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What is emerging church theology - a couple of queries

My name is Rodney Neill - I have recently begun to read theology books and am a keen follower of the emerging church conversation but I am an absolute beginner in theological knowledge!!

My experience amongst the ‘post’ charismatic people in Northern Ireland who regularly go to Geenbelt is that they have a pronounced liberal /progressive outlook on theology and would be uncomfortable with a priority given to Biblical narrative or a literal understanding of eschatology as historical fact. Do these elements in your emerging church theology vision not create a boundary which is at odds with your open inclusive approach?

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Post-charismatics and historical fact

Rodney, it’s a good question, and the simple answer must be yes, there is a distinct boundary in the thinking of the emerging church between the ‘progressive’ outlook that you see amongst post-charismatics in Northern Ireland (I imagine Pete Rollins would be a good example) and the stress that others have placed on the historical aspect of the biblical narrative.

A first, rather cynical thought is: would these people before they became post-charismatics have been any better disposed to read the Bible historically? Have they not simply exchanged a modern charismatic subjectivism for a postmodern subjectivism?

Be that as it may, my view is that both these perspectives are legitimate. They are simply expressions of two different axes of faith - the diachronic or historical and the synchronic or present - and the challenge is to hold them together in creative and truthful tension. So what is needed is both respect for the historical integrity of the Bible and respect for the imaginational activity of the Spirit, which at the moment often shows up in the playful, teasing, ironic transgressions of postmodernism.

I would suggest that one way to maintain this tension would be through a self-conscious analogical use of scripture. We read scripture, as best we can, for what it is - a text with a strong memory of its origins, a strong sense of intimate connectedness to history. This requires a certain critical discipline, a somewhat narrowing mindset that tests interpretations and excludes those that are historically less plausible. We do so with openness and humility, with an awareness of the problematic nature of historical investigation, with a sensitivity to the proper complexity and diversity of the texts, but we don’t quite play with scripture; we are anxious to let it tell us what it needs to say.

But one of the things that the texts say is that stories, images, visions can be used again, played with, in different ways, in different contexts analogically under the creative and prophetic influence of the Holy Spirit. The ‘Son of man’ motif is an excellent example of this. It seems to me that potentially the progressive, creative, playful postmodern imagination in the emerging church could do something similar - it’s just that that imagination needs to be big enough and respectful enough not to obscure or obliterate the historical narrative in the process. This should be possible. The postmodern mind is rather adept at exploiting tensions of this nature - typically with negative, deconstructive, subversive effect, but I wonder if there cannot be at the same time a more creative, truthful, life-affirming, inspired form of playfulness. Wes White’s article Jazz and the Mode of Hopeful Transgression on this site gets at this.

To illustrate the point: Pete Rollins has a reflection on the pearl of great price on his blog at the moment. I’m a little ashamed to admit that my instinctive response when I read phrases like ‘deep message of the parable’ and ‘inner logic of the parable’ is to ask whether Pete’s argument really makes sense within the narrative-historical context of Jesus’ activity and teaching. I’m not suggesting it doesn’t or that his reading of the parable is wrong - it’s simply that a commitment to a historical-critical reading predisposes me to worry that he is being too creative, too playful, with the text. (Too many rhetorical somersaults and backflips, Pete! Stand still for a minute!) But I also recognize that the Spirit of God motivates re-readings of biblical texts in order to speak to the church and to the world. Charismatics have done it in a rather predictable, literalistic modern way; post-charismatics do it in a playful, subversive and even transgressive postmodern way.

It would be nice to think that all we need to do is acknowledge the legitimacy of both the historical-critical and the playful-creative readings and talk about it a bit more. We would all benefit from that.

A Couple of Queries ......

ROD43,

Being as you’re new to Theology, I’d suggest, with great respect to all on this Site, that you leave it well alone. After 45 years of ‘looking at it’, I can tell you there’s no ‘Life’ in it.

I’ve never heard of anyone suddenly becoming interested in Theology (!)… it’s as dry as dust and will reduce your spiritual life drastically. However, if you’ve had a community life within a Church, I suggest you get sustenance from there. That ‘s where you’ll hopefully, find Life with a capital ‘L’ ; that’s where you’ll grow……

….not reading Theology books ; you’ll more than likely find yourself embroiled in arguments with participants, believe me, it happens on many,many, sites.

Keep it at arms length…. don’t get too serious about it.

You’ll end up a grumpy old man, like me.

Ken.

Is theology such a bad thing?

All I will say in response to that, Ken, is that for me at the moment theology is Life-giving and genuinely prophetic and transformative. I accept that it can very easily be otherwise, but I am thankful to God for a sense of wonder and excitement as the story comes to life and runs through my mind and out into the world. It may not always be obvious, and maybe I’m just fooling myself, but I think that the Spirit of God is in the process of reconstructing a viable Christian worldview following the collapse of Christendom. That’s a much bigger endeavour than we can get our heads around, but I think we are part of it nevertheless.

GRUMPY OLD MEN

Ken

Unfortunately my wife says that I am already a grumpy middle aged man! Since I had a renewal of faith experience 3 years ago after 10 years out of the church when I was totally disillusioned I have a real hunger for knowledge - I enjoy reading theology and Christian spirituality books but I try to do it in the context of Christian practice ( not always achieved but remains an aspiration!!)

 

Rodney

Historical/critical approach to scripture

Andrew,

thank you for your response - it was interesting and thought -provoking. Part of me is very sympathetic to your suggestions but I have a few questions and queries:

1. I am very unsure how you recognise interpretations of Scipture that are inspired by the Holy Spirit. As a refugee from the shepherding version of the Charismatic movement we were subject to all sorts of strange, bizarre and questionable teaching/practice which was legitimated by the leadership saying - this is the will of God and we have been led by the Spirit! What criteria do you use to assess if a fresh postmodern interpretation is inspired by the Spirit?

2. There are so many contested, incompatible and divergent views amongst scholars about the historical Jesus ( I have just read the Meaning of Jesus by Borg/Wright) - an historical/critical approach to assess the historical plausibility of an interpretation is very difficult! Which scholars version do you adopt?

3. Can one escape the postmodern critique that ’ truth is what a historian would like it to be’. Is it possible to reconstuct objectively an accurate picture of Jesus from the gospels?

4. I think that ones interpretative approach to Scripture is very much affected by your view of the nature and reality of God. Some in the EC movement have a mystical/agnostic/undecidable outlook which means that they tend to view the bible as a literary creation and have little concern for historical facts.

Please remember that I am only a beginner to all of this!

Rodney

Paths in a forest

First, I think it needs to be said that these are difficult and very important questions for which there are no simple answers.

It might be possible to establish criteria that would help somewhat to decide whether any particular reading of scripture is inspired by the Holy Spirit or not. It’s interesting, though, that you put it in those terms - rather than asking for criteria to determine whether an interpretation is ‘correct’ or ‘coherent’, for example. Perhaps the best thing we can do is keep the conversation open, keep the process of understanding moving, keep listening to dissenting voices.

But the purpose of the church is not to come up with a definitive reading of scripture. It is something more like to model a renewed humanity, in which God has his dwelling, in the midst of the nations of the earth. That doesn’t make the theological task irrelevant, but I think it helps to undermine the assumption that the church must have an orthodox and authorized interpretation of the Bible. We have a story to tell. We can tell it simply by reading scripture and letting it speak for itself. Of course, there is already a level of interpretation built into that minimalist approach, but in principle I think we could say that the story entrusted to the people of God remains stable and secure at the heart of the cloud of re-readings and interpretations.

Trying to understand that story is a crucial aspect of becoming renewed humanity, but it is the ‘conversation’ - the continuing exploration, the struggle to be honest, to understand others, to let go of a truth that is not ours to own and manipulate - that properly shapes us, not rigid formulations. At least, at the present stage of the emergence of the church from Christendom, the open conversation seems more important than the exact definition of the content of theology, though paradoxically much of my work at the moment is precisely about understanding the content of the biblical narrative better.

You might have a look at the summary of Wright’s Tools for the task on this site. My own rather simplistic view is that some readings of the gospel are historically more reliable than others and that we can make adequate (not absolute) judgments in this regard. But I think that whether one reading or another gets accepted by the community has to do with other things than the formal historical accuracy of the interpretation. At some point the imagination of the community comes into play - and no doubt also the Spirit of God.

You’re right about the division between the literary and historical approaches to the Bible. My hope would be that both sides of this divide will treat this as potentially a very creative tension and work together to understand that. For a start, I suspect that there is a lot more of the literary playfulness in scripture than the historians and theologians are willing or able to admit.

A parable:

Scripture is like a forest. As people explore the forest, they tend after a while to follow the paths that others have taken, simply because it’s easier. So the paths get well-worn and eventually become the definitive and orthodox way of getting around the forest. In fact the paths have become so well established that people have produced maps, which has led to the phenomenon of people staying at home with their maps and never feeling the need to venture into the forest at all.

An emerging theology is learning to ask whether these paths are really the best way of getting to know the forest. We recognize that the paths are not original to the forest, they are man-made. So we try other routes. Some of us are more like surveyors: we really want to know what this forest is all about. Others just want to play, have fun, hide behind trees, chase butterflies, let our imaginations run riot in this magical environment. Why not?

But to many this all seems pointless. We may even run the risk of getting seriously lost. Why not just stick to the old paths? It’s so much easier and safer.

It would be nice, in a way, if we could leave the forest alone for a while, let the undergrowth regrow, let the old paths disappear, and then start again, so that we come to know the forest for the first time.

cloudy criticism

That’s a lovely parable and very apt indeed.

The theological world is a very puzzling place. Theologians too rarely try to relate their ‘findings’ to the real world of the ordinary believer. Even worse, finding a consensus amongst theologians on anything at all is like trying to find a needle in a massive haystack.

I recently started listening in on a scholarly forum called XTalk and have been watching with interest a debate on methodolgy. The spectrum is wide and opinions on almost every point of discussion are poles apart. If this is where our scholarship has led, indeed we had better abandon the forest for some time until we can come to our senses.

As a layman whose two brothers are pastors, I perhaps have had a bit more than the usual exposure to ‘modern criticism’ but really, having a little knowledge seems only to add to the confusion.

Thanks too for having summarised N.T. Wright’s tools. That really is very helpful too.

It’s exciting to hear from someone like Rodney. Keep reading but as you pointed out it is putting into practice and should not just remain an exercise in interesting theorising; it’s what we do and how we live that will bear the real witness for who Jesus is.

I also agree with Ken when he urges that we engage with community. The question arises again, how would one identify a Christian postmodern ‘Spirit filled’ community to be a part of?

 

Live to serve : Serve to live

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