What Should We Think of the Emerging Church? Part 1
- Wednesday, July 06, 2005
Carson cites the late Mike Yaconelli, who rejected more conservative forms of evangelical Christianity with a sense of intellectual and cultural condescension. Looking back at his earlier faith, Yaconelli commented: "I realized the modern-institutional-denominational church was permeated by values that are contradictory to the Church of Scripture. The very secular humanism the institutional church criticized pervaded the church structure, language, methodology, process, priorities, values, and mission. The 'legitimate' church, the one that had convinced me of my illegitimacy, was becoming the illegitimate church, fully embracing the values of modernity."
Philosophically, the Emerging Church Movement represents a repudiation of what it identifies as "modernism." While postmodernism is itself a contested category, the leaders of the Emerging Church Movement clearly understand themselves to be affected by, if not fully embracing of postmodernism.
In particular, Emerging Church leaders focus on epistemology, arguing that modernism corrupted the church by limiting its focus to a defense of propositional truth based in an unassailable philosophical foundation. The rejection of foundationalism is a central theme of emergent culture.
As Carson explains, a majority of Emerging Church leaders and thinkers hold "that the fundamental issue in the move from modernism to postmodernism is epistemology--i.e., how we know things or think we know things. Modernism is often pictured as pursuing truth, absolutism, linear thinking, rationalism, certainty, the cerebral as opposed to the affective-which in turn breeds arrogance, inflexibility, a lust to be right, the desire to control. Postmodernism, by contrast, recognizes how much of what we 'know' is shaped by the culture in which we live, is controlled by emotions and aesthetics and heritage, and in fact can only be intelligently held as part of a common tradition, without overbearing claims to being true or right."
At this point, Carson focuses on Brian McLaren, probably the most articulate speaker in the Emerging Movement. McLaren has written a small library of works promoting and defining the Emerging Church Movement. Though the movement has many formative leaders, McLaren is undoubtedly the most influential thinker among them. To a large and undeniable extent, McLaren has succeeded in branding the Emerging Church Movement.
The very nomenclature of the movement betrays a sense that evangelicalism must be cast aside in order for something new, radical, and more authentic to emerge. "For almost everyone within the movement," Carson argues, "this works out in an emphasis on feelings and affections over against linear thought and rationalities; on experience over against truth; on inclusion over against exclusion; on participation over individualism and the heroic loner." This approach produces what McLaren calls "a new kind of Christian," and a new kind of church.
Accepting the postmodern insistence that "metanarratives" are dead, McLaren argues that Christianity must develop a new way of describing, defining, and defending the gospel. A metanarrative--a unifying theory of universal meaning--is to be replaced by a far more humble understanding of truth that accepts pluralism as a given and holds all truth claims under suspicion.
Postmodernism insists that truth claims must be presented in a humbled form, without claims of universal validity, objectivity, or absoluteness.
Carson criticizes the majority of Emerging Church leaders as relying on a facile and simple antithesis--"namely, modernism is bad and postmodernism is good." He credits Brian McLaren with a more sophisticated understanding of postmodernism's dangers. Nevertheless, he also criticizes McLaren for holding that "absolutism is associated with modernism, so that every evaluation he offers on that side of the challenge is negative." McLaren may dismiss religious relativism, but Carson argues that he does not critique it. As Carson reflects, "I have not seen from McLaren, or anyone else in the Emerging Church Movement, a critique of any substantive element of postmodern thought."
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