Emerging paradigm


I recently ran across a posting by a Methodist blogger who objected to Marcus Borg's division of Christianity into two categories, an older paradigm and an emerging one. His complaint was that this categorization placed him, a moderate Christian, on the same side of that dividing line as fundamentalists or young earth Creationists. Certainly this objection is understandable; who (other than a fundamentalist) wants to be associated with fundamentalists?

I would agree that there are not just two theological approaches to Christianity. Sure, moderate Christians differ from fundamentalists in many ways. But, speaking as one who is uninterested in a miraculous, supernaturally theistic religious faith, the important point is that I find both fundamentalism and moderate Christianity to be equally unsatisfying. And I think that is the point that Borg is driving at. What both fundamentalism and moderate orthodoxy share in common is a belief in a God who has intervened miraculously in the world--including, but perhaps not restricted to, resuscitating Jesus's corpse. That issue does serve as an important dividing line for many people who are as John Shelby Spong puts it, members of the church alumni society.

Until I discovered Borg, I was not able to come to terms with Christianity. The progression of faith that he discusses, from "pre-critical naiveté", to "critical thinking", to "post-critical naiveté", in many ways mirrors my own progression of faith.

One of the problems that I have faced when I have tried to find progressive Christian churches is that many that describe themselves as "progressive" continue to preach as if things like the Virgin Birth or a literal physical resurrection were true. The distinction in those cases between "progressive" and "moderate" Christian in those cases seems blurry to me; it is almost more a matter of style and outlook rather than theology. What I would call "progressively orthodox" churches emphasize such virtues as tolerance and openness and inclusiveness. And while it is a style and outlook that is in many ways appealing to me, it isn't enough.


Frank said...

What happens is that as soon as a church takes a stand on a theology it becomes creedal.

Whether its a creed for or against the miraculous, it is a church organizing around a particular theology and basically separating out those who are "in" and those who are "out", creating the same awkward situation for all the people who want to attend but just can't profess the creeds of the church. It is not a non-creedal approach, its just a different creed.

So what have you really gained? By itself, that doesn't constitute much progress in a movement that calls itself "progressive". De-mythologize by itself just ends one fundamentalism to create another. It has nothing to do with faith.

So I am sympathetic with the Methodist blogger, but perhaps for a different reason: The people who are lost in the "Borg" system are those for whom cognitive answers are just not as important. There are other reasons to organize within religious communities or to tap into religious traditions. You can't really have a tradition by yourself, and really, in theology, what do you have if you don't have a tradition? You just have someone theologizing in their bedroom by themselves, which doesn’t get you very far.

If I had to, I would divide up the Christian spectrum between those to whom cognitive "belief" is a big deal and those who hold "belief" loosely at arm's length while they are swimming in faith.

OneSmallStep said...

I know you've had comments before about wanting to change the nature of the church and such, or that you aren't going to find what you're looking for, because of [fill in the blank].

But it sounds like what most people are missing is that you're focusing on the "progressive" portion of "progressive Christianity." When a church is labeled as such, you have certain expectations based on the progressive Christian scholars, based on what "progressive" means (Granted, the same can be argued for the word 'Christian.' Except I find 'Christian' a much more problematic definition, because it really needs to be modified. A conservative Christian is not the same as a liberal Christian, who might not be the same as a progressive Christian, who might not be the same as a Messianic Christian, and so forth).

So you're not asking any church to change something -- you're asking the church to live up to a definition that you understand. It sounds like your problem would be a lot different if no church advertised itself as progressive -- then you wouldn't even bother looking.

Mystical Seeker said...


Lots of non-creedal churches still have underlying traditions about the nature of God or of scripture. Think of the Quakers, for example. A creed is a formally stated doctrine that people are expected to affirm. But being non-creedal doesn't mean having to be silent about important theological questions. And not being silent doesn't mean forcing anything down anyone's throat, either. A church can actually have an open discussion about these issues, rather than keeping silent about them and pretending that everyone thinks the same way. The latter, it seems to me, acts as a kind of implicit creed.

I am not seeking to create a church where everyone in the world is comfortable with what they hear. Such a church is impossible anyway. You are always going to make somebody uncomfortable, no matter what you do. I am in favor of people congregating in churches that make them comfortable. People are free to vote with their feet to find what works best for them.

It sounds like your problem would be a lot different if no church advertised itself as progressive -- then you wouldn't even bother looking.

Yes, exactly. I had certain ideas about what I thought I could find in progressive churches, but in practice this has rarely proven to be the case.

Frank said...

Maybe. But then we're back full circle in finding a church that is tolerant and inclusive, which you previously said wasn't enough (unless you were refering just to tolerance of lifestyle issues and not tolerance of theology?)

Also, I think my definition of creed may differ from yours. I see a creed as the theological stand of a church. How its enforced and what degree of disagreement is welcome is a different story. And we seem to agree that any organized body is going to have a stand--you can't organize around nothing, you organize around a purpose or principles or something.

So the "8 Points of Progressive Churches" and such that you've posted before I see as a form of pre-creed. It responds to specific historical circumstances just like the Nicene Creed. It defines what the body stands for.

One of the reasons I stick with orthodoxy is because I've seen the breakaway and reform movements ending up pretty much down the same roads as the church they were breaking away from. And they've lost their history and lost their axis in the meantime, like a vine cutting itself off from the trunk. I'm all for reforms, I think they are a natural part in the lifecycle of any institution, but to think starting a new church is always going to make things better, well, there is evidence pro and against that.

Mystical Seeker said...

Frank, I would agree that I conceive of a non-creedal church in different terms than you do. Quakerism, for example, which is non-creedal, relies on its traditions as a foundation, but it does not impose belief. It has a series of "queries" that are designed to give people a chance to think about things, rather than telling them what to believe. The result is that there is a lot of latitude in thinking among Quakerism.

It seems like what you are saying is that it is impossible to avoid what you are calling creeds. However, in my mind there are vast differences between rigidly defined affirmations and a broader, more open tradition of inquiry within the context of a tradition.

The real problem that I see with progressive churches is that there is frequently a built-in bias in liturgy and preaching towards orthodox interpretations. I don't have a problem sharing the pews with people of a more orthodox perspective. What I do have a problem with is that my own perspective is left out in the cold from church services, in favor of a more orthodox interpretation. If a church preaches from the Bible as if all its stories were literally true, then those of us who feel differently are not being acknowledged. Thus we are de facto second-class citizens within the Christian churches. Why should I attend a church that gives precedence to a theology I disagree while ignoring my own? I don't think it is so much to ask to want to hear a preacher at least once in a while say, "This is what the Bible says, but many believe this story not to be historical." Without such an acknowledgment, then I am left without a church home.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

The trouble with words is that they tend to be nuanced. What is interesting is to note how Borg uses the word emerging and how it is used among those who are Emergent -- mainly evangelicals, some of whom are conservative and some who are not so conservative.

When it comes to the word Progressive, there is a similar issue. Some are politically progressive, while theologically moderate or conservative (Jim Wallis and Brian McLaren come to mind). Of course, one can be theologically very liberal and at the same time be extremely conservative politically.

I think you'll find me to be left of center politically and theologically, but my views tend to vary from issue to issue, doctrine to doctrine. For instance, I don't believe in hell, the devil, am sort of a universalist, find that the virgin birth doctrine is really a non-starter, but am not sure what to do with the resurrection, which I uphold, but am not sure how physical I should take it to be.

Ah, but that's what makes the conversation so interesting, and why putting everyone into 2 camps or even 3 or 4 camps doesn't work very well.

Frank said...

I usually just assume that that environment of openness is there, whether people presiding over the service or sitting next to me feel the same way or not!

In the larger Christian traditions, there is a broad stretch of people. At my Sunday mass, there are uniformed soliders as well as those following in the footsteps of Dorothy Day. Most of the people think their soul goes to heaven after death, not realizing the church teaches bodily resurrection! So I figure there's room in there for me, too.

For a variety of reasons I won't go into here, I just feel a sense of ownership. Its my church, too, and they're just going to have to deal with me. But its also my church, too... which means I'm not just there to received but also to contribute and shape this tradition, too.

Aliman Sears said...

One way to say it is the emerging paradigm is neo-classical theology. Cutting the pie up this way does put moderate Christians with fundamenalists. Oh well. Neo-classical ideas are in fact radically different from classical ones. However, where I disagree somewhat with Mystical Seeker and others is that bodily resurrection need not be supernatural at all. Logically speaking, why should it? There's no absolute reason to think so. Aloha!