Open Source Theology on Grace-Centred Forums again
A couple of years ago I drew attention to a discussion on Grace-Centred Forums about the manifest demerits (‘Makes Leonard Sweet look like Splenda!’, ‘open sores theology’, ‘They think Jesus is the Penguin, not the Lamb, Who was slain from the foundations of the world’) and rare merits (thank you, ellisadam) of Open Source Theology and about the tendency for it to be confused with Open Theism. The thread was recently revived: ‘two years have gone by and I still have no idea 1) what Open Source Theology is 2) what the “emergent church” means 3) if is on the increase or decrease now?’ So I thought I would take the risk of addressing the matter directly on the forum, and since there is an ever-present need to clarify the nature and purpose of the whole ‘emerging church’ phenomenon, I have attached my posts below. I would be interested to hear how others see things.
The first post very briefly and crudely differentiates between the emerging church, Open Source Theology, and Open Theism. The second is an attempt to answer the specific question: ‘So would an Emerging Church person think of Christianity in its present form as Corrupted, or Outdated?’
Emerging church, Open Source Theology, and Open Theism
The emerging church is a very broad movement - much broader than the phenomenon of Emergent in the US. In my view it is the process - a conversation, a re-reading of scripture, a redefining of mission, a restructuring of church life - provoked by the recognition that the Christendom paradigm is no longer viable, at least in the West. The emerging church is the church as it emerges from Christendom, as it explores the implications of having been pushed to the margins of society and culture.
The Open Source Theology website is an attempt to nurture the emerging theological conversation at a grass-roots, collaborative level. It is not to be confused with…
Open Theism which, as I understand it, is a specific theological position that prefers to think of God as relationally open in contrast to more deterministic theologies which ascribe to God a level of fore-knowledge that in principle leaves little room for negotiation…. Most people who think of themselves as being part of the emerging church, however, would probably incline towards an Open Theist position.
What would an emerging church person think of Christianity in its present form?
It’s difficult to speak for everyone who would identify with the movement, so this must be regarded as a limited perspective. But I think the main argument would be that ‘modern’ forms of Christianity are not well adapted to address the changing circumstances that the church finds itself in - not only as modernity gives way to post-modernity (whatever we mean by that) but also as Christendom gives way to post-Christendom. Some fundamental social, cultural, intellectual and religious assumptions are being abandoned, and I think that the emerging church is basically the church as it struggles to come to terms with this. I would stress, however, that this struggle can be seen as much within the established churches as in the protest against them, and that as with any movement of reform, there is some (much?) caricaturing of existing conditions - so be warned.
For some the emerging church is largely a cultural issue - the sort of demand for a better cultural fit that happens with every generation. So everything looks and sounds a lot more hip, but the underlying structures of church and theology remain unchanged.
For others it’s primarily philosophical: the old ways of asserting Christianity as public truth don’t work for them anymore - or for people that they know outside the church. Broadly speaking this is reflected in a preference for narrative ways of constructing theology over systematic or propositional ways. The postmodern critique of knowledge as power comes into play. We are much more conscious of the subjective status of all knowledge. People are wary of claims to absolute truth, not because they want to relativize their faith but because they sense that this sort of epistemological rigidity does not help us to integrate thought and praxis. The recovery of wholeness and integrity is a crucial aspiration of the emerging church.
For an increasing number the issue is ‘missional’. The church is simply in the wrong place - culturally, structurally, geographically, philosophically - to reach people. So the church must move, and most would argue that this must be a move to the margins of society. This leads to a preference for inclusive models of Christian community over exclusive, which inevitably raises awkward questions about boundaries. There is also a strong desire to extend the scope of mission beyond personal evangelism. Many would want to include broad social and political transformation in the missional objectives of the church.
This connects with the view of many that modern Christianity has been co-opted by a culture of corporate success and personal consumption: Christians have become private consumers in churches whose overarching objectives are size and status. Many in the emerging church are endeavouring to develop a counter-cultural lifestyle that is about more than a consumer-driven personal piety and what appears to be a very narrow obsession with homosexuality and abortion. Theologically this has encouraged what I would regard as an understandable but distorting focus on the person of Jesus, who is seen as a radical, subversive, risk-taking, prophetic, anti-establishment messiah who created a community of followers in his own image.
Finally, I would say that the emerging church is looking for ways to break out of the straight jacket of a hermeneutic that is interested only in supporting the very limited dogmatic interests of contemporary evangelicalism. A key shift here would be from an eschatology oriented towards heaven and hell to an eschatology oriented towards the renewal of creation - that is an aspect of the concern for integrity. I listed what I saw as the leading characteristics of an emerging theology a few years ago here.
Tom Sine’s book The New Conspirators has a useful chapter on the background to the emerging movement, which he regards as one of four streams that make up the ‘lively edge of what God is doing in our constantly changing society’. A synopsis can be found here.