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 theoloogy 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?