by Tony Jones
My earlier post on criticism of Emergent drew much response, including an interesting (and painfully drawn-out) debate over Calvinism versus Arminianism. I find it striking that these age-old arguments still have such interest among some people.
Well, if you get into the comments in the eighties or so, you’ll see that some people ask me (or Emergent, in general) to just come out and declare where we stand on certain issues like the inerrancy of scripture or open theism. D.R. even asks me to summarize briefly what I consider the gospel to be. (I can answer that one easily: the good new of/in Jesus Christ.) Others valiantly attempt to answer these questions, for themselves as supporters of Emergent, if not for Emergent itself.
(A brief digression is necessary here. Some in the “emerging church” movement, broadly conceived, are quite uncomfortable with the organization, Emergent, taking the lead in defining the conversation. Their unease is understandable, but I hope to put some of their fears to rest with this post.)
Well, I'm going to answer the questions, here and elsewhere, by not answering them. What I'm saying is that many are asking, why doesn't Emergent just place ourselves, why don't we just say where we stand on doctrinal, scriptural, and cultural issues?
I believe that the answer is a philosophical one, not necessarily a theological one. So here's my stab at it:
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is possibly best known for the "categorical imperative." He believed that there is a transcendent, objective moral/ethical obligation "out there." As human beings, our job is to figure it out, articulate it in contemporary language, and then apply it.
G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831), on the other hand, believed that moral/ethical norms come become known through a dialectical process of practice and reflection. As a result of this process, a "reflective equilibrium" is achieved.
So, it seems to me that many of the critics of Emergent at Kantian Christians -- they believe that there is a certain, correct, objective interpretation of God's truth as revealed in scripture and the person of Jesus Christ. If they can just get us to stake our claim, then they can see where we are relative to their position, and then they can label us as "conservative," "liberal," "evangelical," "mainline," "Calvinist," "Arminian," or any other well-established category.
Emergent, however, I dare say, is a very loose collection of Christians who are committed to Hegelian dialectical and Aristotelian practical reasoning [thanks, Chris]. That is to say, we want to carve out a place for conversation, dialogue, dialectic, and debate. We also want to place practice at the very center of theology. That is, theology isn't just about getting what we believe right; it's a rich matrix of what we believe and how we live that matters for the Christian faith. That's why we'll write books, but we'll also invite people -- including our critics -- to visit our churches and missions and new monastic communities.
Nota bene, Hegel's idea of dialectical reasoning is not a way to avoid coming to normative conclusions, but a different way to come to normative conclusions.
Blogs and books are only one place -- and a rather disembodied place; actually, hardly a "place" at all -- where this conversation happens. It happens more powerfully at events like the Emergent Convention, the Emergent Gathering, and the Emergent Theological Conversation. And the best place for this kind of conversation, no doubt are in local/regional cohorts and (drumroll, please) local churches!
For us to start taking positions on open theism, homosexual civil unions, or feeding tubes has a chilling effect on conversation. That may be the tactic that modern denominations want to use in the complexity of a postmodern world -- writing position papers and voting on their books of order at national meetings -- but we would rather carve out a little space for those who would like to solve these societal problems by reflective practice in real life.
Is this a cop out? Are we avoiding the issue? Are we not engaging our critics? I referred to Kant and Hegel above to show that the answer to these questions is, No. We are, indeed, refusing to answer Kantian questions posed by Kantian critics. But there is a long and rich tradition of dialectical/practical reasoning, and it is into that tradition that I believe we fall.