Friday, December 12, 2008

The Emerging Church, Deconstruction and Jamie Smith's "catholic Postmodernism"

Peter Schuurman's chapter in DeRoo and Lightbody's The Logic of Incarnation: James K.A. Smith's Critique of Postmodern Religion, "Deconstructing Institutions: Derrida and the 'Emerging Church'," identifies the 'shared values' between the emerging church and deconstruction, before using Smith's critique (basically, postmodern religion is not postmodern enough, i.e. still bound to the modern trend of autonomous individualization) to propose a three-fold division in the emerging church milieu.

Describing Jacques Derrida as a 'rock star' for the emerging church (p.112), but noting that some within this milieu use the language of deconstruction without reference to it as an academic thesis or misunderstand the 'radical nature of the Derridean project' (p.113), Schuurman presents what he see as four 'significant shared values' between the emerging church and deconstruction:

1. INTERPRETATION. Multiple readings 'challenge the idea that faith is certainty, without doubts or misreadings,' therefore also opening up 'room for questioning the church and theology' (p.114). This leads to playful and experimental reinterpretations of texts and doctrines, and friendly relationships between denominations and with other religions.

2. LOVE AND JUSTICE. Readings and performances of texts, doctrines and practices with an eye for the other are acts of love and justice, which facilitates a shift which Schuurman characterizes thus: 'now it is not important (or even possible) to "get the right reading" as it is to "read in a just and loving way",' which lays the ground for co-existence and collaboration (pp.114-115).

3. MESSIANISM. Schuurman writes that, 'no reading does justice to all, and no reading ever will. The perfect interpretation, the "right reading", the truly hospitable cultural construction is always "to come" – just like the Hebrew messiah' (p.115). However, rather conservatively, he links this notion of the "to-come" to the choice of the language of emergence: the 'emergent crowd' are 'emerging - a work in process - a church that is not a church but is rather a church "to come".' (p.115). In my thesis I'm exploring several more interesting, more radical examples of "messianic structures" within the emerging church milieu. (More on that to come as I write up over the next few months, I'm sure).

4. LIBERATION FROM THE DETERMINATE. Smith's chapter in DeRoo and Lightbody's collection, which I blogged about here, distinguished between the logics of determination and incarnation. Schuurman follows Smith's characterization of Derridean deconstruction (and Caputian deconstructive theology) as seeking to 'live in the dynamic between the readings rather than in any determinate reading' (p.115). I'll blog more about why I am dubious about Smith's portrayal of deconstructive theology as following a logic of determination as I continue to write up my thoughts, but for now my gut reaction to it is that it reads Caputo as more indeterminate than I believe he is being. Caputo speaks of the tension of BOTH existing IN (rather than moving over or passing through as Mark C. Taylor might write) historical associations (i.e. particular DETERMINATE religious traditions) AND engaging in messianic disassociations. This tension affirms singularity and particularity whilst at the same time trying to resist the temptation to privilege Christian particularity.

Schuurman's acceptance of Smith's characterization of deconstructive theology as fearful of determinancy leads him to construct a three-fold typology of emerging churches based on their relationship to the particularity of the Christian religious tradition.

Firstly, Schuurman identifies the 'discontinuous emergent church.' Here, participants 'shy away from creeds and confessions, and posit a radical discontinuity between themselves and the church that has gone on before' (pp115-116). Here, there is 'freedom from restraint, particularity, tradition,' or 'freedom as autonomy' (p.116), thus sharing with Derrida a flight from the determinate towards the indeterminate. However, my thesis is going to demonstrate that even those most closely aligned with Derridean and Caputian thought are not as discontinuous (or, in the language of sociologists of religion, post-traditionalized) as Schuurman makes out here. They are, after all, as I have mentioned above, engaged in both a historical association with the Christian tradition and a messianic disassociation from it in order to keep it open to the incoming of the other.

Secondly, those within the emerging church milieu that seek a 'return to the ancient Christian tradition' are classified as the 'ancient-future emergent church.' However, Schuurman warns against this grouping's tendency to privilege eclecticism thereby baptizing another form of autonomy in relation to tradition, one based upon postmodern consumerism (pp.116-117).

Therefore, Schuurman reiterates Smith's advocacy of a 'more persistent or proper postmodernism that takes us beyond the desire for autonomy and into a community of thought and practice that stretches through time and space, in other words, a particular embodied tradition and its institutions' (p.117). Those within the emerging church milieu that exhibit this submission to 'the “catholic” Christian faith of creeds and confessional Trinitarian dogma, the sacraments, and even hierarchy' are referred to as the 'catholic emergent churches (small "c").' In contrast to the freedom-from-restraint type of autonomy extant in the other types of emerging church, here there is 'a freedom that comes when one is empowered by deep commitments and covenants, by submission to authority and mutual accountability' (p.118).

Schuurman ends by asking, 'How can we nurture a commitment and authenticity that is neither an extension of the rule of taste nor a retrenchment in embattled fundamentalist certainty?' (p.118). But the underlying assumption of this question (and of Schuurman's critique of the deconstructive elements within the emerging church milieu) is that the entire milieu operates with an understanding of truth that is an accommodation to 'the rule of taste.' Part of my thesis contends that, far from being "whatever works for me," truth in the emerging church milieu more often takes the form of "what transforms," what turns me from myself to others.

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