Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Theologically Speaking

Here in Lichfield, I go to a local parish church called St. Michael's. It has a great vicar who takes the piss out of everyone, and a stained glass window that I love which has Mary Magdalene in it and the jewels in her hair make her look like she's got pixie ears. (I'll try to remember to take a picture to put here soon.) St. Michael's runs a monthly theological discussion group that I've been part of since we moved here called "Theologically Speaking." The speed with which the group normally moves to issues of doubt and unknowing is always exhilarating - totally blowing away any preconceptions I had held about what this little group of Anglicans would be like. St. Michael's has a few characters that revel in referring to themselves as faithful heretics and it has been fantastic to chat to these guys.

Anyway, Theologically Speaking asked me to do a session on my research. It was titled "A/theism and the Future of the Church," and you can download a copy of the handout I did here.

I started by framing my project in terms of my research questions: How is truth conceptualized in the emerging church milieu? and What are the philosophical, theological and ethical implications of such notions of truth? I (incredibly briefly and necessarily unsatisfactorily) introduced the emerging church milieu as a global network of individuals and communities, connected by the Internet, concerned to live Christ-like lives today.

I began by showing how philosophy has begun to level the playing field for religious belief in the public sphere and introduced notions like post-foundationalism and post-secularism. Here are some of the quotations from participants that I used to give them a flavour of how these notions are held by those involved in the emerging church milieu:

"Everyone has a faith commitment... I'm not saying [everyone's] got a religious commitment, but [they've] got certain assumptis which are not based on reason."

"We're all fundamentalists of one sense or another."

"[Faith] is a foundation of sorts, but it's a post-foundational foundationalism, it's a foundation in the sky, because as soon as you try to analyse it, it disappears."

Here, I've written up the notes I was talking from:

While exposing the myth of the secular levels the playing field for religion to reassert itself in the public sphere (for example, Radical Orthodoxy's unapologetical declaring of secular models of structuring society to be heretical parodies of Christian models), we can go further than this: towards a/theism.

The limitations of human knowledge lead many participants towards an affinity with Derridean deconstruction and Capution deconstructive theology. For example,

"we don't know the number of hairs on God's head, God knows the number of hairs on our head... [The nature of human knowledge] actually creates doubt not just about who or what God is, it creates doubt about if God is. But in the same way that we can celebrate we're not sure exactly who God is, I think we can actually celebrate going, 'and sometimes I don't know even if God is'."

"God changed me, but I'm not sure he exists."

Because we can't know whether we are theists or atheists (in the final analysis) or whether God exists or not, many participants believe that we have to learn to live on the slash of uncertainty between these states. This uncertainty leads to conceiving God differently, other than a being or entity, and instead as an event:

"God spoke to me, repeating four simple words, 'I do not exist.' 'I do not exist'? What could this possibly mean? One thing for sure was that this was not a simply atheism, for it was God who was claiming God's non-existence. In that wasteland I was confronted with something different, I was confronted with the erasure of God by none other than God. I was confronted with the idea that, while God may not be something, that did not imply that God was nothing... And so I began to wonder if it was possible to think of God otherwise than being and nothing, to think of God as speaking, as happening, as an event, as life but not as an object." ('I do not exist,' The God Delusion, ikon, Belfast)

But this uncertainty about whether or not God exists (as an entity) does not lead to a lack of meaning, a lack of ethical principles and apolitical paralysis (as so many criticisms of postmodern thought have contested). Instead, "God" names something (we don't know what) that calls to us, promises a different reality "to come," transforms us and inspires us to make that reality happen. Therefore, it is closely linked to political and social action, particularly notions of justice, hospitality, forgiveness and love.

To explain a bit further, Derrida distingshes between the "messianic" (the inexplicable hope of something "to come" built into us all) and "messianisms" (the concrete systems built around a particular Messiah, e.g. Christianity). What is "to come" is a future we cannot prepare for, because no horizon of expectation (e.g. "kingdom of God") will dull the shocking impact of its arrival. Its coming might even destablise our notions of "kingdom of God." For Derrida, the "messianic structure" (the hope of something "to come") is more important than the particular "messianisms." In fact, "messianisms" need to be kept open to the in-coming of the event, the call, in order to prevent them from being closed over to the work of responding to that call (this is where deconstruction "comes in"!).

"Tearing apart what I love is evidence that I love it" ("Unravelling," The God Delusion, ikon, Belfast)

Jack Caputo talks of both "historical association" (within particular determinate traditions) and "messianic disassociation" (acts of Christians and of Christianity itself which keep them/it open to the incoming of the other, and able - hopefully, because we can't know! - to responding to the other). The Christian tradition is auto-deconstructive. There are fissures and cracks that keep it open to its true calling, that stop it from closing over and shutting down to its vocation to respond to the call (of God? of justice? of love? of peace? Again, we don't know; but we can believe).

There is an element of uncertainty built into creation such that the call can go unheeded, the promise unfulfilled. But we can also be transformed by the call, turned around (metanoia), reversed, convrted, changed. As Caputo has written, we have to "make good" on God's "good" in the Creation narrative, which means acting to bring about what we believe is "to come," even though our idea of it (e.g. kingdom of God, love, justice, peace) might be radically revised in the event of its coming, which might never be.

So even though we don't know the end of the story (does God exist? will the kingdom come? are theists or atheists ultimately right?) we have to step out in faith and respond to what has called us (even though we don't know what it is, even though we name it differently, and disagree about what it is and even that it is).

To recap, the origin of the call is ultimately unknown and unknowable. We all name it differently (God, love, justice, the good, peace...). But we are called by it to help bring it about, not to squabble over what to call it, whether it exists, or who is/isn't included in its call. Caputo writes, “It is not what we call God that is at issue, but what God calls. Then again, it is not what God calls that is at issue, but the response.” (John D. Caputo, The Weakness of God, p.97).

In my thesis, however, I'm particularly interested in how we get from this a/theology to something with practical viability for communities. More quotations from participants signals how they are trying to create communal spaces in which divisions between types of belief are being resisted and blurred.

"dividing people between sheep and goats, that's not what we're about. We're not trying to divide people, we're trying to bring people together."

"Can we hold both views? Can we create a space where both views can be held?"

I'm using the notion of A/theistic Orthodoxy to look at how such spaces might be created. Important here is a different notion of orthodoxy:

"Instead of following the Greek-influenced idea of orthodoxy as right belief,... the emerging community is helping us to rediscover the more Hebraic and mystical notion of the orthodox Christian as one who believes in the right way - that is, believing in a loving, sacrificial and Christ-like manner... Thus orthodoxy is no longer (mis)understood as the opposite of heresy but rather is understood as a term that signals a way of being in the world rather than a means of believing things about the world" (Pete Rollins, How (Not) To Speak of God, pp.2-3).

Here, "church" or community is a space in which divergent beliefs can be held, e.g. whether or not the virgin birth was a historical event, whether Jesus is the Son of God, whether or not God exists as an entity external to us. Many participants talk about beliefs being held "lightly" so that they remain open to the incoming of an event that may radically revise them. Instead of rigid dogmatism, beliefs are held in a "loving, sacrificial, Christ-like manner."

"I think we need to hold our beliefs lightly."

"I tend to draw the line if somebody wants to hold their religion to the point of brow beating or condemning others because they don't do it their way."

"I don't particularly have a problem with people who sort of feel certain, you know. As long as their certainty doesn't then exclude others."

I ended with some questions for discussion:

  • What do you think the implications of a/theism might be for the future?
  • Do you think that suspending final conclusions about the origin(s) of this call and the name(s) which we give it will facilitate a collaborative response to it?
  • Do you think that the notion of "a/theistic orthodoxy" will enable collaboration between denominations, across religons, and with people of "no religoin" for a better future?

It was a really useful exercise to try and introduce some of these ideas to people unfamiliar with either the emerging church conversation or deconstructive theology, and helped me to solidify my thinking in some of these areas. It was great to see everyone interested and engaging with these ideas, and fantastic to see some people so energized about it. The discussion questions ellicited the view that dogmatism will remain a barrier but that collaboration between "progressive" elements (within denominations, across religions and with "atheists") has been possible and will continue to be. The group found the notion of a/theistic orthodoxy to be an exciting way of articulating these developments towards collaboration regardless of differences.

I was asked to do a follow-up session focusing more on a/theism and Derrida's confession that 'I quite rightly pass for an atheist,' which I'll blog about some time next month.


Anonymous said...

hello Katherine

I would argue that the great majority of groups/movements/churches which have been influenced by the emerging church ideas have little or no web or literature profile and so remain 'under the radar' from religious media exposure in Northern Ireland - I can only speak of my local context. I wonder if you can you generalise about theories of truth within the ECM.


Anonymous said...


i wonder if you could do a post of what definitions of emerging church you use to map its contours in the UK given that it is such a contested term which has little or no consensus in the theological community...a challenge!


Katharine Moody said...

Hi Rodney,

Thanks for commenting again. It's good to hear from you.

Regarding your first point about being influenced by emerging church ideas, I think that you're underestimating the extent to which those influenced by ec ideas usually have some form of web presence (as this is a major way of accessing emerging church related information / ideas / practices). I agree that only those with the financial and social capital to produce literature can be seen 'above the radar,' but it is now so easy to be visible online that I wouldn't say that many of those influenced by the emerging church are invisible, as you suggest.

Many of the emerging church studies that I have analysed suffer from reducing their methods of data collection to only published material (most ec critics do this), or to interviews with leading figures (such as Gibbs and Bolger's book, in which the data is heavily weighted to emerging church "leaders" or published individuals), or focuses upon the public personas of communities (by, for example, studying website content). All these research methodologies leave out the "ordinary" person - the person who is not published, is not a leader, and is not represented online. Through my multi-methodology I've tried to contact as many different "layers" of people as possible: leaders, authors, members of communities, friends of communities, bloggers, etc. I've tried to widen my data collection to more than "the usual suspects."

However, I'm definitely not trying to generalise from the people I interviewed to the emerging church milieu as a whole. I've never said that that is what I'm trying to do. I'm just using the voices of a handful of people to explore how truth is understood in the context of the milieu - without saying that these are the only ways of thinking about truth that exist in that milieu. Do you see what I mean?

In terms of how I am characterizing the emerging church milieu, I've blogged a little about this before, and will write about it more when I am nearer to finishing that particular chapter of my thesis. Here's the URL for a post I did (entitled "Emerging Church" as a Barrer to Participation in (Resistant) Social Movement?")-

There, I talk more about the six ideological commitments that I see as familial resemblances between the individuals, communities, networks and organisations within the emerging church milieu. By using familial resemblances, I can characterize the milieu (to show that there is some coherence to it as a phenomenon) but demonstrate where there are divergences (in terms of how each commitment is understood and manifest).

It'd be great if you'd let me know what you think of the resemblances when you've looked at that post? You make a comment there about "the emerging church" being a media creation and I would definitely agree with that to some extent. But see my comments about that on the same post ("Emerging Church" as a Barrier to Participation...).

Hope that answers some of your questions/worries, but I'll definitely be posting more about how I will be presenting the emerging church milieu to my thesis readers, so keep an eye out.

Love Katharine x

Anonymous said...


there are numerous ways of being influenced by emerging church ideas apart from the web - networking, social interaction, visiting speakers at churches being part of a church or fellowship. My church called North Down CFC (about 200 members)has been heavily influenced by the Missio Dei theology/practice due to the leading of its main team leader (there are only a handful who would read about EC ideas). Many Protestants are attending retreats learning about ancient/future practices.....I could go on listing at least 20 groups/movements.

i read your 6 ideological points which are of limited value - surely the whole Missio Dei theology and practice would feature somewhere? all churches in NI engage in political/social activism and there is always ongoing experimentation of some type.

i think your personal attraction to religion without religion theology has made you greatly overemphasise its significance and influence due to your interpretative bias. i can only speak of my personal experience in Ni. My own church has had a constant engagement with EC ideas over 6 years which never get mentioned on the net yet it is far bigger than any experimental collectives in the UK!

The Sea of faith/non-theistic liberalism has covered all this religion this territory before - there is nothing new under the sun.

The EC scene in the UK with a high web exposure is splintering due to personality clashes, questions about the personal integrity of some of its leaders theological squabbling and different visions - you only find out the real nature of this in private conversations not mentioned on the web.

Sorry for the blunt terse language and ranting tones....I should have kept to my vow not to read any EC blogs anymore!


Anonymous said...


I am sorry for the ranting language - I could have made the points in much more reasonable language. All the best with your thesis


Katharine Moody said...

Hi again Rodney,

Sorry for the delay in replying, I was at my Mum's for the weekend. Anyway...

I don't deny that notions that circulate within the emerging church milieu are influencing other groups of Christians, nor that they can be accessed in a number of ways (you mention networking and other social interactions, and of course there is conventional publishing as well as online stuff). However, I'm restricting my exploration of truth to 1) the emerging church milieu, which as you notice can be characterized in a number of ways, to include/exclude a lot of different people; and to 2) those within the emerging church milieu that are most keen to engage contemporary culture (postmodernity, late modernity, liquid modernity - however it might be understood) and those that are influenced by postmodern thought. This is because my focus is on how the notion of truth is understood within the emerging church milieu and contact with cultural trends like pluralism and philosophical trends act as the most acute "challenge" to how truth is understood.

You mention Missio Dei theology/practice, which I would class as both a part of the radicalization of Christian theology and of an emphasis on social activism - so it is not that this theology/practice doesn't feature at all, as you suggest. Rather, it is a part of at least two familial resemblances.

Of course, as you also say, many communities are engaged in these theologies or, for example, political/social activism, which you particularly talk about in the context of Northern Ireland. However, I don't say at all that the only communities/individuals/networks/organizations that are engaged in activism are emerging churches. That's not at all what I'm saying. Neither am I saying that all communities/individuals/networks/organizations that are interested in ancient/future practices are emerging churches. Rather, these familial resemblances overlap with other Christian (and non-Christian)milieus. I believe I've always said that. That's why I want to talk about an emerging church MILIEU rather than about such things as "emerging churches" per se - as easily identifiable entities, which they are not.

Also, I will be writing more about the NATURE of the activism or the NATURE of the ancient-future practices or the NATURE of the theology that occurs within the emerging church milieu. Obviously this is not to deny that activism/ancient-future/theology occurs elsewhere. That would be impossible (and ridiculous) to suggest and defend.

I hope that it is becoming clearer that I am not interested in constructing such an entity as an "emerging church" per se, so that I can compare "real life" communities against it to judge their "emerging church"-ness. No doubt your church has many areas of overlap with the emerging church milieu. No doubt there are many other communities which overlap as well. This speaks to the prevalence of emerging church ideas beyond the milieu - a milieu whose boundaries cannot be constructed in such a way as to definitively exclude any community - such as your own church.

I realise that your church community may well be larger (you say "far bigger") than UK experimental collectives - by which I assume you mean collectives more along the lines of "religion without religion" as this observation occurs in the same paragraph. However, as I'm not interested in generalising from my research to the global emerging churh milieu in generall (or the UK emerging church milieu, for that matter) it doesn't matter that the "religion without religion" concepts I identify are not numerically significant - whatever might be meant by that!!!

Also, I think there are some important differences between the Sea of Faith / non-theistic liberalism and "religion without religion." Of particular importance is that "religion without religion" attempts to keep alive the tension between certainty and uncertainty about the "realism" of God. The Sea of Faith (admitted I haven't done much work on this yet) are too atheistic, I believe. I think the slash of undecidability in the a/theism of "religion without religion" prevents it from being as certain (about the non-realism of God) as Don Cupitt is, for example.

Finally, could you tell me a bit more about the splintering effect that you see occurring? It is something that has not arisen from my interview data, although granted that data is now a few years old!!! I find it surprising. So could you tell me a bit more about it? You can email me privately if you like?

I'm really glad that you bring up these questions and comments. It really does help me think about things and try to make myself clearer. I also appreciate that it must be a very emotional topic of conversation for you and am glad that you feel you can comment about it here.

Anonymous said...

Hello Katherine:

The word 'emerging church' as used by blogs/literature/people in conversation is a contested term (with has a great variety of overlapping but frequently incompatible definitions).It creates endless conversations where people talk past each other because of a lack of a clearcut shared meaning of what the term actually means - emerging,emergent,emergence church etc.

You talk about an emerging church 'milieu' - I have adopted this term on your site in order to talk to you but I confess that I do not understand the term in the way you use it.....we seem to talk past each other. To me the 6 'familial' resemblances are common to most churches/movements/groups. You talk about people/chuches/groups notions of truth 'within the emerging church milieu' - I do not know who these people/groups/movements are.

Part of my disillusionment relates to the splintering/personality cult/integrity issues within the emerging church leaders and movement in the UK/US ...this is alluded to but not openly mentioned on the web. I can only talk in general terms due to the private nature of these conversations.

I realise just how imperfect a medium comments sections are for communicating and exchanging views...

all the best


Anonymous said...

Hello Katherine

Your religion without religion viv a viv sea pf faith is a fair and valid one - we can at least agree on that! Thanks for taking the time/effort to respond!!


Katharine Moody said...

Hi Rodney,

I'll try to post more about how I'm characterizing the emerging church milieu in a bit. But I'm having to move on to other elements of my thesis at the moment, so it might not be for a while. I know the term is contested - which is why I will be using my own construction (what I'm calling the emerging church milieu) rather than anything already "out there" coming from ec blogs/books/leaders/critics. There is such a dearth of social scientific analysis of the milieu that I hope to address through my thesis; but "what is the emerging church?" is not my main research question. I have to characterize the emerging church in some way in order to provide my readers with an idea of the context in which I am asking my research questions, so I have to answer "what is the emerging church?" but it is not my main focus.

Feel free to email me about anything if you think that would help? k(dot)moody(at)lancaster(dot)ac(dot)uk