Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Emerging Church Road to Rome? The Foundations of Scripture and Tradition in Modern Theology

Okay, so I thought I was going to post about Roger Oakland’s history of the emerging church next. However, after finishing his book yesterday (2007, Faith Undone) I just had to comment on the anti-Roman Catholicism running throughout. Such sentiments got me thinking about the position of Scripture and tradition in modern (and therefore postmodern) theology, so I’ll also be reflecting on the other two books that I’m reading at the moment: the (2007) A New Kind of Conversation: Blogging Toward a Postmodern Faith edited by Myron Penner & Hunter Barnes, and Nancey Murphy’s (1996) Beyond Liberalism & Fundamentalism: How Modern and Postmodern Philosophy Set the Theological Agenda.

First up: Faith Undone. Oakland’s book is a presentation of the “belief system” underlying the emerging church (19), a belief system which he at first refers to as “emerging spirituality” but as the book unfolds he increasingly prefers the language of “contemplative spirituality” and “mysticism.” His work does suffer from not setting out this agenda in his introduction, as he claims at its conclusion to have “tried to document in this book how the emerging church bridges Christianity and this ‘new spirituality’” (222) whilst throughout conflating the emerging church and with the new spirituality of New Age mysticism. I’ll refrain from outright saying that this conflation is intentional and integral to his agenda, but, as you can see, I have no problem with inferring this. Having just read Gordon Lynch’s (2007) The New Spirituality, which is a much better analysis of the underlying spirituality of what many might refer to as New Ageism, there are clear differences between what Lynch describes as progressive spirituality and the spiritualities of the emerging church milieu – an analysis of which will form a part of my thesis.

The bridge Oakland portrays is not even accurately referred to as that between Christianity and new spirituality. Rather, he is keen to demonstrate that the emerging church bridges biblical Christianity (evangelicalism) and several “unbiblical” Christian traditions and other world religions, including New Ageism (97), eastern religious traditions (89), and Catholicism (79). Referring to the Catholic Church, he writes that “The emerging church is one of the more significant bridges that has been established to bring the separated brethren back to the Mother of All Churches” (130).

To take an example, Oakland writes that “many well-known Christian leaders and teachers who promote the emerging church are now advocating the Catholic view of the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist” (133). I have not researched understandings of the Eucharist within the emerging church milieu, but the evidence Oakland provides his readers does not support this claim. Despite an increasing emerging church focus upon “traditional” liturgy, which has been historically visible among many Protestants – for example, High Church Anglicans – as well as Catholics (a point Oakland forgets on p.139), transubstantiation is not mentioned explicitly and cannot be inferred merely from the authors and speakers Oakland quotes. As he himself recognises, the examples refer to “rituals associated with the Eucharist” (134) – for instance, the applying of ashes to the forehead, the signing of the cross, etc – but they are not necessarily supportive of the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. Where one author, Robert Webber, does experience a Catholic Mass (in the context of an ecumenical weekend retreat) he writes, “I had taken into myself the experience of another tradition, I had been in dialogue with another worship tradition, and I was surely the richer for it” (cited 138). Webber does not say “I had taken into myself the real body and blood of Jesus Christ.”

Throughout Faith Undone, Oakland is at pains to inform his readers that the aspects of the emerging church which he focuses upon – primarily contextualisation, certain liturgies and rituals, mystical experiences of God, a “Kingdom Now” theology, and a rejection of substitutionary atonement – are not found in the Bible. Repeated phrases such as “…cannot be found in the Bible” (64), “there is no evidence in the Bible that…” (67), “…unbiblical practices supported by Rome” (69), “foreign to Scripture” (83), “Nowhere in the Bible is there any precedent for this…” (183), “Nowhere in Scripture…” (99), “the Bible is not the source” (102) and “post-New Testament extra-biblical revelation” (73) hammer the message home to readers that “I have searched the Scripture. [insert an element that Oakland equates with the emerging church] just isn’t there!” (118). That these practices and theologies “can be found in church tradition” (60) is used, however, to denounce them, especially since, we are reminded, “the church fathers are the fathers of the Catholic Church” (74). “Why,” Oakland asks, “not just stay with Scripture in order to remain in the truth?” (73)

Oakland’s anti-Roman Catholicism has made me think about the positions given to Scripture and tradition within modern Christianity and modern theology, and what might be happening to these positions today.

Nancey Murphy argues that modern philosophy has given modern Christianity “only two viable strategies” (x), creating the distinctly liberal and distinctly conservative theologies of the contemporary Christian landscape. The shift towards what Murphy label “Anglo-American postmodernism” offers an opportunity for future theology, in which “there will be no intellectual compulsion to bifurcate the spectrum [from liberal to conservative] into two discrete camps” (3). Setting aside this part of her argument for another post, and for when I’ve finished the book (!), in reference to the justification of theological claims, the modern philosophical theory of knowledge – foundationalism – led to two possibile foundations for modern theology: Scripture or experience. “Conservatives have chosen Scripture; liberals, characteristically, have chosen experience” (2). For conservatives, this choice requires a bibliology (doctrine of Scripture – a word I learnt from A New Kind of Conversation) which includes the inerrancy of Scripture:

“if Scripture is to provide an indubitable foundation for theological construction, then all of its teachings must be free from error, lest the theologian make erroneous judgements in distinguishing true teachings from false ones or essential teachings from incidental cultural assumptions” (17).

For liberals, this choice requires a general anthropology which includes the possibility for all human beings to experience God, not just Christians (22-23):

“the scriptural claim that Christian self-understanding expresses an understanding of authentic human existence is to be tested against the criterion of adequacy to common human experience” (25).

Neither conservative nor liberals entirely divulge their theologies of either path, however each tends to privilege one over the other.

Murphy’s distinction is articulated in somewhat altered language in the multimedia project which produced a book of the blog Here, the dualism of Scripture or experience is expressed, as in Oakland’s work, as Scripture or tradition, which can be understood as collective experiences of Christians throughout time and space, history and geography. In responding to the observable suspicion or rejection of church history by evangelicals, Bruce Ellis Benson writes of the Protestant Reformation’s tenet of sola scriptura and its relationship to church tradition:

Sola scriptura is taken to be the denunciation of the Roman Catholic magisterium as the true interpreter of Scripture, but not the denunciation of tradition as having an important effect upon interpretation” (68)

This position sparked a conversation among bloggers and commenters concerning the nature of epistemic foundations in postfoundationalist theologies, a conversation integral to my research in which many participants do talk of foundations for their “ordinary theologies” and “ordinary philosophies.” These foundations are, however, not based on rationalism. There are still profoundly important reasons for these foundations, however. In this sense, their postfoundationalism is a move beyond foundationalism, not beyond foundations themselves; their foundations are their beliefs, and this necessitates a whole other conversation about the nature of belief – which has itself shifted dramatically since one dictionary's definition of belief as “the feeling of certainty that something exists or is true.”


Anonymous said...

Oalkands writings seem to be crude, ill-informed and the product of a closed mind. The continual assertion 'they are not in the bible' shows just how shallow his appreciation of the nuances of the issues appear to be.


Anonymous said...

The dynamic interplay of ways of knowing/unknowning God contained in apophatic theology( both have a profound effect on Marion/Derrida)are to me a far richer ways of pondering the nature of religious truth within the EC as there is the room for holding opposite truths in paradox, tension and ambivalence What about symbolic,metaphorical and mythical/poetic appreciation of truth as they relate to the EC?

Stuart Murray is a perceptive evangelical who comments on the EC in the UK in his Church after Christendom book at a practical level.

I live in NI so it would be interesting if you posted on this in the future?


Anonymous said...

I meant you might post on the cultural differences you mentioned in your previous comments (not the fact that I live in NI) !!


Katharine Moody said...

I'm going to be focusing on the post-conflict Northern Ireland context in detail in a section of my Conclusions on the importance of the contexts from which emerging church understandings of truth... emerge. I'll post again about this, don't worry!