Saturday, December 08, 2007
Another Friendly Atheist Post
I should have mentioned this sooner, but I put another post up at Friendly Atheist the other day regarding an excellent set of articles by Brian McLaren over at the political site TPM Cafe.

Brian's articles are:
Christianity as a Global Threat
Finding Common Ground
Faith in the Public Square, Part 1
A Speech that was Never Heard
Faith in the Public Sphere, Part 2

You can find my commentary and some excellent discussion in the comments at Hemant's blog. The conversation is still continuing, so feel free to join in.

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posted by Mike Clawson at 10:39 PM | Permalink |


4 Comments:


At 12/10/2007 04:33:00 PM, Anonymous Karl

You handle yourself well in that dialogue, Mike.

One thing that struck me as I read the back and forth has to do with emergent's relationship to, and perception by, non-emergent evangelicals, even those who share many social concerns in common with the emerging church.

My impression is that most Emerging folks tend to be specific and pointed when discussing where they disagree with conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists. Yet they tend to be more vague when discussing where they disagree with just about anyone else, be it liberal mainliners like Spong (I kept waiting for you to respond to the person who cited Spong several times but didn't see it if you did), or members of other faiths, or communists, or atheists, or whomever - people with whom most of them really do have some fairly fundamental disagreements which have implications just as far-reaching as their disagreements with conservative evangelicals.

I know the point of your being on the friendly atheist is to gain understanding and promote/practice civility, not highlight differences. And you articulated very well some specific disagreements in the comments thread. So this is not a critique of your conduct in that thread so much as it's a thought about the emerging church that occurred to me while reading the thread overall. Emergents in general seem much more ready to speak out against conservative Christianity in specific ways, than against just about anything else. And not just speak out against actions or attitudes, but also to clearly to take a stand vis a vis the content of the beliefs of conservative X'ianity - "I don't believe that!!!" You don't have to look long at all to find an emerger saying "Falwell/Dobson/Robertson believes X but I sure don't and in fact I think it's Biblically incorrect and dangerous and displeasing to God and here's why." But it's a lot harder to find any of them saying with equal specificity and urgency "Spong believes Y but I sure don't and in fact I think it's Biblically incorrect and dangerous and displeasing to God and here's why."

Are emergents more united in their dislike of conservative Christianity than they are in their belief "in" something else that is uniquely Christian? I want to say "no" but the question does get raised. When evangelicals find it easy to discern that emergents are against a lot of very specific things in evangelicalism, but difficult to discern what *else* they are against (surely they aren't "FOR" everything EXCEPT conservative evangelicalism) is it any wonder that some evangelicals who would like to get on board are a little hesitant? Yeah, we may agree on many of evangelicalism's ills, but what about the rest of the crap out there that is no more healthy? The perception can be created that emergents think they have common ground with everyone EXCEPT for evangelicals who aren't emerging.

Of course one of the things emergents are against is the degree to which much of evangelicalism (and more so fundamentalism) defines itself by what it is against. So they are against being against. And they are against quite a few other things within conservative religion. But after that, what? Are we caught in an unavoidable logic loop? Does this lend the "disaffected children of evangelicalism" theory some credence? If not, whence the dichotomy? Or am I imagining it?

 

At 12/10/2007 05:21:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

First off Karl, I have responded to Mriana about Spong before on Hemant's site and expressed my points of disagreement with him. Since I've already been there, done that, I didn't feel the need to bring it up again. Beside which, Mriana makes a point of name-dropping Spong into almost every single conversation she's in, so if I were to react every time she brings him up I wouldn't have time to do anything else. :)

As for the rest, I think this comes back to what I was saying on Julie's blog about the emerging critique of evangelicalism being a debate within the family. We are largely reacting to and critiquing our own background, our own roots, our own selves (or past selves) really. For instance, the article I wrote that got me kicked out of my former church was entitled "How Postmodernism Has Transformed My Faith" brought up many of the usual emergent critiques. At the time someone from the church leadership asked me who exactly I was critiquing in the article, what examples of evangelicalism did I have in mind. I told them that the answer should be obvious from the title - I was critiquing myself! My own former ways of thinking about my faith.

I think that's why you'll find emerging folk being a little more unabashed about their criticisms of evangelicals. It's where we've come from, it's what we know, it's what we're qualified to speak to. Again, I think you should stop thinking so much in terms of "us" and "them", as if evangelicals and emergents are already two totally separate and distinct categories. When we critique evangelicalism, we're critiquing our own.

So why don't we criticize others as strongly? I think it has to do with Jesus' command to take care of the plank in our own eye before worrying about the speck in someone else's. It's one thing to point out the flaws we see in our own churches, in our own heritage, in our own spiritual family. It's entirely different to show up at someone else's house and start insulting their family without even knowing much about them. I don't have much first hand experience with mainline Christianity, or Catholicism, or atheism, or whatever, so who am I to start throwing stones at them? It'd be kind of hypocritical of my to condemn someone else's family when my own is full of so much dysfunction to begin with. If I'm going to critique, I'd better start with my own family first. (Reminds me of that anti-Dobson bumper sticker I've seen around that reads "Focus on your own damn family!" I think that's pretty good advice.)

 

At 12/11/2007 11:16:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Oh, and as I was thinking about it, I thought I ought to add one more thing. You said:

"Yet they tend to be more vague when discussing where they disagree with just about anyone else, be it liberal mainliners like Spong, members of other faiths, or communists, or atheists, or whomever - people with whom most of them really do have some fairly fundamental disagreements which have implications just as far-reaching as their disagreements with conservative evangelicals.

Just speaking personally, but lately I find myself actually having a lot more in common with a lot of my atheist friends than I do with conservative evangelicals. I think that's because I place a lot less weight these days on agreement over metaphysical questions and a lot more weight on agreement over ethical questions. After all, as Saint James pointed out, I share the same metaphysical beliefs as the demons, but what's more important is how I live it.

Oh yeah, and I haven't encountered many Communists recently to really need to respond to them. Have you?

 

At 12/13/2007 03:28:00 PM, Anonymous Karl

This reminds me of the Shakespeare quote " . . . the heresies that men do leave are hated most."

Lots of my evangelical friends think I am emerge-ish and several of my former college friends are pastors of evangelical emerging churches, so I'm sympathetic to what you're saying about the emerging impulse being a critique of one's own tradition, a prophetic voice coming from within the family. There are those whose voices sound very much that way to me - a loving and concerned critique from within the family. Sider, Noll (re. anti-intellectualism), Weber, Rob Bell even.

But at the same time as I keep pointing out, much of the language used by other leading voices in Emergent (especially as present on the internet, which is where I primarily find it)suggests, invites, perpetuates, an us/them dichotomy rather than discouraging it. Maybe as you say it really is a critique of "how I used to think" rather than an intentionally other-focused critique. But because you no longer think that way, it really isn't a critique of yourself, but rather of people who are still so benighted as to think the way you used to think before you learned better. That's a much different thing than a true self-critique. Is a fundamentalist who used to be a "drunken fornicator" prior to his conversion, and who now rails against "drunken fornicators" and calls them to repent as he did, really doing anything spiritually different than someone who used to be a Republican but now ridicules George Bush, rails against and calls conservative republican Christians to repent? Calls to repentance are well and good, but when speaking like that, we are doing something other than "taking care of the plank in our own eye."

If what we are critiquing is no longer something that we believe or practice then we are speaking prophetically, perhaps from personal experience. That prophetic voice is legitimate and much-needed, but let's not confuse it with self-critique or plank-finding. And let's make sure the real self critique (of my current self, not just my former one) is still going on, as I suggested on Julie's blog. Not merely the condemnation of "those with whom I will never more be confused if I can help it." As you point out, you (and even many still-evangelical emergers) often seem to have much more in common (i.e. are much more likely to be confused with) people outside the evangelical family, than within. That's ok and maybe even a good thing, but if it's the case then self-critique is something other than criticising the culture with which you no longer identify. And you gain a lot more credibility with the family members who you are criticising, if they don't feel like they are the ONLY people with whom you see anything wrong.

I was typing fast and casting about for various 'isms to make a point. Obviously Communism is a poor example (though I struggle to see what charitable or logical purpose was served by your pointing that out), as most academics and Boomers who eagerly embraced communism a few decades ago have either opted for bourgeois capitalism after all, or have quietly dumped communism for other, more fashionable ideologies now in academic vogue, or both.

You say: "I think that's because I place a lot less weight these days on agreement over metaphysical questions and a lot more weight on agreement over ethical questions."

That resonates with me quite a bit. Whether you agree with their theology or not, I expect you are familiar with the term used often by Schaeffer and since by Colson and many others, of co-belligerence. That cooperation with others for a common moral or ethical cause important to both is, at least in part, what you seem to be talking about even if it's on matters other than the "culture wars" issues Schaeffer usually spoke of. At the same time, where do you go with the observation that even those who agree over ethical questions often fail to live up to their own high ideals? The major world religions (and even a religion disavowing that it's a religion, like Atheism) generally agree on most questions of ethics. The golden rule isn't unique to Christianity. But where they part company is what to do with our self-knowledge that no matter what we do, we don't measure up to what we know we should be. Don't you kind of have to get metaphysical there, whether you agree with a particular X'ian theory of the atonement or not? And don't bedrock assumptions about metaphysical issues end up driving real-life, on the ground stuff as well? You see it pretty clearly in fundamentalism. It would be odd if fundamentalists and hyper-calvinists were the only ones whose metaphysical assumptions produced unhealthy results down the road for themselves and the world around them. I have atheist friends, too. But their no-god assumptions seem, to me, to have equally ugly end results as do the metaphysical assumptions of fundamentalists, even if the atheists are nicer and closer to the spirit of Jesus than many conservative X'ians (and actually, if you both stay away from metaphysical issues, you can have a great time with plenty of fundamentalists, too).

I don't think metaphysics should be in-your-face, but I don't think you can escape them for mere agreement on ethical issues either; at least not permanently. Can you?

 

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