Monday, September 22, 2008

rambling about Emergent

There has been a lot of discussion around the blogosphere lately about just what is this emergent, emergence and emerging Christianity. It seems to boil up seasonally. Some of it stems from the constant battle for formal statement of meaning in a thoroughly definition driven culture (see below for some of the most interesting).

The best things I am reading are reflections by people that have been part of this nonentity for a number of years. These personal stories are defined by intuition, embrace, nuance and lack of definition (I will call it the smell test- like Gladwell's book Blink; they know it when they see it). They are not defining emergent by the books we read, the right affiliations and friends, the right name dropping, the proper theological stance or the right music listened to. They are not deciding who is "not" emergent by their ecclesiology, liturgy, school attended (or else we not have such a heavy Liberty contigent), politics or denomination. This works for those that are inside (those that "get it"), but frustrates outsiders.

Those standing outside of something must define it, according to their terms, usually because they will refuse to believe those inside, since those in a movement are "corrupted" by their close proximity (there is some truth in this). The outsider does this because he needs to feel a compelling reason for not embracing a movement. This is the case in religion (like I have never done that to fundamentalism), politics, academia, and sports (why I feel so superior to pathetic Cubs fans). Heck, there is not a cultural phenomena that is not within the purview of this tendency.

We all decide whether we see something as dangerous, heretical, unhealthy, untruthful, a poor worldview, poor reasoning, uncool, nonsensical, or uncomfortable. I understand this need. It is quite normal and been around since the beginnings of documented civilization. It is not always, but usually, connected to a desire to feel in power or superior to another.

To think that a D.A. Carson, Albert Mohler or John Piper would consider the feelings, nuanced beliefs and stories of those defining themselves as emergent is naive. The critics of Emergent think one way, while many within Emergent think another way. It is no different when Republicans define, critique and lambaste Democrats on Fox News (or vice versa on MSNBC).

When doing this we are engaging in partisan thinking, which many self defined Emergents (especially newer ones) fall into. According to UVA professor of Psychology, Jonathan Haidt such thinking is defined as "reject first, ask rhetorical questions later." 

Because this conflict is about a way of thinking and nothing as simple as truth and falsehood, I have come to the conclusion that there will be no coming together between most of Emergents critics and most of Emergents participants. Only those critics that think like those within Emergent can understand what is happening (they are out there in dialogue). In fact, this is the case in most instances (in or outside of religion). The problems come from the line of thinking, not the facts (the facts are defined through the lens of the way we think).

It is the same reason some people vote Democratic or Republican (both sides are full of good people with a desire to see American society flourish). It is why most people think in a partisan manner and few do not think in such a manner. It is not because some are smarter, more spiritual, more enlightened or in any ways better. It is simply that some people need a bit more rigidity, more definition and more structure. They need "in" and "out." That must be accepted.

The irony that is not lost on me (and Emergent oldie) is that some of Newbies in Emergent think in a partisan manner. While their brains go first to a more open minded, nuanced place theologically, they still think in concrete (in and out) terms. When I look at blogs, I have noticed that some within our family have begun to define borders, orthodoxies and orthopraxis; whether this is monasticism, Anabaptist principles, Anti-Consumerism (which I do think should be a hallmark), Liberal or Democratic political ideals (but calling it moderate), anti-globalization, natural health and progressive views on women's issues, homosexuality and Biblical interpretation. While I think some of these are noble causes I can get behind, I think the danger lies in definition, which I believe many want- not just those on the outside, but also those on the inside.

I have heard too many friends tell me that a particular Church was not emergent based upon some window dressing or shallow theological point. Admittedly I have done so myself, only to repent afterwards. Just as insidious is the tendency I have seen from some that have "embraced" Emergent from very defined religious traditions (often without severe crises of faith, thought and emotion); which is a desire to define the theological particulars, co-opting the forms of their own traditional creed and systematic theology (even when calling it "narrative"). "What is the Emergent position on ____ _____?" is a comment question.

I have found myself reading many self defined "emergent" blogs and websites and only to be repelled by the insider language, lack of hospitality and inability to walk in the shoes of others (sadly I have even seen this on the Emerging Women blog countless times).* 

In my simpleminded little corner of the world, I look at someone like Morgan Spurlock as an example for Emergent. His show 30 Days is what I imagine those defining themselves as Emergent to be. It is the Anti-partisan way of thinking. It is empathetic. It demands that we consider the other, whether they be gay, poor, rich, gun-toting, Muslim, thoughtful or thoughtless, atheist or fundamentalist. We consider why they think the way they think and we accept them, not always their ideas, but them (with their ideas)*. It is to be considerate, in our actions and in our thinking.*** It is to not villainize others, because we too could be wrong in our thinking (just as arrogance is anathema to a truly reformed mind; it, too, must be such to an emerging mind- this should be common ground).

I feel I am rambling due to outside factors and not explaining clearly that I am coming to realize that (for all of our thoughts about what emergent is) Emergent is simply a way of thinking. That is it (just in a Christian context). And that is very scary to anyone that thinks in a partisan manner (whether left or right/ inside or outside). We said this in 1999, but quickly forgot this and moved to bigger things (I had accepted and promptly forgotten this principle until I saw so many self defined Emergents thinking in concrete, black and white terms).

In fact, when hanging with my Emergent friends, I come to the realization that those I count as safe may not consider themselves in Emergent or out, but their way of thinking (non partisan, considering the ideas of others and not automatically dismissing them, systemic, hospitable) is what makes them part of this movement (so yes, I am defining Emergent). And, when I think of who I consider part of emergent and who I think is not part of emergent, I look to Scripture, especially Philippians 2:1-11 (people that are like minded, not looking to their own interests, etc.)

The other irony is that I seldom use the term emergent, or talk about emergent. For me, it just is and there is no need to define it and confuse things, but today I have used the term more than I have in many moons. But, then again... what do I know?

*when particularly ornery mood,  I would invite those that think in a partisan (but "liberal, open minded") manner that want to define things to start their own camps and leave emergent to the slippery non partisan thinkers).

** within Emergent, I have felt pressure by some to have no boundaries. However, among those I count as longtime friends in this group, there is a characteristic of having one's own boundaries (however rigid they may seem), while holding no boundaries (mostly theological) for others in our community.

***it seems to me that Jesus did this.

some of the interesting things about Emergent lately include:

  • Mike Stavlund's observations (he is showing some of the ways different thinking occurs religiously)
  • Brian on some of the conversations.
  • Andrew Jones has been on this topic for over a month. 
  • Steve has been collecting a lot of this info at the Emergent Village blog.
  • An excellent article that describes what I am thinking about. It explains why people vote Democratic and Republican based upon how they process information and what their mind values. It starts like it is going in a way that disses conservatives and takes a sharp turn quickly. Read it here. According to its author, we need to set aside our halo of our own way of thinking and understand that Liberals and Conservatives both have "deeply conflicting, but equally heartfelt visions of the good society."

1 comment:

g13 said...

i really enjoyed this column. thanks for musing.