What’s Emerging in Theology?

What’s Emerging in Theology? December 6, 2011

I am grateful to be part of this new adventure in emergent and emerging Christianity.  While I will let the Spirit move me in my reflections, I have discovered that while the Spirit often takes you where the wild things are, She also moves through your gifts and passions.  By inclination and training, I am theologian, pastor, and spiritual guide.  These gifts, along with my interest in politics, parenting, grandparenting, global theology, and healing will no doubt emerge as I seek to share a little light on the emergent pathway.  Unless the Spirit moves me otherwise, I plan to begin this journey theologically and see where this takes us in the next several weeks.

What’s emerging in theology?  Well, the beauty of emerging faith is that it’s emerging.  It’s always incomplete, always on the road, always willing to look at issues from many sides, discovering wisdom in many quarters.  The spirit of emerging theology transcends the culture wars that have plagued ethics, politics, worship, sexuality, and religion for the past few decades.

While emergent thinkers don’t celebrate inconsistency, many of us celebrate diversity in spiritual experience, ethical insight, worship style, and theological reflection.  We rejoice in theology on the move and spirituality that breathes new life into old ways of thinking.  We can embrace insights and experiences from progressives, evangelicals, Pentecostals, universalists, creation spiritualities, Quakers, monastics, as well as the wisdom of aboriginal peoples, persons of other faith traditions, and seekers.

I think emerging theology is implicitly guided by the creative tension of two strains in Christian mysticism and theological reflection – the kataphatic and the apophatic, or, to throw a little Greek out just for fun, “with images” and “without images.”  The kataphatic vision affirms that all things are words of God.  God’s presence and wisdom can be perceived in every life and each situation in which we find ourselves.  As Isaiah proclaimed, “the whole earth is full of God’s glory.”  Glory shines through all creation.  Accordingly, we can describe God in a myriad of ways – as friend, parent, mother, father, rock of ages, mighty fortress, wild goose, light, love, Creative Wisdom, Lively Spirit, and so on.  The kataphatic vision is Eucharistic in spirit – all things point to and reveal God – God is known in bread and wine and in the caress of lovers; God speaks in an infant’s cry and fireflies’ illuminations.

In contrast, the apophatic way says that nothing can describe God fully, and – in fact – every word about God conceals as much as it reveals.  This “negative way” affirms that God is always more than we can imagine.  We tend to confuse, as the Buddhists note, the moon with the finger pointing to the moon.  But, even the moon itself is often eclipsed and only known from our location and not a privileged position.

Emerging theology lives comfortably and joyously with this contrast.  The kataphatic way bursts forth in the melody of Louis Armstrong, “I say to myself what a wonderful world.” As long as we recognize that the God we find in particular times and places is revealed everywhere, and even beyond the precincts of our faith, kataphatic theology escapes the temptation of idolatry, of limiting God and revelation to a particular church, geographical location, doctrine, or style of worship.  At its best, taking a step beyond Jacob’s dream of a ladder of angels, the kataphatic way proclaims “God is in this place – and every place – and we can know it!”

The apophatic way, always suspicious of idolatry, simply marvels at the distance between human truth and divine reality.  Like theological Lysol, the apophatic way cleanses our tendencies toward absolutizing any particular doctrine, worship style, or belief system.  God is “neti, neti” (to use a Hindu phrase), “not that, not that.”

So we begin with the dynamic interplay of affirmation and negation, of yes and no, in emerging theologies.  In the spirit of postmodernism, we mistrust grand narratives, applying to all times and persons, but we recognize glimpses of truth within our narrative and other communities’ narratives.  We grow by the humility that recognizes the limits of its life-giving truths and embraces the truths that others have discovered.  Our God is on the move, Christ is on the loose, and the Spirit breathes in all things.

We can say important things about God and we can experience God through all the senses.  Still, the adventure continues luring us to new encounters and new visions in companionship with an Adventurous God who is as near as our breath, but always more than we can ask or imagine.

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  • Lisa Domke

    Oh my. Apophatic way as “theological Lysol.” I am SO using that! Thanks, Bruce, for getting us off to a great start!

  • lance linderman

    Great post! For some reason people are afraid of the term “emerging” and as a result they don’t read things like this. I love this post, thank you. I will share it with others 🙂