Emergent Church: Apostate or Nothing New Under the Sun?

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I'm not sure I've ever blogged about the so-called Emergent Church, mostly because I think the whole movement is so radically confused that I never wanted to bother to figure out where to start in pointing out all the philosophical and historical errors that serve as its foundation. But Gnu at Wildebeest's Wardrobe has done that work now in a way that I'm in complete agreement with. His post on this, to my mind, is the defininitive analysis of the Emergent Church. What I'm going to say here doesn't add anything to Gnu's post, but I think I can say the main points more succinctly and without as much technical jargon.

For those unfamiliar with this movement, the Emergent Church (a term some of them have used, but sometimes they prefer the Emergent Conversation) is a movement that had its origins within evangelicalism and has rejected key features of what it sees as modernism within evangelicalism, seeing itself as an emerging generation of those who have accepted that we're now in a postmodern generation and have to conceive of the mission and methods of the church differently in order to capture the good of this overwhelming change in cultural perspective. If you take some of their language seriously, it sounds as if they've left the church and formed something else, something thoroughly postmodernist, rejecting truth or at least any possibility of knowing the truth. If you pay more attention to those who moderate their rhetoric, it sounds as if their claims aren't nearly as strong. So there are these two ways of reading them, and the question is open (as far as I'm concerned) which of them is correct. What I think Gnu has valuably accomplished is figuring out how to categorize these two possibilities and being able to distinguish what follows if each is true.

Gnu distinguishes between two kinds of modernism and two kinds of postmodernism. Each mindset has a hard version and a soft version. The hard version of each is the dominant mindset among a certain segment of philosophy. Soft modernism thinks an account of the way the world is can be possible, even if it would be difficult for us to come up with one. It considers philosophical reasoning as a legitimate venture that can lead to truth about the world, but it acknowledges that absolute certainty is impossible. It considers science a legitimate method of learning about the world but doesn't hold science as the only or maybe even the most important source of knowledge. The key to modernism, as Gnu sees it, is the appearance/reality distinction. Things might be out there as we conceive of them, or they might be different from how we conceive them. Even if we can know things and have reasonable understanding of the way things are, we can't have absolute certainty. There's a set of things that are valuable, good, praiseworthy, and admirable (and a set of things that are the opposite), and that is true independent of what we happen to think or what background we happen to come from.

Contrast hard modernism. Modernism taken to the extreme leads to skepticism and reductionism. If we emphasize the appearance/reality distinction more, we get skepticism. We wonder how we could have any understanding at all of reality if appearance doesn't necessarily line up with it. We wonder if anything not immediately apparent to our senses could exist, and we get empiricism of the sort that considers the material world all there is. We get reductionist accounts of the human mind in purely material terms. We couldn't believe in a spiritual realm. That kind of modernism is obviously incompatible with Christianity. Only in the most liberal of mainline churches do you get the extremes of modernism, but it's long ceased to be Christianity at that point in anything like what the term classically meant. We wonder if there are any moral truths, and if they are it must be just a set of facts about what cultures or individuals happen to approve of.

Postmodernism reacts to hard modernism. Its reductionism is intolerable. Hard postmodernists think modernism leads to an unfounded belief in a reality that we shouldn't be able to know anything about, but for a hard postmodernist we shouldn't even be able to talk about such things. To a hard postmodernist, we can't even communicate with ourselves from moment to moment, never mind to other people. We can use language, and someone in a different interpretive framework can interpret what our sentences mean within their own framework. Meaning makes sense only within such a framework, however. There's no language-independent or concept-independent reality, since all reality we experience is shaped by our language and our concepts. If the relativism of modernism is based on the impossible to figure anything out about underlying reality, the relativism of postmodernism lies in the impossibility of such an underlying reality to begin with. So yet again we get a kind of skepticism, usually a pretty radical one. Any value system makes sense only within a conceptual framework, so moral relativism is again required. Everything is individualized, but this time it's not an individual person unsure of whether the immediate appearances correspond to reality. This time it's an individual person with no possibility of communicating with anyone else. Christianity, which relies on a gospel message to be communicated cross-culturally, not just cross-personally, is obviously inconsistent with hard postmodernism.

But what of soft postmodernism? It's possible that emergent types mean just a softer version. It's unclear to me, because their rhetoric often sounds like the hard postmodernist claims. But maybe it's just an overreaction from zealous opponents of hard modernism's reductionism. Maybe the appeals to multiple values don't mean completely incommunicable and radically relativistic moral systems that are all equally true. Maybe what the more careful emergent types mean is just that there are multiple ways of being good or valuable, and different contexts will make different value systems more relevant (within certain limits). Maybe the language point is just that narratives shape how we perceive the world but that inter-personal communication is still possible with careful dialogue. Maybe the emphasis on narrative truth rather than propositional truth is not a denial that there are true claims but simply a desire to point out that a narrative can capture something that you can't communicate with a list of truths in a systematic theology. Maybe the denial of systematic theology in general is an insistence that systematic theology doesn't well capture everything the Bible teaches, not a denial that theology can be put into systematic form within limits. In other words, it may just be a denial of the reductionism of hard modernism.

But Gnu is right to point out that such a soft postmodernism is perfectly compatible with a soft modernism. It says nothing that can't be said in different terms, modernistic terms. It eschews hard modernism, but so does soft modernism. If this is all the Emergent Church or Emerging Conversation is about, Gnu is right to say that it's not even close to radical. It's saying something that people have been saying for years. The gospel needs to be contextualized to some extent. Imposing your own culture on the gospel and transferring your culture rather than the gospel itself is not preaching the gospel. It's preaching your culture. Missiologists have been saying that for decades. This isn't some new framework so radically different from even soft modernism that it requires thinking of it as a huge revolution in thought. It's simply a new set of vocabulary to describe something that more careful thinkers and more mature Christians have known and practiced all along. It's in fact a completely misleading way to describe that as well, and it's no surprise that so many soft modernists (e.g. many Reformed types) have responded as if the Emergent Conversation is really advocating hard postmodernism. Their terminology really makes it sound that way, because their response to what they view as traditional evangelicalism relies on absolute black-and-white categories of hard modernism vs. soft postmodernism, with no thought of the soft modernism that many evangelicals fit nicely into. It's also no surprise that other soft modernists (e.g. Craig Blomberg) have responded as if there's nothing new to the view. There really may not be. They may simply be talking as if their view is a denial of everything modern because they think of modernism as hard modernism.

It's possible, on the other hand, that many in the Emergent Church movement are indeed hard postmodernists. I know little enough about it that I won't deny that. I do get the sense that some of the more careful thinkers among them, including some of the leaders, do not go so far but only sound as if they do when speaking uncarefully (which is most of the time, at least for a few of the most public leaders in this movement). But I'm giving them the benefit of the doubt, and I'd like them to consider which of these two they really mean when they say they're accepting what postmodernism has to offer. Do they mean the harder kind of postmodernism? If so, then they are simply not evangelicals, and I would argue that they really are emerging. They're emerging from the church and are becoming something else. It's hard to see that as anything but forsaking Christianity itself. Or are they the softer kind of postmodernism? If so, then they can easily be well within the ranks of evangelicalism. But they're not really emerging. They're simply a part of the church. They're acting divisively by pretending they're not (or by pretending the church is not the church or whatever they're trying to say), but they're still within the church. They're not emerging. Their straw man portrayals of soft modernists as hard modernists need to go, but they haven't become and are not necessarily on the road to becoming apostate. But nor are they really undergoing some major paradigm shift. This is a slightly different emphasis in the grand scheme of things, but what they're saying is not new with postmodernism. It's just cast in soft postmodern terms rather than soft modern terms.

In the end, I think Gnu is right that the more definitive issue is hardness and softness, not modern and postmodern. The soft modernist and soft postmodernist can say pretty much the same things, and a more moderate emergentist isn't likely to disagree on much with someone like D.A. Carson, who accepts some moderating claims that soft postmodernists and soft modernists will put forth but rejects hard modernism and hard postmodernism. Emergentists almost always call Carson a modernist, however, and they paint him as a hard modernist, which is patently unfair and makes me think they haven't even read him. The question is whether they understand him and simply reject some claims that are necessary for the Christian gospel even to make sense or whether they simply don't understand what he's saying because of a filter that reads hard modernism into soft modernist claims. I have to think it's often the latter.

Many Reformed types always portray emergent types as hard postmodernists, and I think that's the same sort of problem. But I think in that case it's often because of uncareful wording and, quite frankly, uncareful thought to begin with. When I read Brian McLaren, I have to think he hasn't ever taken an epistemology class, or if he did he was reading it from within some preconceived framework that led him to get it all wrong. Yet he makes so many claims about the nature of knowledge that he sounds to many as if he must understand what he's saying, and what his words would mean if he meant them the way they sound are, at times, hard postmodernism. Yet at other times he moderates this, particularly in footnotes or moments of taking it back after saying it and then not wanting to give the wrong impression.

In the first chapter of Genesis, God collects things into groups and separates things out from each other, organizing reality with careful distinctions and categorizations. I wonder how much it would help this whole conversation if we were much more careful with our terms, because my sense of the whole thing is that no one knows what anyone else really means by what they're saying, usually out of an unfamiliarity with the philosophical literature and the kind of language necessary to make the proper distinctions between views. I hope Gnu's setting apart of a few different sorts of things people could be saying might help clarify a little of this and further the discussion so we can understand each other a little better.

Oh, and I do realize that the two options presented in my title constitute a false dilemma. It might well be that the Emergent Church has something new to offer that isn't constitutive of apostacy. But the two most obvious ways to take some of their central claims do seem to me to be ambiguous between two primary interpretive frameworks: (1) that they are saying something new that in fact distances them from central Christian teaching and (2) that they are saying something that isn't really new among evangelicals but because of their false categories they've taken to be new. Many of their less central claims will obviously be between the two stark options (e.g. what they say on how meetings of local congregations should be run). It's a lot more difficult for me to see some of the more central theses of the movement about truth, knowledge, and so on as easily falling into a third category.

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