical Orthodoxy” folks from Cambridge, the “Neo-monastic” Crowd, and so forth. As you can see, it covers the entire “liberal-conservative” spectrum: Borg and Wright hardly see eye to eye theologically, but both are committed to this project of doing all we can to keep the church in constructive dialogue with those who are outside its walls. The emerging paradigm also calls for a new humility: the church may be an ark of salvation, but it is not our place to lecture others on this fact!

  4. It seemed also that your understanding of “new paradigm” was referring to smaller gatherings where people were looking for an ‘experience’ rather than doctrinal exposition.

  5. Yes — what I personally was referring to: the emerging church community tends to stress the sense of the faithful as the locus of authority, rather than placing too much emphasis on Sola Scriptura or a single figurehead like the Papacy, seeing those “old paradigm” models of authority as inherently hierarchical and centralized (even Sola Scriptura requires a “priestly class” of educated scholars to interpret the Bible for the rest of us poor souls). For me, the disconnect came when I saw this very traditional model of 1 person speaking and 953 people listening as somewhat at odds with the emerging church, which I see as fostering new models of community where the paradigm is not the one privileged person speaking to the masses, but rather all of us taking turns speaking to one another. That’s what was bothering me the first day of the event. As the weekend progressed, I more or less made my peace with it, figuring that, like it or not, the “one speaker” model is pretty much what we have received from the tradition, and of course it’s not going to go away. So if we have to be in a situation where one (or a handful) of people get to do all the talking, then we can hope for a conference like this that, at least in theory, celebrates the authority of the community as a whole.

  6. OTOH- the decentralized “new paradigm” of which you speak has caused violence in the past, and is currently the cause of violence in at least one sect of another religion in our world- Islam. I’m not sure humankind’s brains are large enough for individualized faith to work.

    All of us speaking to each other is nice- until one guy gets mad, straps on the bombs, and blows up 30 of us.

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