Humble Emergents vs. Absolutists….

Emergent 5Lets continue on with some more quotes from the book by Tony Jones entitled The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier

“I’m humble,” an emergent might tell you, “because I don’t know what I’m wrong about today. I’ll speak with confidence, and I’ll speak with passion, but I won’t speak with certainty.”

Being humble/uncertain in any area of theology is very intimidating to some within the church. They say we must believe everything in the Bible comes from God. They say we will invariably go down the “slippery slope” if we question anything in that document. They say if we question anything then everything in it is worthless.  Emergents believe that we are all relativist in one form or another. None of us truly believe that everything in the Bible is absolutely true.

Emergents are willing to say that they are relativists, many other won’t confess that. But there is the basic problem with confessing that you are an absolutist.

  • You must therefore say that God demands that you kill all homosexuals for it seems to say that somewhere in biblical text.
  • Paul says that all women should cover their heads when in church and you should shave those who don’t.  
  • He says that no women should come to church with braided hair.
  • He says that women should be quiet in church and let their husbands explain things to them when they are home.
  • The Bible tells us that all slaves should be happy in their circumstances and not to rebel against their masters

I dare say that no Christian church today abides by all of these demands of Paul. By not following the strict letter of the law they are proclaiming that some words in the bible are not relevant to our times and therefore, even if they don’t admit it, are declaring themselves relativists.

During the 1950s and 60s in the U.S. most Christian churches  declared that segregation was the law of God. In the 1930 most churches claimed that denying the vote to women was a command from God and that Hitler’s rule was a command from God.  Each generation has their set of things in the Bible or maybe the doctrine of their particular flavor of Christianity that they declare is absolute only to have the next generation deny that claim.

To claim that we are not all relativist when it comes to the Bible is the epitome of arrogance. Emergents at least are humble when it comes to their faith. They speak with passion and confidence but not with certainty on what they know about God and his messages to us.

Let’s close this discussion out with some additional words from Mr. Jones’ book”

For if one has rock-solid certainty, it’s only natural to suppose that all other viewpoints are wrong and therefore impose one’s certainty on others. Proper confidence [as practiced by emergents], by contrast, lends itself to persuasion, not imposition.

Emergents are humble. They don’t imagine that they have it all right and therefore those who disagree with them are wrong. Emergents do not pre-suppose that they alone know the true heart of God. They are humble to say that what they believe today just might be proved wrong tomorrow. That is the kind of Christianity that I want to follow.

Skiing The Slippery Slope

Anyone who has read much of this blog knows how I feel about the slippery slope. I believe that the very concept has damaged us theologically, politically and personally beyond anything good that could come out of it. The very concept that everything we believe about a subject becomes worthless if we come to believe that any small part of it is questionable.

Here is what Tony Jones says about the slippery slope in his book The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier:

That theology is local, conversational, and temporary does not mean that we must hold our beliefs without conviction. This is a charge often thrown at emergent Christians, but it’s false. As a society, we’ve been wrong about all sorts of things in the past, like slavery. And not letting women vote. And not letting nonwhites drink from the same water fountains as whites. I could go on and on. Our forebears held positions on these issues with deep conviction, but they were wrong. And I can say that unequivocally. At least, I can say that from my vantage point-as one who came after them-they were wrong. What I cannot say is which side of those issues I would have been on a century or two ago. Nor can I say which issues I’m mistaken on today….

Unlike Mr. Jones I “did” live through many of the issues he discussed here. I have to admit that I was wrong to have such a non-committal  attitude toward many of them when they were happening. Since I was a white kid growing up in rural America I, at least initially, didn’t think they had anything to do with me. In college in the 1960s I finally had some direct encounters and conversations with my first African-Americans. From conversations with them I came to understand that I too had a stake in these matters.  It was not until my local circumstance changed that I knew how critical the civil rights demonstrations of the time actually were.

Dispatch 11: Emergents believe that awareness of our relative position-to God, to one another, and to history – breeds biblical humility, not relativistic apathy

Our understanding that throughout history the theologians in particular and the church in general has both evolved and devolved. To deny that fact is to deny history itself. We can’t just ignore the fact that during the period quoted above many Christian denomination claimed that segregation and denying people of color their God given rights  was biblical. Among other things they pointed out the various reference to slaves in the Bible.  We are all relativists to one degree or another. When we recognize that fact it frees us to look for further understanding of God’s infinitely complicated words to us. When we lock onto one version of our choosing we lock out further revelations from God or Scripture.

The concept of the slippery slope is a dangerous one but not from the fact that we look at things differently but from the fact that we refuse to do so…..

Theology is Temporary…

Continuing with my study of theology as discussed in the book by Tony Jones entitled The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier, here is the quote for this post:

theology is temporary. Since our conceptions of God are shaped locally and in conversation, we must hold them humbly. We must carry our theologies with an open hand, as it were. To assume that our convictions about God are somehow timeless is the deepest arrogance, and it establishes an imperialistic attitude that has a chilling effect on the honest conversation that’s needed for theology to progress…..

[we can’t as some ask to] “sum it up,” and “boil it down” when speaking of God and God’s Kingdom, for it simply can’t be done. The Kingdom of God is expansive, explosive, and un-pin-downable (to coin a phrase). Consequently, our characterizations of God and God’s Kingdom are necessarily fleeting.

For a number of years I read seemingly countless books by today’s theologians and each one seemed convinced that his version of theology came from God and was therefore the only correct one and the only one for the ages. But as Mr. Jones pointed out above this declaration is perhaps the deepest form of arrogance on their part.  When we try to lock down the meaning and lessons of God we are actually declaring that He has nothing more to say about whatever we are discussing.

I can just imagine that many of the big thinkers of Christianity had the same mentality, even the ones who arrogantly claim that the Bible is totally literal and without the possibility of error. Of course one of those theologians was Martin Luther. When he declared “Sola Scriptura”, that is the bible alone is the total and complete word of God he then went on to say except for the Epistles of James (he called that one an epistle of straw) and a few others that he chose to personally exclude. By that very declaration he invalidated the very idea of sola scriptura.  I can’t understand why others have not come out and declared that simple fact about his teachings.  Maybe Luther being the leader of the “reformation” was the “too big to fail” of his times.

The bible and all the subsequent theologians’ views make up a very complex story of God but really hardly touch on the expansiveness of the Kingdom of God. Just when we think we have it nailed down something else pops up in the biblical text, in scientific discoveries, in archeological digs, or maybe from personal revelations that shows us a clearer path.

As Tony Jones say we can’t hermetically seal God’s ever-expanding Kingdom or our experiences and articulations of that Kingdom. They are changing as we mature both in self and in the corporate body of Christ. What we think we know now just maybe discounted by something we learn or finally understand tomorrow. In other words  whether we want to recognize it or not, theology is temporary.

Emergent Church… Good Theology … Bad Theology

From Tony Jones in his book The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier:

Good theology begets beautiful Christianity. And so it follows that Bad theology begets ugly Christianity. That may sound supremely arrogant, but hear me out. A lot of us, emergents included, are disheartened by the complexion of Christianity in America. We’re embarrassed by the Jesus junk we see in stores, by the preachers we see on TV, and by the ill-fated marriage of faith and politics. We’re equally saddened by the $75 million evangelical megachurch campus in the suburbs and the shuttered mainline church in the city. While there is much that is good about being Christian in America today, very many of us think there needs to be a profound change in the way that Christianity is practiced and promulgated. All I’m saying is that the current practices that embarrass us are reflective of a deeply held theology. So, while we rethink how we live the faith, we must also reconsider what the faith actually is.

When I read these words I couldn’t help but say “Amen, brother”.  One of the major things that sadden me is how much we Christians spend on our church building and institutions compared to what we spend on loving our brothers. When I pass by the even not so megachurches in my area I almost always cringe. It embarrasses me to think of all the money these members are spending on themselves while I see so much need going unmet in the area.

As mentioned above another thing that is doing damage to the church is the ill-fated marriage between faith and politics. When did that happen? Yes, there is much to be celebrated about being a Christian in America but there is also much that needs re-alignment and that is what the emergent movement is all about. Tony Jones and this book were at the leading edge of the emergent movement. Later in the movement Harvey Cox came out with his book entitled The Future of Faith to address the topic of what faith actually is and that is that faith is not a set of beliefs, almost all manmade, but instead is about a way of “being”.

So we must refigure our theology. Too much bad theology has engendered too many unhealthy churches and too many people who don’t quite get the whole “following Christ” way of life. Too much thin theology is responsible for too many Christians who practice the faith in ways that are a mile wide and an inch deep. The hope of emergents, their ministry, their message is, more than anything, a call for a reinvigoration of Christian theology-not in the ivy towers, not even in pulpits and pews, but on the street.

The “mile wide and inch deep” reference stuck me as a perfect description of what Christian faith has become for too many. They say all you have to do to be a Christian is to make an altar call and proclaim as such. That is so far from reality to almost be ridiculous. Theology is nothing more than man’s beliefs about God and far too often it comes down to man’s desires of what they want God to be, where it should be the other way around.  To emergents Christianity is meant to be a life changing event; not something that is simply professed and then quickly ignored.

The Emergent Church….. They Love Everyone….

I am going to spend the next few posts giving you some more info about the emergent church movement now taking place around the world. The source for these posts is a book by Tony Jones entitled The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier. Tony is one of the original leaders of this movement so his words have an insight into the beginning thoughts about just what is the emergent church today.  I am not going to give you a front-to-back look at this book but instead will be jumping around to fit the theme I have chosen for each post. There are a lot of highlighted quotes in the book that give more depth to it so I will also be letting you see some of them.

Lets start out with some fundamental reasons behind this new way of looking at church.


More than one emergent reported sentiments similar to one young man who said, “This emergent church is my last attempt at church. If this doesn’t work, I’m out. I don’t think I’ll ever give up on God, but I’m on the verge of giving up on the notion that human beings can form organizations that faithfully represent God in the world.”…..

In an emergent church, you’re likely to hear a phrase like “Our calling as a church is to partner with God in the work that God is already doing in the world-to cooperate in the building of God’s Kingdom.” Many theological assumptions lie behind this statement, not least of which is a robust faith in God’s presence and ongoing activity in the world. Further, the idea that human beings can “cooperate” with God is particularly galling to conservative Calvinists, who generally deny the human ability to participate with God’s work. This posture, however, is too passive for most emergents, who see the Bible as a call for us to contribute to God’s purposes.

The first quote here is very much where I once was in relation to “doing church”. The more I studied the Bible and the more I was exposed to current church practices the more discouraged I became. I was very much attuned to the reality that human beings seemed unable to form organizations to faithfully represent what the words of Jesus were telling me.

The second quote strikes at the heart of my concerns.  Much of current day church establishments especially those of a conservative nature just don’t seem to see the same words that I did when studying the red letters. Calvinists in particular say God has it all planned out. He knows before you are born whether he is going to allow you to come to him or just summarily cast you into an eternal torment. Calvinists might be the extreme end of this spectrum but they are not alone in those basic thoughts.

I know in a Lutheran church that I once attended I sat in the pew week after week with the minister telling me that as far as God is concerned I am nothing more than a worthless piece of snot but he loves me anyway and he doesn’t expect anything from me. There was almost never a mention of actually doing anything to help “God’s kingdom come to earth as it is in heaven”. I was told that my only duties were to thank God for his grace and maybe help bring some more members to our local congregation. We like most small congregations needed the money.  I was also frequently told to watch out for that “big bad world” out there as it wants to take my faith away.

The emergent church is almost a counter-church to the ones I have been exposed to.  They tell me that I am to partner with God in the work that he is doing. They tell me that I am very much part of the team that God has assembled to build His kingdom on earth. They tell me that church is not focused on “me” but about loving” others”… That is the message I have sought for much of my life.

Not to Confuse Jesus With the Packaging….

I want to spend this post telling you a little more about today’s emergent churches. No, this is not just a different denomination coming onto the scene but instead is a paradigm shift taking place in the church itself and many times within existing church structures, even at the individual congregational level.

Let’s look as some more words about this from Harvey Cox in his book The Future of Faith

Emergent congregations are especially well equipped to live creatively in the newly post-Western Christianity. They are careful not to confuse the life and message of Jesus with the “Western” elements in which it has been packaged. They try to assign equal weight to both the message and the context so that a new version of the old story can take shape. They strongly underline “living the message” rather than simply proclaiming it. They experiment with settings, like cafes, in which two-way exchange rather than one-way preaching is possible. 

Not only does the present trajectory of Christianity suggest a growing distinction between faith and belief; the trend has been visible for quite some time now.


This is the first time I think I have brought up the idea of the “western” elements. Post-Western Christianity as mentioned above is about how the church is growing rapidly in non-western countries primarily in Africa and South America. Their version of Christianity is very much different from ours. As said above they are very much into “living the message” and are not as influenced by past theologians thoughts on what is necessary to “believe” about Christ. In other words they go back to the principle of the early followers of Jesus.

These non-western churches are giving establishment church hierarchies a pain in the…. They just don’t believe that they have to buy into all of the interpretations and beliefs, some say baggage, of their parent church. They are probably giving the Pope and many other church leaders ulcers with this attitude.  Many in fact embrace the concept of liberation theology and many are also Pentecostal in nature.  So, as many claim Christianity is still growing throughout the world but the vast majority of the growth is from “maverick” churches in other parts of the world.

Most growth in the U.S. is now occurring in non-denominational churches that are freer to reject parts of the baggage of the past. To the dire shock of some, these churches experiment with different settings in which a diversity of beliefs is not only tolerated but actually encouraged.

Today’s emergent movement is taking place in all of the examples above. We are finally trying to get back to the messages of Jesus and to put all the human interpretations onto the back burner of our faith where they belonged all this time. Today’s emergent movement is about stripping the two millennia of packaging away from Jesus so that we can see the original content and that is certainly a very good thing in my mind.

Those Non-Western Christians…

Anyone who has read much of this blog knows that I take the creeds of the Christian church to have done more harm than good.  Here are some words about that by Harvey Cox in his book The Future of Faith:

Creeds were always something theologians invented, often to stake out spheres of authority. The vast body of lay Christians knew little about them and cared less. Their faith was embodied in stories, saints’ days, baptisms, weddings, and funerals. But these everyday people constituted, after all, the vast majority.

The priests and theologians always remained a tiny minority. Consequently the recent emergence of “people’s history” is facilitating the recovery of Christianity’s original faith orientation. As the revival of religion and the change in religiousness spread around the world, it becomes clearer why the extraordinary growth of Christianity beyond the West is helping Christianity regain its initial impetus.

These areas lie far removed from Plato’s orbit. To be a Christian in India or Korea or Africa today does not mean to be a Christian à la grec. It means to be what is sometimes called a “postdogmatic” Christian. The content of the faith of non-Western Christians is much like that of the early church, even though the embodied style of their religion often resembles that of their non-Christian neighbors….

Religious people today are more interested in ethical guidelines and spiritual disciplines than in doctrines. They are also becoming less patriarchal, as women assume leadership positions in religions that have barred them for centuries, sometimes for millennia. Women are publishing commentaries on the Qur’an, leading synagogues, and directing Buddhist retreat centers. There are now women pastors, priests, and bishops in Christian denominations.

As you can see from these words things are changing at the root level in Christian churches. You might say that you have not seen much of a change but if you were a Christian in the southern hemisphere you would not question what is going on.  Western Christians want to point to the fact that the church is growing so therefore this “emergent movement” really doesn’t have much muscle. The trouble with that belief is that like many of the current beliefs/creeds present in the western church are naive at best or wrong at worst.

Much of South America is made up of Roman Catholics but they are not like the ones you come across in your Sunday visits. They are literally giving the pope heartburn with their non-allegience to many of the things the church hold dear. They are not aligning to all the things they are told to believe. Many of them in fact have embraced liberation theology. I know from the 2008 elections that was a dirty name in this country but not so in other parts of the world.

Yes, Christianity might be holding its own  overall but all of the growth is actually occurring  outside Europe and the U.S and it is a very different Christianity than what we know.  As the quote above says it much more closely resembles the early church than the modern church of the western world.  I personally think that is a good thing.  I kind of like the term post-dogmatic Christians. It has a nice ring to it.  I will be covering some of this in future posts because it will be a critical issue in the post-modern/dogmatic church of the twenty-first century by the emergent movement among others.

Don’t Embarrass God….

Since this is the first post here in 2013 I pray we all make a new years resolution to not embarrass God!!

We followers of Jesus seem to think that our self-proclamation that we are Christians doesn’t affect anyone but ourselves. But in reality making that claim and then not living up the actions necessary to show the world that you follow Jesus embarrasses God. It makes him look bad when everyone who knows you to be a Christian see you doing things that are definitely not Christ like.

The primary way that someone comes to be a follower of Jesus is not by a sudden mysterious urge to read the Bible but instead by observing the good examples of others and asking “what makes this person different?”.  Most simply see the Bible as a very old book written centuries ago that has little to do with the world today.  They learn about Christ through you and how you act!

But the trouble with this is that there is almost no difference between how you, a self-proclaimed Christian lives your life, than anyone else. In fact if we look hard enough we can see that Christians actually take marriage less seriously than non-Christians since statistically Christians divorce more frequently than the population as a whole.

When Christians insist that science is wrong about so  many aspects of life they embarrass God. God continues to give us scientific revelations about life including the recent advances in DNA  but many Christians seem to want to deny scientific findings. As an example some stubbornly insist that the earth is a mere 6,000 years old when even with a cursory look around us we know it to be otherwise. When we effectively ask our guests to our services to check their intelligence at the door we embarrass God. We not only embarrass him we make him irrelevant in the eyes of many around us.  Instead of wanting to know more about this God that we pray to they could care less.

When we squabble incessantly with each other about what we are supposed to believe about him we embarrass God. We are currently divided into over 39,000 different factions each claiming to be the only ones who know the “true” God! How can anyone make any sense of what being Christian means when we can’t even agree among ourselves. More shamefully when we discipline, reject , and shun those in our midst for simply praying with those who might not proclaim exactly the same beliefs as us we embarrass God.

Let’s face it many “Christians” today embarrass God by their actions or maybe more seriously their lack of actions. When we proclaim that being Christian is all about what we believe and nothing to do with what we do.  We embarrass God when we continuously  split over the most petty things.

It will take a paradigm shift in our understanding of Jesus and his messages to turn us around. I think the current emergent movement is just such a thing. How long will the shift take is anyone’s guess.  All I know is that we have to quit embarrassing God by our words and inactions and get on to doing what he told us to do.  That is the only way we will ever point others to Him.

Lets all make a very serious attempt to not embarrass God in this new year…..

Institutional Purity…..

The primary reason there are 39,000+ Christian denominations is that each are trying to maintain “purity” of beliefs. Here is how that logic usually plays out:

” If we allow differences of opinions among us then we will soon reach a slippery slope where we will slide into heresy. For that reason we must be on the constant watch to exclude anyone among us who asks the ‘wrong’ questions or dares to disagree any of our creeds or beliefs.”

I have personally felt the stink of one of these churches. But what these church authorities espousing this view overlook is that they are looking at Jesus through the lens of many others who came before them. Things like their recent stubborn insistence that every word in the Bible came directly from God is putting themselves into a straight-jacket that is almost impossible to wear, and very uninviting to those outside their clique.

Of course institutional purity is not new to the twenty-first century. It has been going on since the time of Constantine in the fourth century and probably even before that. Here are some words from Harvey Cox in his book The Future of Faith:

 During the ensuing “Constantinian era,” Christianity, at least in its official version, froze into a system of mandatory precepts that were codified into creeds and strictly monitored by a powerful hierarchy and imperial decrees. Heresy became treason, and treason became heresy. The year 385 CE marked a particularly grim turning point. A synod of bishops condemned a man named Priscillian of Avila for heresy, and by order of the emperor Maximus he and six of his followers were beheaded in Treves. Christian fundamentalism had claimed its first victim. Today Priscillian’s alleged theological errors hardly seem to warrant the death penalty. He urged his followers to avoid meat and wine, advocated the careful study of scripture…

There are countless similar stories from the years following. One historian estimates that in the two and a half centuries after Constantine, Christian imperial authorities put twenty-five thousand to death for their lack of creedal correctness.  And of course we all know that in 1431 Joan of Arc was burned as a heretic. In the twentieth century she became a saint.

Here are some additional words by Philip Gulley in his book The Evolution of Faith about trying to maintain institutional purity:

Some Christians have thus concluded that we are our own worst enemies, that our best option for a viable future lies in our determination to embrace a rigid faith in order to stave off the adulterating influences of other cultures and religions. But I would contend that this has been tried repeatedly throughout our long history and always ends the same suspicion, intolerance, exclusion, division, and, finally, war. No, if the church has a future indeed if our world has a future it will rest in the church’s ability to honor and assimilate the best of each religious tradition,  just as Jesus found virtue in Samaritans, publicans, centurions, and Gentiles. How this good man came to be the focus of a creedalism that ultimately excludes others is a mystery for the ages. The incorporation of other traditions into our own will undoubtedly change us, but for the better, for it will lead us toward one another, which is also and always a movement toward the Divine Presence and the universal grace that Presence represents. 

Inspiring words indeed! We should not be locking and bolting the church door against others beliefs but instead should be embracing them if they celebrate the Divine Presence of Jesus Christ. In other words we should do as he did.  And that is what I hope the coming emergent church will bring about.

The Second Great Rummage Sale — The Great Schism

The Great Schism is basically when the Christian church split in the Roman Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. This happened around 1054CE.  What had once been a single church slowly separated into two distinct identities.  Most of the differences that caused the split were almost nit-picking about what to believe and had little or nothing to do with how to “be” a Christian. This shows us that the belief vs action dilemmas have a long origin.

  • The Eastern Church (Orthodox) used Greek as its language; The Western (Roman) Church used Latin.
  • Eastern clergy could marry and wore beards; Western Clergy  were celibate and were clean shaven.
  • The Western church added the “Son” to the Nicene Creed; the Eastern church deemed that heretical
  • The Eastern church refused to recognize baptism performed in Western churches.

The differences between the two churches seemed less essential but at the heart of the matter was power. This split, like the one that would occur during the next rummage sale five hundred years later was primarily a battle between two large egos.

In Rome Bruno became Pope Leo IX.  In today’s terms he would be considered a fundamentalist. He immediately launched a program of “moral and theological” reform. In order to prevent priests from automatically passing their positions on to their children he banned all priests from marrying. (I always wondered the initial reason why Roman Catholic priests are celibate.)  Bruno sought to free the Roman church from outside controls.  He chose to consolidate power under his leadership. Given the experiences following Constantine taking over control of the church six centuries previous he had good reason to seek this reform at the essential re-birth of the church.

Meanwhile Michael Cerularius, the new bishop of Constantinople, refused to recognize Bruno as pope. He closed all churches in that city that were loyal to the Roman bishop. He treated envoys sent from Rome with total disrespect. The final blow that caused the schism was the Crusades where Roman crusaders sacked Constantinople which was the “Rome” of the Orthodox church.

With this schism the Christian church for the first time became two churches with different theology, doctrine and practices.  But in looking forward to the third rummage sale it would not be the last time a split primarily caused by power conflicts would arise.

Before we move on to the third rummage sale caused primarily by Martin Luther I want to step back a little and bring in another quote by Phyllis Tickle from her book The Great Emergence:

 It is especially important to remember that no standing form of organized Christian faith has ever been destroyed by one of our semi-millennial eruptions. Instead, each simply has lost hegemony or pride of place to the new and not-yet-organized form that was birthing. 

In other words, we should not fret that the coming emergent church movement will shake the church from its foundations.  When we eventually move from a church primarily focused on “beliefs”back into a church about “being” it will strengthen the church not destroy it.