05 December 2006

emerging in postmodernity

I want to return to Scot McKnight's talk on the emerging movement. "Emerging" represents a trend that is central to the mission of a younger generation of pastors and church leaders. Whatever one might think of this movement, we cannot ignore it and perhaps we can even learn from it, especially by listening to those, such as McKnight, who speak from within it.

We can begin here by reflecting upon McKnight's suggestion that the emerging church is a missional ecclesiology that engages with postmodernity both as a cultural phenomenon and in terms of how theory and practice might reorient our theology.

McKnight points out that there are at least three ways in which emerging Christians engage with postmodernity: [a] some minister to postmoderns, [b] some minister with postmoderns, and [c] some minister as postmoderns.

The idea here is following. Some emerging Christians see postmoderns as folks who need to be saved, not least from the potentially damaging character of postmodernity. Some see postmodernity as a fact to be accepted and seek to minister contextually within the contemporary situation. And some accept a large part of the postmodern critique of modernity, see evangelicalism as complicit with modernity, and thus allow postmodern theory to chasten the expression of their faith.

I think its worth pointing out that the postmodern itself is a complex phenomenon.

For instance, we can distinguish between postmodernism as a theoretical critique of philosophical modernism and postmodernity as a cultural condition. We can also distinguish between aspects of the postmodern that are, in fact, hyper-modern - the modern come to its fullest and most self-conscious expression - and aspects of the postmodern that represent a genuine critique of and counter-practice to modernity. Moreover, there are varieties of postmodern thought that are "postmodern" in part due to their openness to retrieving and reappropriating the premodern. And add to this that, more often than not, it is precisely postmodernism, as a critical enterprise, that offers some of the most trenchant critiques of postmodernity at its most hyper-modern.

In light of these complexities, I think it is fair to say that one does not necessarily need to make a choice between ministering to, with, or as postmoderns, since these options are not mutually exclusive.

Jamie Smith points out that our dominant cultural phenomena tend to remain within the conserving structures of individualism and consumerism (often with a concomitant relativism) - all very modern tendencies - without having internalized postmodernism's critique of just such tendencies. Thus, a facile relativism born of value-constructing consumerism might well be a form of human brokenness and faithlessness that the church must minister to.

But the church may take up this ministry, in part, by using tools of postmodern critique to bring expression to the Gospel's message, while living out an alternative practice, thereby serving the Gospel, in a sense, both as and with postmoderns. Moreover, the church can do all of this, in part, by heavily re-investing in aspects of the faith that sink their roots deep within premodern thought and practice (historic liturgy, sacramental life, classical patterns of preaching the biblical text, modes of theological reflection, etc.).

To many believers, especially within traditional ecclesiastical institutions (whether Catholic, Orthodox, or Reformational), such an emerging approach may seem, at best, eclectic and, at worst, a radicalization of modernity's pick-and-choose religious consumerism, marketing the faith to a contemporary audience. This is all the more so given the rise of the emerging movement, at least in America, largely from within evangelical non-denominational and free church communities (in the UK I understand that matters are different, with much of the emerging movement occurring within the established Church of England).

There's no point pretending that such a criticism of emerging churches has no teeth. Nonetheless, we do need, I think, to grasp the complexity of the question here, which is largely a missional one of distinguishing contextualization from capitulation, transposing that question from the field of foreign missions, where it historically arose, into our present cultural context in the postmodern west (Newbigin is a leading light in this task).

Part of the question, to my mind, is how we distinguish a capitulation to culture from an engagement with culture or an attempt to speak and live the Gospel contextually to culture. It doesn't seem to me that this is always a simple or straightforward distinction.

I find instructive the way that a thinker such as N.T. Wright unfolds the "Paul and empire" theme. Wright sees Israel's historical polemic against idolatry and Gentile powers being taken up by Paul in relation to his immediate context and the situation of the churches to which he is writing (and that plays out differently in Paul's writing to the Roman colony of Philippi than it might elsewhere).

There are places further along in church history where many have regarded the contextual elements of respective theologies to be brilliant and strategic moves within the unfolding of our theological traditions. For instance, we find Augustine polemically drawing upon the language of neo-platonism, Aquinas taking up Augustinian theology in the face of Aristotle, and the Reformers deploying the tools of Renaissance humanistic studies. Can we embrace these moves within our theological heritage while dismissing contemporary analogues as mere capitulations to culture?

I certainly grant that problematic capitulation is possible and, all too often, actual (e.g., the Latin Averroists whom Aquinas opposed). But do we make suspicion and dismissal our starting points? Or do such judgments arise as the end product of a process of discernment?

My own conviction is that we must begin in a posture of humility, trusting that the emerging movement - whatever its very real problems - is nonetheless a gift that the Spirit has given to the church at this time.

Emerging Christians have been willing to ask difficult questions about evangelicalism's own complicity with modernity and have begun to think through how the demise of Christendom affects the church's mission. Emerging churches have a real heart to reach out to postmoderns in a way that can be heard and received by them, listening carefully to those who remain outside of our churches in order to find out what their questions are and what they are seeking. Moreover, emerging believers take bold risks in their attempt to speak the eternal word to a changing world, risks that more established traditions might find difficult to undertake.

That doesn't mean they get everything correct or always make the best discernments. But it is a conversation that we can ill-afford to ignore. And part of what those of us outside of the emerging movement might be able to contribute as points of contact are resources from within our own living traditions that already anticipate some of the issues raised by the emerging theologians, even if these home-grown resources remain undeveloped or dormant.

From within my own Reformed tradition I'm reminded of counter-modern tendencies within the 17th century scholastics, the cultural engagements of Abraham Kuyper and Francis Schaeffer, the theoretical critiques of Herman Dooyeweerd and Cornelius Van Til, and the missional perspectives of Lesslie Newbigin and Harvie Conn. More widely, among orthodox engagements open towards the postmodern, I find myself drawn to developments by the ressourcement theologians of Roman Catholicism, post-Christendom thinkers such as Yoder and Hauerwas, and the contributions of Radical Orthodoxy (among others - the list could go on).

None of that points a way forward in itself, but it does suggest, I hope, that there is a fruitful conversation to be had that can serve the greater mission of the church. Moreover, even though the emerging movement is itself a newer development, it intersects in important ways with the ongoing Great Conversation of God's people. Perhaps it is only in dialogue then, with gifts such as the emerging movement, listening to what they might teach us, that the resources of our own various traditions can be dusted off, developed further, re-contextualized, and pressed into service for the sake of the Gospel today.