Emerging Diversity

The running discussion over on Steve Hayes’ blog on emerging orthodoxy and heresy has gotten me thinking about why some find it so hard to grasp what’s going on in the emerging church conversation. And I think some of it has to do with the shear diversity of sources emerging church leaders are drawing on.

For instance, various people I regularly engage with have been inspired by Orthodox Christianity, Celtic Christianity / Catholic Monasticism, Anabaptist Christianity and even the milder forms of Restorationist Christianity. And that’s just the Euro-American stuff. Beyond that the house church movements of China and elsewhere have also made their mark. I myself have also been influenced by engagement with Asian and Indian Christian theology amongst many (but not all) of those traditions already mentioned.

Now at face value some of this is widely divergent. I mean, Orthodoxy represents one of the most ancient and conservative strands of Christianity, while Anabaptists were the radical extremists of the Reformation, so how do you reconcile that? Well, the truth is, to a large extent we don’t, we are not looking to adopt everything. We are looking for is correctives for Protestantism, not conversion from Protestantism. And so we are selective and leave aside many things. If we look closely and honestly it becomes evident that the emerging conversation is very much a Protestant conversation, and for all our aspirations to ecumenism the emerging conversation is very much governed by Protestant concerns, specifically, perceived deficiencies in Protestant evangelicalism and Protestant liberalism in so far as they are both very dualistic, reductionistic and individualistic movements.

So what do we go looking for? I don’t think it would be inaccurate to say that, by and large, its for things that will help us forge a more holistic Protestantism, things that will help us recover more historical depth and cultural breadth. So we listen to the ancient traditions, we listen to the foreign traditions, and we integrate what helps. But we also listen to the anti-institutionalists, the reformers who went way beyond the mainstream Reformation. You wont hear many emerging voices equating apostolic succession with institutional continuity though, we are still distinctly Protestant despite our experimentation. In fact, now that I think of it, it probably wouldn’t be out of order to suggest that this sort of experimentation is itself a mark of Protestantism.

Now at its worst this can devolve into horrible religious consumerism, a deconstructive process that leaves people adrift from all tradition. But at its best it holds out a promise, of a more holistic tradition, one that has incorporated some of the strengths that Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant Christianity each have to offer.

5 thoughts on “Emerging Diversity

  1. Interesting post. I agree that the “Emerging Church” movement is not merely Protestant, but a reaction against a particular kind of Protestantism, and thus tends to be dominated by it, and very much an in group until one is aware what they are reacting against.
    But in some ways communication is easier, because some of the things they are looking for bring them a bit closer to some other Christian traditions.
    But the opposites are not Orthodox and Anabaptists. They are actually quite close.
    Fr Alexander Schmemann told of going to a meeting organised by the WCC, which is very much dominated by a certain kind of Protestantism. And he was seated with the Anglicans and the Roman Catholics, because in the Protestant conception they are “liturgical”, and so belong together. And Fr Schmemann said he actually felt closer to the Quakers.
    I went to two meetings back-to-back a couple of years ago. One was the conference of the International Association of Mission Studies, which was dominated by Protestants and Catholics. Then I went to a gathering of Mennonites and Zionists in Botswana, and felt much more at home there.


  2. From what I have read of Emergent writers they also are highly critical of structure-dominated church. In that sense Emergent Christianity is a reaction against the Megachurch model for Church and the Religious Right model of sociopolitical involvement. It also puts a lot of emphasis on mission and making Christ Lord for similar reasons, believing we should be driven not by tradition or personal ideas, but a sense of God given mission.


  3. Steve, now I find that very, very interesting. I imagine shared political views would have had something to do with the feeling at home, but I am intrigued as to what else. Given the emphasis the Orthodox church places on liturgy and its more hierachial nature I would have thought that would have put you a fair distance from Quakers in particular. Was it the approach to prayer that grabbed you? Something else?
    Isaiah, yes I would agree there is a reasonable degree of truth to that. We’re not just reacting against Megachurch though, its often against the entire Christendom approach of “you come to us” and fit through that cookie cutter at the door. The approach to tradition is often ambiguous; we’re against blind adherence to tradition, sure, but in other ways we’re digging far deeper into tradition than your average evangelical. We don’t have quite the same allergic reaction against Catholics for instance so tradition is not considered completely AWOL between the apostolic era and the reformation, at least not in terms of prayer traditions anyway. I’d be cautious on the political stuff though. Though most don’t buy into the religious right agenda we’re not entirely comfortable with the atheist left agenda either.


  4. True, I do see Emergent Christianity adopting certain spiritual practices from other Christians traditions outside the traditional evangelical one.
    I think that goes along with my point point about focusing on mission over structure, which allows for taking in certain liturgies from other traditions so long as they fit under the Lordship of Christ.
    And a reaction from the Religious Right does not mean adopting the Atheist left (though some Emergent types are left leaning), but rather re-evaluating Political Paradigms with a missional context. Again Mission over Structure.
    But good comments anyway, recognizing that the movement goes beyond just a reaction against Seeker-Sensitive and the Religious Right, though the reaction against both are certainly part of it.


  5. Matt,
    It was Alexander Schmemann who found it amusing that the Protestants assumed he would be more at home seated with Catholics than Anglicans than with Quakers, and he thought it said a lot about their mindset and frame of reference. And he said that Orthodox hesychasm would put them closer to the Quakers.
    Having said that, I have several ex-Anglican friends who are now Quakers. And I’ve been to a few Quaker meetings, and in Anglican student gatherings where we had Quaker-style meetings.
    I suppose one of the things that made me feel at home among Mennonites and Quakers was the fact that both are “peace” churches. The Orthodox Church is not a “peace” church, but it isn’t a quite “militarist” church either.
    And the meeting I went to, as a kind of consultant missiologist, was at a point where the missiological principle the Mennonites had used to approach the Zionists was about as far removed from Orthodoxy as could be. Basically they had gone to improve the Zionists’ Biblical knowledge, and so had specifically rejected the possibility of planting Mennonite Churches. Their aim was to strengthen the Zionist Churches with better biblical knowledge. The Orthodox would never do that. But the Mennonites could, and did.
    But also at meetings of the South African qualifications Authority, generating standards for theologicical education, I found myself far closer to the Zionists than to the “mainline” Protestants. And that was because we were, in different ways, minorities. Our needs and assumptions were different from those of the so-called “mainline” Protestants. So we were forever fighting their assumptions and stereotypes to widen their definitions to include the Orthodox and the Zionists, whose needs were different. See my article on Bethesda-type AICs to get an idea of the cultural web.
    And yes, as a card-carrying member of the religious left, I’m keen on neither the religious right nor the atheist left, though I’m rather curious about the origins and rise of the religious right.


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