WHY WE'RE NOT EMERGENT
(BY TWO GUYS WHO SHOULD BE)
By KEVIN DEYOUNG TED KLUCK MOODY PUBLISHERS
Copyright © 2008 Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck
All right reserved.
JOURNEY: ARE THE PILGRIMS STILL MAKING PROGRESS?
He was short, stocky, bearded, and twice my age. I can't remember for sure, but I think his name was Chuck. What I do know for sure is that he was one of the best musicians in our little Presbyterian church. Chuck was a former club owner and a talented guitarist, knowledgeable in folk music and the folk music scene.
He would occasionally play the guitar in church, usually for the weekly "special music." Somehow the powers that be discovered that I played the guitar too (though not nearly so well). And so it came to pass that I took my turn and provided the offertory music. I played my Takamine and sang a rendition of Psalm 23. Unremarkable, but not embarrassing, which was about the best I had hoped for.
After the service, Chuck came up to me to talk about guitars and singing and, of course, folk music. I was way out of my league. I taught myself to play the guitar in college so I could lead simple praise and worship music for our college ministry group. My skills are pretty ordinary-good enough for a church offertory and that's about it. This man, however, clearly knew his stuff. He talked to me like I was the expert inmusic that he was. I nodded politely and, out of genuine curiosity, asked him about his past life in the folk music scene. After telling a few tales of people he had hosted (the Indigo Girls come to mind), he told me something I'll never forget-something that captures the postmodern ethos. He said, "In the music scene it's really cool to search for God. It's not very cool to find Him."
That line has stuck with me ever since as an apt summary not just for the world of entertainment, but for spirituality in the West. The destination matters little. The journey is the thing.
For emerging Christians, the journey of the Christian life is less about our pilgrimage through this fallen world that is not our home, and more about the wild, uncensored adventure of mystery and paradox. We are not tour guides who know where we are going and stick to the course. We are more like travelers. Spencer Burke of theooze.com writes:
Tour guides don't feel free to deviate from the "route" other Christians have set. What's more, they're apt to impose that same kind of rigid structure on others. Becoming a traveler, however, enables you to be true to yourself.... As a traveler, I am free to love and to be loved. I'm not worried about taking a wrong step or losing my position. I'm just one more person on the journey-a beloved child of God.
The old notion of spiritual pilgrimage used the idea of journey to symbolize our longing for heaven and our place as strangers in the kingdom of this world. As sojourners and exiles, Christians were called to abstain from the lusts of the flesh, "which war against [our] soul," and to "live such good lives among the pagans that" ... they "see [our] good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us" (1 Peter 2:11-12 NIV). We were supposed to be living in faith, looking forward to a better country, that is, a heavenly one (Heb. 11:16). The journey of the Christian life was the way of the pilgrim fighting against fears and doubts, trying not to be squeezed into this world's mold, trusting that God has something better for us, even if we had not yet received what was promised (see Heb. 11:39-40).
In much of emergent thought, however, the destination is a secondary matter, as is any concern about being on the right path. "Evangelism," therefore, "should be seen as an opportunity to 'fund' people's spiritual journeys, drawing on the highly relevant resources of 'little pieces' of truth contained in the Christian narrative." Similarly, Peter Rollins argues that instead of thinking in terms of destination (we became Christians, joined a church, are saved), we should think in terms of journey (we are becoming Christians, becoming church, becoming saved). Hence, we "need to be evangelized as much, if not more than those around us."
The postmodern Way, as Leonard Sweet puts it so candidly, is an experience. The journey is more wandering than directional, more action than belief, more ambiguous than defined. To explain and define the journey of faith would be to cheapen it. The Christian faith is not a math problem to be solved, we are told. After all, to quote Rob Bell and to ignore the early Christian apologists, "you rarely defend the things you love."
MOVING INWARD ON THE JOURNEY
In David Wells's newest book, he compares the notion of journey in Pilgrim's Progress with the contemporary idea. Christian, he notes, stumbled frequently on his pilgrimage. But by God's grace he always got back on the path, moved in the right direction, learned what others failed to grasp, and continued on the way. Wells writes:
This is really the difference between Bunyan's notion of spiritual pilgrimage and the postmodern idea of spiritual journey.... The point of spirituality is in the experience of the journeying, not in the purpose of reaching the destination. For Bunyan, the pilgrimage is about the certain knowledge that Christians have of "the better country" to which they travel and of the way in which they must conduct themselves on the journey in preparation for the One to whom they are traveling.
Because the journey is an experience more than a destination, the Christian life requires less doctrinal reflection and more personal introspection. The postmodern infatuation with journey feeds on and into a preoccupation with our own stories. If my grandparents' generation could be a little stoic and not terribly reflective, my generation is introspective at a level somewhere between self-absorption and narcissism. We are so in-tuned with our dysfunctions, hurts, and idiosyncrasies that it often prevents us from growing up, because maturity is tantamount to hypocrisy in a world that prizes brokenness more than health.
I'm not advocating stuffing all our feelings, but we must learn that self-expression and being true to ourselves are not the surest guides to Christlikeness. Sincerity is a Christian virtue, as is honesty about our struggles. But my generation needs to realize that Christianity is more than chic fragility, endless self-revelation, and the coolness that comes with authenticity.
We live in a blogging culture, which suggests that just because we have an opinion on something it must be worthwhile and just because we are in touch with our spiritual journey it must be worth sharing. I know that Doug Pagitt's book Reimagining Spiritual Formation contains journal entries from Solomon's Porch to give the book a community feel, but how important is it really to know that Erin is a Taurus, but more like a Scorpio, and that Dustin likes Frosted Mini-Wheats, rollerblading, and making out with supermodels, and that he'd like to have a monkey named Scratch that makes leather wallets and flings poo at children? I guess those revelations are funny, but they're also a funny way to begin a book about spiritual formation. In the postmodern world of spiritual journey, authenticity and sincerity have become the currency of authority, and dysfunction, inconsistency, and idiosyncrasy are worn as badges of honor.
But talking about monkey poo is not the real problem in postmodern spirituality. Talking about primate excretion is sort of odd, but in the grand scheme of things it's fairly harmless. There are, however, more serious problems lurking along the emergent journey.
IS GOD KNOWABLE?
The first problem with the emergent view of journey is that it undermines the knowability of God. Theologians have long held to God's knowability along with His immensity. That is, Christian theologians of every stripe have understood that we can't understand everything about God. God's knowledge of Himself is called archetypal; our knowledge of Him is called ectypal. God knows Himself exhaustively; we see through a glass dimly. God is infinite; our knowledge of Him is finite. All that to say, no Christian that I have ever known or read has ever claimed to have God figured out. And emerging Christians certainly won't be the first.
But emergent leaders are allowing the immensity of God to swallow up His knowability. In good postmodern fashion, they are questioning whether we can have any real, accurate knowledge about God in the first place. Brian McLaren, in noting his agreement with Tony Campolo, argues that in one sense all theologies are heresies because we can't truly speak of God using our human formulation. What is needed is "not absolute and arrogant certainty about our theologies, but a proper and humble confidence in God."
Fair enough. Who wants to be arrogantly certain about anything? But McLaren posits a false antithesis, suggesting that we can know God personally but can't confidently know things about Him. The former kind of knowing is "personal knowledge." The latter is "abstract, rational, impersonal certitude."
But what does it really mean to know God personally but not know anything rationally about Him? I can't love my wife without knowing facts about her, otherwise my love for her is just love of love, or worse, love for the sake of being loved. Unless I love her for the facts of who she is, what she has done, and what she does, I am loving a shapeless, formless void. No matter how much I rightly stress the importance of relationship with my wife beyond mere knowledge about her, I must have knowledge about her in order to have a relationship. After all, if I don't know any of the "abstract" and "impersonal" facts about my wife (like her hairstyle, eye color, height, etc.), how can I have a personal relationship with her? I won't even be able to pick her out in a crowd!
It matters little how glowingly I speak about our relationship; if I cannot make clear, certain, unequivocal statements about my wife, how good is our relationship really? Prattling on about the wonders of personal relationship while refusing to make definitive statements about the one we love in the relationship is not the kind of talk that honors one's wife, or God for that matter.
I'm sure that emerging Christians would affirm that they know things about God. But their idea of knowledge is so provisional and lacking so much confidence (because the only other kind of knowledge in their minds is cold, linear, and infallible) that it's hard to imagine actually and accurately knowing God except as we experience Him. As Donald Miller says at one point in his wildly popular Blue Like Jazz, "I don't believe I will ever walk away from God for intellectual reason. Who knows anything anyway?"
The emergent agnosticism about truly knowing and understanding anything about God seems to be pious humility. It seems to honor God's immensity, but it actually undercuts His sovereign power. Postmoderns harbor such distrust for language and disbelieve God's ability to communicate truth to human minds that they effectively engage in what Carson calls "the gagging of God." For example, Tomlinson writes, "To say Scripture is the word of God is to employ a metaphor. God cannot be thought of as literally speaking words, since they are an entirely human phenomenon that could never prove adequate as a medium for the speech of an infinite God." In a similar vein, Bell writes, "Our words aren't absolutes. Only God is absolute, and God has no intention of sharing this absoluteness with anything, especially words people have come up with to talk about him."
Such statements fly in the face of redemptive history and nearly every page of Scripture. The God of the Bible is nothing if He is not a God who speaks to His people. To be sure, none of us ever infinitely understand God in a nice, neat package of affirmations and denials, but we can know Him truly, both personally and propositionally. God can speak. He can use human language to communicate truth about Himself that is accurate and knowable, without ceasing to be God because we've somehow got Him all figured out.
We may all be, by nature, like blind men touching the elephant without knowing whether what we are feeling is a trunk, tail, or ear. But what if the elephant spoke and said, "Quit calling me crocodile, or peacock, or paradox. I'm an elephant, for crying out loud! That long thing is my trunk. That little frayed thing is my tail. That big floppy thing is my ear." And what if the elephant gave us ears to hear his voice and a mind to understand his message (cf. 1 Cor. 2:14-15)? Would our professed ignorance about the elephant and our unwillingness to make any confident assertions about his nature mean we were especially humble, or just deaf?
Because of the emerging church's implied doctrine of God's unknowability, the word mystery, a perfectly good word in its own right, has become downright annoying. Let me be very clear: I don't understand everything about God or the Bible. I don't fully understand how God can be three in one. I don't completely grasp how divine sovereignty works alongside human responsibility. The Christian faith is mysterious. But when we talk about Christianity, we don't start with mystery. It's some combination of pious confusion and intellectual laziness to claim that living in mystery is at the heart of Christianity.
Yet, time and again, emerging leaders brand Christianity as, above all things it seems, mysterious.
Mystery is not the enemy to be [conquered] nor a problem to be solved, but rather, the partner with whom we dance-and dance we must. The call for the post-evangelical community is to dance and play the music. But we are also called to show each other the way into mystery. We would certainly be under providing if we didn't offer new ways to enter and live in mystery.
I don't think you can explain how Christian faith works either. It is a mystery. And I love this about Christian spirituality. It cannot be explained, and yet it is beautiful and true. It is something you feel, and it comes from the soul.
The Christian faith is mysterious to the core. It is about things and beings that ultimately can't be put into words. Language fails. And if we do definitively put God into words, we have at that very moment made God something God is not.... The mystery is the truth.
So, Christian spirituality cannot be explained; we cannot use human language to speak truthfully about God; and the mystery of our unknowable, unfathomable God is the truth. That sounds more like the Hindu conception of Brahman than the Christian notion of God, revelation, and authority. True, there are secret things that belong to the Lord our God, but what about the things revealed that belong to us and to our children forever? (Deut. 29:29). What did Paul tell the men of Athens? "I see you worship an unknown God. Great! So do I." No. Paul declared, "Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you" (Acts 17:23 NIV).
Mystery as an expression of our finitude is one thing. Mystery as a way of jettisoning responsibility for our beliefs is another thing. Mystery as radical unknowing of God and His revealed truth is not Christian, and it will not sustain the church. As G. K. Chesterton observed, reflecting on the rationality of Christian commitment over two millennia, "People are not amused with a puzzle or a paradox or a mere muddle in the mind for all that time."
IS UNCERTAINTY THE SAME AS HUMILITY?
The second problem with the emergent view of journey is that it suffers from a confusion of categories. Emerging leaders equate uncertainty with humility. Steve Chalke tells the story of a young man who finally got fed up with theologians telling him that he needed to search for the real Jesus. After one such speech, the young man shouted, "If you academics in your ivory towers have lost Jesus, that's your problem. I've not lost him. I know him. I love him. I don't need to search for him." Chalke's comments on the story are telling.
However, as appealing as this kind of certainty might at first sound, it is in fact rather like the presumed familiarity of which Dallas Willard spoke. To assume that we have got Jesus "pinned down" or "summed up" is not simply arrogant but stupid, and in the end inhibits our ability to communicate his unchanging message to an ever-changing world.
Excerpted from WHY WE'RE NOT EMERGENT by KEVIN DEYOUNG TED KLUCK Copyright © 2008 by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck. Excerpted by permission.
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