Pomo/Em Church Jesus: A Reply to Andrew

Andrew, one of the respondents I quoted in my previous post (“Why the Pomo/Emergent Church is Extremely Dangerous”), gave a lengthy reply/defense in the comments to that post. I thought I would engage his comments in a separate post.

Andrew begins:

Clifton, I hope you don’t mind me posting a bit of a defence of the ‘Jesus is God’ discussion on Open Source Theology. I don’t want to address every point you have raised in your lengthy and detailed article, but I do want to make some general comments and respond to your criticism of my own relatively minor contribution to the discussion.

1. The ’emerging church’ tends to regard itself not as a clear fixed position but as a fluid, searching conversation. I realize that can sound slippery and evasive, but I would say that many, if not most, of the people who are engaged in this conversation are driven both by a need to to be honest about their state of belief and by a deep loyalty to the Jesus who is revealed in the scripture. The complexity and messiness of the conversation is explained by that tension. We are simply trying to understand things better. If we are going to confess before the world that Jesus is God, we want to know what we are saying – not as a matter of unthinking parroting of tradition, but in all the richness, complexity and ambiguity of the confession. This is where many believers find themselves in this postmodern, post-Christendom moment, and we have to find some way of moving forward with integrity.

I am sympathetic to your comments here. I do, in fact, know something of what it means to be part of a delimited body of believers (one rather knows, I suspect, whether one’s church is an emergent congregation or not), but which body of believers have very few hard and fast confessional beliefs. My own background is the Restoration Movement churches (specifically, the instrument using “independent” Christian churches), and our identity was largely predicated upon a hermeneutic or an ecclesial method than it was on a confession. It seems to me that the em church believers are strikingly analogous to that.

Furthermore, I readily admit that I have no scientifically reliable data to prove my contention that the views expressed on the Open Source Theology blog are typical of em church believers. At best I can only offer my personal anecdotal evidence that my encounters with the writings, online and in print, of em church believers is wholly consistent with my contention (or vice versa). I would not be surprised if a person found such a contention question begging. In my defense, however, the counter-examples to my contention are much rarer, it seems to me.

In any case, the substance of your first point seems to me to be that em church believers are concerned to have and to do “authentic” theology. With this I have no quarrel, however strange at times the conclusions (even if provisional) of such theological wrestlings may seem to me. What I do strongly object to is the false dichotomy you have presented between either confession as “unthinking parroting of tradition” or “all the richness, complexity and ambiguity of the confession.” Surely you can understand why I might object to what appears to me to be an unwarranted prejudicing of the issue in the favor of the em church apologetic.

I rather suppose this is precisely the problem I was trying to elucidate in my criticism: the failure to adequately come to grips with the actual life and thought of the Church through time and space. Or, to say it differently, the “richness, complexity and ambiguity” that you espouse as paradigmatic is not opposed to the simultaneous living of the tradition. To borrow Pelikan’s well-worn axiom: Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living; Tradition is the living faith of the dead. I am becoming an Orthodox Christian precisely because the living faith of the Tradition, in all its richness, complexity and ambiguity, is not available to me anywhere else.

If we may take the Chalcedonian definition as a point in particular: What about Chalcedon is the “unthinking parroting of tradition”? By the same token, in what way does Chalcedon fail to manifest all the richness, complexity and ambiguity of the confession.” And yet, what em church believer readily and wholeheartedly espouses Chalcedon? I don’t doubt that there are em churchers who do, after much throat clearing and footnotes perhaps. But what about ready and wholehearted affirmation of Chalcedon is in any way an “unthinking parroting of tradition”?

You go on:

2. The very diverse views expressed in the ‘Jesus is God’ post are not necessarily all consistent with any emerging ‘consensus’. It is an open conversation – that is simply the nature of the thing; we do not pretend to be in any sense normative or definitive for emerging theology.

It is this notion of “emergence” that at once prejudices the discussion in favor of the em church apologetic and simultaneously fails to account for any content to the term. What is an “emerging theology”? Whence it’s origins? If it arises from the “ruins” of the critique of modernist Christian theology, how can one know that one has truly sifted truth from error? If it is “emerging” from the surrounding culture, what does this say about em church ecclesiology? And correlatively, how does one know that it is Christian? Does it even matter that it is Christian?

Let’s grant the lack of a consensus. I happen to think this claim to a lack of consensus is a bit disingenuous, for I do happen to think there is broad consensus which privileges a so-called “postmodern” epistemology and anti-metaphysic, with the jargonish discourse to support such concepts, over any substantive truth claims (or metanarratives that purport to be objectively or absolutely true). But let us for now stipulate such an inchoate “theology.”

In what sense, one is pressed to ask, can em church believers speak in any meaningful way of the Gospel? Don’t mistake. I am not in any way opposed to the particularity of the Gospel which distinguishes between communities and (small t) traditions. But I fail to see how, if such a plurality of “gospels” fails to reach any sort of singular consensus St. Paul’s words in Galatians anathematizing those who preach a different gospel retain any meaning any longer. And if the gospel is inescapably plural, then I do not see how it can engender any ecclesial identity beyond the several individuals who happened to meet this past Sunday, which several individuals will differ from those who happen to meet next week, such that not even a local community retains any norming identity, and church just happens to be whatever it is now.

The above criticism notwithstanding, the intention stated in the following point is one I wholly affirm as well.

3. Any particular post should be understood in the context of the whole site (and for that matter of the whole emerging conversation). You could, for example, have a look at ‘The marks of a renewed theology’. I can’t really speak on behalf of the whole ’emerging community’, but for myself at least the intention is to be more, not less, biblical.

I would only press you on what it means for an emerging theology to be biblical. It is a polyvalent term that I’m not sure is adequately grounded in any meaningful or coherent context–for such an intention is predicated upon a particular hermeneutic. And I do not see that the (so-called) “postmodern” hermeneutic is, in any way, ecclesial, and therefore how it can in any meaningful way make an emergent theology biblical.

You next disagree with my contention of semantic or functional equivalence between “Jesus is God” and “Jesus is Lord.”

4. I would still disagree that ‘Jesus is God’ and ‘Jesus is Lord’ are semantically or functionally equivalent, but this requires a more careful response. The objection that Christians were pressured into confessing that ‘Caesar is Lord’ rather than ‘Caesar is God’ seems to me trivial given the pervasiveness of an ideology of imperial divinity. I could be completely wrong in suggesting that the cultic-political context was significant for the development of the slogan ‘Jesus is God’, but it surely makes good historical sense to suppose that something like this was in the background. And please notice that I did not say that it was ‘simply rhetorical context’ – you have added the word ‘simply’. We can recognize the rhetorical context without diminishing the theological significance of the statement.

I did misattribute the term “simply” to your contention, and for that I ask your pardon. It was, ironically, a rhetorical slip on my part.

It seems that my remarks on “Jesus is Lord” were abbreviated enough to fail to adequately convey what I mean. I meant, and mean, that the pneumatic expression “Jesus is Lord” is, in fact, in the biblical context, a real and absolute claim to divinity, even identity with God. This is abundantly clear when one takes into account that the Church’s Old Testament was the Septuagint, and the use of kurios in the ecclesial text and thus its usage in the New Testament.

I don’t deny that the demand to say “Caesar is Lord” was tantamount to a claim to divinity. In fact, that was precisely my point.

What I was objecting to was the notion that somehow “Jesus is God” is not a biblical proposition. In fact, it is.

5. As far as I can tell, you have misunderstood my point about opacity and transparency. I should have taken more trouble to explain. Apologies. At issue here is whether the different discourses we use to speak about Jesus are open to each other – so for example, can we see, beneath or behind the simple summary statements, something of the more complex narratives out of which they emerged and which they encapsulate. Equally, as we work through the difficult narrative or theological arguments, are we able to perceive the simple devotional or evangelistic statements that give practical and pastoral and prophetic force and clarity to our beliefs.

I grant that I very likely misunderstood your argument regarding opacity. But if so, I’m not sure that the above clarification really necessitates an alteration of my comments.

To say it another way, in light of your clarification: what sense does it make to say that a particular discourse or set of discourses is “opaque” to another discourse or set of discourses? Opacity is a metaphor, of course, describing the absence of a capacity for a set of terms in one located discourse to be meaningfully used (or transcribed, translated) into terms of another located discourse. You highlighted in the response I criticized in the previous post such discourses as historical, eschatological-apocalyptic, confessional-doxological, theological, mystical, and evangelistic. It’s not clear to me that it makes any sense to say that the historical discourse about theology or the Gospel is “opaque” to, say, the evangelistic discourse. After all, a discourse is merely a structured vocabularly oriented around formalized concepts. I’m not sure what sense it makes to say that concepts (or words) are opaque to one another, in part because I cannot make sense of what it might mean for a discourse to be hermetically sealed off from another discourse such that there was no possibility of transparency of any meaning between the two. For if such transparancy were, in fact, impossible, I’m not sure I could even conceive that such was impossible. In place of such a conception would be a cipher. Which is to reiterate in different words what I said before: if such things were, in fact, opaque, we could not know it.

Nor even if such claims to discursive opacity did make sense is it obvious that such claims are true. I can see how one might confess that these concepts and jargon speak to different things, but even evangelistic claims (Jesus is God) are grounded in historical discourse (Jesus was a man who lived in this place and time as attested to by these documents and witnesses, which documents and witnesses are variously supported by these archaeological finds).

6. I really don’t understand why critics of the emerging church feel that they have to adopt such a scornful, alarmist and judgmental tone of voice.

I readily grant that the title of my previous post is alarmist, and it does make a judgment (though whether that means it is judgmental might be a matter over which we could quibble). I do not think it or my post is scornful. In any case, I did not intend to scorn.

But that my post and its concomitant title make a judgement is inescapable, nor is it necessarily unChristian. We are called to test the spirits. Since the Holy Spirit is the one who gives it us to say that Jesus is Lord, and given that Jesus is Lord is an equivalent claim to confessing that Jesus is God, then to test the claims that question the meaning of that confession is wholly within my responsibilities as a Christian.

Further, if my judgment is right–and though I think that it is, I also grant it is not an infallible judgment–then any alarmist tone to my post is not only consonant with such judgment, it is necessary.

However, if my words conveyed any scorn, that I deeply regret, and for it I apologize and ask your forebearance.

Pray for me a sinner.

3 thoughts on “Pomo/Em Church Jesus: A Reply to Andrew

  1. Andrew said…

    I really don’t understand why critics of the emerging church feel that they have to adopt such a scornful, alarmist and judgmental tone of voice.

    I’ve heard similar remarks made before by defenders of postmodern philosophy, contemporary liberal thought, “value-free” social science, etc. And while I do believe that there needs to be more Christian charity in the realm of many of these discussions than currently exists, I also believe that PoMo/EC’ers don’t appreciate the grave dangers that are tied up into their so-called theology. Aside from the fact that it conjurs up age-old heresies the Church long sought to put down and thus delivers an incomplete, incoherent, and insidious “gospel” to those seeking Christ, it further runs the risk of depositing the viruses of its thinking into the life of faith communities far more robust and traditional in their practice. Even after all of this nonsense is finally swept into the dustbin of intellectual history and becomes reserved for a footnote on dissertations dealing with the history of Christian thought, there still remains the very legitimate fear that traces will still run through the otherwise sound thought of the Church proper. To paraphrase from Leo Strauss’ Natural Right and History, if such a thing occured, it wouldn’t be the first time an enemy vanquished managed to burden the victors with the yoke of its own thought.

    The PoMo/EC movement in Christianity is the ultimate liberalism; it is the attempt to launch the final breakdown of all truth, all seriousness, all legitimacy within the life of Christianity. Everything is reduced to the level of “conversation” in order to obscure the reality of disagreement. When you say “people who are engaged in this conversation are driven both by a need to to be honest about their state of belief and by a deep loyalty to the Jesus who is revealed in the scripture” you offer a weak apology for one of its (many) fundamental perversions. It assumes there is something intrinsically good about public declarations of their “honesty,” even if what they are being “honest” about is nothing but the ravaging of Christian Truth itself. Their inability to adequately define who this “Jesus…revealed in the scripture[s]” is makes any declaration of loyalty beg the question, “Loyal to whom?”

    There is something (a lot in fact) to be said for engaging with the “thought” of PoMo/EC folk like Cliff has continually done, but there is also something to be said for questioning the foundational legitimacy of the “movement” or “conversation” or “obscruantism” itself. It doesn’t particularly surprise me that an overwhelming number of the individuals involved in this are from my generation (18-34 y/o) and have tended to latch onto this as part of a larger pathology against their (typically) evangelical upbringing. I don’t doubt some of it is a legitimate search for something more, something fuller, but I also don’t doubt that an overwhelming majority of it is faddish rhetoric conflated with feel-good spirituality and intellectual onanism.

  2. Clifton, thank you for the response. There’s too much in it to address every issue in detail, but I think the conversation is worth pursuing. It seems to me a matter of considerable importance that the emerging church ‘conversation’ remains genuinely open to external voices.Incidentally, I will defend strongly the need for open conversation at this point. Contrary to what Gabriel claims in his comment, it is simply not true that ‘everything is reduced to the level of “conversation” in order to obscure the reality of disagreement’. Conversation has become important as a mode of communication, connection, learning, etc., because of a perceived need to bring relationality, personal integrity, and trust back into the centre of our life of faith and witness. If it gets abused sometimes, so what? Everything gets abused.The suggestion that the identity of the emerging church is ‘largely predicated upon a hermeneutic or an ecclesial method’ has some point to it. But I would argue that putting it this way obscures the fact that the ‘hermeneutic’ is inseparable from a confession – that it is an engagement with a confession in the interests of a contextualized renewal of that confession. Moreover, this ‘confession’, which is somewhat diversified, is not a matter of pure theology but theology entangled in, articulated through, but to some degree mangled by modernist intellectual and cultural tradition. This seems to me indisputable. The question is what does it take to rectify the situation.A very large number of people, having become aware of a failure of intellectual and spiritual integrity in modernist forms of Christianity, have given up on organized religious life altogether. That is one way of rectifying the situation. If I have understood you correctly, you have chosen the route of moving to an alternative tradition, one which you regard as having preserved the true faith throughout the ages. That is an attractive option to many in the
    emerging church who are looking for a new basis for authority and new forms of expression – in some ways they trust history more than they trust modern rationalism. Many, however, feel that they are right to face up to the challenges of postmodernism – to have the faith to let their faith pass through the ordeal of postmodern interrogation, trusting that it will come through not unchanged but refined, reinvigorated. OK, that’s getting a little purple, but I think it gets at the vision that is motivating a lot of emerging church people.I agree that this is dangerous procedure, and I understand that from your point of view it seems unnecessary. But it’s happening whether we like it or not, and I would argue that the most constructive response we can make is to help the emerging church go through this process of questioning and rediscovery well. Certainly you can offer alternative approaches, but you can also join in the conversation in a much less judgmental fashion, hear the questions that people find it impossible not to ask, and help them to find credible, compelling answers. The emerging church is a learning community and is ery open to learn from other traditions – perhaps even from modern evangelicalism. But we want to learn on the basis of trust and friendship, not the sort of distrust, disdain and self-righteousness that I hear expressed in the comments on this blog – ‘faddish rhetoric conflated with feel-good spirituality and intellectual onanism’, for example.

    What I do strongly object to is the false dichotomy you have presented between either confession as “unthinking parroting of tradition” or “all the richness, complexity and ambiguity of the confession.”

    Of course the dichotomy is artificial, reductive and tendentious – but it reflects the sort of quandary that a lot of believers (I include myself to a large degree) find themselves in. They have become profoundly aware of a dissonance between what they feel they are required to think and say, how they feel they are supposed to perform, and what is actually going on inside them.

    I rather suppose this is precisely the problem I was trying to elucidate in my criticism: the failure to adequately come to grips with the actual life and thought of the Church through time and space.

    I agree that this is a problem. The reason for it, I think, is that the emerging church is in the process of disconnecting itself from ‘the actual life and thought’ of certain modern traditions for the sake of a renewal of thought, rhetoric and praxis. In the process it is exploring other traditions, drawing on other traditions, and coming up with something that is still untidy and eclectic in a way that is going to be very disconcerting for people who find their religious identity within a particular historical ecclesial current. That’s just how it is. The process is still ongoing.

    It is this notion of “emergence” that at once prejudices the discussion in favor of the em church apologetic…. I do happen to think there is broad consensus which privileges a so-called “postmodern” epistemology and anti-metaphysic…

    But tossing out words like ‘prejudices’ and ‘privileges’ in the way that you do is also a self-privileging argument. We all do it. It’s unavoidable because we can only think from a particular point of view, from within a particular stream of thought.

    What is an “emerging theology”? Whence it’s origins? If it arises from the “ruins” of the critique of modernist Christian theology, how can one know that one has truly sifted truth from error?

    How does one ever know? Through faithful discernment and testing over time. If it’s not from God, it will come to nothing. More positively, I would say that the shift towards a critical-realist and narrative hermeneutic, which the emerging church has embraced to some degree, offers a way of grounding belief in scriptural truth that may safeguard the
    continuing ‘orthodoxy’ of the emerging conversation.

    If it is “emerging” from the surrounding culture, what does this say about em church ecclesiology?

    No, I don’t think it’s true to say that the emerging church is emerging from the surrounding culture. Serious engagement with the surrounding culture is certainly characteristic of the movement, but this should be understood as an implication of the mission of God in the world.

    And correlatively, how does one know that it is Christian? Does it even matter that it is Christian?

    Of course it matters. In my view the church as it emerges from modernism and Christendom remains an integral aspect or phenomenon of the people of God as redeemed and redefined through Jesus Christ.

    In what sense, one is pressed to ask, can em church believers speak in any meaningful way of the Gospel?

    I can only speak for myself here. In the first place, we already have a plurality of gospels: the Orthodox gospel, the Roman Catholic gospel, the Lutheran gospel, the evangelical gospel, the fundamentalist right gospel, and so on. We are all in some way or another the product of historical ‘accident’ The New Testament itself has different messages of good news – because the gospel is always an address to people in historical context. I would argue that Jesus’ gospel was not the same as Paul’s gospel – and that in certain respects neither is exactly the same as the gospel that we need to preach today.If the emerging church is less clear on what it means by the gospel than perhaps it should be (I don’t know if that’s the case), then it’s because the process of reconstruction for this group of people is a lengthy and difficult one. If it becomes a process that involves the wider church, it will be even more lengthy and more difficult. In any case, in my view what fundamentally gives ecclesial identity is not the gospel but the calling of God to be his people amidst the nations of the earth. The gospel finds its place within the larger narrative that that calling has initiated.

  3. Andrew:

    I will here make a couple of responses to tangential matters. I will be responding to some of the more pertinent issues you raise in a separate post that it more generalized.

    1. Conversation

    As you acknowledge, there is conversation and there is “conversation.” What you and I are doing–attempting to establish premises, making arguments, uncovering weaknesses and strengths of various positions, all in the (perhaps unspoken) quest to get at the truth–this I take to be conversation. I haven’t gotten–either from the Open Source site or other em church sites I’ve eavesdropped on–that this is the more general understanding of conversation among em churchers.

    Rather, what I get is a sort of series of relatively unsupported and usually uncriticized assertion-sets that are put out there. These sets of assertions are either accepted or not, usually uncritically. If the conversation moves, or is to move, it depends on the reinforcement of the presuppositions of the interlocutors and which presuppositions carry the weight of influence for that particular interlocutor.

    Take for example the largely unreflective acceptance of post-structuralist/deconstructionist presuppositions–or, more accurately, the American academic/English department bastardization of deconstruction. There is a lot of talk about context, intertextuality, layers, opacity, and so forth–all of which buy into presuppositions that do not (and cannot) systematically hold.

    You (misre-)present my journey to Orthodoxy (which is still in process) as

    . . . you have chosen the route of moving to an alternative tradition, one which you regard as having preserved the true faith throughout the ages. That is an attractive option to many in the
    emerging church who are looking for a new basis for authority and new forms of expression – in some ways they trust history more than they trust modern rationalism. Many, however, feel that they are right to face up to the challenges of postmodernism – to have the faith to let their faith pass through the ordeal of postmodern interrogation, trusting that it will come through not unchanged but refined, reinvigorated.

    In point of fact, this is false. My faith has been shaped by and sifted through the modernist/anti-modernist and postmodernist grids. Postmodernism helped me to retain vestiges of my faith that modernism/anti-modernism had shredded, but from the experience I also began to see how postmodernism was going to destroy utterly any faith I had. I could not accept the teleological end that postmodernism proffers (albeit claiming it has no teleology), and I also wanted to hold on to my faith, such as it was, so I knew I would have to extricate myself from postmodernism.

    It was a couple of years after I had done so that I discovered Orthodoxy. Prior to that I was an Anglican (Episcopalian), who could see the postmodern fetish which had taken root in ECUSA. I rejected ECUSA for the same reasons I rejected (ultimately) postmodernism: I wanted to hold on to my faith.

    Only after having no church home for a couple of years did I finally see that there really is only one option available to such as myself: Orthodoxy.

    I did not choose an alternative. I did not choose something that “worked” for me (if I wished to get more personal I could provide solid evidence that Orthodoxy did NOT at first “work” for me). I chose that which Orthodoxy is.

    2. Em Church openness to learning

    With all due respect, Andrew, I do not see the em church as open to criticism, whether loving and trustworthy or not. The fact that they speak of themselves as “prophetic” that they offer themselves as the only relevant “alternative” to all the other churches out there, in fact, that they stand apart as worthy to criticize and to discern about the 2000 year life of the Church, leads ones such as myself to think that they truly have little desire to “learn.” That the response we get to their criticisms is that we ought simply be quiet since we must presume first that the Holy Spirit is at work and then later see what fruit will be produced, simply reinforces for us that they have set themselves up as the work of the Spirit and beyond (present) criticism.

    3. Serious engagement with the culture

    I think this disingenuous. They are not engaging postmodernism, for the most part, they are accepting it and then shaping their faith to fit it.

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