Theological Humility

I want theological humility, alongside appropriate humility in every other area of life. It goes without saying that portions of my theology are of course completely wrong – I just don’t know which portions! As Donald Miller remarked long ago, me understanding God is like an ant understanding me.

Thankfully God has revealed Himself through Scripture, nature and, preeminently, the Son, in ways  that we can understand. But the Christian experience of interpreting the Scriptures the last 20 centuries is diverse and multi-flavored. For any one of our traditions to take a stand and say “we are the only people who have this correct. Line up with our theology or you aren’t even Christian” is not only silly, but is also lacking severely in humility. Seriously? The odds that your particular branch of the Christian family tree nailed it, and everyone else is wrong, are hard to calculate, but let’s just say they are extremely low. And in any event, as I’ve remarked before, this boils salvation down to knowing all the answers on a theology test, and not our personal response to Jesus.

I think we all need (and perhaps especially some branches of the family that come to mind), a good, strong, healthy dose of humility about our theology. I would much rather us talk, learn from one another, learn from one another’s theology, work together and endeavor to live out the Gospel of the Kingdom better and better, instead of casting aspersions over the airwaves and in print, declaring that this or that group are no longer Christians, when in reality they hold to the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds – it’s just that they don’t sign on to your church’s particular and favorite doctrines.

Humility. Priceless.

How I would characterize the Emergents

Plenty of fine books written by young emergent Christians have explained their perspectives. These books don’t get read much by their detractors, especially the ones just passing along what they heard someone else say. In fact, most Christians I know who are bad-mouthing the emergents have never read any book by an emergent author, and are simply passing along information they’ve gleaned from websites or books antagonistic to the movement. This even includes pastor friends of mine!

When I wrote about the ‘Mesa’ group’s ten commitments, someone asked if I’d say it was just the New Age movement re-packaged? (Part of my response was: “Mesa, as far as I know, are practicing Christians and understand their entire reason to exist as Gospel-driven and Kingdom-purposed. God’s will being done on earth, loving enemies, serving the poor, justice, care in how Scripture is used, churches, Christlike people, the common good, racial harmony, being good stewards of Creation, peacemaking and our relationship with God – all sound like Bible to me!”)

But the question got me thinking, how would I characterize the Emergents? Anytime you try to paint a picture of a large, diverse group, you step into a minefield of mis-characterization. However, I will simply do this:

I will describe the most common ‘type’ (using the word in the way ethnographers do) of Emergent Christian that I have personally known and talked to. So here it is:

Primarily young. Grew up in evangelical church. Believes Jesus is the Son of God and Savior of the world. Thinks the evangelical church sold out to upper middle class Republican values. Thinks the evangelical church confuses being Republican so badly with following Jesus that they can’t see the forest for the trees. Feels that the evangelical church functions largely as a religious grocery store servicing its members while ignoring the pressing needs of the world’s poor and injustices and needs a healthy dose of Matthew 25. Longs for a sense of Christian community they didn’t find in the church they grew up attending. Wants to follow Jesus and do the things he said to do in the Gospels. Isn’t nearly as taken with Paul’s theological explication of Jesus as they are with Jesus himself.  Thinks their parents’ churches are often long on doctrines about Jesus and short on actually following him in the sense of doing what he said. Wants to actually live among the poor and minister to them. Values all kinds of expressions of Christianity across the spectrum of denominations more than just settling into one.  Are often antagonistic toward 5 point Calvinism (though not all of them). Values community more than individuality. Yes, they are democrat. Yes, they are often politically liberal. Yes, like most of their generation, many of them see homosexuality as just how people are born. Their most over-powering goal in life is to live out the Gospel as Kingdom of God followers of Jesus.

These are the characteristics of most Emergent Christians I know.

The ‘Mesa’ list of Ten Commitments

Mesa is a gathering conversation, on-line and in person, of emerging/Emergent Christian leaders around the world. Their website (http://mesa-friends.org/) says “What is mesa? La Mesa is a Spanish word for table. It suggests a way of coming together in mutual acceptance, respect, and service. It reminds us of the life and message of Jesus – who used a table to tell the story of God’s welcoming and reconciling love.”

Mesa lists ten commitments (below). I find them to be characteristic of the kinds of emphases emergent Christians have been talking about for some time now. One thing in this list will probably jump out bold to those against the Emergent movement. I might talk about that next time.

1. We believe in Jesus and the good news of the reign, commonwealth, or ecosystem of God, and we seek for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven by focusing on love – love for God and neighbor, for outsider and enemy.

2. We seek to know, serve, and join the poor in the struggle for justice and freedom … through advocacy, relationships, and action.

3. We seek to honor, interpret, and apply the Bible in fresh and healing ways, aware of the damaging ways the Bible has been used in the past.

4. We seek to reconnect with the earth, understand the harm human beings are doing to it, and discover more responsible, regenerative ways of life in it.

5. We seek the common good, locally and globally, through churches of many diverse forms, contexts, and traditions, and we imagine fresh ways for churches to form Christlike people and join God in the healing of the world.

5. We build inclusive partnerships across gaps between the powerful and vulnerable – including disparities based on wealth, gender, race and ethnic identity, education, religion, sexuality, age, politics, and physical ability.

6. We engage conflict at all levels of human society with the creative and nonviolent wisdom of peacemaking.

7. We propose new ways of encountering the other in today’s pluralistic world and we collaborate with other religious and secular groups in alliances for the common good.

8. We host safe space for constructive theological conversation, seeking to root our practice in theological reflection and seeking to express our reflection in practical action.

9. We value the arts for their unique role in nurturing, challenging, and transforming our humanity.

10. We emphasize spiritual and relational practices to strengthen our inner life with God and our relationships with one another.

Theological Immediacy Syndrome

I think those who decry current theological work suffer from a sort of Immediacy Syndrome, without an awareness of how we got our theology, and what that means for the on-going ways theology will develop in our lifetime and well beyond.  I mean by this that they imagine that their theology is a once-for-all-time message that needs protected for theological purity; a beleaguered set of doctrines that has been attacked throughout the centuries and has been successfully defended and still must be. Or, in the case of some of our New Calvinism friends, they imagine Christian theology was one certain accumulation of doctrines that was somehow lost in the early days of the church, re-surfaced when John Calvin came along in France, and now must be protected for all time, the one true expression of The Faith; and if you aren’t sure what it is, just keep your John MacArthur and John Piper books handy.

This, of course, suffers from the fact that it is simply historically untrue. All of our theologies have been through numerous revisions. All Christian theology, including Calvin’s, have accumulated, morphed, jettisoned, adjusted, re-vised and edited themselves over and over again. When people, like the emergents, start writing new directions in theology, they are simply repeating a process that has been going on for 20 centuries.  (And one that we know, from the diversity of Second Temple Judaism, was going on in Judaism during Jesus’ time as well).  Friends of mine who de-cry the emergent/postmodern Christians seem to imagine that whatever they write today might de-rail the Christian faith for all time. I think of that as a sort of Immediacy Syndrome, without a long view of history. What the historical process shows us is that, rather than crying heretic! every time somebody tries to do some work, if we sit back and let the pot simmer on the stove, it allows for the on-going work of Christian theology to develop, just like it always has. It takes a while for new iterations of Christian theology and practice to work its way out. We don’t need to rush it or stress.

The Shift to Postmodern Christianity

Down through the centuries, Christianity has been very good at adapting to various changes and shifts in worldview and culture. At the hinge-era of what we usually call the modern/post-modern area, we are in the sometimes volatile thinking-phase of this adaption.

Eddie Bibbs and Ryan Bolger, in their extensive examination of emerging churches have written:

“Because of this essential dismantling work, some outside the (emergent/emerging) movement have said that those in emerging churches do not love the church or that they are full of negativity because of their propensity for dismantling church structures. This is to misread the movement entirely. What to some may appear to be pointless complaining is a part of a larger process of dismantling ideas of church that simply are not viable in postmodern culture. Neither the gospel nor the culture demands these expressions of the faith. Emerging churches remove modern practices of Christianity, not the faith itself. Western Christianity has wed itself to a culture, the modern culture, which is now in decline. Many of us do not know what a postmodern or post-Christendom expression of faith looks like. Perhaps nobody does. But we need to give these leaders space to have this conversation, for this dismantling needs to occur if we are to see the gospel translated for and embodied in twenty-first-century Western culture…” (Gibbs and Bolger, Emerging Churches, 28-29)

George Hunter III has said, more than once, that many churches are poised to be effective if 1952 ever rolls around again. Surely we don’t want North American Christianity in the 21st Century to end up having been “islands filled with modernist Christians while surrounded by a sea of postmodern people”, do we?  I am indebted to Dustin Metcalf (Akkerman, Oord & Peterson, Postmodern and Wesleyan? 63) for this picturesque image.

Brian McLaren on Choosing a Church

A week or so ago  I saw on a blog where someone asked Brian McLaren what church or denomination  he would recommend. (Yes, that Brian McLaren, whom our fundamentalist and hard-core Calvinist friends consider the Anti-Christ). Brian responded with a list of 5 issues important to him in choosing a church. I think this is one fantastic list.  I wish I had written it myself. I am copying it from his blog at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/brianmclaren/2014/01/qr-which-denomination/

A List for Choosing a Church/Denomination:

1. Hand/Mission: Is this denomination more oriented toward maintenance, self-benefit, or the common good of the world? In what ways is this denomination practically expressing its commitment to join God in bringing blessing to the world? Is the denomination more dominated by tradition/the past than by mission/the present and future.

2. Heart/Spirituality: Does this denomination promote personal and communal encounter with God, the neighbor, and the other and enemy, or is it preoccupied with correctness, numbers, politics, and institutional maintenance or aggrandizement?

3. Head/Theology: Does this denomination create space for vibrant theological reflection, imagination, and investigation? Or does it suppress theological curiosity in order to unquestioningly support a predetermined set of conclusions? Does it expect the Spirit to continue to guide us into truth?

4. Backbone/Structure: What kind of support and accountability does this denomination provide to support its staff and members in mission? How nimble and flexible is the structure?

5. Open arms/Ecumenism: Does this denomination wall itself off from other Christian communities, and other faith communities – or does it use its structure as a bridge to facilitate collaborative relationships? And is this denomination interested in welcoming me?

Emergent church book titles that sum it up

The “Emergent” conversation within (mostly Western) Christianity has believed for quite some time that we are in the midst of a massive rethink, the coming of an end to one era in Christian thought and practice, and the beginning of another (which has happened several times before of course). This often makes some people who are deeply invested in the current institutions and doctrinal systems of modern Christianity very apprehensive, and even calls down accusations of heresy. But this was the case each time one historic era of Christianity died and a new one was birthed. Look at the titles of these books. Do they give you a feel or sense or idea of some of emerging Christianity’s themes?   These are by no means the only excellent books on the subject out there, but these have titles that are indicative:

 

Signs of Emergence: A Vision for Church That Is Organic/ Networked/ Decentralized/ Bottom-Up/ Communal/ Flexible {Always Evolving} (Kester Brewin, Baker, 2007)

Post-Modern Pilgrims: First Century Passion for the 21st Century World (Leonard Sweet, B&H, 2000)

A New Kind of Christian: A Tale of Two Friends on a Spiritual Journey (Brian McLaren, Josey-Bass, 2001)

The Search to Belong: Rethinking intimacy, community, and small groups (Joseph Myers, Zondervan,  2003)

Jesus Brand Spirituality: He wants His religion back (Ken Wilson, Thomas Nelson, 2008)

The Radical Reformission: reaching out without selling out (Mark Driscoll, Zondervan, 2004)

Church Re-Imagined: The Spiritual Formation of People in Communities of Faith (Doug Pagitt and the Solomon’s Porch Community, Zondervan, 2003)

The Next Reformation: Why Evangelicals Must Embrace Postmodernity (Carl Raschke, Baker Academic, 2004)

Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A manifesto for the church in exile (Rob Bell and Don Golden, Zondervan, 2008)

Making Sense of Church: Eavesdropping on Emerging Conversations about God, Community, and Culture (Spencer Burke, Zondervan, 2003)

The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for New Generations (Dan Kimball, Zondervan, 2003)

and last but not least, and getting the award for longest subtitle, of course:

A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I am a missional + evangelical + post/protestant + liberal/conservative + mystical/poetic + biblical + charismatic/contemplative + fundamentalist/Calvinist + anabaptist/Anglican + Methodist + catholic + green + incarnational + depressed-yet-hopeful + emergent + unfinished CHRISTIAN (Brian McLaren, Zondervan, 2004)