Friday, November 30, 2007

Conversing with Emergents

A few weeks back I was fortunate to be able to attend a brief panel discussion on the Emergent Church. The panel consisted of a local pastor here in Durham who is relatively well known locally as being deeply embedded in the Emergent conversation. Dr. Mary McClintock-Fulkerson was his primary conversation partner, with a moderator as well. The discussion was relatively interesting and was focused on the place of creeds and doctrine in the Emergent Church.

The Emergent pastor was concerned with the way creeds and doctrines have become a litmus of Christian orthodox and wielded as a means of determining who's in and who's out. They function as a means of control, reinforcing the move of groups and nations to enclose themselves over and against other groups. His alternative was grossly ambiguous but he did seem to predicate some sense of doctrine as a unifying principle. But he was highly critical of the way doctrine and creeds have functioned.

This tendency of the Emergent Church is worrisome to me. Those in the conversation are right to critique the way in which theology and doctrine has been reduced to intellectual assent to disembodied ideas. That is, doctrine has been perceived as the litmus for Christian orthodoxy. If you believe the creeds and profess orthodox doctrine you are orthodox. The problem is that such an understanding of doctrine and theology has allowed Christians to continue to live in a modality of existence that does not depend on theology or doctrine. In other words, if orthodox doctrine is the litmus of true Christianity then Christians can live however they want, provided they adhere intellectually to the truths of the creeds.

Whether the Emergent Church recognizes this tendency in its critique is beside the point. Ultimately what they are critiquing is this very move (a theological move that has allowed Christians to order their life after the politics of the state [particularly the United States] and to raise the question of Christ and culture as if culture is monolithic and we must relate Christ to it). I wholeheartedly support this critique. Yet the corrective according to this pastor has tended to mitigate doctrine and creeds. The idea is that if adherence to doctrine and creeds has literally produced religious wars (cf. religious wars in Europe between differing Christian traditions), then reorienting our emphasis to other aspects of Christianity would be advantageous. What this reorientation looks like is nuanced but the basic principle seems to be common throughout the Emergent conversation.

The central problem with this move is that it reinforces the idea that doctrine and creeds are objects of intellectual assent only. That is, it takes this concept as a presupposition of the critique and thus the eschewing of doctrine and creeds ensues. What I want to suggest is that the Emergent Church in this particularity is merely propagating the problem it attempts to resist. Theology is hopelessly enclosed in its propensity for abuse.

What we really need is a corrective that rearticulates the function of doctrine and creeds, that is we need an account of theology that does not assume the theological tasks is one of dotting our theological "I's" and crossing our theological "T's". We need an account that more adequately expresses the function of theology.

In the question and answer period I raised this issue by utilizing an analogy between the creeds and the American pledge of allegiance. While it is highly limited and necessitates qualification, I nonetheless offer it to you. When Americans say the pledge of allegiance they are not merely affirming intellectual truths or propositions. By affirming the pledge they are committing to the lifestyle demanded by the pledge. That is, the pledge demands that its adherents live a certain kind of life. It demands a modality of existence.

Similarly, the Christians creeds demand a modality of existence. They witness to a way of life constituted and sustained by the body of Christ. Doctrine and creeds are not abstract principles of the Christian faith, but are the thinking internal to the Christian faith that not only witnesses to a modality of existence but produces that modality of existence. Theology must be performed. The theological task requires our entrance into the Christian tradition and our deep conditioning by that tradition.

But this understanding of theology is unable to function in the Emergent Church's critique. The EC has condemned theology to the locale of its distortion. We all live committed to some modality of existence, and my concern is that the EC is precariously searching for some locale or orientation. It resists finding it in theology because of theology's distortion. But what then makes demands on the way of life of the EC? If it's not theology I'm concerned it may be simply an inversion of conservative American Christianity.

I'd love to hear the thoughts of someone better acquainted with the EC. Ease my concerns.

1 comment:

Michael R. Cline said...

I'm not sure I can ease your concerns, but I do have a few questions to raise (oh the they ever stop?)

(1) Which part of the EC falls into this trap more than the others? As you know, the EC is vast. Many people are jumping off the ship because of the many nuances. For instance, Doug Pagitt (and apparently this guy in NC) tend to downplay or even dismiss the creeds. On the other side of the same conversation, you have Ancient-Future theologians like Sweet and Weber (RIP) who are all about connecting the emerging conversation with creeds, liturgy, and even icons. I FOR ONE AM A BIG FAN OF THE ANCIENT-FUTURE conversation, but I leave the rest of the table. So what do we do with the EC? It's getting to be a co-opted term with the likes of "postmodernity" or "justice."

(2)I've done some hermeneutical dancing this semester and really connected again with symbols and their role in scripture/theology. I'm wondering if the EC would do good to benefit from those playing in the Eastern sandbox. I'm not totally there, but the symbols of our particular story as Christians keep resurfacing for me...which leads to my current obsession with reclaiming "religion" for our generation...

which leads to...

(3) Do you want to write an essay/article with me on the current state of the use of "religion" in emergent/young adult circles? I'm thinking about putting my book idea on the back burner, and focusing almost exclusively on the demise of "religion" into some sort of Jesus-only theology. I think this side of the EC that you portray here has catalyzed the movement. What can we do about this? Is there something we can write that will allow us to speak out about it and show that there are twentysomething theologians out there that aren't on board!