Thursday, September 8, 2011

Emerging Christianity 101 (Building the Republic of Heaven)

As inhabitants of the 21st century, we’re not new as a people in our desire to frame and name the time period in which we live, and contemporary Christianity sparks and twinkles with hundreds of profoundly articulate preacher-teachers who now identify with the “great emergence”—outspoken intellectuals, congregational theorists, culture critics, renegade professors, workshop leaders, and earnest seminarians.

When I reconverted to Christianity in 2009, I immediately dove headfirst into reading and research and wanted to figure out what kind of Christian I was; soon, I became so infatuated with the “emerging conversation” or “emergent church” that it prompted my own revisionist fantasy that if there’d been an emergent movement back in 1988 when I walked out on Christ, I might never have left.

Despite the often ill-informed and arch-conservative backlash against Emerging Christianity, it remains a remarkably innocent and hopeful impulse within world religion. Not exactly non-denominational but almost transdenominational, it intentionally bypasses categories. This tendency towards frank, open-ended, and unapologetic ambiguity frustrates the critics that would like to punitively pigeonhole all things emergent as loose-moral-liberalism and hipster heresy.

For me, its rejection of political and theological binary dualism linked with its emphasis on practice or “orthopraxy” make it intellectually and socially irresistible. Its similarities with gospels of radical inclusion and process thinking make it theologically inspiring. 

Rooted in the Latin word emergere, meaning to “rise out or up, bring forth, bring to light,” we might remember how Christ emerged all the time, so much so that emergence mines the core meaning of our religion. Jesus emerged from womb and tomb, from fishing boats and from the overturned tables of temples, from heaven into history. 

In his 2007 “amateur” treatise Signs of Emergence, Kester Brewin pirates a phrase from the controversial children’s fantasy author Phillip Pullman to suggest that the emergent church might embrace its “holy freedom” by building the “republic of heaven,” a “rich and complex, networked and decentralized” “womb of the divine.” Here, to borrow Brewin’s broad poetic brush, we’re infectious, earthy tricksters reject “market economics” for the “cycle of the gift” as our ecumenical “destiny” finds us “living together as one with God in 
the city with no temple.”

Brewin, Bruce Epperly, and Nanette Sawyer all invoke a mystical “center-without-circumference” “circular-but-decentralized” concept of God, attributed to St. Augustine & other mystics; it not only defines a marriage of God’s immanence and transcendence along with the omnipresent nature of Holy Spirit, it eloquently energizes the emerging movement with a suitable meme.

God is the circle
Whose center is everywhere
And whose circumference
Is nowhere.

Brewin boldly taps the biblical narrative for the roots of Christ wildly free flexibility. He writes, “On the cross we see the beginning of the final act of God’s decentralization. . . . The curtain is ripped. God has exploded. The vial has smashed and the virus has escaped. The emergent Christ has been unleashed. . . . This then is Christ emerging: it is Christ disestablishing the need for the temple, for people to gain access to God only by being in one place and through the hierarchies of priests; it is Christ establishing his body as a decentralized network of believers, and thus giving birth to a complex, emergent church that could not be destroyed any more easily than the Internet could be.” I agree with Brewin that the profoundly potent and spiritually nutritious Eucharist meal is a most substantively and symbolically subversive instance of Christ’s effusive and diffusive nature in the world.

We take Christ with us—broken for us and ingested into us and digested in prayer and scripture-study and meditation brought out into the world by our love. To contemplate Christ’s complexity as this diverse and digested body loving largely in the world works out at an amazing pace of grace.

Brewin continues, “The Emergent Church—like all emergent systems—will not be marked by knowledge stored centrally. There will be no key leader . . .  The distributed nature of knowledge will be positively celebrated, as it will prevent the collecting of power . . . [T]he idea of truth in the Emergent Church will change. It will no longer reside in some intangible conceptual work of theology that only the fully trained and ordained can unlock. Instead, the pursuit of it will be about our shared experience. . . . The truth of the church needs to become ‘open source,’ with distributed agents able to feed in solutions . . . .”

Such dynamic language may feel threatening to those who cling to a static notion of supernatural theism, but many of us embrace an engaged and integrated, God alongside the Creator’s timelessly holistic and holy qualities.

One of the many things that makes Peter Rollins' work generally and H(N)TSOG more specifically indicative of the “philosophical and theological underpinnings of the emerging church movement” (as the book jacket hyperbole boasts!) comes in his embrace of the ambiguous and antagonistic, parodoxical and prophetic aspects of Christian spirituality.

Rollins confesses that his approach is “oil and water,” a blend of “mystical humanism” & “religious fundamentalism.”

We gain direct insight into this unique and challenging perspective right off in the book's introduction, where Peter almost bemoans the subject of God as “among the most difficult & dangerous of them all.” I “shudder” with Rollins on the implications of this statement, for this Christ/God is no cozy Christmas card or bouncy Easter basket savior. As a recovering drunk, I take sardonic delight in Pete’s pithy provocations, in choosing a new hobby as risky & razor-sharp as exploring the nature of the divine.  

For years, I “passed over” the God of monotheism on a detour into the narcotic sweetness of secular hedonism & New Age Nirvana Neverland. Upong finding God again in middle age, God is suddenly once again “the one subject of whom we must never stop speaking.”

In this context, postmodern emergent theology is inherently and intuitively mystical as we refuse “to colonize the name of 'God' with concepts” or degrade God with definitions, but still, you will find us “speaking with wounded words of” our “wounded Christ.” Suddenly, theology is not this profound & elite science reserved for expert priests but an endless excess that attempts to “engage” & “understand” as “a loving response to God.”

Instead of “the idea of theology as that which speaks of God,” we get to play & praise “the idea that theology is the place where God speaks.” The emerging church “is not then a revolution that is in the process of creating something new but rather one that is returning to something very old.”

The emerging church stretches our conception of God from object to subject to verb. Too often religion diminishes the mysterious grandeur of God into a paint-by-numbers B-movie rent-a-savior, a cartoonish caricature & Saturday morning superhero. Past the blonde-haired coloring book Jesus on a pastel background, we bypass the simply supernatural to pass through our cosmic memory of something naturally superior in its simplicity. A misunderstood god as celestial ego meets a mysterious God-made-flesh in terrestrial & egoless acts of love. 

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