This post is from Michael Kruse, and contains one of the more insightful set of observations I’ve seen about the selective appeal to emergence theory.
Here are Michael’s questions for us: So first off, is my assessment fair? If so, why don’t we find many emerging-economy libertarian types among the emerging church fold? Why do we find so many libertarian-friendly folks in conservative churches?
My first exposure to the idea of “emerging church” came twelve years ago. My friend Steve told me he was part of core group that wanted to plant a church in my neighborhood. He wanted to know if there was a place where they could meet. I suggested they might use the vacant third floor of the Presbyterian Church I was attending at the time. To make a long story short, that church plant became Jacob’s Well led by Tim Keel, an early player with the Emergent Village.
In those early years, I had many conversations with Tim and the Wellians. I’ve had many conversations with others since. A recurring theme was skepticism of institutional command-and-control type structures. God tends to bring things into being out of chaos … it appears as spontaneous emergence. I remember conversations about books like James Gleick’s “Chaos: The Amazing Science of the Unpredictable.” There were talks about evolution as a metaphor what God is doing in human communities.
“Emergence is a developing branch of science that recognizes that in general the whole is smarter than the sum of the individual parts. Emergence theory says that coherent patterns exist and arise from interactions among simple objects when there is a comingling of bottom-up and top-down processes. In simple terms, this theory states that life emerges in unique ways when an environment is created that allows for bottom-up and top-down interactions; out these interactions simple order arises without any kind of master plan. These <em>coherent patterns</em> are signs of life that can be recognized in dynamic process that allows for all the players in a system to be engaged in creative process.
Emergent Village, the organization, is a postmodern network of people, churches, and organizations seeking to respond creatively in an emerging context with little organization or master plan. …” (203)
As I was in conversations, over and over again I heard in my mind the Austrian School economist-philosopher Friedrich Hayek, a darling of libertarians. Hayek exposed the inherent limitation of human knowledge about mass human behavior and our inability to centrally plan and control human systems. Yet, when we establish a basic set of abstract rules and boundaries and turn people loose in markets of free exchange (i.e., free trade), a spontaneous order. Since emergence has captivated postmodern Christians, I thought, we will naturally see a preponderance of emergent Christians sharing Hayek’s view of the economic order. Right? Wrong.
There clearly are many varieties of emerging church communities but I have found very few people who identify themselves as emerging church and who embrace Hayek’s observations. In fact, I find a preponderance of people who identify as political progressives or liberals … especially those who are “emerging” and in Mainline denominations. I think it is also true of those who have tended to resonate with the Brian McLaren and Emergent Village manifestations of the emerging church (though I usually get push back on this observation.) In these contexts, “free trade” is a swear word. We need “fair trade,” where markets are being planned and managed to more just outcomes. Entire sectors of the economy like health care or education should be directly or indirectly run by a centralized authority. The idea of the “invisible hand” so popular in libertarian circles is met with scorn. These folks who usually have little problem embracing biological evolution and the emerging nature of the church are frequently hostile to the idea of a spontaneously emerging economic order.
Meanwhile, as Scot has noted in an earlier post, there is a trend in some theologically conservative churches to embrace a libertarian economic model as the biblical view. Yet it is frequently these same folks who speak of a divinely ordered society. Men and women each have their carefully prescribed roles. Families are to function in certain ways. Pastors and churches operate according to structures perceived to be handed down in Scripture. Biological evolution runs contrary to a sovereign God creating and ordering the universe … each thing created and sorted according to its kind. Everything is unfolding to God’s sovereign plan. The idea that the church could evolve via some type of emergence is denounced.
Yet when it comes to economics, emergence is wholeheartedly embraced. The ability of market exchange to disrupt communities, institutions, and traditions … as they so often do … seems inconsequential. It is anything but the carefully ordered and sovereign guided world of conservative Christian theology.