Sunday, December 30, 2007

Progressive Spirituality and the Emerging Church Milieu

Over Christmas I read Gordon Lynch’s (2007) The New Spirituality: An Introduction to Progressive Belief in the Twenty-first Century. Despite some minor quibbles (for example, his confusion of the 2nd and 3rd waves of feminism, and his inclusion of Willow Creek and the Alpha Course alongside “other forms of experimentation with the ‘emergent church’,” - two disappointing misunderstandings, both on p.25), Lynch’s study of what he refers to as “the progressive milieu” is impressive, absorbing, and stimulating.

Through an extensive review of print and online media, Lynch argues that far from being amorphous and/or insignificant entities, both this milieu and what he terms a “progressive spirituality” are organised around and arise out of identifiable sets of values, beliefs, and practices.

Firstly, then, the progressive milieu is constituted “by individuals, groups and networks who tend to be either liberal or radical in theological terms or green and left-of-centre in political terms” (20). Those involved are sympathetic to liberal democracy’s core values (for example, tolerance, autonomy, diversity), hold green or left-wing political attitudes (for example, concerned with environmentalism, social justice, civil rights), and/or are theologically liberal or radical. Lynch includes in this latter characteristic a willingness “to revise religious tradition in the light of contemporary knowledge,” a sympathetic relationship to feminist critiques of institutionalised religion, and beliefs that “there is a truth inherent in all religious traditions” (98).

Lynch portrays progressive spirituality (which is not the only spirituality possible within this milieu – a point to which I shall return at the end of this post) as arising out of four imperatives within the progressive milieu:

  • “the desire to find new ways of religious thinking and new resources for spiritual growth and well-being that truly connect with people’s beliefs, values and experience in modern, liberal societies” (23-25);
  • the development of “a spirituality that is not bound up with patriarchal beliefs and structures, and which can be relevant and liberating resource for women” (25-29);
  • “attempts to reconcile religion with contemporary scientific knowledge,” particularly grounding spirituality in contemporary scientific cosmologies (29-25);
  • and “moves to develop a spirituality which reflects a healthy understanding of the relationship of humanity to the wider natural order and which motivates constructive action to prevent ecological catastrophe” (35-38).

After tracing the development of progressive spirituality from these four imperatives, Lynch sets about clearly defining the ideology of progressive spirituality. This ideology is “a cluster of related ideas and values that recur with striking regularity” in the various media produced by the milieu (41). However, this ideology should not be understood as a spiritual worldview that is espoused universally by all those sympathetic to the wider progressive milieu. As mentioned above, Lynch’s methodology leans heavily towards a multi-media literature review (albeit supported by an amount of interview and ethnographic data), and he uses Antonio Gramsci to characterise the producers of these various media (books, magazines, articles, pamphlets, websites, etc.) as “‘organic intellectuals’ whose life and work is embedded within the social structures and relationships of the progressive milieu, and who represent its leading intellectual edge” (41). The resources thereby produced are used in a myriad of different ways for a multitude of different purposes, the exploration of which is beyond the scope of Lynch’s current publication (72).

Lynch presents the four key elements which characterise the religious ideology of progressive spirituality thus (43-65):

  • “a belief in the immanent divine unity which nurtures and sustains the unfolding cosmos;
  • “the sacralisation of nature;
  • “the sacralisation of the self;
  • “and a belief that these spiritual truths can be discerned within and beyond different religious traditions” (98).

This latter point revolves around an understanding of religion as historically and culturally contingent attempts to “approach the mystery of the divine presence – a mystery which ultimately defies definition” (60). However, while “no single tradition can claim to be the final, authoritative revelation of the divine” and are to be “treated as metaphorical ways of conceiving the divine [rather] than direct representations of the truth” (60), Lynch’s characterisation of progressive spirituality implies that it understands truth as correspondence and as accessible (albeit only in part), through a variety of religious practices. Lynch writes, “Progressive spirituality does resemble postmodernism in its celebration of different religious styles and traditions, rather than the pursuit of a unitary style that characterized some form of modernism, but in reality, progressive spirituality is much closer to modernism. Underlying the range of religious traditions that it welcomes, progressive spirituality sees a common essence of truth… It may be less optimistic about social and cultural progress than some earlier forms of modernism – but progress it seeks, nevertheless, towards a more spiritually grounded, sustainable and just society” (68). Hence the name, perhaps?

In relation to my PhD research, Lynch’s work touches on several interesting areas, as well as sparking thoughts about how I can present the ‘emerging church’ phenomenon to readers of my thesis. I’ll detail three particular areas of commonality between spiritual progressives and those involved in emerging Christian communities, before reflecting on the methods Lynch uses to introduce The New Spirituality of his title.

Firstly, Lynch recognises the central role which opposition plays in the development of collective identity among nascent movements. Progressive spirituality “distinguishes itself very clearly from certain other forms of religion and cultural ideology,” for example authoritarian religions and secularism, and “defining these opposing religious and ideological viewpoints plays an important role in giving shape and content to the identity of religious and spiritual progressives” (63). Constructions of ‘others’ by progressives (which is, as Lynch observes, “not to say that it has no external validity”) are vital in the process of community formation on ideological and practical levels. This construction of oppositional others is clear also among emerging Christian communities. Lynch’s description of religious progressives is helping me to think about how constructions of fundamentalist and modernist evangelicalism function for the ‘emerging church.’

Second, progressives’ views about social boundaries are also akin to positions taken by emerging Christian communities, particularly as these positions are articulated by the “organic intellectuals” of the ‘emerging church.’ Lynch writes, “By and large, progressive religious groups and networks are not interested in boundary issues of who does and does not properly belong to these groups or who does or does not fall within acceptable boundaries of ‘orthodoxy’ in progressive faith. Indeed the strong emphasis on tolerance and valuing of diversity amongst progressive groups, means that concerns with tightly maintained boundaries and group orthodoxy tend to be seen as the regressive and unhealthy obsessions of more traditional forms of religion” (42). The ideology which Lynch identifies with progressive spirituality is not, therefore, a ‘statement of faith’ which must be subscribed to by all progressives. Rather, the ideology is understood as a “potential basis for mutual identification, communication, and collaboration” (42). In much the same way, subscribing to more bullet points of ‘emerging church-ness’ does not make one more emerging, but rather enables broader and deeper levels of respect, dialogue, and support.

A third interesting point of comparison concerns another aspect of progressive identity. Lynch acknowledges that “collective identity within such movements is socially constructed, focused around overlapping and sometimes contradictory accounts of both the movement’s goals and methods, and the social and cultural environment in which it operates. This process of ongoing negotiation occurs not simply through explicit conversations about the movement’s identity, activities and context, but also takes place through the movements’ developing practices and rituals, and the way in which it produces and uses cultural artefacts. It is also a process that is embedded in a range of social relationships” (89-90). Crucially, then, identity formation is conducted within a range of contexts which produce both underlying cohesions and localised divergences. Lynch’s approach is thus able to take note of both these instrumental aspects of identity, and I am interested in what the “field of beliefs and aspirations” (90) might be within which individuals and groups negotiate what it means to be ‘emerging.’

A final point to be made about Lynch’s study of progressive belief relates to the method through which he introduces his readers to his subject. This “new spirituality” is first grounded within a particular religious milieu, the “progressive milieu,” and Lynch identifies the criteria through which individuals and communities can be confidently placed within this milieu. While allowing that this milieu might enable other types of religious ideology, progressive spirituality is then presented as the most prevalent spirituality within the progressive milieu, and its key characteristics are explored. The roles and practices of religious organisations and networks situated in the milieu are then likewise examined.

My attempts to accurately describe the ‘emerging church’ phenomenon to lay and academic readers, both familiar and unfamiliar to it, led me away from the language of ‘emerging church’ towards the more inclusive and plural phrase ‘emerging Christian communities.’ The realities of my fieldwork methodology then led me further to describe participants as ‘members and friends of emerging Christian communities.’ However, even this phrase is not entirely suitable. Firstly, the use of the word ‘members’ suggests an (over-)emphasis on boundaries which is not always present, and a differentiation between types of relationship (members and friends) could introduce social structures which may or may not be already apparent. Further, not all the individuals participating or communities represented understand themselves as ‘Christian.’ But over the last few days, Lynch’s approach to the progressive milieu and progressive spirituality has sparked further ideas about how to present my research subjects to readers.

Due to the similar nature of the two phenomena, Lynch’s approach can be mapped on to a study of emerging Christian communities without much modification. A relationship to the term ‘emerging church,’ however complicated, suggests that individuals and communities can be assigned to what I shall call the emerging church milieu. Inhabitancy of the emerging church milieu can accommodate a number of different understandings and usages of the phrase ‘emerging church,’ whilst simultaneously allowing me to dispense with speech marks!

I will then attempt to identify the defining features of the emerging church milieu, which will enable individuals, organisations, and networks to be placed within it without excluding the possibility of real differences amongst them. I will also examine the roots of the emerging church milieu, as well as the roles and practices of organisations, etc., within it. Through my exploration of the concept of truth among those involved in the emerging church milieu, I will then explore two potential (though not exhaustive) spiritualities within this milieu. Though I have yet to fix on names for them, you can guess from my thesis structure that I might call them Emergent Spirituality and A/theistic Spirituality.

This leads me to a criticism of Lynch’s approach, which lies solely with his choice of terminology. What Lynch describes in this book is one spiritual possibility for those in the progressive milieu, yet his assigning of the appellation ‘progressive’ to both the spirituality and the milieu implies a value judgement which is refused elsewhere in the book. It’s designation as a progressive spirituality suggests not only it’s prevalence in the milieu of the same name, but also it’s superiority and suitability over and above any other spiritual possibilities. The possible spiritualities which arise from the milieu should therefore be given different names from it, in order to avoid this confusion in an otherwise useful map for looking at contemporary spirituality.


Anonymous said...

I always enjoy reading your blog. This year as an experiment I plan to select and read/comment on 10 specific blogs consistently rather than the scattergun approach I have had up to now. There are so many good blogs that it is hard to choose from! You are one of my chosen 10 (arn't you lucky! I look foward to your blog this year!

The skeptic

Katharine Moody said...

Happy New Year! Thanks for the vote of confidence! I hope I don't buckle under the pressure!!! Any other New Year resolutions?

Katharine Moody said...

What are the other blogs you are focusing on this year?

Anonymous said...


Devils advocate time.

1. How can you be sure that the 30 or so participants in your study are a balanced representation of all the people involved in moot,ikon,grace,visions and in the 'emerging church milieu? Would it not be better to use agreed value statements from each groups websites for a more balanced view?

2. I'm fascinated to find out what parameters you are going to use to define the 'emerging church milieu' PS If a group is non-christian how can you use the word 'church' as part of its definition?

3. The Blackwell Companion to Postmodern theology edited by Van hoozer lists 6 different theological/philosphical approaches as 'contenders to the postmodern theological crown'. Sue Pattison 'Realist Theology in a Postmodern Age has 3 distinct approaches. I am not sure if just'weak' or RO theologies is too narrow a focus to analyse all the complexities of truth involved in your study.

You will find that the ECM has as many dogmatic 'orthodoxies' as any other group. If you support the conservatives or are fond of George Bush.......

Do you think Caputo is an organic intellectual?

A bit of a cheeky skeptic!

Katharine Moody said...

Great questions, thanks. Longest response EVER coming up:

1. I'm not trying to gain a picture of the whole of the emerging church milieu through my 30 participants. I'm not going to be generalising from their thoughts to a kind of 'general theory of truth in the emerging church' or even 'general theories.' From my position as a feminist researcher, I am very wary of generalisations and claims to representationality.

Although I will be presenting a slightly broader view of the emerging church milieu through my literature review, when it comes to my fieldwork, I am very conscious that the emerging church milieu is incredibly diverse, nascent, and evolving.

So when I talk about the emerging church milieu, I will necessarily have to paint a picture of it - but I will be doing this through emerging church publications and organisations and networks and, yes, the self-representations of groups (via Internet or other public materials).

But when I talk about truth in the emerging church milieu, I will be specifically talking about my participants' understandings of truth. And these participants, although forming quite a wide spectrum (which I'll go into in another post some day), in no way are representational. I mean there was no way I was either going to be able to be exhaustive in my data collection, or realistically representational. So for both practical and theoretical reasons, my methodology isn't an attempt to be either.

2. In terms of how I'm going to define the boundaries of the emerging church milieu, this is something that I am going to give increased attention to as I develop the notion of an emerging church milieu.

For now, when I talk about literature from the emerging church milieu (books, magazines, websites, leaflets, blogs, podcasts, etc.) I'm talking about resources which are produced by and for that milieu. Books published in the EmergentYS series is an obvious example, but I'm going to include literature which specifically identifies itself as for / from / by (etc) emerging churches, or churches in emerging culture, or postmodern churches, or churches in postmodernity, etc.

These books are firmly within the emerging church milieu by self-identification, and the same can be said of communities, organisations, and networks.

However, there are other resources (books, organisations, etc) and communities who I include in the emerging church milieu because they are identified by those in the emerging church milieu as important for the milieu.

At the moment I've got books on the mind as books in the emerging church milieu was what I woke up this morning thinking I'd blog about, so something like Jack Caputo's The Weakness of God, while not in the emerging church milieu to the extent that, for example, Brian McLaren's Generous Orthodoxy or Steve Taylor's The Out of Bounds Church or Doug Pagitt and Tony Jones' Emergent Manifesto are, is an important resource for many within the milieu.

Other books are cross overs between them. For example, many of Caputo's readers may have come to him through Pete Rollins - who acts as a kind of signpost between those in the emerging church milieu and the world of deconstructive theology.

Other examples might be books on the science of emergence, for which Kester Brewin's The Complex Christ might be the signpost, or bridge between the emerging church milieu and the world of emerging sciences.

In terms of communities, Ikon is a great example. While it does not consider itself to be an emerging church, and many of the people I interviewed did not consider it to be a church at all or themselves to be Christians, I include it in the emerging church milieu because it is an important community for that milieu and plays an important role. Others within the milieu are informed, inspired, etc, by Ikon.

Likewise, in terms of participants: many are involved in emerging churches such as Dream, Foundation, Vaux or Visions. Others are involved in the emerging church milieu through the blogosphere, but do not participate regularly in a particular emerging church. Others are firmly placed within mainstream denominations but read literature from the emerging church milieu. So there are lots of different ways people can be involved in the milieu, without necessarily being a 'member' of an emerging church.

3. I've got Graham Ward's Blackwell Companion, as well as the Cambridge Companion edited by Kevin Vanhozer. Both are very good.

As I hope will become clearer as I talk more about the emerging church milieu, there is not ONE theology, ONE philosophy, or ONE anything for this diverse milieu. That's why I want to talk about a milieu instead of a single fixed entity that is the emerging church.

So, whilst I will eventually draw out two spiritualities (a/theistic spirituality and what I'm calling for now emergent spirituality) there are many more spiritual options for those involved in the emerging church milieu.

So I'm not saying that the existence of strands of weak theology or what I'm calling a generous radical orthodoxy (because RO is in need of a lot of modification if it is to be of use for my participants in the emerging church milieu) exclude the existence of other strands, including as you say the theological possibilities identified by Vanhoozer's edited collection: Anglo-American theologies, Postliberal theologies, Postmetaphysical theologies, Deconstructive theologies, Reconstructive theologies, Feminist theologies, or Radical Orthodoxy.

It's also important to note that while these labels can be used in the singular, in reality there is never only one example of them. Within each theological category there are many theologies.

I also have no doubt that there are tacit or acknowledged orthodoxies at work within the emerging church milieu. I will be identifying the features (beyond use of the term emerging church) which enable individuals, groups, networks, and organisations to be placed within the milieu. I'm going to write another post on how I'm going to use the idea of an emerging church milieu soon, I promise.

Finally, as for Caputo as an organic intellectual... maybe it's clearer from what I've said about literature within the emerging church milieu, that, no, I don't think Caputo is an 'organic intellectual' of the emerging church milieu.

However, Pete Rollins definitely is an 'organic intellectual,' whose "life and work is embedded within the social structures and relationships of the [emerging church] milieu, and who represent[s part of its] leaing intellectual edge" (Lynch 2007:41). And both Pete and Ikon are the catalysts for many participants' ventures into deconstructive theology and philosophy, and Caputo in particular.

Anonymous said...

Hello katherine,

Thanks for your response. It will be interesting to see how you describe the ECM and the content of your emergent/atheistic spitituality definitions.

perhaps you will post a potted summary of these in the future?


Katharine Moody said...

Will certainly blog more about this when I've thought it through a bit more. Your questions so far have been really useful to help me bake these ideas a little more!!!