Letters, We Get Letters…

In the spirit of Scot McKnight, I publish this very thoughtful email that I received yesterday. I reprint it with permission, and anonymously.

Hey, Tony. I stumbled across your blog this morning.

The Wheaton post is fascinating.

I do find it continually surprising to note how persons embedded in large social structures—whether they be referred to as political, economic, or religious—are, more often than not, incognizant of the actual history of social causation involved in the formation of the structures.

As you indicate in your post, the vicissitudes are at the very least apparent and perhaps actual in many cases. Such is the ambiguity of trying to analyze social causation. I do think that this kind of recognition is the cause of many headaches; in my opinion, these are good headaches to experience, because they invite a kind of dazzled wonder at the complex relationships between human history and God’s action within history (including his ability to act despite human foibles, many of which historically have been labeled as “orthodox”!).

This attitude of dazzled wonder, however, does not sit well with strong dogmatism, and strong dogmatism is often associated with undisclosed and perhaps even sub rosa commitments to something like Cartesian certainty as criterial for either knowledge or even for responsible believing. Obviously, I think this is a mistake, but I do think that it’s a fairly ubiquitous assumption that is articulated at least in one way by the ferocious commitments to a doctrine of inerrancy. It’s interesting to see something like that being extended to whatever authorities in the church are taken to be the correct interpreters of Scripture. To the degree that they handle Scripture rightly, they inherit a kind of inerrancy and the authority that is attached to that (cf. B.B. Warfield).

I think at least these two things (i.e., (a) this kind of commitment in the paragraph immediately above and (b) the compartmentalizing of the various social forces that actually played a role in the formation of structures such as religious groups, schools of interpretation, and the victorious councils) combine with a third commitment, namely, what I’ll call the “theological high road,” which asserts something like God is in control of all that. The trick is that “all that” is left totally unspecified and largely unexamined. So, it’s incredibly easy to agree with that proposition since there isn’t a whole lot of conceptual depth to the content, especially if one has already epistemically ceded one’s believings and criteria for responsible believing to the chosen authority, whatever it might be. I think this makes it really easy to sanitize one’s view of the vicissitudes (isn’t that a great word?) involved in any activity under the sun that involves divine action.

Challenging this is tantamount to challenging existentially deep commitments that maintain a type of status quo that is comfortable for those defined within the status quo as “orthodox,” which, if one even merely considers the lexical meaning of the term, is all about epistemology. It is ironic that the very meaning of “orthodox,” that should invite perennial conversations about epistemology (though not necessarily using that particular term of art) has the practical effect, at least today, of shutting down those kinds of more interesting conversations.

Hence the reactions you and others in the stream may provoke…

I do think that you and others in the stream will have to work harder on distinguishing (i) the kinds of conversations you would like to see in the contemporary religious scene and (ii) mere historicizing of the Christian story in such a way that denies its distinctiveness.

(Whether distinctiveness implies (soteriological) exclusivity is an entirely different discussion that is also subject to conflation.)

I think the worry that critics have is that (i) may collapse into (ii), and the less careful critics probably already just assume that (i) and (ii) have been conflated in the work of the emergents/emerging.

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  • Wow, had to get my dictionary out for a few minutes on that one. Certainly the commenter is quite well educated.

    I agree. I think he is talking about spiritual myopia in the first degree. Ignorance of history, ignorance of how it affects us today, just plain old ignorance.

    Thanks for sharing.

  • Annie

    I think your critics in this case are aware that this is an epistemological issue. I was struck by that reading Duane Litfin’s book Conceiving the Christian College. I found myself agreeing with large sections of his assessment and completely disagreeing with his conclusions. That is, agreeing that it’s key that we learn to see the world as Christians–that is, from an acknowledged epistemological position–and completely disagreeing as to what that should look like.

    I disagree with your reading of some of the patristic material but you’re absolutely right that the emergence of pro-Nicene orthodoxy was a messy and complicated process. I’m just not sure to what end the necessity of understanding those vicissitudes. To be more specific, I do see a point in understanding them–I am a historian–but I don’t necessarily see YOUR point…except to undermine the received wisdom of Nicea. I hear you saying the point isn’t to toss it out, but you do aim to destabilize it. I think the people who respond negatively are responding to that. They’re left wondering what you’re trying to accomplish and how it is anything but anti-Christianity.

    So I say Christianity is meta-narrative, you say fabrics of micro-narrative and I think it comes down to that. A church that espouses Christianity as meta-narrative is going to operate in a particular way–a way I’d wager you wouldn’t much care for. Fabrics of micro-narrative is a viable epistemological basis for a kind of multifarious, missional, grassroots Christianity. The question is whether there’s a promise for renewal there or just plain chaos. I don’t know.

  • TJ – I think posting thoughtful letters from others like this is a good thing. It crafts the type of conversations you think ought to be happening. I am increasingly struck by the simply need for space for “conversation without certain outcomes about meaningful things” (to loosely quote Dana Gioia, NEA Chairman). The lack of this kind of space may be what we are most starved for (and as a counterpart, empathetic listening).

  • Wow, great thoughts peoples. I’m struggling to hang in this convo but the line that really struck me was the first major paragraph from our anonymous emailer…

    “I do find it continually surprising to note how persons embedded in large social structures—whether they be referred to as political, economic, or religious—are, more often than not, incognizant of the actual history of social causation involved in the formation of the structures.”

    I personally have found it extremely enlightening to go back and read/learn about the unspoken assumptions that birthed a movement or “social structure”. It becomes far more realistic and messy and er, human than I would have preferred in my more fundamentalist days.


  • Okay, brutal honesty: this kind of writing makes me sad. I couldn’t force myself to read past the use of both ‘vicissitudes’ and ‘foibles’ in one paragraph. Am I the only one?

  • Nathan Carlson

    Jason- you’re not the only one. I would recommend the anonymous emailer put away the thesaurus…

    Isn’t one of the hallmarks of the emergent movement supposed to be a certain candor…? 🙂

  • jon

    Yeah, I agree. The emergent movement is supposed to be for stupid people like me. If it gets any more technical or complex, I am leaving.

  • Dan

    I would bet a thousand cows that Kevin Hector wrote you that email.