Repost from November, 2004

Throwing Down the Gauntlet

OK, I’m sticking my head out the window and yelling, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” Well, I’m not really that mad, but I am a little irked. In the last week, I have read or heard these statements:

“What emergent is discovering is stuff Lutherans have known for 500 years.”

“Anabaptists don’t have to become postmodern because we were never modern.”

“Emergent is trying to marry liturgical tradition to evangelical impulse, and Episcopalians have been doing that for centuries.”

“Baptists have always been anti-institutional.”

“I was emergent when I planted a church in the early 1970’s.”

“Emergent leaders need to adopt the posture of humble learners at the feet of those who were the emerging church leaders of their day.”

No, no, no, no, no!

Emergent is trying to do something else, something new. We are not trying to get back to what Luther and Calvin were doing. We are not attempting to recover primitivist views of scripture, like the Anabaptists. We are not trying to plant churches that are relevant to GenXers and GenYers.

Why are we trying to do something new?

Because your denominations, though formed to provide safety and security for ordained persons to follow God’s call with integrity, are now controlled by principalities and powers that demand ordination candidates to ignore the revolutionary aspects of the Bible in order to pass examinations. (Similarly, the electoral college system was developed with good reason; it now serves merely to devalue the votes of those in the minority in the “uncontested states.”)

Because the tenure process at your theological insitutions, though developed to demand the same level of scholarship that is required at secular insitutions based on the German university model, is now demonic; it requires scholars to write not for the church but for the academy, and to in other (but related) ways ignore the revolutionary call of the gospel.

More and more of us are now convinced that something new cannot happen within the existing organizations and institutions. They are irredeemably reified into patterns of institutional conservatism and survival; they are irredeemably sold out to market forces and have thus commodified the radical, liberating message of the gospel.

Thus I am becoming more convinced that the emerging church movement has more in common with liberationist thought than it does with the Reformation. That is, we are on a quest to unmask how the gospel has been used to serve the (often oppressive) interests of those who are already in charge. Comments from those in comfortable positions of power, like those above, are to be expected, for they show the subtle ways in which we will be marginalized. But we will not allow ourselves to be marginalized, to be labeled as “left,” “right,” “angry,” or “immature.” No, we have been disenfranchized. We have taken the blue pill, and there’s no going back.

We must now work at the next level, building a web of support for those few women and men who are courageous enough to stand up at a presbytery meeting and walk out…and not look back.

[UPDATE: Don’t stop now. Follow the conversation herehere, and here.]

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  • alan

    Wow, that is from way back. I’m curious, you identify with liberation theology but did/do liberation theologians identify with you? I’m not trying to be sarcastic, I’m genuinely curious as to whether or not that relationship and connection was every made and if anything came of it.

    Part of why I ask that is that the emergent church doesn’t strike me as falling within the tradition of liberation theology, mainly because I’m not sure it’s ever actually been “disenfranchised” (your word) in any sense that liberation theologians would recognize. In your book “The New Christians” you tell a story about the meeting that sparked the movement where people “got it” or didn’t about post-modernity. If I recall correctly, that was a group of primarily white men who were in training to be the next major evangelical leaders. That is not a group that anyone would call “disenfranchised”. Yes, they may have given up careers, notoriety and a lot of prestige to leave, but it was still their choice. Disenfranchisement happens by someone else’s will, not yours.

    Anyways, maybe you’ve worked through all of this already. It has been 9 years, after all. It just struck me as curious.

  • “That is not a group that anyone would call “disenfranchised”.”

    Alan, the key here is that liberation has to happen from both sides, the oppressed and the oppressors. What would a liberationist movement that sought to liberate oppressors from oppressing look like? Very different from liberation movements that seek to liberate the oppressed.

    It would involve encouraging people to let go forms of power or influence or materialism. Indeed, if emerging is a liberation of the oppressor movement it would share an underlying methodology, but apply this to the particular issues that need to be addressed in an Industrialized society, and would also explain why it resonates a fair amount with white, middle/upper-middle class folks.

    It’s liberating the established church from its particular sins that arise in situations of power and control, and in doing this offering a prophetic voice to broader society, a transformative presence to very ingrained consumeristic and competitive approaches, which permeate almost every part of our society.

  • Elisabeth M

    I always think it’s funny when church leaders talk about the emergent church, what to do with it, how to steer it or encourage it or start one. You can’t start an emergent church. You can start a church, sure, but just because you call it emergent doesn’t make it so. The thing about the emergent church is that it has a life of its own; it will be and do what it will.

    Defined: “the spontaneous development of self-organized order among ensembles that can neither be predicted nor explained by examining component parts in isolation. Spontaneity and self-organization mean that no external agent is sculpting the organism: it sculpts itself. Ensembles mean that an emergent system is composed of many parts. And for the component parts to self-organize, they must intercommunicate, interact, and cooperate.” (source)

    Just a definition I wish church leaders were aware of.

    • Sounds like the definition of a miracle.

  • Thursday1

    It’s very difficult to do something genuinely new. What usually happens is that the same forces that shaped previous things to be what they are, end up shaping the new things too. “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

  • BradC

    Amen Brother!
    It is not the same – not liberalism revisited or evangelicalism removed – it’s a new epistemology!

    Theology, theology, theology – it’s time to spend time rethinking our theological constructs.

    So much of the existing theology must be discarded – it doesn’t work anymore. The assumptions have all changed and in the 15 years since the conversation began so much of the conversation has been spent on defining what we are talking about and why this is different – it’s just time to develop some new theology.

    Theology, theology, theology – stop ignoring the reality that the world has changed and we need new theology.

    PS Tony and Courtney – I’m impressed you waited until the agreements in our country changed about marriage – enjoy your honeymoon!

    • S_i_m_o_n

      How does ‘existing theology’ not work anymore?

      • BradC

        Much of the established theologies in use were created with philosophical assumptions that have been discarded and they just don’t work anymore. I assume we keep using them in our Christian communities because they feel comfortable to people and we don’t want to “run off” the folks in our churches. The reason we see the movement of younger generations away from conservative theology toward progressive theology that’s being discussed by Tony, Rachel and others is not because of generational lines but rather epistemological lines – they are living with the emerging epistemology and therefore rejecting the theology built on the old.

        One very brief example:
        The modern world assumed the sufficiency of language or that language could accurately convey reality – especially after the development of print. So theologies developed that reflected this assumption and thoughts like “Sola Scriptura” were developed and now permeate Christian thought. The idea that language is sufficient has been discarded yet we hold onto our “printed words” because they are comfortable to us.

        This is just one small example yet such a big hill to climb for Christians – we must answer the question – What is the Bible if words aren’t sufficient?

        This is what the “emergent movement” was/is/should be about – developing theologies that work in the emerging epistemology.

        • The core question pertaining to “a new theology” in my mind is, will that theology be based on an atonement model? If so, which one? Many christians on the edges DO NOT embrace any atonement theology model. Contemplative/mystical/eastern-philosophy followers of Jesus’ teachings reject it out of hand. What would your “new theology” be based on? Exclusivity or inclusivity?

          • BradC

            I know this is a hot issue – but I haven’t spent much time on the issue. Have you done work on the atonement?
            You appear to be dismissive of this “new theology”. Interesting that you group contemplatives with mystical and with eastern. Is that what you think emergent is?

            • First things first, Brad; atonement: I’ve read a lot of books, blogs and listened to many talks/sermons on atonement, including McKnight, Boyd, Jones, and others. Having grown up in the church (Presbyterian, Lutheran, Reformed, Covenant, Disciples of Christ) many different atonement theories have been presented as orthodoxy. None satisfy me. After 69 years of life on this earth I’ve stopped searching for one. So, no, I’m not dismissing a “new theology,” I’m searching for one.

              Emergents continue to discuss a “new orthodoxy” and how to “do church,” I find it fascinating. The contemplative/mystical/eastern-philosophy segment of belief is intriguing to me. I’m simply probing the boundaries.

              Thanks for the question.

              • BradC

                I understand and am with you. New theology is emerging regarding “original sin” and therefore atonement, most of the stuff you will read on those blogs will no longer assume – “All are born enemies of God” so if you read theology that embraces the idea that the death of Christ is “not a payment for sin” it significantly changes the understanding of Christ’s death.

        • S_i_m_o_n

          So how do we now convey reality? Or is there no such thing as reality?

          • BradC

            I’m not sure if you are serious or sarcastic – as this is such an “old school” argument.

            Of course reality exists – no “post modern” is an anti-realist (well maybe a few many years ago) they just realize that words can not convey reality in an absolute sense. We use words because they “work” not because they can convey absolute understanding. That’s why we keep developing new ones – because we can’t find the right words that work.
            It seems silly to those with the emerging epistemology to see Christians – worship words. Even using my previous conservative constructs (literal language, dispensational hermeneutic, etc) I would still caution from the worship of words because of John 1. Yet it is one of the favorite practices in our churches – time to change.

            • S_i_m_o_n

              ‘words can not convey reality in an absolute sense’

              Isn’t that an absolute statement, using words no less?

              • BradC

                I still am not sure if you’re serious or sarcastic. Again another “tired” response to the old criticism of postmodernism.

                If serious: NO a statement made using the new assumptions does not mean the statement is absolute.

                No absolutes, No certainty and the people making the statements – no longer assume that these exist, but understand how difficult it is for the people reading the statements that assume they do.

                If sarcastic – Yes

                • S_i_m_o_n

                  I’m being serious actually as I do not understand post modern thought as to me it seems to self destruct. What new assumptions would render your statement non-obsolute? Your explanation still baffles me. Help me out. You say “No absolutes” which seems to me to be an absolute. You say “No certainty” which seems to me to convey a clear certainty in the lack of certainty.

                  • BradC

                    Too much to discuss details on this blog, but I do understand the dilemma in a transition period like ours.

                    Statements made are interpreted by the receiver using the philosophical assumptions that are valid to them. In the modern world Foundationalism developed as a valid premise – this assumed that you could find a point of “irreducible certainty” to build your belief structure on. The idea of a foundation of irreducible certainty has been significantly rebutted and no longer exists as a valid philosophical premise, yet still “held” by many because of upbringing/education/training.

                    I suspect this is happening in churches all the time – the speaker makes a statement using certain set of assumptions but the listener interprets using a different set of assumptions.

                    I think humans are far too limited to ever obtain absolute understanding. I think all propositions are contingent and certainty is impossible.

                    So much more to unpack – it is clear to me that so many cherished assumptions used by modern Christianity theology are falling away – absolutism, certainty, omni-competence of human reason, sufficiency of language, etc. This is why I am so encouraged by the emergent movement – a real quest to develop theology that works as this epistemology develops.

      • Nicholas

        1. That the earth is only 6,000 years old and that believing in evolution is a sin.
        2. That the Bible is inerrant and infallable. That God’s Word is somehow limited to a physical book. (the living Word was with God before the foundation of the world.)
        3. That homosexuality is a sin in all cases. Regardless of the fact that science has already proven that most homosexual men and woman were born that way.

  • Hello, Tony. I appreciate what you have to say. There are some institutions trying to address these issues, institutions like Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa (and others). I certainly get, however, that an institution of higher education can’t control denominational ordination processes. Still, we (I work there) prize ministry and scholarship, are concerned about cultivating conversation, community, and the public good. Nearly every class our students are exposed to liberationist models of ministry and theology. We encourage and provide a space for our students to have these conversations and to explore church/religion that transcends the “powers” you speak about. I’m not arguing your claims. However, I do think that there are institutions trying to grow more aware of such claims and have the type of discussions that will give a better sense to those “few women and men” so that they can find their own way. These are good conversations. Thanks for putting it out there.

  • Nicholas

    There is a battle coming. A battle between the established institutions and the progressive revolutionaries.
    The emergents will lead it. The ‘nones’ will join it. And the world will support it. Why?

    Because everyone is tired of religious falsehood,oppression, self-righteousness, hypocrisy, supremacy, condemnation and lack of love.

    This ‘silent’ revolution will bring about radical deconstruction and reform as well as put a major emphasis on walking in love, doing work that matters and making a difference in the world.

  • Nicholas

    Great Post!