Re-narrating an Emergent God

Re-narrating an Emergent God March 4, 2015

imagesI want to continue the conversation that Mark Longhurst began with his excellent post on an “emergent God” on March 1.

Mark alluded to the many origins of the emergent community and emergence Christianity. When one expands that language to “progressive Christianity,” the list of origins expands even further. I count the experiences and memories that I have of a consultation with the sorely missed Stan Grenz for Leighton Ford Ministries on postmodernism (1993), the conversations that produced “The Church in the Postmodern Transition” event in Glorietta, NM (1997), the inauguration of the short-lived TerraNova Project (1999), the eventual launching of EmergentVillage (2001), and joining the leadership at the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology (2005) as some of the most formative and fun in my life. That was just my trajectory (and one of so many possible trajectories) into the community and the conversation of emergent faith.

My research as a doctoral student centers on the origins of social movements. As we like to say in this realm, social movements and collective peoples find their genesis in temporal moments that arrive on the heels of enduring historical struggles. These nascent movements are the products of contested imaginations and social struggles that occur in specific spaces and in specific moments. Historical moments; struggles for equity, justice, or life itself; and imagination all collide in distinct spaces with the product occasionally being enduring social collectivities and movements.

This was certainly true for the emergent movement regardless of whether history regards it as a decade long pimple on the scorched skin of American Christianity or a parcel of the seismic shift of lived religion that Phyllis Tickle describes (I see it with hopeful eyes as the latter.). This ‘in-moment-ness’ or ‘in-space-ness’ of the movement inevitably invoked clumsy insensitivities, omissions, and shortsightedness in the midst of its clarion call to something more inclusive, more beautiful, and more hopeful. In other words, everything comes from somewhere and brings its baggage with it.  

Mark hinted at these failures yet held fast to the beautiful possibilities. I think that he rightfully redirected the conversation from an emergent social movement to an emergent God, a dynamic God interacting lovingly with a created world:

The identity of [an emergent] God, the word suggests, is like a circle, a whirling  movement of love that always goes beyond itself and outwards towards the world.  And there’s the key to emergence: divine relationship is not for its own sake, spinning in a self-enclosed clique; it exists for the sake of the “other,” for the sake of love. (3/1/15 Emerging Voices post)

The same day of Mark’s post, the Lenten lectionary guided our community’s (Emmaus Way in Durham, NC) conversation to similar dreams (but not without some fair lament tossed in as well). The text was Genesis 17, the third iteration of Yahweh’s promise to an aged Abraham and post-menopausal Sarah that a great nation would be born in their union. Talk about a social movement to be begun in an unlikely time, space, and moment! The esteemed Walter Brueggemann located the Genesis 17 promise (I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous…You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations…I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you…) as the heart of the Abraham-Sarah story. Abraham falls on his face perhaps in fear of the divine presence or the sheer grandiosity of this promise (Gen 17:3).

Brueggemann explained that the moment described in Genesis is that horrific middle space between the barrenness of this marriage (with all its implications of a lost future and, not to mention, an indictment on the truthfulness of God) and the coming of an heir. The text was likely written in a similar tragic space between the exile of Israel (ditto the lost future and ditto the indictment on the mercy of God) and the promised well-being of the people. He added, “The narrative of Genesis 17 affirms faith ‘into the future,’ in the face of experience that denies such a possible future.”

Let me say that again — a vision of beauty, hope, goodness, and justice as our future in the face of experiences that dominate our every waking day that deny such a possibility.

The incredulity of that grand promise to Abraham was not missed in our community dialogue. In fact, it drew a brave “hell NO”, in more polite terms, from one of the first to speak. The speaker went on to rightfully reject any trite triumphant rendering of this passage. What is Yahweh up to in this text, tantalizing Abraham and Sarah with a promise made in the most visceral ways (remember the bisected animals and the flaming torch of Gen 15?!) that just never seems to come true? Ok, a son is miraculously born (Gen 21) but only with the unthinkable command to sacrifice him in the next chapter (Gen 22). Has the promise ever been fulfilled? A multitude ensued, but have all nations been blessed by the son and his lineage? Does justice and mercy reign in our world? We live in the face of constant and beleaguering experiences that deny such a possible future.

But when we shift the narration of the story FROM a fixed, static God toying with Abraham and Sarah, delaying the fruition of promise to generate just the right responses of faith, and inexplicably refusing to act in a world filled with injustice TO an emergent God that surprisingly enters the pain of humanity, for the sake of humanity, with a vision of hope and an invitation to work collaboratively toward that hope — THEN the story changes dramatically. I believe Abraham catches a whiff of this re-narration because he falls on his face once again (Gen 17:17), this time with LAUGHTER. The imaginations and possibilities of Yahweh exceed that of his wildest dreams!

That, I believe, is the emergent God that Mark described in his post, whirling in the dance of love, inviting us to join in on the construction of beauty that transcends our finite imaginations, and promising to stay in the unscripted collaboration until that vision is complete. Surely we need to see and lament the unfinished task. And — we should jump headlong into the works and practices that enflesh and enact the vision. Emergence Christianity, progressive Christianity, enlivened by the historical narration and present expectation of an emergent God can do just that.

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