Travel writer Pico Iyer confesses that he likes airports a lot. Part mall, part border-crossing, they buzz with the ambient noise of postmodern consciousness, representing an "everywhere" that is really no actual place at all. Those of us who can't remember when we were not always on the go, repeatedly uprooted growing up, living in the fast lane with computers and cell phones, catching planes and channel surfing, know deep inside ourselves what it means to be a wanderer in these "everywhere" places.
The Emergent Church movement is as much the product of this postmodern condition as the megachurch movement from which it recoils, but whereas the latter has seemed obsessed with the novel, the ephemeral, the immanent, and the practical, the next-generation Emergent groups evidence an interest in the ancient, the authentic, the transcendent, and the mysterious.
While there is much to appreciate in the Emergent movement's instincts that should be celebrated and encouraged, is there a characteristically modern tendency that it shares with its megachurch heritage-a tendency that may finally threaten the noble aspirations of these bright, energetic, and hopeful followers of Christ?
First and foremost, Emergent identifies with postmodernism, although its celebration of postmodernism is often as sweeping as its critique of modernity. In many respects, Emergent reflects these most-modern rather than postmodern tendencies. In fact, to gain any real insight into the Emergent movement (as about any other in our day), one has to visit its websites. There, one enters a world in which theology and church practice are decided largely by democratic conversation: like a 24-hour live streaming Oprah show.
Once upon a time, churches had an established way of deliberating on its faith and practice together, which included creeds, confessions, catechism, and Bible teaching at home and church, the training, testing, and ordination of church officers, visitation in homes, care for those in distress, and so forth. For a variety of reasons, these practices have been undermined in modernity. Emergent's leaders prize reconnecting with the past. However, they share with their Boomer parents more of the pick-and-choose approach to life than they might realize. In fact, even more so, if their websites are any indication. I've met many of these brothers and sisters and am routinely impressed by their honesty and interest in encountering God rather than simply themselves in worship. They are interested in reciting the creeds regularly, along with frequent administration of Communion, recovering space for communal prayer, and service to each other in life's concrete circumstances. They are hungry to read books about God, not just tracts or books about how they can use God to get what they want out of life.
At the same time, they display an eclectic approach that one might expect from "surfing the Net," often revealing a nave acceptance of completely contradictory views and practices. The mystical usually wins out over anything that smacks of systematic theology or doctrine. The latter, after all, is a modern way of thinking, despite the fact that the classic systems are premodern and rejecting them was the pastime of modernity. Brian McLaren is illustrative of both the honest longing and confusion that I think Emergent represents. In his recent book, A Generous Orthodoxy (Zondervan), McLaren strikes a magnanimous pose as a great reconciler of the various traditions. In fact, the subtitle is as telling as it is long:
Why I Am a Missional + Evangelical + Post/Protestant + Liberal/Conservative + Mystical/Poetic + Biblical + Charismatic/Con-templative + Fundamentalist/Calvinist + Ana-baptist/Anglican + Methodist + Catholic + Green + Incarnational + Depressed-Yet-Hopeful + Emergent + Unfinished Christian.While the subtitle might suggest that he tries to adapt even traditions usually regarded as polar opposites to a united orthodoxy, he rejects, for example, Calvinism, Fundamentalism, Lutheranism, and even key aspects of Evangelicalism, by redefining them until they are actually the opposite of what they say they are. As illustrated in his description of Calvinism (186-190), the "generosity" is as selective as its "orthodoxy." Both Calvinism's "TULIP" and its commitment to guarding the so-called solas reflect a reductionism that must be abandoned, he insists (198). So much for letting Calvinism have a spot in the food court! "But I am interested, very interested, in identifying with the Anabaptist movement that arose in the sixteenth century," because they "emphasize personal commitment ... see the Christian faith primarily as a way of life" and "have taken a radical posture in relation to modernity" (204-205). In addition to their "practice of compromise" and "practice of beauty," Anglicans are celebrated for, "in their best moments," rejecting sola Scriptura in favor of a "dialogue" between Scripture, reason, tradition, and experience-none of which can stand alone as a norm (210). Remarkably, he adds that Anglicanism as well as Anabaptism "withheld their full allegiance from modernity" and therefore "have much to offer all who seek a generous orthodoxy beyond modernity" (212). (None of my Anglican friends, at least, would automatically associate their denomination with resistance to modernity.)
He is also a Methodist. We are told that Luther and Calvin never replaced the Catholic hierarchy with "a new system of spiritual formation and nurture"-this was left to Wesley (218). Spiritual formation simply cannot be attained by "systematic theologies or biblical knowledge," but requires a new search to recover "Catholic contemplative practices and medieval monastic disciplines (which, coincidentally, were also being rediscovered by many mainline 'liberal' Protestants with great blessing)" (220).
McLaren is Catholic because "Catholicism is sacramental." "Start with three sacraments-or even seven-and pretty soon everything becomes potentially sacramental as, I believe, it should be" (226). But if everything is a sacrament, then what distinguishes Baptism and the Lord's Supper? McLaren seems to think that a sacrament is anything that points to God, but at least Orthodox, Catholic, and Reformation churches, despite their differences, have understood sacraments as means of grace to which God attaches his promise. Multiplying sacraments and portals of "the sacred" ended in the idolatry and superstition of medieval Christendom. "Mystery" and "the sacred," like "community," must be defined by Scripture, not by reaction against our experiences growing up in the fast-food "seeker" churches of our parents.
"Catholicism respects tradition," we are told. "The Protestant Reformation separated two brothers: Scripture and tradition" (227). But this is pure caricature, not to mention, a somewhat odd criticism to hear from a movement made up largely of independent congregations that do not subscribe to any particular tradition.
McLaren's "generous orthodoxy" extends to non-Christian religions, since there is "wheat" as well as "weeds" in all of our gardens (255). We encourage people to follow Jesus, but not to necessarily become Christians. " I don't hope all Jews or Hindus will become members of the Christian religion. But I do hope all who feel so called will become Jewish or Hindu followers of Jesus" (264). This is possible because Christ's person and work are reduced primarily to "following Jesus"-his moral example, more than his having fulfilled the law, atoned for our sins, and been raised for our justification. Faith in Christ is not necessary, since the point of the gospel is to follow Christ. This has a long pedigree in modern theology, of course.
McLaren displays genuine respect for the integrity of liberalism, Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, Anabaptism, Wesleyan-Arminianism, and the mystical traditions, which he does not exhibit toward all of the "isms" he tries to absorb.
The question, therefore, is twofold: first, does his own version of Christianity end up being sufficiently orthodox and, second, is it really generous to redefine traditions that one does not like until they say what one thinks they should say? One of the key tenets of postmodern theory is to recover respect for "otherness"-letting those who are different from oneself be who they are without trying to force them into playing a role you've scripted for them. To fit with McLaren's definition of generous orthodoxy, a Calvinist, for example, would have to reject Calvinism and accept McLaren's redefined version. Agreement is reached only when we agree with the new definition-that is, with McLaren's own theology. Is this not its own form of dogmatism?
McLaren applauds liberals for "their desire to live out the meaning of the miracle stories even when they don't believe the stories really happened as written" (61). Just as we enjoy a rich diversity of cuisine for our food, we need not reject any of these traditions: "Why not celebrate them all?" (66). It's hard to know how exactly a Christian might celebrate apostasy, which liberalism certainly is.
McLaren may have a more sophisticated palate, but his religious food court is essentially the "Protestant smorgasbord" or "cafeteria Catholicism" of the Boomer era. "This is why, for starters, I am a Christian: the image of God conveyed by Jesus as the Son of God, and the image of the universe that resonates with this image of God best fit my deepest experience, best resonate with my deepest intuition, best inspire my deepest hope" (77). Starting with our own experience, intuition, and hope is the very essence of modern foundationalism! More importantly, it means that religion is, as modern atheism persuasively argued, nothing more than a projection of the felt needs of its adherents. Starting with our own experience and intuitions, we end up with idols.
So what's the nature and role of Scripture? When we talk about the Bible, it should be to use it "with the goal of becoming good people," not getting into disputes over words like "authority," "revelation," and so forth, which after all (according to McLaren) are attributed to the Bible only in modernity (164-165). While Emergent leaders like McLaren encourage us to investigate the wisdom of the past, their versions of orthodoxy and their generosity are as selective as any other tradition. One might even gain the impression that the author is still working with the categories of heresy and truth firmly in place, but correlated to "modern" and "postmodern," respectively. Whatever he doesn't like is dismissed as modern, while his own version bears the postmodern imprimatur.
If moderns thought of themselves as settlers having arrived in the "promised land" of autonomous reason, ideas, experience, or choice, postmoderns see themselves as wanderers engaged in endless play, always deferring the arrival of Truth. It's the journey, not the destination, that makes it worth the trip. However, Christians are called to be pilgrims-not tourists out for a joyride, but travelers on their way to the eternal city.
Long before Emergent adopted the language of pilgrimage, the old Protestant orthodox theologians-both Lutheran and Reformed-used to begin by identifying "our theology" as "the theology of pilgrims on the way, not of the glorified saints in heaven." They also called this "humble theology." In contrast to modern foundationalism, they distinguished sharply between God's knowledge and ours. Yet they also affirmed a destination with a clear route. Not that everything in Scripture is "equally plain or equally important" (Westminster Confession), but it is our sufficient map for leading us to God as he has revealed himself in Christ by his Spirit for our salvation and restoration. A cursory reading of these old systems reveals an amazing breadth of knowledge of the whole Christian tradition and an attempt to appropriate whatever they could of ancient and even medieval theology. Unlike Fundamentalism, Protestant orthodoxy was ecumenical, happy to acknowledge the vast areas of agreement, while defending its own understanding of a genuinely catholic orthodoxy. That is exactly what McLaren is trying to do, but apparently under the impression that he and his postmodern colleagues are doing it for the first time, and thus with much less clarity. Before Emergent brothers and sisters reject Reformation orthodoxy, they should at least know what it is and what it is not. This they will not learn from Brian McLaren, at least thus far in his voyage.
This is not an attack on McLaren's character. I have found him and many of his Emergent colleagues to be quite generous on a personal level. Furthermore, I resonate with many of his criticisms of one-sided, reductionistic, and in some cases, un-Christian positions. Rather, my chief question concerns his approach to Christian conviction and practice. When it comes to issues like global warming, militarism, poverty, and following Jesus' example, McLaren is as full of uncompromising conviction as any tent-revivalist.
Perhaps McLaren is reacting against his fundamentalist upbringing. I can identify with that. Many of us joined up with this "Reformation" cause in reaction to the same legalism, narrow-mindedness, suspicion, right-wing politics and triumphalism that bothers McLaren. We discovered a rich tradition, with a wide-open vista for appreciating the greatness of God, the seriousness of our sin, the staggering measure of God's grace in Christ, a new understanding of the church, preaching, sacrament, and covenantal nurture. We learned that God the Redeemer was also God the Creator and that the proper horizon for redemption is not simply "me and my personal relationship with Jesus," but the cosmic renewal of all things. We rejoiced to find a reading of Scripture that was, as J. I. Packer calls it, "world-embracing" and "world-affirming" without denying the seriousness of sin and the world's captivity to it apart from Christ. Small-mindedness and exclusiveness are rife in our confessional Reformed and Presbyterian circles, and we need to listen to the challenges of our Emergent brothers and sisters, but my fear is that such sweeping, confusing, and unorthodox statements as we've seen in this book will simply confirm a lot of folks in a smug dismissal.
While in the past, humility was the opposite of pride, in modernity it has become the opposite of conviction, and postmodernism can be exploited to give a new lease to such doctrinal indifferentism. Today, being sure of something is considered a character flaw, and sometimes that is because strident figures (especially in the "culture wars") confuse their own voice with the voice of God. There is always the danger of a reverse arrogance. In the name of humility, constantly refusing to dethrone ourselves as well as others from autonomous certainty-that-there-is-no-certainty, we can be "always learning but never coming to a knowledge of the truth" (2 Tim. 3:7). In his debate with Erasmus, who enjoyed toying with the heady topics of grace and free will but finally couldn't take them seriously, Luther exclaimed, "Take away assertions, and you take away the Christian faith, for it is full of assertions ... Erasmus, the Holy Spirit is not a skeptic!"
Fundamentalism had more "certainties" than can be justified from Scripture, as if we possessed the knowledge of settlers in the City of God rather than pilgrims toward it. However, the danger is to overreact with equally arrogant assertions of uncertainty when and where God has clearly spoken ("Has God really said ... ?"). In fact, postmodern skepticism can be the flip side of modern certainty, both confusing their own subjective state of affairs (pride vs. humility) with the nature and accessibility of reality itself. In both ways, we can become prisoners of our own experience, which is narcissism. Do we have the humility to doubt ourselves while having the courage to witness to the truth as it has been revealed? We simply cannot incorporate into our beliefs and practices whatever we find spiritually interesting. That's how we get golden calves. Precisely because we are by nature idolaters, we need to be constantly tested by the external authority of God's Word. After all, McLaren has not remained silent or interminably uncertain. His books are also full of confident assertions, including polemically charged criticisms. This debate is not finally over whether we will speak, nor even over how we will speak (since arrogance and humility can be found on all sides), but what we will say.
The latchkey children are now doing church. A generation that in many respects raised itself while its parents were enjoying themselves, is craving authenticity and genuine community. But will these communities reflect simply another niche market? Will these communities, too, reflect the natural communities of this passing age, this time mirroring the coffee bar of TV's Friends? Or will it really be an expression of the communion of saints created by the Spirit through Word and sacrament, with young and old, rich and poor, enriching each other's Christian walk? Will children be raised in it, will the middle-aged be sustained in it, and will the elderly be respected and buried in it? Will it be a communion of the saints or the community of the market? These are questions, of course, for all of us. Many of the things that Emergent's leaders and followers want are right, but they will not find them on the Internet. Only a concrete community created and united by the Spirit to the Living Word through the written Word can resist the temptation to become just another social community united by shared demographic affinities.
It is a great opportunity for the church to be the church again. However, it is time that we all stop reinventing the church and join it again. This means submitting to the discipline of Christian speech in concrete, embodied, living spaces. It gives us a language that we did not invent or paste together from the pooled ignorance of chat rooms. We would never let a physician operate on us without a pretty solid understanding of the pathology he or she is treating, and the ministry of ordained pastors, teachers, elders, and deacons was established by our Living Head as a gracious provision for his body, not as a legalistic authoritarianism. In fact, American history teaches us just how authoritarian entrepreneurial religious movements can become, as they are united around charismatic leaders rather than the charism that rests in the church as it is under the authority of Scripture.
We can't live in airports. They can only be transitional meeting places. We are not settlers or endless wanderers, but pilgrims. Not yet at our destination, we are also not bouncing around from booth to booth at Vanity Fair, where everything is equally "interesting." We know where we are going. The real division is not between generations created by niche marketing or even between being "modern" or "postmodern," but is, as Jesus said, between "the children of this age" and "the children of the age to come" (Luke 20:34). In the spirit of mutual correction and admonition, it's time that we all developed the right kind of humility-and the right kind of conviction that flows from it. The Emergent movement can be thanked for helping to draw our attention afresh to that task of our common discipleship today.
Michael Horton is the J. Gresham Machen professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Seminary California (Escondido, California), host of the White Horse Inn, national radio broadcast, and editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine. He is author of many books, including The Gospel-Driven Life, Christless Christianity, People and Place, Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, The Christian Faith, and For Calvinism.
Issue: "Faith A La Carte? The Emergent Church" July/August 2005 Vol. 14 No. 4 Page number(s): 19-24
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