To define a movement properly is to find not just what is unique to a movement, as adult baptism upon confession was to the Baptists or as the gift of prophecy was to the Vineyard, but to discover and elaborate what is “characteristic” of that movement. I think it is a mistake to define Emergent solely on the basis of its epistemology, especially when one focuses on only one of its leaders, and I think it is imperative to listen long and hard to what the Emergent folk are saying in order to grasp not only what is unique to them but what genuinely characterizes them. I happen to think there is an epistemology here, and I am persuaded that it will differ radically from person to person and from church to church, and because it will differ so wildly, it is not fair to limit it to McLaren.
But, again, there is an epistemology among the Emergents and I want to give it a label and ask for it to be considered as a way of putting together what this movement has as one of its central concerns. I will call it an “ecclesiological epistemology,” and I will try to give it some definition. (Maybe others have said this better; I cede to them if they have.)
Let me begin with this: for the Emergent movement one “knows” most fully and in the fullness that God desires in the context of community and one “comes to know” and “to make known” through that ecclesial community. What this means involves the following:
First, there is no necessary denial of truth among the Emergents in this ecclesiological epistemology. I have read Brian McLaren and some others; I have read the blogs of countless others; and I know that they are in deep communion with the likes of Stan Grenz, Leonard Sweet, and others. I know that sometimes, in fact more often than that, these lights say things that suggest that “truth” can’t be known. And DA Carson has pointed this out, and he needs to be listened to by the Emergents. To claim to be a Christian is to claim to know that God is Truth and that his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, is the Truth.
But, so far as I can see, the Emergents confess this. Where they sometimes get confused is in thinking that (1) we can’t know anything in our world absolutely; (2) truth is an absolute claim; therefore (3) we can’t claim Truth. But, I am a lot more persuaded that most Emergents don’t walk this syllogism. For those who do, they are fighting against either a straw man or a dead man: very few think in terms of needing to know anything absolutely anymore. The Cartesian doubt has seen its day.
Second, thus, there is a chastened sense of Truth among Emergents that has been seriously informed by the Fall as something that impacts the mind of all humans. Which simply means this: humans cannot articulate the Truth with utter finality, and that they cannot fully know that Truth, and that therefore they should avoid talking like they do. Most importantly, truth can only be known because of the grace of God. Someone like Merold Westphal is worth reading in this regard.
What the Emergents tend toward is the problem of the Subject and the Object: the Object may be there (God, the gospel, etc) but the Subject is involved in the knowing of that Object, and the minute the Subject gets involved the Object loses its pure objectivity. It is OK not to know absolutely, it is OK to recognize that our attempts at knowing are not complete, but it is not OK to slip into thinking that therefore humans can’t know the Object. We can, but we can’t know it purely. But, in the context of community, operating together into a hermeneutical spiral, the human can come to terms with the Object and know truthfully. What we know is always the articulation of a Subject, but the grace of God enables us to know and his grace is sufficient for us to know that we can know some things truthfully.
Third, sometimes their chastened concept of Truth goes too far. I need not emphasize this, but I don’t consider it a small issue.
Fourth, but they are saying something that needs to be heard: Truth is more than a rational system of thought. Truth is closer to Love than it is to Light (though one should be hesitant to make these opposites) and that therefore the fullest sense of truth is known in loving God and loving others, that it is known in union with God and in communion with others, and that this sense of Truth actually transcends our rational processes. Again, the perichoresis is the ground of God’s reality.
What I see among the Emergent lights is a clear disgust with the theology that is too rational, that does not result in human transformation, and that does not see the focus of life in the community of God. I happen to think that “story” is too often used, but only because it is so welcome. We must never forget this: when God chose to make his will known in verbal form, he chose two things: the story of Israel and the Church, and the living embodiment in his Son, Jesus Christ. Each of these can be turned into rational propositions, but turning them will never satisfy the fullness that is needed in knowing God and being known as we are known.