Concerning Emergence, Contemplation, and the Faith of the Future

Concerning Emergence, Contemplation, and the Faith of the Future February 13, 2015

Karl Rahner, The Christian of the Future (1965)
Karl Rahner, The Christian of the Future (1965)

It’s been fifty years since Karl Rahner wrote his important book “The Christian of the Future.” In a different work, Concern for the Church, he made his classic remark “the Christian of the future will be a mystic or he will not exist at all.” But in 1965 the Jesuit predicted that in the not-too-distant future Christianity will become marginalized, in many parts of the world would face persecution or at least the loss of social prestige, that “there will be no earthly advantage in being a Christian,” and that faith will be a matter of personal conviction rather than institutional affiliation.

Recently a reader of this blog named Peter asked me to comment on the emergence or emerging church — the movement of Christians who advocate new models for church and theology, in conversation with the dynamics that are shaping today’s society, including postmodern philosophy, science, world religions. Emergence Christians tend to be innovative and creative in how they understand pretty much every aspect of the faith, from scripture interpretation to liturgy to community to outreach.

Ironically, given its emphasis on postmodernity, emergence Christians often embrace what they call “the ancient practices” like contemplation and lectio divina. This is because the emerging world typically sees Christianity as less about “getting to heaven after you die” and more about fostering positive change here and now, both personally and societally. When Christianity places its hope just in the afterlife, it unwittingly plays into the hand of social and political forces that are invested in the current status quo (with all its attendant injustice). But when Christian hope in the “abundant life” that Jesus promised sees that hope as beginning in the present moment, then there’s a greater incentive for a spirituality of both both personal and planetary transformation. “Planetary transformation” means working for peace, justice, environmental sustainability, and various issues ranging from fighting human trafficking to advocating for green energy. But personal transformation is just as important — and that’s where contemplation and the other “ancient practices” come in.

Peter asked me about a website called “Got Questions?” that promotes a fairly conservative evangelical ideology. On their page called What is the Emerging/Emergent Church Movement? the authors of the site express their discomfort with this movement. They see attempts to dialogue with postmodern thought as leading to “a dissolution of ‘cold, hard fact’ in favor of ‘warm, fuzzy subjectivity'” and that such a conversation “is about experience over reason, subjectivity over objectivity, spirituality over religion, images over words, outward over inward, feelings over truth.” They go on to express their disapproval of “liberal doctrine and theology,” “relativism,” and “ecumenism,” each of which is regarded as a movement toward abandoning Christianity. It would be more accurate to say it’s abandoning a certain type of conservative ideology within Christianity.

The obvious question here is, who gets to decide who is (or isn’t) a Christian? Sadly, many Christians seem to insist that there is only one correct way to practice the faith — and this “way” is usually consistent with their own institutional affiliation. So conservative Catholics have “one way” to be truly Catholic, while conservative evangelicals have “one way” to be truly evangelical. So the “one way” looks different in different circles. For conservative Catholics the only correct way involves obedience to Catholic authority; for conservative evangelicals it typically involves conformity to an institutionalized, literalist way of reading scripture. Conservative Catholics and conservative evangelicals each insist that they are Christian but that the other group is heretical. Each group has watertight logic to back up its exclusionary claims. What are we to make of this?

The emerging movement represents a third way, that cuts across denominational lines and abandons the emphasis on institutional loyalty, instead emphasizing an inclusive, optimistic vision of what it means to be a Christian today. This third way recognizes that the human condition is precarious, no one has a lock on truth, everything (yes, even the Bible and Church authority) must be questioned in the light of reason, criticism, and the full sweep of human knowledge, and that any honest effort to follow Jesus Christ can only be made in the light of the existential uncertainty of the human condition.

This is a path that is humble (because it admits it doesn’t have all the answers), compassionate (since it recognizes that everyone makes mistakes), and gentle (because it emphasizes Jesus’s teachings on mercy and forgiveness). This is the path that says “I am a follower of Jesus Christ, I take the teachings of Christianity seriously, and I also am willing to engage with other sources of knowledge and wisdom, including secular sciences and ancient contemplative traditions, east and west.”

I believe this third way is the way of the future. And I bet if Karl Rahner were alive today, he’d agree with me. It’s the way of the mystic, for the mystics and contemplatives have always understood that the heart — compassion, forgiveness, relationship, mercy — takes us closer to God than the head — dogma, doctrine, theology, philosophy. The mystics have always understood that feeding a hungry child matters far more to God than all our arguments over the correct way to baptize or the real meaning of Communion or how to interpret the parable of the unjust steward. For the mystics and contemplatives, time spent in contemplative prayer is a way for the mind to abandon arrogant thoughts, so that the heart may embrace compassionate living.

I personally don’t like labels; just as I don’t want to be pigeonholed as a “progressive” (or, for that matter, “conservative”) Christian, neither am I very interested in being labelled an “emergent” Christian. But that doesn’t make me anti-emergent. I think the conversations that the emergent Christians are having — how do we engage Christianity with the real world issues of our day? — are important and necessary. But I think the key to it all is contemplation. “In silence and trust is our strength” as Isaiah said. In the humility of silence God gives us the strength to remain faithful to Jesus Christ even while we engage with the social, political, and philosophical challenges of our day.


I have seven hopes for the Christian (and the Church) of the future. Read about those seven hopes here

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