Doing emerging theology without crashing into things
I have closed the ‘Brian McLaren and preterism’ thread to further comments - at least for the time being - because it has been hijacked by a dispute that, in my view, does not belong on this website. It has also raised some more general concerns about how an emerging theology interacts with other powerful theological positions and the movements that lie behind them. I am not at all sure how to deal with these concerns, and the following remarks may appear heavy-handed, but it seems to me that some sort of explanation or appraisal is called for.
I accept that theology is never done in a vacuum and that it may be necessary at times briefly to indicate aspects of the larger polemical context to our conversations. I accept also that our personal and collective histories are part and parcel of how we think and how we exchange views. But I don’t believe that the development of a theology for the emerging church will be helped at all by the intrusion of personal or organizational feuds or the promotion of entrenched, politically committed theological positions.
So I would (respectfully) ask people not to pursue their personal disagreements here, whatever the rights and wrongs of the matter. This is a site for the discussion of questions of theology in the context of the rethinking that is being done under the label ‘emerging church’. It is one thing to acknowledge and reflect the different theological perspectives that we unavoidably represent; it is another to suppose that these perspectives have the right to annex and define sections of the emerging conversation.
How Jesus and his followers understood and spoke about the future remains a matter of enormous importance - not, I would suggest, primarily because we are all curious to know what might or might not happen in the end, but because their view of the future is determinative for our present self-understanding as a people called by God. Given the emerging church’s growing interest in historical and contextual readings of the New Testament, it is unsurprising that we find ourselves drifting into the gravitational field of traditional Preterism. I’ve no doubt the ensuing dialogue could be instructive on all sides (some contributors to this site believe quite strongly that this is the case), but for the emerging church there is also the risk of getting stuck in orbit, or worse of crashing to the planet’s surface.
I certainly do not wish my own work to be labelled ‘Preterist’, and that’s not just a matter of intellectual snobbery. It’s because the gravitational pull of some of these theological bodies - the potential that they have to prejudice or misdirect enquiry - is simply too great. My approach to New Testament eschatology is the product of a very different history of scholarship and thought, and there is an important sense in which for the sake of its clarity and integrity that history needs to be safeguarded.
I think that this is also true in more general terms. The emerging church in its theological reflection has made and will continue to make mistakes. But its distinctive post-modern calling is not so much to get everything right as i) to see things with new eyes, and ii) to see things in connection with each other. This requires us to be quite deliberate in resisting the intellectual or dogmatic pull not just of Preterism but also of other traditional or modernist theological commitments.
I am not trying to close down the conversation or exclude particular voices from it. I am simply asking, first, that we pursue the exploration of New Testament eschatology at the level of candid biblical interpretation, not - to adjust the metaphor a little - as a matter of warfare between competing principalities and powers in the heavenlies; and secondly, that we continue to reflect on how an emerging theology needs to define itself in relation to and in interaction with other bodies of thought.