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.