Frontier
July 25, 2010

This is for Rick (and anyone else, of course). What started out as a paragraph became several, and maybe a bit too abstract. Sorry if I rambled too much. Just some thoughts.

Many think we are just selfish relativists who want to have our free will without any responsibility or consequence. We are seen and described as non-committal, apathetic-yet-verbose idealists whose primary desire is to buck the system to conform to and justify our own fleshly desires. We are perceived as having near-demonic repulsion to the holy absolutes handed down by wise, God-fearing prophets, teachers, and/or apostles. We may be seen as naïve. Or if we demonstrate that we are not naïve, we are declared as bitter malcontents whose hearts have been darkened by such sins as pride or rebellion.

These are some of the justifications given for declaring many of us heretics, among many other descriptors. And we know these all quite well. In spite of this, and not merely in quick reaction to it, I think the best way to respond is with words such as those spoken by Dean Thomas Ferret, one of the first Protestants who was burned at the stake during a Scottish inquisition: “I am confident my cause is just in the presence of God, and therefore I am not concerned about the consequences.”

I use that quote not because I piously think of myself or others in similar position as martyrs. I wouldn’t dare compare myself to someone who was questioned by an established regime of Christians who were so confident in their specific form of faith that they felt it okay to literally judge the faith of others. Okay, well, maybe I would. Because in the same way that it has been happening for centuries within Christianity, people have felt so determined to defend “the” faith, or at least their form of it, that they have named “their” faith “the” faith. And to this day the inquisitions live on, albeit softly, through various forms in all denominations of what the Catholic church has progressively re-named from “Inquisition” to “Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,” the task of which since 1965 has been defined as “furthering right doctrine rather than ‘censuring’ heresy.” And I think such soft-pedaling is disingenuous.

Regardless, what I want people to know is that most of us really are, on a heart level, confident that our “cause is just in the presence of God.” And while some might say that one who is sincere can still be wrong, which just makes one sincerely wrong, I think the crux of the matter is that Christians have come to define a relationship with God with too tight of terms, including “right” and “wrong.” I know this may get into the whole relativism-versus-authority debate, but I’ll avoid that by just pausing to say that one way I have come to define my faith is with the same words of those who established the Christian Biblical canon: “This ‘seems’ right to us and the Spirit.” In other words, it’s all a guess. A hunch.

Whatever label some try to put on me, I am holding fast to this proposal: Faith is not faith if it doesn’t involve uncertainty. If it doesn’t involve some trepidation, mistrust, struggle, fear, blindness, and dare I say, doubt, it’s no faith for me. And if my version of God is a god whose deadly “justice” needs defense, that god must die, because he is apparently too weak to stand on his own. And if, in order to further the legacy of such a faith, I must reject any perspectives that question, deconstruct, or defy established doctrines, that’s a legacy not worth continuing.

So these views might make me an outsider of sorts. A wanderer. A lost “prodigal.” But in this sense, I’d rather wallow and share slop with my fellow pigs than return to a house that promises an inheritance. Because, in this case, the inheritance is conditional upon my acceptance of too many house rules based on imagined certainty, and such an inheritance, in my view, is fools gold. And many have made that house and that inheritance into more of a self-proclaimed kingdom. But it’s an insular kingdom, an incestuous monarchy.

For these reasons, I am content with my wandering. But I am intentional in wandering. It’s part searching and part enjoying the ride. Part sailing, part motoring, and part drifting. Part communicating and part staying silent. And a lot of listening. A lot of sniffing the air and licking my finger and testing the breeze. And occasionally putting one foot in front of the other, not on a staircase that brings me higher, but on a wilderness trail with lots of blind turns. And I’ve grown comfortable in the discomfort of that. Confident in the contradictions.

It’s like I’m suspended somewhere in-between, but not like walking a tightrope, trying to traverse from one side to the other and calling it a success. More like the neon suspended in a glass tube, happy when the twilight comes. The time when the world occasionally realizes that night and day are different for each time zone. Because that’s when I begin to see that I’m not the only welcome sign in our lonely town. With each flicker of light here and there, little signs popping on, I’m reminded of the beauty in the art of divine randomness. It’s the beauty of holy chaos. Reds and yellows and all sorts of colors blinking on, some in steady, predetermined  patterns, some of them stuttering for a while until they’re warmed, and some haltingly flashing, barely humming in their own discouraged dimness. But we all light up our own little portions of the solitary road, letting travelers know that they are welcome to stay a while, to exit the busy highway and rest.

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My Swarm Theory
April 19, 2010

This post is in response to an invite from my friend Julie Clawson to be part of a synchroblog with many others that attempts to answer, “What is emerging in the church?”

I think the church is starting to realize it’s okay to embody what is known as swarm theory, or SI (swarm intelligence). We are beginning to see the value of “all” instead of “me.” We are beginning to see that there is a greater, undefinable, all-encompassing, all-accepting power guiding us (even if none of us know where we’re going).

The biggest objection to the idea that intentionally submitting oneself to a collective (sub)consciousness is that some think this devalues humanity. They may think this flies in the face of the entire Christian thesis that God gave us each free will. If I may call it spiritual swarm theory, I would say flatly that it does not at all erase free will; it enhances it.

What is emerging in the church is a deep listening that doesn’t listen selectively according to a person’s appearance, preferences, or even beliefs. It listens to the person. It listens to that still, small voice inside that person. That voice that speaks to us all from within us all. And that’s what moves us.

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Case in Point

Someone who calls himself an “agnostic pentecostal” has been invited to share his thoughts about what they think is emerging in the church. Yes, I am a middle-class, white, straight male, which is definitely not a minority in terms of church leadership. But I have no Ph.D; I am no pastor; I have chosen not to be ordained; I don’t have a book published or a TV program or an album or even a popular blog. Those facts, combined with the fact that I’m just barely a Christian at all according to traditional definitions, would have eliminated me from having a real, valued leadership role in the church. In fact, for some churches, the fact that I come from a pentecostal-type background might even scare some away from me.

So to have been invited to share my voice illustrates my point about what good I think is happening in the church: The entire concept of “leadership” is being redefined, albeit slowly. And this is creating a movement of listening. A movement that’s trying hard to see all stories as equally valuable. A movement that sees importance in being led by the rejected as much as (or more than) the selected.

There is a difference between inviting the rejected into your circle and letting them lead it. As another example, the church of the past, as I call it, would welcome a gay person into their church as long as that person would join a group or class designed to straighten them out. The statement I heard in several sermons was, “God loves you just the way you are — but too much to let you stay that way.” But I am seeing proof that churches are taking seriously the notion that keeps it simple with just, “God loves you just the way you are. That’s it. Nothing else to add. No classes to take before you’re really welcome. You are welcome. Now please tell us your story so we can learn from you.” This is happening in my faith community.

And it’s not just a liberal thing…Tolerance is not just for universalists anymore. It’s not just tolerance either; it’s true acceptance. I think people are starting to see that they can keep their conservative beliefs, without watering them down, share those beliefs, and also find value in the spirituality of others. Because we’re all in the same swarm.

In my case, I feel there’s no need for compromise in being simultaneously agnostic and pentecostal. I can pray in tongues if I want, even if I doubt, for example, that Jesus was the product of a literal virgin birth. And the best part is that I feel supported by (some of) my Christian friends…They’re not only okay with that, but they don’t try to change my view, and they listen intently to see exactly what the full story might be, so they can learn and exchange perspectives.

They see me as a valuable part of a grander story, and I see them the same. We want to learn from each other. Because we’ve started to listen to a still, small voice that tells us that none of us has the whole story, but all of us are an integral to it.

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By the Way

Some may see this all as a sign that pluralism, extreme liberalism, and even communism are seeping into the church. I choose to see this as a sign that people are just starting to realize that things cannot seep into or out of the church, because we are all the Church. We are all in this together. And “We” has no walls. Some may see this as a sign that incorrect beliefs are causing God’s presence to leave certain churches. To that I say people are starting to remember that God is omnipresent. He’s always with us. Nothing can separate us from his love. Similarly, some may say that God being present in only certain churches is due to the fact that, according to scripture, “God inhabits the praises of his people,” and that only some are praising him correctly, and only those who do so correctly can truly be called “his people.” I choose to believe that there is no wrong way to praise God, and that all people are God’s people.

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Check out these other synchroblog posts on this topic:

Sharon Brown writes about using labels as an excuse. * Pam Hogeweide compares the emerging church movement to a game of ping pong. * Sarah-Ji comments that the emerging questions people are asking are far bigger than any defined movement. * Peter Walker reflects on how the emerging church conversation helped him recognize his power and privlege as a white male. * Dave Huth posts a on new ways to talk about religion. * Kathy Escobar finds hope in seeing a spirit of love in action emerging in the church. * Nadia Bolz-Weber reflects on the the beautiful things she sees emerging in her church community. * Chad Holtz writes on our Our Emerging Jewishness. * MojoJules describes her organic entry into the emerging church and reflects on moving forward with a new public face. * Danielle Shoyer reflects on what is emerging in the church. * Brian Merritt offers his pros and cons of the emerging church. * Julie Clawson is grateful for emerging globalized Christianity. * Susan Philips points out that emergence happens as G-d redeems our shattered realities. * Mike Clawson reflects on the non-western voices that brought him to the emerging conversation. * Jake Bouma suggest that what is emerging is a collapse into simplicity. * Liz Dyer believes a chastened epistemology is a valuable characteristic emerging out of the church today. * Rachel Held Evans writes on what is changing in the church. * Tia Lynn Lecorchick describes the emerging movement as a wood between worlds (from The Magician’s Nephew). * Amy Moffitt shares her journey towards a theology of humility. * Travis Mamone comments on the need for the emerging church to rely on the word of God. * Sa Say reflects on the the prick of doubt. * David Henson lists what he sees as what is emerging in the church. * Angela Harms writes in in defense of emergent. * Wendy Gritter asks how we can listening to the voices from the margins. * Bruce Epperly comments on the largeness of spirit of emerging spirituality. * Linda Jamentz reflects on listening to the voices from the margins in church. * Lisa Bain Carlton hopes that our emerging conversation can respond humbly to our moment in time. * Christine Sine asks how far are we willing to be transformed.

Heretics in the Emerging Church? Oh My!
February 9, 2010

At least one of the three of you who read this may (1) like theological discussions and/or (2) wonder what I think about the Emerging Church. This one’s for you. For those who don’t care about this, read on anyway and you may find it mildly interesting.

First off, I do not consider myself “involved” in the Emergent movement. I may have a few years ago, but I felt like things started getting a bit too hip for my dorky self, so I tapered off on following everyone and everything with the movement, but I still keep in touch. I have many friends who are still closely involved, some serving with the coordinating council for Emergent Village and such. And some people may still consider me an Emergent-type of Christian, but I’d respectfully disagree, mainly because I feel in many ways I’m just barely a Christian at all….but come to think of it, that’s what some say about emergents anyway. Also, I am part of a faith community that some may consider an emergent church, although most people in my church wouldn’t say that – because we just are what we are.

Second, keep in mind that Emergent is a pretty fuzzy term. Some people think it’s a revolutionary movement similar to the Great Schism and the Protestant Reformation; others think it’s nothing more than a passing fad that either is already dead or will die out soon. Some people consider it purely deconstructive; others consider it conversational. And some say it’s absolutely liberal and Marxist while others say it incorporates conservative evangelicals, liberal mainliners and everyone in between those spaces and even those outside of it all.

Now, to either their credit or blame, depending on your view, Emergent “leaders” like Brian McLaren and Doug Pagitt and many others, through their books and through personal conversation, have inspired me. Brian’s A Generous Orthodoxy and other books were a huge breath of fresh air that I felt helped to liberate me in many ways. And many books and conversations later, I really feel free in my spiritual perspective. Sure, they may have made me a heretic, but at least I’m free.

But I still often agree with many of the sentiments expressed in Emerging church-type conversations, although I find the whole scene getting too cerebral for me these days. And while at one gathering of thought leaders a couple years ago, I felt fully included, like even though I couldn’t claim all the correct traditional beliefs, I was fully welcome to freely express myself right alongside the likes of N.T. Wright, Richard Rohr, Brennan Manning, and others. It was beautiful. I’ll post a video or two some time. …But at the same time I also felt a bit excluded, like I wasn’t cool enough because I wasn’t published, I didn’t have a doctorate, and I didn’t wear designer sunglasses indoors. But that’s another story. The point is that I am familiar with emergent and it is one train of thought that helped free me from an obligation of having to always stay within the accepted traditional boundaries and be “right.”

Anyway, in addition to other recent notable announcements concerning the Emergent movement, a recent blog made a bit of a stir among the Emergent crowd, particularly in Grand Rapids, which to some is known as one of the hubs for Christian progress. In it Jeremy Bouma, who has been somewhat of an Emergent insider, announced his theological departure from the movement. For his next couple posts, he will continue detailing his theological concerns with Emergent leaders like Brian McLaren and Doug Pagitt. Brian has just dropped new book called A New Kind of Christianity, which for many will serve as a long-awaited treatise that addresses specific theological questions concerning the ideas behind this new-ish church movement.

Without going into details, Jeremy’s main criticisms revolve around the idea that Emergent theology is based on old ideas that were declared heretical centuries ago by church authorities. He accuses Pagitt of neo-Pelagianism, which essentially says that Adam’s “original sin” doesn’t really affect human nature today. Jeremy then basically defines McLaren as a Unitarian Universalist, which sort of asserts that he think all paths lead to God and no one will go to hell, if it even exists. So what do I think?

“Because We Said So.” Is That Enough?

I agree with Jeremy, Brian and Doug. While theological arguments abound in defense of both sides, it’s easy for me to say, “Yes” to all. I agree with Jeremy that yes, much of Emergent theology is really nothing new in the grand scheme. Many of the propositions are remixes of ideas that may have been deemed heretical in generations past, or at least outside traditional standards. But so what?

Technically speaking, theology is a science. And it is the study of many things we cannot conclusively prove. The whole point of a study like this is to advance our understanding, or at least advance our discussions of our understanding. The idea is to study all the information we have available to us from the past and present, even if present ideas are built on past ones, in order to further our discussions. If we only work within a predetermined framework that already has established the answers to its study and excludes any other questions or answers, and all the answers are based on the authority of the past, that is not a sincere study that seeks to advance knowledge; it is merely a study of law. But perhaps that’s what our seminaries prefer — to secure our pool of lawyers. But does that somehow advance the study of God? I don’t think so, and that’s why I say…

  • So what if centuries ago some guys got together and thought they answered all the questions once and for all; defined correct belief in regards to an offshoot of Judaism; defined what letters should make up the Bible and what it does and does not say; defined what God wants or hates, and defined what God looks like according to their current paradigm. For their deep sense of passion and their tireless debate skills, I honor them. But I must say that’s just what they were: master debaters.
  • And so what if theories that questioned the status-quo ages ago have been brought back up today. Without such ideas, we would still think Earth is the center of the universe and we would still literally burn people at the stake instead of only with our words. This would make us  modern-day versions of Nero and others who destroyed Christians…who at the time did not adhere to the traditional, national beliefs of the day. It’s interesting how the the persecuted often become persecutors.

The fact is that with new discoveries come new ideas (and vice versa), which usually have origins in formerly rejected ideas. For example, String Theory was once rejected from almost all discussions on the nature of the universe. Now it is regarded as the root of one of the most widely-accepted “theories of everything” available today. And I would suggest that such theories as this, General Relativity, Chaos Theory, M-Theory and such could offer much to theology, but sadly each of these fields have excluded the other. Regardless, the Emerging Church movement in my mind is a movement of challenging foundational assumptions. It is a science in that way. That’s what we do with principles we really cannot prove. It is in fact a deconstructionist movement , or at least a re-constructionist movement. That’s just what it does: It strips things down and challenges the foundations to find any cracks. And anyone who challenges foundational creeds are heretics…that’s the definition. But still, so what?

Perhaps you can prove that someone is a heretic – that their ideas do not line up with documents drawn up centuries ago – but I don’t see that as a problem. Maybe it’s a problem in the bubble called Christendom, but I really don’t think God is bound by the dimensions of that bubble. And I don’t see why some ideas were deemed outside the “range of acceptable answers” just because Church fathers answered heretics past with a terse, “Because I said so.” Or worse yet, because they claimed to speak on God’s behalf with a terse, “Because I said that God said so.” Or, to put it in modern-day bumper-sticker terms, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” And tot hose who would ask if I would say that to God if He said “Because I said so,” well first off, Yes. I would. He didn’t seem to have an issue with  Biblical figures doing that. But secondly, men are not God. Those who claim to speak on God’s behalf are no different than the pharaohs and Caesars of millennia past.

For me, “Because I said so” is not a good enough answer. And that’s why I support rebellion. While I may not consider myself an Emergent per-se, it is what I see to be a holy rebellion, and I’m good with that. So, even if Brian and Doug and others could be proven to be heretics according to the terms and conditions set forth ages ago, I really don’t see what the big deal is. So was Jesus.

Just to be clear, all this is not to say that those who adhere to orthodox Christianity are just like the Inquisitors of the middle ages or something. I just felt I needed to encourage people that, just because one challenges core teachings of the church and in fact may be technically labeled a heretic, (1) they are not alone and (2) heresies have given us the religious freedom we experience today. So let’s keep up the tradition of rebellion.