I had a good supervision session yesterday, my last one for a while as my supervisor is going on sabbatical next term [single tear rolls down cheek] I gave her an(other) overall structure for the thesis, which I feel comfortable working towards while she's away in Italy - although I imagine it will morph as I go along! It's already, like, the seventeenth structure I've had! My research questions (how do members and friends of emerging Christian communities understand the concept of truth, and what might the philosophical, theological and political implications of such concept(s) look like?) form the backbone of the thesis structure.
The Introduction contextualises my research questions by briefly framing them in the criticisms levelled at the "emerging church." I explain how the structure of the thesis relates to the main contentions I wish to make, and introduce themes which are peppered throughout.
Chapter One introduces the reader to emerging Christian communities through a thematic exploration of my (at the moment!) chosen terminology ("emerging Christian communities"). It consists of a sociological reflection on the position of these communities in the Christian landscape, an historical tracing of the emergence of these communities in the UK context, and a review of possible future trajectories. The last section of this chapter details the criticisms laid against the "emerging church" by evangelical detractors with particular emphasis on the ways in which these communities are imagined the undermine the truth claims of Christianity.
Chapter Two is a methodological chapter which details the multi-method through which I conducted this research. It introduces the reader to the participants and their communities, and reflects on theoretical, ethical and practice concerns generated by this project. I argue against the reductionist methodologies of other "emerging church" research which privileges the voices of certain individuals over others, thereby justifying my decision to conduct research on several levels in order to hear the voices of a spectrum of individuals. I also present my use of the Internet as both a research tool (e-questionnaires, Facebook) and as a research site (blogs, and other related spaces). I take the reader through the process of moving from an online context to an offline one, and back again, reflecting on the implications of these moves for research relationships.
Chapters Three and Four begin to unpick the philosophical implications of participants' understandings of truth. With regards to philosophy, there are two strands which emerge. An individual participant might stand firmly within one strand rather than the other, but several participants hold both strands in creative tension, and the communities from which participants come cannot be understood to fully exhibit one strand to the full exclusion of the other.
Chapter Three draws out the first strand. Here there is ontological realism and epistemological fallibility. Either there is or there isn't a God (the principle of bivalence) but human knowledge cannot fully grasp the nature of this reality. In this strand, deconstruction is understood as a phase which is a necessary response to modernist (evangelical) Christianity, but which must at some point give way to the process of reconstruction. Some elements within postmodern philosophy are understood to be relativistic or nihilistic, and Christianity cannot go the same way. This ontologically realist, epistemologically humble, and reconstructive strand has implication for evangelism, tending to emphasise cultural postmodernity, as well as a chastened (i.e. not nihilistic!) philosophical postmodernism, in order to contextualise mission in shifting paradigms.
Chapter Four details the second strand. Here there is a reluctance to answer (or even ask) questions of ontology. Rather than making judgements regarding the realist or non-realist nature of the Christian narrative, participants prefer to talk about hyperrealism. Also in contrast to the first strand, participants' epistemologies are not so much chastened as a/epistemologies, or epistemologies of active unknowing. Uncertainty and doubt is accompanied by the de-nomination of every naming of God. Deconstruction is understood as an inherent part of the Christian narrative, of Jesus' example, and of the Christian life. Christianity is understood as auto-deconstructive. Deconstruction, questioning, unravelling, are central to Christian faith, not as a necessary phase before the rebuilding, but as coexistent with faith. Truth is understood as an event which occurs to us and transforms us through a call, following the work of Jack Caputo. This understanding of truth as a call has implications for the type of community which develops around such a concept. A final section here explores the a/theism of participants and their understandings of orthodoxy as believing in the right way (i.e. lightly) rather than right belief.
A brief pause before I move on to explain the other chapters. I know what you are going to say, but it is not the case that Ikon can be neatly fitted into the second strand, with the other communities in the first! My differentiation between these strands doesn't work that way. There are participants within Ikon who, while holding to some of the tenets in strand two, identify more closely with strand one. And there are participants in other communities who have more affinity for the second strand than for the first. These two strands are not mutually exclusive, and can be (and often are) held in tension by participants.
Chapter Five meditates on the theological implications of participants' notions of truth and the philosophical strands drawn out in the preceding chapters. It examines Radical Orthodoxy in the light of participants' understandings of truth and argues that this theology is only useful for some of them. It also reformulates Radical Orthodoxy into what can be referred to as a "Generous Radical Orthodoxy." [titter, titter] I argue that Radical Orthodoxy's tone of certainty and preoccupation with being are the reasons that other participants can be said to exhibit a closer affinity with Weak Theology.
Chapter Six is the final chapter of the thesis (as it stands at the moment!) and explores the implications for politics of emerging understandings of truth. Here the two philosophical strands, which have continued to diverge theologically, re-converge politically. However truth is philosophically understood and in whichever theology these understandings feel at home, participants' responses to truth dovetail with each other. Here I explore notions of responding to the call and Caputo's kingdom without kingdom. I was tempted to also tackle a critique of Neo-Pragmatism from the perspective Generous Radical Orthodoxy and Weak Theology, though I think this was a little ambitious of me. Maybe. Maybe not. We'll see. Maybe a journal article, eh?
The conclusion will obviously do all standards things conclusion tend to do. I'll draw together all the threads of the thesis, breaking them down to show the various philosophical theories of truth at work among Christian communities. I reflect on the cultural contexts from which these understandings of truth emerge, and identify fruitful areas for further enquiry. Blah, blah, blah!
That's where my thinking is concerning my research questions and the structure of my thesis. I haven't yet finished transcribing the 30 interviews I conducted (in fact, I'm no way near), but I've been reflecting on the emerging themes [titter, God, I need a holiday!] and with this structure I feel more confident that I move forward with reading, etc., while I simultaneously try to finish the transcriptions. So... apologies to all participants who were looking forward to sitting down and having a good mull over their transcripts whilst sipping mulled wine - and I know that was, like, all of you!
As I transcribe, further themes are coming up which I will not be able to develop far in this thesis. For example, participants' views on Jesus, the historicity of the Bible, the nature of revelation, etc. I hope to be able to incorporate these themes into blog posts, however, so that everyone can continue those conversations even though they will not feature heavily in the thesis (whenever that gets done!).
As part of an open sourced approach to research, please let me know what you think of these preliminary thoughts.