Tuesday, December 11, 2007

What is the Emerging Church? (Part 2)

Part 1

In yesterday's post, I looked at the first of three characterizations of the Emerging Church made by D.A. Carson in his book. (Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005) The first characterization of the movement is as a protest movement.

Today I will look at the next characterization, Protest against Modernism.

Yesterday's point could be stated more pointedly as protest against historical evangelicalism. Today's is somewhat more general, focused on modernism, which certainly influenced the traits of evangelicalism. The Emerging Church has, in large part, jettisoned modernism for postmodernism.

Much like the Emerging Church itself, modernism and postmodernism defy simple definition. I found this paragraph from Carson to be very helpful in bringing some essential clarity to the division, though.

The majority view, however, is that the fundamental issue in the move from modernism to postmodernism is epistemology - i.e., how we know things, or think we know things. Modernism is often pictured as pursuing truth, absolutism, linear thinking, rationalism, certainty, the cerebral as opposed to the affective – which in turn breeds arrogance, inflexibility, a lust to be right, the desire to control. Postmodernism, by contrast, recognizes how much of what we "know" is shaped by the culture in which we live, is controlled by emotions and aesthetics and heritage, and in fact can only be intelligently held as part of a common tradition, without overbearing claims to being true or right. Modernism tries to find unquestioned foundations on which to build the edifice of knowledge and the proceeds with methodological rigor; postmodernism denies that such foundations exist (it is "antifoundational") and insists that we come to "know" things in many ways, not a few of them lacking in rigor. Modernism is hard-edged and, in the domain of religion, focuses on truth versus error, right belief, confessionalism; postmodernism is gentle and, in the domain of religion, focuses on relationships, love, shared tradition, integrity in discussion. […] The majority of emerging church leaders see a very clear contrast between modern culture and postmodern culture and connect the divide to questions of epistemology.

Scot McKnight, in his lecture at Westminster Theological Seminary, touched on the impact of postmodernism on the emerging church.

Moral character, God reveals, is shaped by solid prohibitions. When the evangelical world prohibited postmodernity, as if it were the apple on the tree, from its students, the fallen among us […] chose to eat it to see what it might taste like. We found that it tasted very good even if at times you found yourself spitting out hard chunks of nonsense.

He goes on to describe several different approaches taken by Christians seeking to minister in the postmodern context:

[T]hose who minister to postmoderns see them as trapped in moral relativism and epistemological bankruptcy – they have no moral compass and they are afraid to render judgment on the truth. In other words, postmodernity is a condition out of which humans need to be rescued and in which the Christian wallows for a time in the effort to rescue them. […]

Others minister with postmoderns. That is, they live with, work with, and converse with postmoderns and they accept their postmodernity as a fact of life in our world. Because the Christian’s calling is to be “paracletic” instead of “parasitic,” the Christian will accept postmodernity as the present condition of the world in which we are now called to proclaim and live out the gospel. […]

Now, before I get to my third form of ministry and postmodernity, let it be said that plenty of emerging Christians and churches fit into these first two categories – in fact, the vast majority so far as I can tell. […] What I’m saying is that “within postmodern cultures,” as stated by Gibbs-Bolger, most often means that Christians are rescuing folks from postmodernity or walking alongside such folk in order to lead them to paradise. These sorts of emerging Christians don’t deny truth, and they don’t deny that Jesus Christ is the truth, and they don’t deny the Bible is truth – but they might be gentle when it comes to their use of the word “truth.”

A third kind emerging postmodernity is the sexy kind that, once it walks into the room, draws all lookers and lurkers: these folks minister as postmoderns. That is, they embrace the human condition of not knowing absolute truth or at least not knowing truth absolutely – and they speak of a proper confidence and a chastened epistemology and the end of metanarratives and the fundamental importance of social location as shaping what we know and find to be true.

Carson echos some of these same ideas:

[W]hile most leaders of the emergent movement set up a relatively simple antithesis – namely, modernism is bad and postmodernism is good – [Brian] McLaren is careful […] to avoid the obvious trap: many forms of postmodern thought do in fact lead to some kind of religious relativism, and McLaren knows that for the Christian that is not an option. He clearly wants to steer a course between absolutism and relativism, and he is more careful on this point than some of his peers.

But ask yourself: Though it may well be what McLaren wants to do, is it possible to steer a course between absolutism and relativism? Is it a simple either/or dichotomy between the two choices? Or is there a middle ground?


Blogger Terry Rayburn said...

Hi Doug,

A couple of things may shed some light on this discussion.

1. Philosophical Modernism (which Bible-believers seek to defend for its understanding that there are absolute truths) should be distinguished from Theological Modernism (the unfortunate term which was given to Theological Liberalism).

Theological Liberalism, which ultimately denied Scripture and developed out of the so-called "Higher Criticism" of the late 1800's and early 1900's, was really another word for unbelief.

These were those who denied the fundamentals of Christianity (e.g., the diety of Christ, the virgin birth, etc.) because they denied the miraculous. This became known as "Modernism" in the theological sense.

Philosophical Modernism merely acknowledges that there is such a thing as absolute truth, and a believer in the fundamentals of Christianity would rightly embrace this "philosophy".

2. There has evolved, especially in the last couple of years, a split netween the terms "EmerGING" AND "EmerGENT".

The cause of this division is that some Emerging Church people went beyond the distinctions mentioned by Carson, for example, to outright false teaching which denied the Scripture and the fundamentals of the faith.

The terminology for these unorthodox teachers has evolved into "EmerGENT". These would include men like Brian McClaren and Doug Pagitt.

Those who have some Emerging distinctives, yet still claim a belief in the fundamentals of the faith, and inerrancy of Scripture, have kept the term "EmerGING". These would include men like Dan Kimball and Mark Driscoll.

Admittedly, there is often a blurring between the two terms, and many in and out of the "movement" still lump both types of teachers into one or the other term. Or they combine the terms, as in "Emerging/Emergent", failing to make the distinction.

Still, it's important to realize that some are essentially orthodox, and some are so "generous" in their "orthodoxy" as to be heretical.

December 12, 2007 at 10:27 PM  

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