Explaining Emerging (Part 1) – Post-modernism

So here is the first section in my series that tries to explain the good and the bad of the emerging church to my evangelical friends who are struggling to understand what it is all about.

The most obvious place to start in explaining the emerging movement is by saying that emerging churches are either post-modern, or post-modern friendly. At the very least they recognise that we are living in an increasingly post-modern culture, and the church by and large has failed to reach a post-modern generation with the gospel. To be post-modern is to approach truth in a subjective rather than an objective way. So while a modernist mindset is supremely confident about the “absolute facts” we know (either from science, or in Christian circles, from the Bible), the post-modernists view this as not just arrogant, but unwarranted, as we must doubt our own ability to discern absolute truth, and accept that others may come to differing conclusions which we must also accept as valid.

There is of course a good and bad side to this. It is important for Christians to be humble, and to acknowledge that we don’t know it all. Most every Christian looks back at times when their ideas were different to those they hold now. And many fundamentalists have tended to view themselves almost as infallible interpreters of the Bible, so any Christian who doesn’t see a passage in exactly the same way as they do is denounced as holding to aberrant theology.

In contrast, emerging Christians prefer to emphasise that we are all on a spiritual journey, with much to learn. When it comes to the Bible, they like to point out that none of us approaches it neutrally, or is an infallible interpreter of it, and thus we should not hold intransigently to our doctrinal positions. More progressive emergents will emphasise the fallibility of the Biblical authors themselves and are some are even willing to flatly contradict some passages of Scripture. This has meant that standard evangelical positions on issues such as biblical inerrancy, hell, homosexuality, justification, gender roles and the atonement are coming under sustained criticism.

We must also note that the writers of Scripture were supremely confident of what they believed. They were sure that Jesus had risen from the dead and would return again. They were equally sure that the Scriptures contained God’s very word, to be believed and obeyed. Whilst they would have readily acknowledged the need for humility and a teachable spirit, it is hard to imagine them being as “generous” towards those of radically differing viewpoints as some emerging leaders would have us be. (n.b. This emerging “generosity” sadly seems to be extended to almost anyone except evangelicals at times)

It might also be questioned whether post-modernism is compatible with Christianity at all. After all, post-modernism is highly suspicious of “meta-narratives”. That is to say that it rejects the idea that we can know the “big picture” that explains life, the universe and everything. But the Bible does just that, explaining where we came from, why things are the way they are, and where we are going. It is at this point that emerging Christians pick up on ideas such as N T Wright’s “improvised fifth act”. This is where Wright in essence argues that the Bible should not be thought of like a script for a play where we as actors are given our lines to memorise and repeat verbatim, but a script for the first four acts of a play, where we as actors must improvise a fifth act. We seek to go through uncharted territory, while remaining faithful to what has gone before. Naturally this allows for a variety of improvisations to be equally valid.

So the emerging mindset is certainly not “modernist”, but is not quite “post-modern” in the fullest sense. I suspect many in the emerging movement would align themselves with Alister McGrath and N T Wright in adopting a philosophy of “critical realism“. This allows them to hold that there really is objective truth out there to be believed, while at the same time acknowledging the very real role our human perception plays as we seek to discover it.

So in summary, the emerging movement calls for humility concerning our own human fallibility and generosity towards Christians from other traditions who see things differently.

Evangelicals would not on the whole disagree with either of these ideals, so long as there is equal commitment to confidence in the Bible as the word of God and caution about jettisoning long-held orthodox doctrinal positions simply because they do not fit with the post-modern mood.

7 thoughts on “Explaining Emerging (Part 1) – Post-modernism

  1. Hi Mark,

    Good critique (and nice to see you blogging again btw!).

    Tom Wright said that the irony of post-modernity is that it ‘preaches’ The Fall to modernity (i.e. the failure of human self-confidence to ‘produce’ a better world), but itself lacks the foundations with which to point the right direction.

    Emerging church is, if anything, that section of the body of Christ which is stepping into the debate between modernity and post-modernity and agreeing with post-modern critique whilst trying to ground it in orthodoxy.

    The tension is slippery, and so some look like their shooting off too much towards post-modernity (c.f. McClaren) and others stick too closely with modernity (c.f. Driscoll). I don’t agree with everything that both these guys are saying but I find the debate good for maturity.

    Finally, for what it’s worth I see some of the emerging church as an attempt to ‘re-ground’ modern evangelicalism (which is essentially a protestant product of the reformation) in some ancient Catholicity and Orthodoxy.

    It’s interesting to see where many ’emergers’ will end up, but I suspect a large number may find their way to the more historic and traditional ‘denominations’. I believe the ’emerging church’ is more of a way station than a destination and certainly once you’ve left Reformed theology behind it’s almost impossible to return home….!

  2. Actually, modernist epistemology is the source of all sorts of skeptical worries. It’s true that Descartes, who initiated the modern era of philosophy (along with Hobbes), thought he could have absolute certainty. But he did it by raising all the doubts that subsequent philosophers didn’t think he had adequately answered. It’s also true that you get the kind of empiricism with the modern sera that takes our sense to be the only guide to reality, which does amount to arrogance and a vast overestimation of our faculties’ reliability. But at the same time you have those who use it for more skeptical or pragmatist purposes (the latter amounting to an acceptance of skepticism but then denying its importance).

    [This isn’t to say that the modern period first introduced these questions. They originally came from the ancient skeptics who predated Christianity. But the questions had fallen into disrepute since Augustine’s dismissal of them (on grounds that I find compelling, and contemporary philosophers have interestingly rediscovered exactly the same line of response without bothering to read Augustine) But that’s a story for another time, since the continental philosophers in the post-modern tradition don’t bother to read the ancients or the contemporary Anglo-American philosophers who have initiated these responses to skepticism.]

    So I don’t think it’s accurate at all to describe modernism as supreme confidence about anything. It’s just as accurate to describe it as radical skepticism about everything. Both descriptions are wholly inadequate, but each captures part of a more complex reality. It’s the modern period that raised questions about our knowledge, although some philosophers thought they had answers. (I would say the same for post-modernism, which brings in an even more radical skepticism about any moral reality or even the possibility of words meaning anything independent of the interpreter, all while in some respects ascending to even greater heights of arrogance than modernism).

  3. Thanks Jeremy, I don’t pretend to know much about “modernism”.

    Perhaps I would have been better off suggesting that the emerging church is reacting on one hand against fundamentalism (in the Christian world), and on the other against the “enlightenment” mindset (in the secular world), both of which are characterised by a confidence about knowing objective truth (whether through revelation or science).

    The post-modern culture does not take kindly to those who make pompous claims to know the truth while denouncing all other views as hopelessly wrong, which is why Dawkin’s God Delusion book has not been as well received as he might have expected, even amongst unbelievers.

  4. No, you describe the emergentist caricature of modernism very accurately. It’s just that they have a very simplistic picture of certain elements of the history of philosophy and a profound ignorance of the current state (i.e. taking post-modernism simply to be the current state, whereas it is generally thought of as extremely silly by the mainstream of the Anglo-American tradition of philosophy).

    On reacting to fundamentalism and empiricism, I think that’s right. They are reacting to what the rest of us know as fundamentalism and empiricism. It’s just that many of them call fundamentalism “evangelicalism” without recognizing that evangelicalism is much broader than their caricature of it would allow. Also, they take empiricism to be the dominant perspective within modern philosophy (as opposed to being only one strain among several, a strain many modern philosophers have simply rejected). And many of them also don’t seem to me to understand that you can reject both fundamentalism and empiricism without adopting radical postmodernist skepticism.

    The post-modern culture does not take kindly to those who make pompous claims to know the truth while denouncing all other views as hopelessly wrong, which is why Dawkin’s God Delusion book has not been as well received as he might have expected, even amongst unbelievers.

    But much of modernism has the same attitude. The skeptical tone of post-modernism originates with the skeptical attitude in modernism. You do get a kind of arrogance in some circles of modernism, and Dawkins is definitely part of that (along with a great number of biblical scholars from the 19th century to the present, although they have diminished in number in recent years), but you also get this great arrogance in post-modernism when anyone asserts a meta-narrative or indicates a position deemed intolerant.

  5. What a great response to my question last week 🙂 Thanks for your thoughts, and look forward to more of them.

  6. Hi Jeremy,

    I think you make several very valid points (esp. re: the original skepticism of modernity and the ironic ‘confidence’ of some of the emerging chuch in it’s own philosophies….just goes to prove that there’s nothing new under the Sun eh?).

    I found your point about conflating ‘evangelicalism’ with ‘fundamentalism’ interesting. Obviously ‘evangelicalism’ is a broad entity and there are varying ‘versions’ of it, however one can not deny that, as a ‘theological system’, it is still the ‘product’ of the enlightenment in the ‘West’. For example one can not be ‘Eastern Orthodox’ AND ‘evangelical’ (although there will be some overlapping of ideas), and certainly the eastern church never went through the medieval corruptions and subsequent ‘reformation’ which so shaped western ecclesiology. In light of this, I thus find it helpful to view ‘evangelicalism’ as the theological ‘fruit’ (juicey or rotten is for another debate!) of a certain philosophical/cultural/sociopolitical context in western Europe dating from the 15th century (with it’s roots obviously in much before then) which the ‘post-modern’ movement is attempting to critique (either creatively, constructively or otherwise…).

    What we would term ‘fundamentalism’ (however, what’s in a ‘word’ and often these terms are used derogatively anyway) would be one particualr ‘distortion’ within the ‘evangelical’ theological system, but there are other distortions that are being critiqued, and since I see the ’emerging church’ as uniquely COME FROM the evangelical system, they are the closest to it to understand and critique it.

    It’s true that these days I see myself as less and less ‘evangelical’ (in terms of the theological system) whilst still agreeing with many of the precepts and concepts which it articulated (I would say that in these it was only supporting ancient orthodoxy).

    However I also don’t see myself as ’emerging’ since, as you say, there are also new distortions which arise from within this system (merely echoing some of the older ones) and, instead, again try to find resonances within with older orthodoxy.

    So. In essence, I think the ’emerging church’ is asking probing questions of the enlightenment (which ,as you point out, was the premise on which the ‘enlightenment’ was based in the first place – certainly NT Wright is keen to point out that his own theology is following Calvin/Luther in continuing to ask questions of scripture and the church and continue to critique it in the same manner), but I wouldn’t put my lot in exclusively with it and suggest that it is as much a journey TO orthodoxy rather than a final destination in itself!

    Go well,


  7. Pingback: Explaining Emerging (Part 2) – Being Missional

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