What Should We Think of the Emerging Church? Part 2
- Tuesday, July 05, 2005
The Emerging Church Movement includes an expanding number of leaders and a diversity of representations. For some, the movement appears to be something of a generational phenomenon--a way for younger evangelicals to reshape evangelical identity and relate to their own culture.
For others, the connection with the Emerging Church Movement seems to be a matter of mood rather than methodology or theory. Elements of worship, aesthetics, and cultural iconography common to the Emerging Church Movement have been embraced by a cohort of younger evangelicals, who nonetheless hold to the indispensability of propositional truth. Nevertheless, for most Emerging Church leaders, the movement appears to be an avenue for reshaping Christianity in a new mold.
The philosophical maneuvers borrowed from postmodern theory provide a mechanism for transcending the defensive posture against Enlightenment criticism that mainstream Christianity has had to assume for most of the last 300 years. By denying that truth is propositional, Emerging Church theorists avoid and renounce any responsibility to defend many of the doctrines long considered essential to the Christian faith.
In Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church, D. A. Carson attempts to measure the Emerging Church Movement on its own terms--and then offers a critical analysis of the movement from a larger perspective.
When Emerging Church leaders point to a massive cultural shift in Western societies, they are not seeing an illusion. As Carson acknowledges, "The Emerging Church Movement honestly tries to read the culture in which we find ourselves and to think through the implications of such a reading for our witness, our grasp of theology, our churchmanship, even our self-understanding." Something remarkable has occurred in the culture, and Emerging Church leaders certainly have a point in criticizing mainstream evangelicalism for missing this crucial fact.
Emerging Church leaders focus most of their negative criticism on what they identify as modernist thinking. The mainstream evangelical movement is criticized for having succumbed to the temptation to accept modernity's limitation of truth to propositions, and therefore also the responsibility to defend those propositions against Enlightenment-based attacks. Emerging Church theorists dismiss what they identify as "foundationalist" thinking among conservative evangelicals, and feel themselves to be liberated from foundationalist assumptions insofar as they redefine truth in terms of narrative, communal understanding, and epistemological humility.
Yet, as Carson accurately levels his criticism, Emerging Church leaders demonstrate an incredible naivete about the nature of postmodernism. As Carson summarizes, "The postmodern ethos tends to be anti-absolutist, suspicious of truth claims, and wide open to relativism. It tends to adopt therapeutic approaches to spirituality, and--whether despite the individualism of the Western heritage or perhaps even because of it--it is often attracted to communitarian wholeness."
Emerging Church leaders, influenced by postmodern theory, rightly understand that every individual is deeply embedded in a social location. They are certainly correct in accusing much of mainstream evangelicalism from missing this point entirely--blissfully unaware of how the ambient culture has influenced our own ways of thinking. But does an acknowledgement of the role of social location relativize the meaning of a text?
Carson, a capable and insightful critic of postmodernism, acknowledges that the postmodern approach has been effective in exposing the weaknesses of some forms of modernism. Furthermore, Carson also credits postmodernism with encouraging us to be "open to thinking about nonlinear and methodologically unrigorous factors in human knowing." In addition, even as the modern age was characterized by embarrassing claims of cultural superiority, postmodernism has insisted on sensitivity to the diversity of cultures found in the global context.
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