What is the relationship of the emerging movement and the orthodox creeds? How do you think it relates or should relate to orthodoxy? Well, I don’t speak for anyone, but I’ll tell you what I think: it varies. (I’ll bet you dropped dead in surprise on that one.) To see how and why it varies, I point to what I think are four major impulses in the emerging movement, and each of these impulses leads to slightly different interests in orthodoxy.
First, there is the postmodern impulse. Some in the emerging movement — and don’t say all or someone will slap your hand — are in to the emerging movement because it has a postmodern edge to it. That is, it questions the viability of large metanarratives, and it worries about rational, systematic theologies that are neither chastened by our minds’ capacities nor conversant with other theologies. It adheres to a “proper confidence” in Jesus Christ and the gospel, but is not overly concerned with large-scale systematic theologies. Some have lots of questions about the gospel and find postmodernism a quiet place to rest and think about what they believe.
Second, there is a praxis impulse. Some are drawn to the emerging movement because of its edgy and innovative worship and church services, while others are drawn (as I am) to the missional focus of the emerging movement. [Add: Involved in some elements is an ancient-future worship or an ecumenical creedal practice.]
Third, there is a postevangelical impulse. Let’s face it, though not all will admit it: there is a significant “I’m no longer what I was when I was a conservative evangelical” in the emerging movement. Many are drawn to the emerging movement because it provides a safe place to believe in the gospel, to follow Jesus, but not be required to adhere to a list of evangelical doctrines that make up evangelical orthodoxy. For many it is postevangelical.
Fourth, there is a political impulse. I see a growing element here: not all are Democrats and not all are Republicans, but there is an impulse in this movement for social justice. Not just an impulse but a conviction that the justice is central to the gospel. And that means things like poverty, AIDS, the development of rights for others, that sort of thing. Some are drawn into the emerging movement to participate in social justice activities.
So, where does that leave the emerging movement and orthodoxy? I’ll speak my mind. I think some in the first group are not so convinced creedal orthodoxy (or any other kind) is all that important. Not all who have been touched by the postmodern shift are against creeds, but some have big issues — some suggest they are historic documents we respect but are not tied to. And there are some who simply no longer believe such things.
The praxis impulse, on the other hand, is I suspect more committed to the orthodox creeds, even evangelical ones, than not. The postevangelical impulse, I suspect, opens up two points of view: some are still evangelical in theology and find great freshness in the shorter more historic creedal statements, while others are more joined at the hip with the pomo impulse and want to question the place of orthodox creeds. Some, I suspect, are willing to reduce the Christian faith to “following Jesus” in behavior — and that is all that matters.
I’m not sure about the political impulse, but I think this impulse is probably in tune with pomo and postevangelical impuse, along with a commitment to justice that is so central that orthodox creeds aren’t part of the equation.
Now here’s my claim: the emerging conversation is for all of these sorts (in fact it already comprises all these sorts). But, what that means is that some think orthodoxy really matters (I do) while others think it doesn’t. The conversation is open to both kinds. The conversation is no more only for those who have jettisoned the path of orthodoxy than it is only for those who adhere to orthodoxy. This makes emergent a special movement; there aren’t many like this. I don’t agree with those who are universalists, but I think that question is being asked today and I want to participate in that conversation.
One of my regular readers and conversation partners, RJS, sent me this from Ben Franklin’s justifiably famous Autobiography and you’ve just got to read it. It sets out a case why one group was hesitant to post its doctrinal statement, and in a way provides an example of why many, especially the postmodern and political sort, in the emerging movement are nervous about doctrinal statements of any kind.
These embarrassments that the Quakers suffered from having
established and published it as one of their principles that no kind
of war was lawful, and which, being once published, they could not
afterwards, however they might change their minds, easily get rid of,
reminds me of what I think a more prudent conduct in another sect
among us, that of the Dunkers.
I was acquainted with one of its founders, Michael Welfare, soon
after it appeared. He complained to me that they were grievously
calumniated by the zealots of other persuasions, and charged with
abominable principles and practices, to which they were utter
strangers. I told him this had always been the case with new sects,
and that, to put a stop to such abuse, I imagined it might be well to
publish the articles of their belief, and the rules of their
discipline. He said that it had been proposed among them, but not
agreed to, for this reason:
“When we were first drawn together as a society,” says he, “it had
pleased God to enlighten our minds so far as to see that some
doctrines, which we once esteemed truths, were errors; and that
others, which we had esteemed errors, were real truths. From time to
time He has been pleased to afford us farther light, and our
principles have been improving, and our errors diminishing. Now we
are not sure that we are arrived at the end of this progression, and
at the perfection of spiritual or theological knowledge; and we fear
that, if we should once print our confession of faith, we should feel
ourselves as if bound and confined by it, and perhaps be unwilling to
receive farther improvement, and our successors still more so, as
conceiving what we their elders and founders had done, to be
something sacred, never to be departed from.”
This modesty in a sect is perhaps a singular instance in the history
of mankind, every other sect supposing itself in possession of all
truth, and that those who differ are so far in the wrong; like a man
traveling in foggy weather, those at some distance before him on the
road he sees wrapped up in the fog, as well as those behind him, and
also the people in the fields on each side, but near him all appears
clear, though in truth he is as much in the fog as any of them.
To avoid this kind of embarrassment, the Quakers have of late years
been gradually declining the public service in the Assembly and in
the magistracy, choosing rather to quit their power than their principle.
And Sarah Cunningham sent me this nice link to the value of creeds. I wish I had it Monday.
Tomorrow: I’ll look at a “beliefs” articulation in the emerging movement I really like.