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Monday, May 07, 2007

What is the Emergent Church?

(Reposted from my post at Facebook's White Horse Inn group discussion board.)

After looking at some of Brian McClaren's writings, it seems to me that the emergent church movement has some alternative descriptions to it besides its own self-description which would help us appreciate it more than we do. The matter of self-description is very key to what they are all about as they are strategically trying to choose their words in order to be heard by the current phase of secular culture. However, they are also looking to create an opportunity to correct substantial problems in the culture of the church. The general character of these problems are distinctive in that they are not of the strictly theological sort but rather methodological. On the other hand they are still considered substantial because they deal matters of moral appraisal.

In a way, the emergent church movement is part of the story of the evangelical rejection of fundamentalism, which encouraged an open mind to culture and intellectual achievement and thus encouraged young Christians to put off their original in church upbringing and pursue university educations. The emergent church is the blowback from this move, importing academic culture into the culture of the church on the premise that, as expected, university culture had legitimate criticisms to make about the habits of churched communities and the church itself would have to listen in all fairness. Further it must be the case that these admonishments all point to blocks which prevent sophisticated academics from even considering the church. But this does not just become an issue for an elite but for all citizens receiving a college education.

The problem centers on the issue of what counts as critical thinking which the emergent church views from both sides of the church line. Much of classical evangelical apologetic method as given by Carnell, Schaeffer, Henry, CS Lewis, Van Til, Clark, and Hackett is still very much in the objective idealist tradition of philosophy at a time when professional academia has rejected that tradition for positivism. While not committed to logical positivism in its explicit form general features of the positivist view remain standard. For example, while evangelical apologetics had been emphasizing the importance of formulating a coherent world and life view according to some objective criteria of world-view evaluation (empirical fit, coherence, livability, etc.), the academy has come to reject all such activity as "system building" and to focus more on the analysis of concepts, languages, structures, signs, etc.. The only discipline which can make progress on this account is science which can be cashed out in terms of conditional hypotheses and matters of logic. This not only denies a common ground on the basis of explanatory values, the entrenchment of this view in the university is enforced by gatekeepers who maintain it as the main research framework. This basically creates a kind of culture shock but one such that there is no basis in principle of overcoming, especially if you think of culture shock as a form of shame created by the removal of cultural fig leaves in the eyes of other cultures.

As Christians have gone through the university regimen they have become more savvy about where the university culture is most vulnerable. A good example is Alvin Plantinga. Plantinga altered the agenda of religious philosophy by defending the idea that belief in God could conceivably be a belief that needs no evidence to be legitimate. From the point of view of a traditional apologetics this seemed appalling given that Paul so clearly says that creation leaves a clear witness, enough to oblige belief in all people. It seemed that Plantinga's approach fell far short of the potential of theistic evidence according to the Scripture, thus compromising by implication the authority and inerrancy of Scripture.

I'm not sure if Plantinga believes in the inerrancy of Scripture or not, but that doesn't matter. Plantinga's agenda is not determined deductively from Scripture but rather by learning how the contemporary philosophy game is played and addressing it's weaknesses strategically. It is enough that it is logically conceivable that a person may have belief in God at the foundation of his justification tree, whether one actually does or not. Such a possibility refutes the putative obligation to proportion all beliefs to empirical facts, a tacit restriction of what may count as good thinking. By making such a point Plantinga is raising an internal criticism about the rules of the game, which is a legitimate move. His dialectical strategy is such that the average church goer may have a hard time seeing what he is up to and may in fact think that Plantinga is giving away the store. But this is only because he does not have the wherewithal to see things from Plantinga's point of view.

Plantinga's strategy is an excellent example of the "David and Goliath" approach -- taking out the most intimidating of Giants with the most meager looking of weapons. In turns out that the most vulnerable spots are only susceptible to the simplest weapons.

If we generalize this case, we can see what the problem is. Imagine the evangelical of the 1970's becoming a parent and sending his child to college not just with the intention of getting a career but in order make a real application of bring all of life under the Lordship of Christ. But after four years, the child has returned home an agnostic having found no leveredge for the evangelical theology he learned to make an impact into his university experience and having to choose between "all truth" and "God's truth". This because he has only learned how he was supposed to think and not how to think simpliciter which is a skill not automatically nor widely possessed by the population, Christian or otherwise. Now if he were to stick with the university and was not afraid of how he would sound to the folks back home he would eventually find the way to hold his faith and learning together as he grew in his abilities. But his doing so would leave the home church unchanged and recreating the drama for each new college student. The church may eventually regret adopting the positive cultural outlook of evangelicalism and retreat back to fundamentalism and isolation.

Hence the program of the emergent church movement which is the radical program of reinventing local church culture to bring it up to speed with the forces pushing from the top down that are isolating it in spite of the churches best intentions. The emergent church uses the language of our "postmodern situation" to communicate its agenda according to its aims. More specificly, it is incorporating the David and Goliath strategy, moving away from overt emphases on truth, argument, and evidence for the more thin looking issues of plausibility and narrative. In spite of the term "postmodern culture" the emergent church is really trying to acclimate the church more to intensified modernity in a way that maintains the essential character of the church more effectively.

The mandate for an emergent church is thus not a call to revival or reformation nor is it a mandate for psychotherapy or church growth techniques. It's a renegotiation of the territory within and between the church and the world. By calling it an emergent church it forces the choice for local Christians between the Old Way of doing things and the New Retrofitted Way of doing things while making the New Way strategically geared to respond to the press of modern quasi-public culture that is driven by the university. In this sense the emergent church is helping the average Christian who cannot see what is going on to be already acclimated to it and thus able to adapt to it.

In conclusion, the emergent church is the offspring of the evangelical movement in the respects that this movement distinguished itself from Fundamentalism. In many ways, the emergent church is being true to the spirit of J. Gresham Machen and Francis Schaeffer if we could only see the big picture. But there are many in the church who cannot do this. In this respect, in which everything comes down to differences with respect to critical thinking, inequalities of ability are unavoidable. The emergent church movement has put aside universal education of all and has adopted the strategy of thinking with the learned and speaking differently to the vulgar.

4 comments:

Jeremy Pierce said...

As you pointed out in your last post on this, this is only one strain in the emergent movement. The other strains include the denial of the possibility or legitimacy of doctrine, the acceptance of heresy, the acceptance of moral views of actions that scripture condemns, the denial of propositional truth, the denial of propositional knowledge, and a whole list of things that I know would count as far more than just a continuation of the evangelical project of distancing itself from fundamentalism.

The Gnu said...

Good job. You got it on the first pass.

The Gnu said...

One further point -- what counts as essential to the emergent church movement anyway. There pomo stand is typically anti-essentialist. Maybe there is nothing to object to in the emergent church because there is nothing essentially about the emergent church.

Anonymous said...

John,
Here is another article by McKnight with an identical title to your post:
http://www.geocities.com/daydr@sbcglobal.net/Z5207C.pdf

God Bless,
Rajjilicious