Sense and Sensibility: Emergent Mystique or Emerging Mistake?

As a pastor and student of theology, I like to keep up on the various movements within the Holy Christian Church. One recent movement is known as the Emerging or Emergent Church Movement. I’ve posted on it briefly in the past, but a recent article has caught my attention. Enough so, that I felt compelled to write a response to it here (and perhaps pursue a formal one as well.)

The article was from the just released Spring 2012 issue of the Concordia Journal and is titled, “The End of Theology?: The Emergent Church in the Lutheran Perspective” and written by Ph. D. candidate Chad Lakies. I’ve never met Chad and I’d love to talk to him in person about this, but as I read his article I’m not sure it was as helpful as he had hoped.

His title would make one think there would be some thoughtful evaluations of the movement and its theology from a Lutheran perspective. Curiously, that was not the case. Rather, as Lakies states, “I want to show what they are ‘up to’ in a way that, perhaps, does not cause us to raise so quickly the alarm of concern” (p.118). In short, he takes particular issue with what he considers an overly negative assessment of the Emergent Church movement by Dr. Carol Geisler in her May 13, 2011 article “Reframing the Story: The End of the Emergent Conversation.” http://concordiatheology.org/2011/05/reframing-the-story-the-end-of-the-emergent-conversation/ (He is also critical of a corresponding CTCR document about the Emergent Church Movement. http://www.lcms.org/page.aspx?pid=675). His desire is “to suggest a different kind of evaluation that is more congenial for interacting with ‘cultural sensibilities’ as they are manifest in the life of the church—for this is what I suggest emergents are doing, manifesting a sensibility, rather than presenting an entirely new theology” (p.118). I would respectfully disagree. To be sure, I agree they are intentionally manifesting a sensibility, but it is one that most certainly informs and shapes an emerging tendency to create “new” if not, amorphous theology (not to mention ecclesiology).

Lakies primary objections fall in that there is no official Emergent “church body” to fairly evaluate, as well as Lutherans who have a knee jerk and uninformed reaction to movements like these:

“Typical of Lutheran authors who set themselves up to examine the beliefs and confession of a different body from their own, Geisler begins comparing what she sees as the beliefs and confession of emergents with those of Missouri Synod Lutherans. A major problem with this approach is that fact that there really is no particular body or denomination called ‘the Emergent Church’…From the outset, the assumption, which is uncritically employed, is that Lutherans are plainly and simply right. From the very beginning, it is as if confessional Missouri Synod Lutheranism owns the market on theology…Such a methodology of evaluating the beliefs and confessions of others is problematic for a whole slew of different reasons. But ultimately it assumes that ‘theology is over,’ that orthodoxy has once-for-all been established and is guarded and maintained in our Confession, and thus it is our God-given task to sound the alarm when others get out of line…For all the good intentions that are the impetus for both works [CTCR document and Geisler] in trying to help the church understand emergents, I am concerned that both works are based only on bibliographical research alone” (p.119-120, 125).

I’m not exactly sure what Lakies aims to communicate with this. Should confessional Lutherans not subscribe to the orthodoxy of their faith? Should they not declare, with Luther, “Here I stand, I can do no other”? How else should confessional Lutherans evaluate other faith claims? I certainly embrace the opportunity to learn from other perspectives, but I am uncomfortable with what Lakies seems to insinuate about Lutheran orthodoxy. In sum, Lakies desires to give the emergent church movement a more favorable treatment with the hopes “that this different approach might prove informative and helpful for those reflective practitioners who are attempting to navigate relationships with the emergent movement…” (p.125).

First, a couple of brief concerns, and then I’ll offer a more in-depth assessment in narrative (emergent) form. To begin, Lakies rightly sides with the Emergent premise “that what one really believes is evidenced in what one does” over against the current “flawed” model and “bad anthropology” of contemporary Christendom that emphasizes (only) right belief with little or no emphasis on right practice or life (p.121). But then he acknowledges that “Their criticisms (which are aimed mostly at evangelicalism since many of them come from that tradition) demand they tell a different story” (p.121). However, he fails to note that Lutheran theology has always had a robust love of neighbor and doctrine for life inherent in it. This seems to imply that Lutherans are also in need of this emerging corrective. But if this is so, and perhaps sadly in some cases it is, it will only go to show how some Lutherans have abandoned thier historic confession of faith and adopted evangelicalism, as opposed to somehow insinuating that Lutherans need to embrace what emergents think they have discovered.

Second, I find it interesting (and partially true) that Lakies feels it unfair to wholesale evaluate the movement since it is not an official denomination. But then he wishes to go and defend and speak for it wholesale. I find this a bit inconsistent, i.e. “Emergents do not want to end up simply repristinating the kind of ‘violent’ practices and positions from which they are ‘emerging’” (p. 122). Further, as one who has not only read volumes of emergent books, documents, and blogs, has interviewed emergent leaders (i.e. Doug Pagitt, of Solomon’s Porch, Minneapolis, MN) and has written and published a detailed chapter about the Emergent Church in my recent book Great Commission, Great Confusion, Or Great Confession? (see chapter 5), I feel it is in fact legitimate to provide wholesale evaluations. Perhaps there may be various brands that need to be noted, i.e. “Emerging” and “Emergent,” but they do tend to be very similar, where the above notion of “manifesting a sensibility” does certainly tend toward “new” hermeneutics and new theology (or in some cases, retreads of old trendy theology).

One short but startling example comes from a book that Lakies notes, but fails to adequately evaluate. Phyllis Tickle in her book, The Great Emergence, makes a bold assertion. She states that the notion of using “Luther’s sola scriptura… is now seen as hopelessly outmoded or insufficient, even after it is, as here, spruced up and re-couched in more current sensibilities.” (p. 151). Tickle then goes on to explain their new hermeneutic and its “authority base” as it flows out of the idea of “network theory” and “crowd sourcing.” In short, if “manifesting a sensibility” means abandoning Sola Scriptura, then it most certainly is a new theology.

And this brings me to my final point. I fear Lakies over plays and under evaluates the claim that Emergents are really just about “having a certain sensibility.” In fact, if I might be so bold, I think he has played right into the hands of the emerging hermeneutic. I’ll try to explain by way of a narrative (emergent) hermeneutic.

Consider Jane Austen’s well know novel, Sense and Sensibility. The title of the book conveys the philosophical depth and intent of this 19th century classic romance novel. The “Sense” or prudent, good judgment of the novel is most notably embodied by Elinor Dashwood. She is the reserved eldest (19) daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Dashwood. She is portrayed as one who has a keen sense of responsibility to her family and friends and so places their welfare and interests above her own, suppressing her own strong emotions in a way that often leads others to think she is indifferent or cold-hearted.

This is contrasted with the “Sensibility” or the passions, (the following of your heart above all other rules and conventions) of the novel which are embodied by Marianne Dashwood. She is the romantically inclined and eagerly expressive second daughter (16) of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Dashwood, who develops an intense affection for the philanderer, Mr. Willoughby.

As the novel plays out, the reader is invited to see how the variations of “sense” and “sensibility” unfold in each of the characters’ lives, particularly in Marianne and Elinor. The reader is meant to become romantically enthralled by the impact and consequence of each characters decisions as they’re set in the midst of their 19th century British upper class cultural and social norms.

In the end, Marianne comes to assess what has passed with “sense” rather than emotion, i.e. “sensibility,” and sees that she could never have been happy with Mr. Willoughby’s immoral and expensive nature and so eventually comes to marry the more honorable Colonel Christopher Brandon.

Though this is simply a romance novel, it is nonetheless a descriptor, a narrative of life that speaks to the realities of life. In it “sense” is found to offer greater clarity, while “sensibility” tended to cloud judgment. I wonder if Lakies has disregarded the “sense” of Lutheran theology and fallen in with the “sensibility” of emergents. I don’t mean that as a disrespectful slight, but rather, as it was for Marianne Dashwood, a surrender to the charming allure of a “sensibility” that seemed so much more appealing, more visceral, and more compelling, which prompted her to, for a time, disregard “sense.”

In the end, I’ll stand with John Pless who provided an early astute evaluation of the emergent church movement: “Missing Luther’s radical move, the Emerging Church begins with life not doctrine, and with ethics not faith. While claiming to be generous, open, and tolerant, McLaren—with his incessant focus on the necessity for authentic discipleship, obedience rather than knowledge, and lives characterized by compassion slips into a rigidity that is unattainable. While the language might sound inclusive and undiscriminating, it is the language of the law… The Emerging Church is not nearly as free from the dreary moralism that they decry. Gerhard Forde has helpfully observed that those who begin with the presupposition of freedom end in bondage. Only a theology that begins with the presupposition that humanity is in bondage can end in freedom—the freedom of the Spirit.” “Contemporary Spirituality and the Emerging Church,” Concordia Theological Quarterly (July/ October, 2007), p 320.

As always, this blog endeavors to thoughtfully and collegially talk about the mission of the Holy Christian Church and what it means to be authentically Lutheran, while “discipling all nations” in the 21st century. For those willing to enter the fray, I welcome your constructive thoughts and reactions.

Yours,

Rev. Woodford

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5 responses to “Sense and Sensibility: Emergent Mystique or Emerging Mistake?

  1. Pr. Christopher Gillespie

    Way back when I considered their dogmatic authority (hint: they don’t have one as a rule): http://www.outerrimterritories.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/10/word-of-god-and-the-emergent-church.pdf

  2. Pingback: Steadfast Lutherans » Great Stuff — Sense and Sensibility: Emergent Mystique or Emerging Mistake?

  3. My sentiments exactly as I skimmed the recent Journal. Your thoughts are definitely emerging on this topic. Keep confessing brother! Regards, JCO+

  4. Rev. Woodford……….your blog was sent to me by a friend………I agree……..I was disappointed and saddened that such an obviously bright young man could write such an article. I tried to understand “where he was coming from”….but did not have much success. I think he is either misguided or being overerly “understanding” to the point of framing the questions and the answers in a way that does appear to be very accurate or faithful to the facts……at least he did not convince me.

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