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Monday, December 12, 2005

The (non-) Emergent (or non-) Church?

D.A. Carson has as good but critical introduction to the emergent church movement as you can find on the web so far.

(Copied from ABC) Here is my own take on this. The assumption that seems to be put forth by the emergent church is that we are shifting from a modernist culture to a post modernist culture and therefore we need to shift from a modernist church to a postmodernist church. The perception of a cultural shift is the main grounds for altering not only the practice of the church but the formulation and presentation of doctrine as part of that practice. But this assumption is open to evaluation.

My own assessment is that the evidence that the culture is shifting from one paradigm to another is largely false and may even be wishful thinking on the part of certain evangelicals. If one is relying on high culture in the USA (the Big City-Big University-Big Media complex) to be the bellweather for cultural change, there is no real evidence for any substantial change in the basic mindset of that high culture since the pre-twentieth century inductrial age. The fact is that such culture has gotten more "conservative" and more effcient in globalizing itself and there is no logical end to its bootstrapping. The new boss is the same as the old boss.

Rather than think of pomo as the response and reaction to mo, I find that it makes better sense to distinguish between what I call "Hard Modernism" (HM) and "Soft Modernism" (SM) and also between "Hard Postmodernism" (HP) and "Soft Postmodernism" (SP). Modernism emphasizes disciplines of research (complexly structured skills with measurable performance, Gessellschaften), such as (paradigmaticly) the natural sciences, ideal frameworks (math and logic), and conventional social structures (social psychology, economics, technology, and contracts). Postmodernism emphasizes fields of research (contiguously related topics of study approached open endedly and more informally, Geimenschaften), such as culture, art, anthropolgy, religion, material culture, subjectivity, etc. "Hard" or "soft" refers to the radicalness of the application of the program and more specificly to the two possible responses to scepticism within and among the disciplines. The Hard approach embraces scepticism and confines meaningful discourse to whatever may be trivially true, incorrigibly known, or empirically verified. The Soft approach, while admittedly indicating that it cannot refute scepticism adopts the policy of rebuting and resisting it and preserves in its discourse what the Hard side discounts. In practice this distinction can be vague but not so much so that it cannot be relevent and useful, I think.

Therefore HM is reductionistic about science and all other disciplines. Only those things that can receive empirically verifiable formulation are true and whatever else is true is only true because it can be exactly paraphrased by something that is verifiable. Consequently except fro some narrow formal principles (if even those) ordinary discourse, morality, first person psychology, and religion are all something like pure fiction. Further, HP is relativistic and diverse, not only in the sense that there are diverse cultures but even in the sense that diversity and intranslatibility are created with every novel point of view anyone anywhere takes so that there is no personal identity over time since all of your current thoughts must be seen as radicaly equivocal to any of your previous thoughts. It also accepts that there is no truth value that can be assigned to these perspectives and that they are mere constructs after all. As you can see, in spite of the squabbles between them HP presupposes HM and is the implication of it to human experience.

On the other hand, SM returns to the phenomena and ordinary language and is aware of all the discrepancies between the naturalistic account of the world and the appearance of the world. While acknowledging the appearance/reality distinction, they also recognize the need for an adequate account of the world to answer all the relevent questions experience raises. SM is not automaticly hostile to experience or ordinary language and finds analogies to scientific ways of knowing to other ways of knowing (like aesthetic, moral, or religious experience) such that they stand or fall together. SP recognizes that there are other functions of reason besides scientific ones and that there are diverse systems of values, but that there is no reason to suppose that this makes all candidates for a function of reason or a system of value acceptible or intranslatable and that cross cultural moral criticism is possible. Further to say that there are a plurality of diverse and legitimate values is not to say that there are no objective values. There is more than one way things could be good. There is nothing necessarily that makes SM at any way incompatible with SP.

So my contention is that the Hard/Soft distinction is more relevnt than the modern/postmodern distinction. And my further contention is that if we have to ask what respect traditional evangelicalism (the evangelical protestant conservative movement of the 19th and 20th centuries in Britian and the USA as well as elsewhere) is a modernist movement, the answer seems clearly to be that by and large it was a movement of SM, both in Jonathan Edwards adoption of a system of thought like Berkeley's, in the dependence on the Old Reformed Scholastics, in Butler's reply to the deists, and the over all commitment of North American theology on the Scottish Common Sense Tradition and its resistance to Humean scepticism, as well as for the reason that a HM "version" of evangelicalism would be an oxymoron. Capitulation to HM gives you the Liberalism of the mainline churches. It's in this light that I think questions of the "modernism" involved in Warfield's doctrine of inerrancy should be understood.

Turning to the emergent church, we can ask a similar question with respect to postmodernism. And the problem is that the movement is so new that we have no clear idea if the attention to the difference between Hard and Soft is being given suffcient weight. Some things some of the leaders say seem to be reasonable adoption of SP such as their embracing of the work of Alistair MacIntyre. But as Basil Mitchell points out, MacIntyre is working out the thesis defended by C.S. Lewis in "the Abolition of Man", not known to be a tract for pomo. So such an enbrace seems hardly a radical shift implied by the word "emergent". On the other hand, where the emergent church seems to be its most "faddish" is in its "using relativism to balance out absolutism" and similar gestures. Here we don't know what is being accepted and what is being rejected.

We can at least say this, either the emergent church movement is an expression of HP or SP (or at least is heading toward the embracing of one or the other). If it enbraces HP, it is truly radical but also something other than evangelical Christianity. Rather than augmenting the ability of Chritianity to have a witness in contemporary society, it winds up embracing the absolute impossibility of such a witness even between members in the association called "church". But if it is moving in an SP direction, then it is embracing what may prove to be worthwhile features of contempory thought to faciliate its witness but these same features hardly put it at odds with traditional evangelicalism. The better view would be to argue how catholic traditional evangelicalism is to be able to enbrace these more reasonable currents of thought without giving up its original features (in the spirit of traditonal evangelical theologian, James Orr). But then its claim to be "radically emergent" is really empty. There is nothing Copernican or Galilean going on here. The emerging church movement has to decide whether its going not be emergent or not be the church.

However, if the emergent church is more tempered that some of the rhetoric, all it could be saying is that the church is having to make a shift in emphasis on some themes (say the SM themes) to an emphasis on other themes (say the SP themes). This is a change of thema which while not a Copernican shift is still fairly consistent with cultural shifts that the church has adopted in the past over time as it carried out its missionary program. But if the church changes its emphasis this way, its more like not because the culture is becoming morepost modern but that our part of western culture is remaining adamantly modernistic, as in HM, and forcing the church to adopt SP themes in order to oppose principle for principle. That is, the church is defending say a pluralistic account of moral values precisely to oppose the view that there is only one way the world is, the reductionist way. It may also be adopting a reasonable person standard of warrant pricely to oppose that restriction of legitmate certainty to either deductive or quantifiable inductive standards. In doing so and in claiming that "we are all postmodernists now" the church is appealing to the authority of an existing but non-expert culture. But against the program of HM, the ordinary average person on the street looks more SP-ish anyway, and this may be what is being construed as a "cultural movement toward postmodernism".

If the emergent church movement were in Europe rather than the USA, one expects that it would lose its motivation altogether, because Europe is adamantly unreconstructed HP, and the church remains looking like SM in contrast to it. Which means that church continues to maintain the image of Victorian Evangelical "fundamentalism". The emergent church may not be a strategy that makes sense in all parts of Western culture, on this less radical and more defensible view of it.

So at best, the emergent church, rather than picking out a Coperincan revoltion may just be marking a fairly typical sea change in the church in light of its history and geography. And these changes are often worthwhile.