This series on “What is the Emerging Church?” is designed to help the many who are constantly asking about the identity and definition of the movement or conversation. But, let me be a bit cranky first: Emergent Village has a clear “Order” posted and there is no reason anyone can’t consult it for definition; Wikipedia has a definition, and it too can easily be consulted; and nearly every leader of the Emerging Movement has something along this line. So, let this be said: there is no reason for people to use simplistic caricatures of the movement.
The single-most debated issue concerns postmodernism.
But this word beggars definition, and I’ll do what I can to give the term and its implications some clarity.
First, it is commonly stated that postmodernity denies truth. What a minute! That, too, is a caricature useful only for apologetics designed to score points. The more reasonable meaning is this: postmodernity denies that meta-narratives are the truth. (A meta-narrative is a comprehensive explanation of reality — and I’ll side with Kevin Vanhoozer here that meta-narrative has a variety of meanings, one of which would include our Christian faith as a “meta-narrative.”)
And yet again wait another minute! As Professor Jamie Smith has clearly shown, postmodernity is more complex than that because its real denial is this: it denies the ability to prove meta-narratives on rational, independent, objective grounds. In other words, it contends that the only way meta-narratives can be finally persuasive is if one believes the meta-narrative itself. Faith is required for the meta-narrative to be truthful. For a scientific meta-narrative of life to be “true” requires that a person believe in the “scientific way of things.” For Jamie Smith, see his chapter in Christianity and the Postmodern Turn.
There is nothing that should be more welcome to orthodox Christian theology than the contention that meta-narratives cannot be established on the basis of some kind of universal reason independent of faith. This is somewhat Augustinian: I believe in order to understand. It is crucial to the way of Jesus that we must first trust him in order to know him and to know ourselves and to know our vocation in this world.
Second, those in the Emerging Movement who are postmodernists are not radical postmodernists — that is, they are not “hard” postmodernists. (Hard postmodernists deny any truth whatsoever.) Some Emerging Christians are “soft” postmodernists, and some aren’t even that: they may be critical realists or they may be soft foundationalists. I am pleading with the critics of the Emerging Movement to accept that not all Emerging folks are hard or even soft postmodernists. To equate Emerging folk with postmodernism and to say that postmodernists deny truth so therefore the Emerging folk deny truth is unfair, libelous, and scandalous to how Christians ought to operate with one another. (I have been involved with the Emerging movement steadily for six months and an attentive listener well before that, and I have not yet heard one “hard” postmodernist approach to reality. Not one. They may be there, but I’ve not heard them, and I can say that I have looked.)
I will say this again: the Emerging Movement is not entirely postmodernist in its epistemology, and it is sloppy and unfair to say that it is. What the Emerging Movement, and almost universally, is an attempt to “do church locally” in light of the postmodern condition of our world. (Though it needs to be known more that postmodernity is not the same everywhere, and its particular form in the Euro-centric world is different, and more intense probably, than one finds, say, in South East Asia.)
Third, the Emerging Movement form of postmodernity operates with a “proper confidence” (Lesslie Newbigin) or a chastened epistemology. Here’s why: they know that the Subject (you and I when we are attempting to “know”) is always involved to one degree or another in knowing the Object (what you and I are trying to “know”). Humans are limited and fallible — every last one of us. Therefore, everything we know and everything we articulate is to one degree or another limited and influenced by who we are and what we think and what we want to be true. To be sure, I know I’m sitting here typing on this PowerBook G4, and we all admit a certain level of functional truthfulness. But, to one degree or another, we are all limited and biased. I see this as a wonderful expression of our fallen nature: we are cracked Eikons. Some call this the noetic effects of the Fall.
Fourth, Absolute Truth can only be predicated of God himself. This is important: sometimes I hear many of my evangelical friends affirm that they believe in absolute truth, and I welcome their comments. But, only God is Absolute Truth and all our articulations of truth partake, to one degree or another, in that Truth but our articulations do not strike home as as full grasp of Absolute Truth. Only God is Absolute Truth and only God can genuinely know Absolute Truth. All our knowledge is tinged. To assign Absolute Truth to God alone does not ruin our confidence, it just means that our confidence is in God. (I cannot tell you how important this last statement is to me.)
Fifth, this means that the Emerging Movement’s embrace of a “proper confidence” or a “chastened epistemology” is the embrace of our human condition, of our need for humility in what we say, and in the need we have for one another to come to the truth of the gospel. The Emerging Movement, when it is postmodernist in this sense, believes that only by trusting in God, and by living in the way of Jesus, and by living out as a community of faith, do we strike home to truth. Truth is a relationship to God that is lived out and articulated.
Sixth, I have yet to meet anyone in the Emerging Movement who does not believe that God’s truth is to be found in Jesus Christ and in the Church’s scriptural witness to the truth, to the Scripture as the “script” for the “theo-drama” we are summoned to live out in this world. (This borrows from Kevin Vanhoozer’s new book, The Drama of Doctrine.) I am not saying that every one has what is classically called a “high” view of Scripture, but I am persuaded the the core of the Emerging Movement knows that the Spirit who guides and speaks today is the Spirit who inspires Scripture, and I’m quite happy to put this the other direction and say that all our current Spirit-led activity is shaped by the “script” of the Scripture.
Seventh, what is perhaps most offensive to many is that the Emerging Movement operates with a praxis and orthodoxy model rather than an orthodoxy model: in other words, it believes that orthodoxy is practiced (since truth is ultimately relational) as much as it is articulated. (This is not a “one or the other” but a “both-and” approach.) In my assessment, this is a needed challenge to the orthodoxy model that too often (not always) slips into credo as the only definition of the Christian faith. For the Emerging Movement the faith is performed and proclaimed; it is proclaimed by its performance. Neither is devalued.
Eighth (and I’m sorry for being too long here), the Emerging Movement is smitten by a narrative or story form to theology and less committed to a propositional form of theology. Now, it must be admitted (though some Emerging folk don’t quite get this), that story and proposition are not absolute alternatives. For anything to make sense it must be articulable and that means at some level some kind of proposition — but the point needs to be made. The work of God to redeem us is a narrative of God’s work in the world: the Bible is not so much a systematic theology (which it is only at times) as it is a narrative of God’s work with God’s people in God’s world and how at various times God spoke in special ways. So, whatever you say, the Bible is a story format. This is not to deny Law or Proverb or Psalm or Prophetic Woe or Epistle or Apocalyptic genres: it is to say that each of these is caught up and makes sense only in the narrative web provided by the Bible. (I am not denying propositions or that they are present, so please don’t try to capture this comment with suggesting that I deny propositions.)
Thus, the truth of the Emerging Movement that is postmodernist (and not all of it is) is the story of God at work in Jesus Christ and all stories of life are judged by that one true story.
Finally, the “certainty” of the Emerging movement that adheres to some form of postmodernity (and not all do) is the kind of certainty that emerges from love and trust of God, from loving with one’s being Jesus Christ, and from being immersed in the love of the Holy Spirit. Trust breeds a kind of chastened but genuine certainty. I know Jesus died for me not because I can prove it but because I trust God’s work in Jesus Christ. That is the only kind of proof I can offer for love. I love, therefore, I know I love and am loved.
And one final finally: grace rules for an Emerging postmodernism because it deprives me of being able to prove God to myself, to others, and to God. Grace tells me that I can only know God by casting aside my own mental arrogance and find Truth in God who is Truth.
This post explains why it is that so many Emerging leaders call “the story we find ourselves in” a conversation: because we are limited, because we are finite, we need one another and need to converse with one another in the context of a trusting, loving community, for it is together that we will come to know the truth that can set us free.
The truth is a story and that Story is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
Tomorrow: the positives of the Emerging Movement.