An open letter to the emergent movement


To Whom It May Concern:

Back when I was struggling in my life, reading some of your books (Messy Spirituality, Adventures in Missing the Point, A New Kind of Christian, etc) provided me an escape from the fundamentalism I had come to loath. I attended a church where every week I heard the pastor rail against women who got abortions, bash homosexuals (in private he called them “fags” and didn’t want them in the church), harp on liberals, and repeat that cycle Sunday after Sunday. All the while, I had no spiritual nourishment, so I grew bitter.

Your books, at the time, were a breath of fresh air. I saw Christians who, rather than rant and rave against the ills of the world, actually taught that we should be the solution. This meant quite a bit to me.

But as time has moved on, I have read more and, to be quite frank, I no longer see the difference between the fundamentalism I came to loath and the Emergent movement I see before my eyes. I appreciate the call to justice, I appreciate pointing out the flaws of conservative Christianity, which has become and is becoming a dead orthodoxy, but my concerns with you far outweigh the positive aspects I see.

Please, don’t take this open letter as a power play on my part, or a mockery of the Emergent Conversation. These are genuine concerns. The fact is, Christianity in the West is in desperate need for an authentic movement, but this movement must have its foundation in authentic doctrine and authentic actions. If either is missing, the movement will fail – either because it lacks the substance to hold it together (proper doctrine) or because it lacks the heart to carry on (proper actions).

My list of grievances is as follows:

1)   You claim to be a middle way, but you’re not a middle way. There is little to no difference, theologically speaking, between the emergent movement and the liberalism of the late 19th century. Though true that most of the outspoken participants in the movement still affirm the deity of Christ, the incarnation, and the Trinitarian nature of God (such as Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt, Brian McLaren, and others), such beliefs are not seen as “necessary.”

Sadly enough, and I say this tongue-in-cheek, it appears the Emergent Conversation would better be titled “Liberalism Lite” rather than what it currently is. It goes down in a much smoother fashion than earlier forms of liberalism and doesn’t leave a bitter taste in your mouth like earlier liberalism. One can deny the validity of Scripture (for the most part), declare that Scripture is contained to its cultural time period, that tradition is trapped in its cultural time period, and that reasoning is a man-made tool. It can claim that Jesus is God, but in the same breath say that if you don’t believe that, it doesn’t matter.

It accepts the tenets of Christian liberalism, it accepts a low view of sin (like Christian liberalism), it repackaged the Social Gospel of Christian liberalism; so other than accepting some basic truths in the Christian faith (but not making them necessary), how are you a middle way? How are you the bridge between conservatives and liberals? If your ideology is liberal, but less academic and with a bigger heart, how does that make you align with conservatives?

2)   You have become a “Religious Right” of sorts, only with different beliefs. The Religious Right attempted to legislate religious ideals into the culture. Rather than reforming the people in hopes that the people would in turn reform the laws, the religious right became political to the point of ignoring the plight of others. In short, government became their god. Senators were their prophets and Representatives their priests.

But I must ask, how are you any different? The only difference is that you have adopted a liberal approach to politics rather than a conservative one, but in the end, just like the religious right, government is your god, senators are your prophets, and representatives are your priests.

There is nothing wrong with a Christian getting involved in politics. My hero, William Wilberforce, is a testament to what Christians can accomplish in the political realm. But we must never forget that though Wilberforce is famous for the abolishment of the slave trade (and eventual emancipation of slaves in Great Britain), he did this through social reform. He did this through reaching out to the people. He also didn’t forsake doctrine; he taught, quite emphatically, that action (sincerity) without doctrine isn’t enough to make a person justified in the eyes of God (look up his book, A Practical View of Christianity – this is the theme of the first chapter).

3)   You preach that we are to love one another, but always make an exception when it comes to conservatives. You teach we are to love the poor, love the oppressed, love the orphans, etc. Truth be told, in our cultural climate, loving the underdog is easy. Loving the bloated CEO, loving the conservative Christian, or loving the Republican politician, however, are quite difficult to do.

But there doesn’t seem to be any real movement toward loving those who are different under the Emergent Conversation. In my own personal interaction with those who describe themselves as emergent, only one person (Peter Rollins) has shown true, genuine love toward me even though we disagree strongly on everything. Thus far, he is the only emergent I have met who I feel I can have a conversation with, disagree strongly, even get heated, but be friends afterward (and during).

Unfortunately, I read books from the more vocal participants in the conversation and see how they mock conservative Christians and conservatives in general, but have no humor about themselves. I have felt their indignation toward anyone who dare to disagree with them (look up Mark Scandtrette’s response to my friend and to myself). How is that loving?

How is it loving to bash conservatives on a daily basis? How is it loving to ridicule everything conservatives stand for, to call us idiots or tell us we have an idiotic theology? How is it loving to call us racists when we’ve done nothing to warrant such a title? How is it loving to accuse us of hate simply because we disagree with a lifestyle?

And even if the above accusations against us were true, how is it loving to exploit those accusations, to hurl them, and to seek no reconciliation? Christ taught us it is easy to love our friends, to love those who agree with us, or to love those who’s plight elicits sympathy. But true love begins when you begin to display love toward the ones whom you used to hate.

Certainly, everyone – conservative or emergent/liberal – fails at this at points. But what I see is a lack of accountability for vocal proponents or from vocal proponents in the emergent conversation. They ignore that their own participants are doing this or they engage in it themselves. I have failed at showing love to my enemies, but I am constantly called out for it by other conservative Christians who are close to me. Some applaud my lack of respect toward the opposition, but others hold me up to a higher standard. Where is the accountability in the Emergent Conversation?

How odd that Tony Jones, in his book A New Kind of Christian, would mock Os Guinness’ claim that postmodernity wouldn’t last. He would mock the person who is attempting to bring civility back into public discourse. How is that loving?

4)   You play fast and loose with worldly philosophy, something Christians are not supposed to do. Though I know not everyone agrees with Paul, his command in Colossians to steer clear of worldly philosophies is good advice.

After all, if humans are fallible and God has revealed part of His knowledge to us, it makes sense to go with what God has revealed over human knowledge.

You embrace postmodernity, which is, in all reality, nothing more than the nihilistic branch of modernity. Schopenhauer is hardly considered a postmodern, yet he had the same type of cynicism, attitude, and outlook that postmoderns do.

You lament conservatives for embracing modernism, but you do this without actually looking at modernism. Modernism is what conservatives reacted against – though they did so in the wrong fashion. Regardless, liberalism – what you embrace – is the result of modernism. Simply read Kant’s discourse on natural religion (Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone) and you can quickly see that modernism is what begot liberalism, which begot the emergent church. It would almost seem that, since the church usually runs 20-50 years behind secular culture, that as modernism faded after WWII and gave way to postmodernism, liberalism faded within the church during the 1980’s and gave way to the emergent conversation.

That is the problem when we follow the philosophy of this world. Such philosophies are eventually proven wrong or “go out of style.” Yet, the philosophy of God, which is founded in His nature, in His knowledge, never goes out of style. The philosophy that gave inspiration to Augustine and Athanasius is still alive and well today. The philosophy that stumped King Agrippa and made the men at Mars Hill curious about Christianity is still taught today. We must anchor ourselves to a firm foundation, lest we get swept away.

5)   You have a naturalistic worldview, where God is transcendent and doesn’t communicate to us, at least not in an objective fashion. The idea that the Bible is man-made or that we can’t know what God has revealed is, to say the least, a very disturbing element of your belief system.

We understand that God is a mystery, but this is why we believe in revelation; because God is infinitely above us, He has revealed parts of His existence so that we might know Him in some fashion. This doesn’t take away the mystery at all, for even the revealed aspects of Himself are ultimately a mystery to us. That is what makes Him transcendent; but revelation is what makes Him immanent.

Here’s the problem I have with your view of God; at best, God can only be known on the basis of personal experience and even that is subject to controversy (see Peter Rollins’ Fidelity of Betrayal or my thesis paper “The Christian Response to Postmodernism”). Thus, if God can somewhat be known or can’t really be known at all, then He doesn’t exist. Let me explain.

Contradictory beings cannot exist. So if Jim has an experience with God that leads him to believe that God doesn’t want us to love others and Jane has an experience with God that leads her to believe that God wants us to love everyone, one of four possibilities is true. Either Jim is wrong and Jane is right, or Jane is wrong and Jim is right, or both are wrong. Yet, we can’t evaluate who is right and who is wrong, so under your theology we just say, “It’s their experience, who’s to say.” Well, if both are right, then God is contradictory (or a hypocrite) and therefore doesn’t exist. This is all for nothing if that is the case.

So God must be transcendent and immanent; He must reveal Himself to us in certain ways (through Scripture primarily, but also reason and tradition). When we drop that aspect of Christianity, then we have dropped Christianity in general.

6)   You hold to a theology that cheapens the sacrifice of the martyrs, both past and present. When we create an inclusive theology or a universal theology, we cheapen the deaths of those who came before us. Christians died because they refused to pay homage to Caesar. The Romans never once said, “You can’t worship Christ as God.” They could care less. All they wanted was for Christians to give homage to Caesar.

Yet, the Christians refused to do it. If Christianity is supposed to be inclusive, if it is supposed to be universal, if we are to be open to all forms, if we are to participate in other religions in their practices, then these Christians needlessly went to their deaths! The Christians today who face the prospect of torture, rape, beatings, and death are likewise putting their lives on the line needlessly.

The only explanation for such willingness to die was that the Christians of the first few centuries of Christianity were so serious about the exclusivity of Christ that they were willing to die for such a belief. When we deny the exclusivity of Christ, we must concede one of two things: (1) that we are potentially wrong or (2) the death of the martyr’s was in vain.

7)   Why do you not hate sin? Why do you not hate the thing that is against the very nature of God? Sin is an affront to God as it goes against His Will. God absolutely hates sin, but it seems that you have forgotten that. You have forgotten that God’s justice and His grace go hand in hand.

God hates sin for two reasons: It is a violation of who He is as God and it is a violation of who we are in His image. When we sin, we are harming ourselves (being in the image of God) and going against God in general. In a more practical element, sin often hurts our lives. It gets in the way of a proper relationship with Him. It harms us and He hates it for that reason as well.

At the same time, He offers grace and mercy to all sinners. We would never understand God’s grace if not for our sins. If we eject sin from our theology, or at least eject the seriousness of sin from our theology, then grace is nothing more than a catchphrase. Without a theology that incorporates the seriousness of sin, grace is an empty word that ultimately has no meaning and is not worthy of any serious consideration. Until we realize the depths of our sins against God, we cannot understand the beauty and majesty of His grace.

The Antiochian liturgy in the Orthodox Church has a repeated line, “Have mercy on us.” This is because they recognize that we are sinners. The priest, before beginning the service, will ask the congregation for forgiveness. This is because they see that we are sinners. In Reformed doctrine, anthropology hinges upon the belief that we are made in the image of God and the belief that we tarnish and ruin this image on a daily basis because of our sins.

Yet, both Reformation theology and the Orthodox Church are big on grace. Why is this? Because by realizing our fallen nature and what our sin means to God, they recognize how much more He has loved us by providing forgiveness through His grace. Until you recognize the seriousness of sin, grace means nothing.

There are other grievances, but these seem to be the biggest. I pray that you do not take the above as an assault against you as a person (generally speaking), but rather as someone who is concerned for your relationship with God and your relationship with fellow humans. I pray that instead of reacting to this open letter, you contemplate on it and dwell on it. Even if you disagree in the end, I hope that in some way it has challenged you.

I pray this letter finds you well.

In the name of Christ Jesus, God incarnate,

Joel Borofsky

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