Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Fundamentally We're Emerging

Today we had a lecture on the History of Evangelicalism, looking at CH Spurgeon and his protest against a "Downgrade" in evangelical theology. He denounced the Liberalistic denial of the Deity of Christ, the Resurrection, the inerrancy of Scripture etc as obvious reasons for the increase in Christians going to the theatre and dancing, dead spirituality and the corresponding decline in church attendance. One line of thought was: while CHS's sequential pattern of downgrade was too simplistic, there was a downgrade and it might be repeating itself today. And from the class emerged a protesting line of thought... surely the word "downgrade" is not to be used of today's questioning of evangelical doctrinal formulations... and should it even have been used back then? Perhaps then as now, the questioning of doctrine was merely the outworking of contextual theology but for a late modern setting, even if looking back we would say they went too far in ending up with a Unitarian doctrine.

I also think the term "downgrade" is unhelpful, because it suggests the opposing party stayed on track, or even had an "upgrade". Instead the Fundamentalist reaction to Liberal theology was an entrenchment and rejection of all things liberal-sounding, also throwing away some values and practices previously thought as essential, like social action. The result was two schools of thought, each using the tools of the cultural context to engage with the culture, one accomodating, the other reactionary. (Incidentally this sounds to me a lot like Nicea, and one of those schools was called heresy while the reactionary formulation of orthodox doctrine lost sight of the human narrative of Jesus that is so important to today's understanding of faith.)

So what is happening today? The modernist questions stemmed from "Now that we know that we can know what we know, how can there be what we cannot know?", (So Scripture must be scientifically inerrant and fully reveal God, or God must be a figment of human idealism and Jesus merely human).

And perhaps the post-modern curiosity comes from "Now that we know that we don't know all we thought we knew, what else do we think we know that we might not actually know?". (Although I don't want to say thats it for sure!). And some of the current questioning accomodates this culture, leading to pluralism of religion, acceptance that any view of god(s)/no-god is true for the person that believes in god(s)/no-god in that way. Unitarianism is only one element of the poly-religious result.

But others use the contextual line of thinking to challenge the culture of uncertainty. If we can't prove God, lets not try, lets start with the story we believe. We believe God in Communion as Trinity has been working out his story by creating man in his relational image and relating to him in some way as he does with himself. Jesus is the link between humanity and Trinity so in the light of Scriptural narrative of Jesus, how do we relate to God, and to each other, and to the rest of Scripture. I guess this is why any doctrines might be fair game for post modern doubt, unless the conclusion of that doubt is to deny God as Trinity, as revealed by the story of Jesus.

So would it be fair to say that contextual theology that fully accomodates culture is doomed to result in a denial of God as Trinity? Liberal theology had no option but to deny Trinity, because it denied the supernatural or unproveable. Instead we would seek to use contextually cultural tools to present the message of Jesus of the Trinity in a form that is both incarnational and transformative to that culture.

If the above assessment is correct, the Emerging Church phenomenom is comparable to Fundamentalism rather than Liberalism, and rather than being a reaction to the failure of modernist Evangelicalism to engage with today's culture, as is supposed, it is actually a multifaceted attempt to remain orthodox in the reaction to the only alternative, full-blooded pluralism.

My question is, if contextually using the tools of a culture has lost something of value in previous times, (Fundamentalism, Nicea) what are today's tools in danger of cutting out in order to be incarnational?

I wonder if we are in danger of outlawing child-like faith and relegating non-intellectuals to feel like second class believers. I also wonder whether we pay heed to the warnings previously given to cross-cultural contextualisers, ie, to what extent does incarnationally contextualising the gospel result in a church that is still recogniseable as church within a global, historical and even eschatalogical, context.

Monday, May 22, 2006

An Introverted Welcome?

So one day I went to another church because my family were away and I didn't have transport to commute to my normal church. I just wanted to go to church and not get involved. (Watch "Hank Goes Church Shopping" on Jamie Davies blog (May 12 2006) ... am I the only one to see the megachurch and somewhere underneath all the well-placed cynicism, feel a tiny desire to sometimes just go to church and have no-one need me to do anything today, because today God's going to entertain me?!)

And so as I go in to this definitely-non-megachurch, I don't expect to go there regularly so I don't want to get embroiled in conversation about who I am, investing myself in relationships that aren't actually going to be developed. I body swerve the greeter, realising at the last minute I need a hymn book from him, so discreetly grunt, murmur and take one with minimum interaction. Then at the end of the service I work out the best route past him. I see him looking, weighing up how much he knows he should try to make me feel welcome against the unfriendly vibes I'm giving off. So I throw a nod as I skim past. And I feel his pain, because I am him. He's thinking, as I would, "did I just let God down?" "Have I just made that guy think we don't care?" How often have I felt like that when I just want to speak with my friends at church and so I watch the visitor hoping someone else will speak to them.

Aside ... Why do I hope so fervently to get a seat by myself each morning on the train to college, yet when I get to college I hope equally fervently one of my friends will be in the student common room to sit and chat with?

Back again ... Why is it that when I do speak with a visitor, we can talk for ages if they turn out to be a secure middle class evangelical christian, but we stumble over meaningless small talk if its someone not very much like me. So do I help them feel welcome or valued by our community, by my fumbled and forced conversation? Isn't my welcome a bit false if I struggle to connect with someone who is not like me. ("Like me" and "not like me" are both quite broad categories in my experience)

Perhaps the best way for a visitor to experience our community is through relationships built outside the church so if they do come in, they come already in relationship with someone from the church, hence the importance of being incarnationally missional. But in reality there will always be visitors who come alone, for hundreds of different reasons.

How do we genuinely welcome those different from ourselves? Is welcome always about conversation? Perhaps its freedom not to have conversation. Perhaps its an offer of a lift home. What is "welcome" for those who feel threatened by their difference?

Friday, May 19, 2006

Who gives a fig

So I'm looking for a fig tree ... actually, since I'm taking my blog title from the Bible verse, Micah 4:4, I'm also looking for a vine:

"Every man will sit under his own vine and under his own fig tree ..." (NIV, 1984)

Perhaps I'm attracted to this vision of the kingdom of God because, although I believe in community, deep down I'm inherently individualist. Maybe, or maybe I'm introverted rather than individualist ... but I do think its a vision of a pretty good home, and right now I don't feel quite at home. Its a vision of abundance without being ostentatious, a vision of simplicity that is sufficient. Its a vision where I and my neighbour share true contentment. But its not my current experience.

And so I do give a fig. I'm looking forward to the fig tree. But for this life, the fig tree is growing (much like a mustard tree I suspect) and the vine is being prepared. I been allowed to see some of the cultivation phase, but I'm pretty sure most of the growth and preparation I don't see. I'd like to use this blog to share what I do see, and to speculate with others on what we don't get to see.

PS. Maybe its a vision that reflects Eden, where the fig leaves are still on the tree! (In which case its a good job we get our own tree to sit under!).