Tuesday, November 13, 2012

I'll Stay On the Curb, Thank You

I saw a few months back that Brian McLaren has a new book out, this one titled Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World. I happened to see one on the shelf at Books-a-Million, but when I picked it up, I decided that $30 plus tax was really more than I could afford for a book that bid fair to drive up my blood pressure anyway. Or sprain my eyeball-rolling muscles, at any rate.

The main reason I've never been able to find much use for the whole emergent movement is the college bull session quality of its theology. It's hard to argue against it, not because the faults in the arguments are hard to pick out, but because the scope of the argument's failure is so sweeping it's hard to pick out a starting point for a response. Saying "no" or "not exactly" to every sentence, if not every clause or even noun phrase, is not the road to constructing a convincing argument. McLaren, like Rob Bell, is a restorationist of the emergents' characteristic type: the Churches (meaning a composite of movie medieval Catholicism and southern writer Baptist) have screwed everything up, so we (meaning he) have to rewind the tape of Christian history and start over again. Well, there are two problems with that. First, nobody can do that rewind; everyone comes into the project standing upon all of Christian history, and most particularly those parts which are most prominent in their tradition. Therefore the necessary amnesia does not occur; instead, there's a strong quality of reaction to the project. Second (and this issue is peculiar to the emergents) it's pretty clear that the emergents have spent some time reading the mainline liberals and the secularist compatriots. That stuff has its own restorationist issues, but the more important issue is that it is the antithesis of restorationism: it is the topmost floors of the monumental edifice of western theology. McLaren (and Bell as well) tend to present it as inarguable, but the truth is that it sits in a nest of controversy perched precariously on the roof of this construction.

One only has to look at the dilettancy that is the Episcopal Church theological process to see how the emergents aren't going to put us onto some sort of sound theological basis. Communing the unbaptized was turned back, but not without effort, and I would assume that (a) it's going to come up at General Convention again in 2015, that (b) in the meantime, the people who have been breaking the canons are going to keep at it, that (c) there's going to be no discipline against them, because (d) the bishops in question either don't care or are on the wrong side of this issue, and (e) theologically they've gone everyone to his or her own way. McLaren and the other emergents give the same impression of having escaped the fold, and they give off the revisionist "we have to reexamine everything" odor of speculation.

And so today I am pointed to a YouTube video of McLaren speculating as to whether the Holy Spirit is behind the rise in irreligion and disaffiliation. Well, I don't know: my Holy Spirit detectors aren't going off, one way or the other. But what matters is what we do about it, however divine providence figures in affairs. The temptation in such a speculation is deduce a condemnation of the churches, and then to set up your own church. And well, well, well, but here we have this church in Spencerville which has done just that, and here's the pastor emeritus on YouTube.

Now, I think the emergents are right in thinking that affiliation is not the selling point it once was, though I don't think the shift is as great as they want to think. Catholicism, whatever its other faults, is always going to be able to sell itself as the One True Church, and affiliation is not that important in the polity of the politically conservative hyper-Protestants (meaning the baptists, not the anabaptists). But none of this gets at the more basic problem about "nones" and theology. The problem is dealing with modernism, which after two centuries we still haven't got right. The one side is absolutely oppositional, leading especially to the formulation of fundamentalism. The problem with this stance is that to maintain it, you have to be absolutely right, and they cannot be so. The other side is subservient: they let the secular tell them how to think. The destination of this liberal religion is to give up on religion as anything more than empty ceremony.

We Anglicans have had a chance to make a post-modernism in this that actually works, by maintaining a position of authority over matters religious and pushing back against the secular, while responding to the secular's just criticisms with repentance and correction. But we blew it. We glow with the toxic radiation of a loss of nerve, of snobbery, of contentiousness, and of enslavement to secular political parties. We are in the world, and increasingly, we are of it.

If we really wanted to "emerge", we would quit trying to fix the world through empty gestures to ourselves. We would accept our disagreements over sexuality and quit trying to fix each other by jamming worlds in our mouths. We would accept that our liturgy isn't perfect and quit "correcting" it for each liberal fad. We would abjure commentary on politics until we were strong enough to make anyone care. We would take our church cultural heritage as a strength instead of a liability. We would talk to the emergents and everyone else, but we would cease chasing after some movement to save the church. We would look to our own theologians instead of anyone but our own.

But honestly, I don't see that happening, not without a repentance on the part of the ascendant parties which surely is not to be seen in the near future.


The Archer of the Forest said...

Having done some college ministry and always having been in parishes a few blocks from universities, I have had my fair encounter with various "emergent church" types. I have come to the conclusion that the whole thing is simply the values and worldview of Generation X but simply packaged in ecclesial form.

It's the same crowd that 10 to 20 years ago never checked into civic society. They just as soon go home and watch MTV and play Nintendo or watch the Daily Show lampoon the world all afternoon and not join civic or church groups or really contribute in any productive, civic way to the world or society around them. In other words, they would just as soon be dysfunctional and go off and do their own thing and complain that their parents are forcing them to do this or that and are ruining their lives.

Sound familiar? They have just gotten a little older and have a little religion now, but they are doing the same thing to the Church as they did to their parents. They would just as soon go off and play liturgical Nintendo and complain about how the Church has ruined their lives.

The Archer of the Forest said...

That having been said, I didn't think this book you reference was really that bad. I think he actually had some coherent things to say in terms of interfaith dialog that were productive. Basically, he argued that Evangelical Christians can't just go around telling non Christians they are going straight to hell if they actually want to evangelize. You have to cultivate friendships and whatnot to be productive in your telling people about Jesus.

I didn't really think his Emergent Church bunk was really the front and center message of this book, as I recall. He did kind of wander close to the Rob Bell 'Love Wins' theology that is basically universal salvation, but he never quite came out and said that point blanc, at least to my recollection. The book was really more a treatise on how do we keep our message about Jesus but still foster interfaith dialogue. I didn't agree with everything he said, and his book was certainly not worth 30 dollars, it wasn't bad, given the genre of that school of Christian writing.

C. Wingate said...

OK, but how much does "you can't tell them they're going straight to hell" applicable to ECUSA? Has any central-to-liberal Episcopalian ever said such thing in the last forty years, except about Republicans behind their backs?