I’m currently reading through Tony Jones’ The New Christians and I am continuing to see the same problems in the Emergent movement that essentially drove me away from it. Before diving into the problems with the Emergent movement, I do want to commend them on what I see them as getting correct:
1) Christianity has been inundated with modernistic philosophy, to the point that it has hurt the church. Though a book could and should be written about this, it is best to break it down into two categories:
a. The Liberal Modernism – This view accepts the “historical-critical” understanding of interpretation. These people are more likely to accept Hume’s critique of Christianity (that we can’t know if miracles exist). When reading the Scriptures, they blush at the mention of miracles, divine interaction, and hate the idea of an infallible Word. Human reasoning has shown such ways of thinking to be false.
The problem with this belief is that it denies the power of God interacting within creation and assumes that the human mind is somehow on par with God. This way of thinking breaks with the traditional view of Christianity and instead adopts Enlightenment skepticism into its way of thinking.
b. The Conservative Modern – Conservative Christians – mostly Evangelical – are not free of the problems of modernism. Though they have avoided skepticism, they deny the power of the Holy Spirit through practicing pragmatism. The average conservative church might teach the big doctrines (infallibility is right, abortion is wrong, homosexual marriages are wrong, and Democrats are the angels fallen from Heaven and cast down to earth), but it lacks any true content. Instead, it is concerned with the “me” generation: what types of music do YOU like? What ministries do YOU want to see in the church? What kind of messages do YOU want to hear? What can the church do for YOU? How can we get YOU to come to church?
This way of thinking is modernistic via pragmatism. It sets a goal (in this case, an increase of numbers) and then uses whatever means it can to achieve that goal (e.g. surveys, rock services, easy to apply preaching, comfort zones, etc).
There is no doubt that modernism has plagued Christianity in more ways than the two mentioned, but these are the big two that I see.
2) Christians are too quick to make it a “left vs. right” issue in both politics and theology. The sad reality is that there is much truth to this. The liberals are too quick to note the problems of the “right” while ignoring their own problems. In politics they might decry the right’s unwillingness to truly care about the suffering of the poor, but they forget that they’re allowing the unsolicited slaughter of thousands of babies every year via abortion. The right doesn’t fare much better. Though people like Pat Robertson might be conservative in his politics and theology, he is absolutely wrong when he calls for the assassination of foreign leaders.
The problem is Christians are too quick to latch onto either side to the point of ignoring their own flaws. If a liberal sees a liberal pastor cry out against the “white devil,” he might take sympathy and say that the “white devil” deserves this reaction for years of injustice. When the conservative sees an icon fall into an illicit affair, or homosexuality in the case of Ted Haggard, they are quick to push it under a rug or, in some instances, attempt to belittle it. “Oh, we all sin, so who cares?” The same conservatives that were foaming at the mouth to impeach Bill Clinton – a non-pastor – for an affair were silent and quick to forgive when Ted Haggard was shown to be a closet homosexual.
When we latch onto these sides we forget that we belong to God first, not to any organization or ideology. If someone who agrees with us 99% of the time does something that is wrong, we are obligated to lovingly correct that person. If someone who disagrees with us 99% of the time does something that is wrong, once again, we are obligated to LOVINGLY correct that person.
3) The evangelical church is often too unwilling to actually question their traditions. Too often the church can make its distinctive doctrine and its traditions absolute. My own denomination can, at times, come too close to being a new Vatican. We recently forbid pastors overseas from drinking alcohol or speaking in a private prayer language. Now while this was done with amiable intentions, the fact is Scripture backs none of it up – both are a tradition (in the prohibition wing of Christianity and the cessationist wing of Christianity). Likewise, neither is made an absolute doctrinal statement – not in the Bible, not in any early creeds, and not in any major belief systems until the 16th century.
I am a firm believer in sola scriptura, which states that Scripture must back up any authority statements and if no Scripture – whether implicit or explicit – can be found to back up a claim, then it cannot be approached in an authoritarian manner. I have a problem with people speaking tongues, it is outside of my level of comfort, but I’m not about to forbid people from doing it because I have no Scripture that allows me to forbid people from speaking in tongues.
Evangelicals have lost a lot of ground in culture because they have taken cultural norms and made them on par with Scripture. When we are kicking young people out of church because they wear a ht into the sanctuary, or have purple spiked hair, or like to smoke outside on church grounds, we are judging people on our own AMERICAN terms and not on Biblical ones. The Emergents are correct to criticize evangelicals for this.
Though I believe there are more critiques that should be looked at, those are the three main critiques against Christianity that I believe the Emergents have right. Unfortunately, there is far more wrong with the Emergent movement.
1) It unabashedly claims to be postmodern and, in doing so, accepts a worldly philosophy. Postmodernism is a worldly philosophy that is not built upon Scripture. To put it in philosophical terms, one must be a metaphysical nominalist, a epistemic internalist and skeptic, and an ethical subjectivist. What all this means in laymen’s terms is – one must believe that we, not God, gives meaning to things and that truth comes from within us and our own experiences, not from God. Though many Emergents may say, “Hey, I disagree with what you just said,” that is the core foundation of postmodernism. One cannot have “incredulity toward metanarratives” (as Lyotard defines postmodernism) without first being a nominalist (we add meaning to the world) and an internalist (truth comes from us).
One big misconception about postmodernism – specifically deconstructionism – is that it merely seeks to question everything without providing an alternative. This is false. Postmodernism seeks to question the why behind cultural norms and the idea that there can be a unified theory of truth, or that there is a grand story (a truth that transcends all cultures). To believe there is a universal truth that all cultures must be subjected to would be anti-postmodern for two reasons:
a) To believe in a grand narrative means one cannot be suspicious of grand narratives.
b) To believe in a grand narrative means one must acknowledge that we can know what this grand narrative is – otherwise, how can we know something exists if we cannot know what it is?
Thus, one must deny that there is an overarching story for humankind in order to be postmodern (under the real definition).
In their acceptance of postmodernism how have the Emergents become any better than the Moderns? Both fail to head the warning of Paul in Colossians 2:8 where he warns believers not to be taken in by deceptive philosophies created within this world. Why does he warn us of this? Simple – these philosophies are based on a limited view of the world (non-Truth) and not on Christ (Truth).
2) The god of the Emergents is immanent in theory, but completely and totally transcendent in their theology. Though many Emergent or semi-Emergent works (such as Blue Like Jazz) are big on flowery language that promotes a relationship with God, their theology teaches a God that is far removed from humanity.
When we teach people that we can’t really know Truth, that the community helps us discover the truth for our community (this is, at least, what Lyotard taught), and that we must continue to deconstruct what we believe to be true (this comes from Derrida) we are teaching that God doesn’t really communicate to us.
This denial of universal truth is unfortunate, because it shows that God somehow can’t get past our cultural confines in order to teach us the ancient truth. Even though Jesus says He is the truth (John 14:6), even though Paul says our minds are to be renewed and are to transcend our cultural leanings (Romans 12:2), and that we come to knowledge through conforming our minds to be like the mind of Christ (Colossians 3:10) according to the Emergents we are to believe that we can’t really come to truth. We can discuss, we can think we have found truth, but ultimately we must realize that our culture has too big of an impact on us that we must constantly deconstruct.
This can only work if God does not relate to humans. If, however, God can and does relate to humans, then He can impart knowledge that transcends culture and time. This would mean that what was true for the 1st century person is true for the 21st century person. If God is immanent (as well as transcendent) then He can impart truth. If God cannot impart truth, then He is completely transcendent and is, therefore, a non-relatable God.
3) Postmodernism isn’t really post-modernism. The idea is that postmodernism is somehow a response to modernism, but in all reality it isn’t. Postmodernism really is just the last step in the Enlightenment and not really a new movement in philosophy.
Modernism relied on the idea that man was the beginning point of all knowledge (think Descartes: “I think therefore I am”) and that man could eventually come to a unified system of knowledge. Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant, and many others taught that human reasoning could eventually bring humans to truth. It wasn’t until Nietzsche that people began to see how this didn’t work, but the key component of the Enlightenment – that knowledge begins with human reasoning – never left. If one begins from human reasoning then “postmodernism” is correct, we must doubt all things (thanks to Nietzsche), realize that there is no grand narrative (thanks to Lyotard), and deconstruct everything because it really isn’t true for our time and culture unless we make it so (thanks to Derrida).
Scripture, however, has a different beginning point for knowledge. Proverbs 1:7 says that, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of all knowledge.” This is the theme also in Proverbs 1:25 and 2:9. Proverbs 2:6 is so bold as to say, “For the LORD gives wisdom, and from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.” While postmodernism/hyper-Enlightenment theory teaches that man is the beginning point of all knowledge, the Bible teaches that God and the fear of God is the beginning point of knowledge. In other words, Descartes was wrong; I think because God Wills it.
This impacts the Emergent movement because it forces them to deal with the fact that because God gives knowledge and truth, these two things are not contingent upon any culture or time period; they are merely contingent on God willingly imparting His truth onto people.
4) Emergents are high on attitude, but low on content. This is a minor claim, but one that I think is worth visiting. The Emergent books I have read lately differ significantly from the ones I read earlier this decade. Earlier in the decade they called for loving discourse – now, they are high on attitude but low on content. Many of the authors – especially Jack Caputo – are too quick to declare, “Damn the torpedoes” and charge full speed ahead. The problem with this attitude is that people with a hotheaded approach might end up having a Hunt for Red October moment where someone has to tell them, “You arrogant ass, you killed us!”
There is a distinct lack of love in these discourses. They hold this, “It’s your fault its this way” attitude without ever thinking they might also be a part of the problem. They attack the culture of Christianity and have no problem diving into ad hominem attacks (e.g. Tony Jones referring to Al Mohler and Paige Patterson as “bishops of the SBC,” which is a grossly inaccurate thing to say). The irony in the situation is they have become what they hate – close-minded fundamentalists that have nothing good to say about those who differ from themselves.
5) Emergents are too quick to blame things on the big old bad boogeyman of Modernism. Whereas many Christians say, “The Devil made me do it,” Emergents are more apt to say, “Modernism made you do it.” Having read some of the key works in modernism, I sometimes chuckle at the things postmoderns blame modernism for. One author asserted the idea in a “big, overpowering, patriarchal God” is a purely Enlightenment teaching, never mind the fact we can look at documents from the first and second centuries (not to mention the Bible) that teach the same thing.
Too often, Emergents will run across a concept they don’t like (such as the interpretation that homosexuality is a sin) and summarily declare it a specter of modernism. This, however, is absurd. It is the equivalent of looking at a political belief that you don’t like and declaring it to be Fascist, even if the idea contradicts or has no parallel with Fascism.
Though we should be looking to see where modernism has infiltrated Christian practices, we can’t treat it like the boogeyman that is hiding under our beds, waiting to attack us. There are many Christian beliefs that are completely unaffected by modernism. Take Calvinism – though many can disagree with it, it’s hardly fair to label it as a “modernistic belief.” Its roots are found in the Bible (as adherents would argue), in Augustine (as scholars would argue), and in Calvin (as skeptics would argue), all of which took place before the Enlightenment.
Another example is the idea that we can know truth. This has been taught in the Bible (as previously cited), by the Church fathers, by the Reformers, and by modern preachers. The idea that human rationality alone is sufficient for discovering truth certainly is a modern ideal, but the idea that we can know truth is far from the modern period (even Plato and Aristotle taught we could know truth).
Thus, Emergents must be careful to label everything they disagree with as “modern.”
6) Confuse distinctives with doctrine. Francis Schaeffer believed in baptizing babies and he relied on his Presbyterian background to justify this. I believe in believer’s baptism – baptizing a person after he or she has come to Christ – and justify this on my Baptist background. These two beliefs, though different, are distinctives, not doctrine. My difference with Schaeffer has not prevented him from becoming the single greatest influence on my thinking outside of Scripture.
Too often Emergents are guilty of assuming too much when styles change. “Oh, we’re no longer using the organ? We’re using drums and a guitar? I guess this means we can change our theology too!” This really amounts to a giant non-sequitur. Just because a church’s style changes (and the style must change because the people change) does not mean the church changes.
Assume we built a time machine and decided to go back to 1st century Antioch and participated in a service led by Paul. Assuming we could understand Koine Greek (or Aramaic), we would probably feel out of place. Their style of worship would have been extremely different from our own. However, once Paul began to speak, even if we didn’t understand all the idioms used or his style, we would understand and agree with the content (assuming we were also orthodox).
Christianity is fluid in that its form is always changing, but its essence and being remains constant (because it is anchored to God, who is never changing). A change in styles does not automatically mean we must change doctrines, unless we have made the fatal mistake of making our style into our doctrine (something I lamented above).
Ultimately, I worry for our Emergent brothers and sisters because this way of thinking, if taken to the logical conclusion, can lead to error. At some point in the future I will write about the “line of despair” that Schaeffer spoke of, but for now will leave with this thought: I do not hate the Emergent believers, I do not wish to attack them, I merely wish to point out some pretty big flaws that I see. Truth be told, I’d probably get along better with all of them in person more than I would with most of the fundamentalists I’ve met. I could see myself having a good discussion with them – but alas, I’m just a poor college student trying to make it who has a self-inflated ego with a blog. So, let it be told that though I disagree with those in the Emergent movement, I love them and hope God will open their eyes to Truth.
For further reading on some of the concepts presented, please feel free to read “The Necessity of God in the Acquisition of Knowledge,” “Nietzsche: The Most Dangerous Philosopher Accepted Into Christianity,” “Existentialism: How it has Affected Modern Christianity,” and “Descartes, Pascal, and Reformed Epistemology: Re-evaluating Epistemology.”