Toward a Hopeful Future, pt. 4
In the second part of Toward a Hopeful Future, Snider and Bowen describe the “Emergent Ethos” in order to clearly link the concerns of emergent Christians with progressive congregations.
First, they suggest that emergents, like progressive mainliners are passionately concerned with social justice. Perhaps in a reaction to evangelicalism, many emergents are tired of Christianities that only seem to suggest the value of the individual soul over and against the global concerns of our society. This affects the way that emergents look at the concept of kin-dom and atonement theories in ways that Phil and Emily suggest are more in-step with mainline thinkers. This concern for global issues and justice leads emergents to question the popular civil religion prevalent in many parts of America’s evangelical landscape and to seek non-violent, subversive ways of living in the “Holy American Empire.”
Second, Phil and Emily show the emergent affinity for postmodernism (though I know Phil would say that it isn’t all that postmodern). The main thrust of this chapter is to show that emergents do not claim authoritarian claims of certainty or forced grand narratives. This affects the way that emergents view systematized theologies, fearing that certainty is often an idol. Emergents also tend to view the Bible as a contextual book that needs to be evaluated and thought through carefully rather than used as a reinforcer for one’s absolute beliefs.
For the most part, I’ve felt that Phil and Emily’s book could, in theory, work both ways. The emergent-type that they discuss in the book has often has run-ins with evangelicalism. For many of these Christians, they may not know where to go. This book could offer them insight into their own thinking, lead them to resources and thinkers who are expressing their concerns, and introduce them to denominations that should, in theory and according to Phil and Emily, be welcoming to their ideology. I have to admit that my optimism assumes a couple of things: First, I’m assuming that Phil and Emily accurately represent “progressive mainline thought.” This is difficult to do because mainline thought is not anymore monolithic than “emergent” thought (if such a thing exists). Not only is it not monolithic, a good portion of it is good-old-fashioned liberalism, which is very modern. I bring this up now because I think this weakness in my own estimation of the book is much more glaring in the chapter on postmodernism than anywhere else. How will the mainline clergy for whom this book is intended receive the ideas of postmodernism? I’m sure that its safe to say that they might be generally more open to it than evangelicals, but that doesn’t mean that this particular piece of the “emergent ethos” is going to be an easy fit into mainline congregations. Surely it won’t be as seamless a blend as something like the concern for social justice.
My second assumption is that emergents will connect with mainline congregations based on ideology and ignore everything else in the church. For many mainline churches these things include back-biting church politics (possibly not just a mainline thing, but an institution thing), big organs, a higher average age, upper-class congregates, and oodles of immovable history and tradition. If this book did in fact lead an emergent Christian to a mainline congregation and that congregation did welcome their ideology, would the emergent be able to stand it? I think a huge piece of what Phil and Emily are trying to do is force mainliners to ask themselves that exact same question, but I wonder how much change will be affected as opposed to how much mainline churches will begin to assume that those “young emergents types ought to be here because they think like us.” My own first exposure to a mainline church was similar. I came in totally on-board with the ideology promoted by the church but eventually had to leave because they church’s culture was stifling.
The last chapter in this section is about hospitality. Emergents and progressives both encourage hospitality and an atmosphere of welcoming as crucial to any church’s claim to embody Christian faith. Focusing on homosexuality and religious diversity, Phil and Emily have a much easier time of connecting emergent to progressive mainline thought again. For emergents and many, probably most (I usually shy away from saying things like “most,” because how the hell do I know?), mainliners, love is the central tenet of Christian faith and matters much more than one’s current list of sins.
Overall, Phil and Emily do a good job of summing up parts of the emergent ethos in a way that will help clarify it for mainline clergy. My only hope and prayer is that mainline denominations heed their advice and make space for emergents.