Wednesday, March 26, 2008
We Were There First
I seem to regularly hear these criticisms of progressive Christians like myself that we are merely regurgitating Christianized versions of Marxism, or liberalism, or environmentalism, or pacifism, or multi-culturalism, or whatever other "-ism" you happen to not like and think you can apply as a blanket dismissal. The major flaw in these accusations is that in order to "regurgitate" something, you have to have swallowed it first, and quite honestly, on most of these issues I have not. Prior to becoming more "progressive" on issues, I honestly did little reading of authors in any of these areas, and even less wholesale "swallowing" of what I did read. My opinions were instead formed primarily through biblical reflection and subsequent conversation within the body of Christ. In other words, I came to these as "Christian" views, not as secular views that I was trying to "Christianize".

I think what is missed by those who want to label and thereby dismiss, is that we (meaning Jesus and followers of Jesus throughout the centuries) were there first on many of these issues. Marx may have talked a lot about liberating the oppressed, but Jesus talked about it long before he did in Luke 4:18-19. (And the prophets too, before Jesus.) The first statement of multi-culturalism I'm aware of comes not from 20th century Civil Rights activists, but from Revelation 7:9, and the first statement in all of human history on the inherent equality of human beings regardless of race, gender, or socio-economic status, came 1700+ years before the Declaration of Independence (which of course didn't even include all of these categories), in Galatians 3:28. And Moses told us to treat immigrants as part of our own, long before immigration ever became an issue in America.

Or take the separation of church and state. As I pointed out the other day, that was invented by Baptists, not secular atheists. Or environmentalism and animal rights - rabbis and theologians have been talking about the need to care for God's creation for centuries before Earth Day was ever invented, and people like C.S. Lewis and JRR Tolkien were anti-vivisectionists before Peter Singer was even born. And while pacifism, for instance, might be associated these days with the 1960's counter-culture, the early Christians, at least until the time of Constantine, were the original pacifists. Until the '60s, "conscientious objectors" were almost always Anabaptists, not hippies.

And of course, these are just a few examples. So again, we were there first. I don't care what Marx did or didn't say, I'm going to keep talking about liberating the oppressed, because Jesus talked about it. I don't care if caring for the environment is associated with New Agey tree-huggers, because God told us to do it anyway, way back in Genesis 1. I don't care if following Jesus makes me sometimes look like a "liberal" or a "Democrat" even. I'm simply trying to follow where he leads. If that occasionally brings me in line with the values of other movements, great, I'm glad to share common purpose and work together for shared goals, but one shouldn't assume that any movements which share similar values and goals necessarily spring from the same well.

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posted by Mike Clawson at 6:02 PM | Permalink |


At 3/27/2008 08:38:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous

Yeah, I was thinking about this recently when someone was telling me about having read "God is Not Great." He mentioned Hitchens' criticisms of the NT and I couldn't help but grieve that Hitchens (and so many others) have missed the good our world has seen because of Jesus. And the saddest part is that I don't necessarily think it's all Hitechens' fault, because the church has largely traded the Biblical Jesus for a weak counterfeit.


At 3/27/2008 11:01:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous

I've heard those comments too Mike, and at the popular level I think your description of them is accurate. But the ones I've heard most often at the academic level seem to take a different tack than what you describe. They don't necessarily suggest that emerging folks are *knowingly* regurgitating the "isms" of prior generations - as if emergers went to college, encountered the "ism" in class and then adopted and Christianized it. What I hear them suggest is that with all good intentions some emerging folks are naively, unknowingly going down dead ends that prior generations have tried and either (a) found wanting, or (b) found to have some bad, unforseen and unintended consequences.

They suggest emergers find out a bit more about the world, liberal arts, church history and biblical scholarship than they knew in the naive days of their youth, reject their old paradigms, dig into the Bible armed with their new knowledge and then act as though they are discovering the wheel, when in fact they are going down roads that are already well-travelled. Some of those roads are well-travelled by the church through the ages and need reemphasis, and others (it is argued) are well travelled detours from the wise and good path.

One of the theologians linked at a popular emerging-friendly blog has sympathies with many of emergent's concerns (thus the link to his web page), but I've heard him refer to what he sees as a lack of broad (as opposed to selective) historical awareness and theological depth among emerging writers as "the peril of the master's degree."

That criticism may not be warranted either, but it is more than just a label and is more worthy of grappling with, than the two dimensional "regurgitation" criticism that you describe.


At 3/27/2008 11:11:00 AM, Blogger M James

...and the first statement in all of human history on the inherent equality of human beings regardless of race, gender, or socio-economic status, came 1700+ years before the Declaration of Independence (which of course didn't even include all of these categories), in Galatians 3:28.

It actually came earlier than that, when Solon became the Archon of Athens in 594 BC. He made the first known statements on mult-culturalism, the first statement on all humans being equal and much, much more.

In fact, we could say that Solon single-handedly created democracy. All of his laws are still vital today.

The coolest thing about him was that after he made all these revolutionary reforms, he went into exile for ten years to he wouldn't become a tyrant!


At 3/27/2008 02:41:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

That's interesting Michael. I wasn't familiar with Solon. Do you have a link to any quotes by him on the subject?


At 3/27/2008 02:46:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

I've heard that "Masters Degree" criticism before Karl, but you know, there's something to be said for a Masters Degree education as well. I.e. there's something to be said for being able to look at the world broadly and through the lens of multiple disciplines and perspectives. I know too many PhD's who tend to know an awful lot about their one area of specialty, but seem to have lost the ability to integrate this insight with other branches of learning. I think this is one of the major pitfalls of our Modern academic system that tries to break knowledge into all kinds of discrete and artificial categories. I've always been a fan of interdisciplinary studies and integrated learning; and even as I head back to grad school to get my own PhD in Religion and Church History, I'm really hoping to integrate ideas from many different disciplines. Not just history but sociology, politics, cultural studies, theology, ethics, economics, etc.


At 3/27/2008 03:30:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous

I heartily agree with you there, Mike. That was one of my frustrations as I looked at PhD programs, too. My own post-grad-school "self education" has been broad and eclectic, and I hated the narrowing to a tiny sub-discipline that seemed to be the norm in PhD programs. There's a Boswell quote, from his Life of Johnson, that hits on this. I'll try to find it later tonight.

The guy who I heard voice that criticism though, is not "that kind" of a PhD and is himself a fairly integrated guy. He's a theologian and church historian, but he approaches things in a pretty multidisciplinary way. He does it with PhD level breadth and depth though, not master's. So at least in his case, the criticism wasn't coming from one of those narrow PhD's who knows nothing beyond his narrow subspecialty, but from someone who is for many of us kind of a model of how you'd hope a Christian PhD would approach and use his education.

I know you are frustrated by unfair criticism of the emerging church; by being misunderstood and labelled and mischaracterized. But are there any of these criticisms that you think have some merit and are worth attending to? What are your concerns - not just "that we might get co-opted by the system and sell out to the man" but concerns about postmodern Christianity and emergent itself?

For example, Rob Bell has been self-aware enough to acknowledge basically "hey, I realize we are probably overreacting to a pendulum swing that went too far in one direction, and we are probably swinging the pendulum too far in the other direction." (my paraphrase). Do you have any similar thoughts?


At 3/27/2008 03:40:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous

Found the quote:

He might, perhaps, have studied more assiduously; but it may be doubted, whether such a mind as his was not more enriched by roaming at large in the fields of literature, than if it had been confined to any single spot. The analogy between body and mind is very general, and the parallel will hold as to their food, as well as any other particular. The flesh of animals who feed excursively, is allowed to have a higher flavour than that of those who are cooped up. May there not be the same difference between men who read as their taste prompts, and men who are confined in cells and colleges to stated tasks?


At 3/27/2008 03:55:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

No Karl, I'm afraid I don't really have any of those sorts of critiques that you're asking for. There are all sorts of cautions I might give to my fellow emerging travelers along the way, but you seem to want some specific criticism about what I think we're in danger of leaving behind. I just don't think it works that way. Each one of us is on a different journey and have left behind different things and have embraced different things. Some people are still hanging onto things that I wish they'd let go of, and others are casting off things I don't feel any need to be rid of. So I can't just give a blanket critique of emergents, because none of us are at exactly the same place with any of this.

I guess if anything, I'm just afraid that people will feel too inhibited to follow God where she's leading them on the journey in the first place.


At 3/27/2008 07:31:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous

No Mike, my question wasn't really that narrow. Cautions for your fellow emerging travellers would be interesting and refreshing.

Otherwise to suggest that no, none of the many criticisms of this movement (emerging) and community (emergent) that I am a part of have any merit, sounds a little scary to me.


At 3/27/2008 09:05:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

The problem is not that they don't have merit, the problem is that they are coming from people who want to stand on the outside of a conversation and lob grenades at people they are not in direct relationship with. And the problem is that they tend to be blanket critiques that perhaps apply to some people but not to others, which again is why you need to be in relationship and part of the conversation if you want to critique. You can't just say "all you emergents are wrong because..." You have to be more specific. If you're part of a conversation then it's possible to say "I disagree with you Brian (or Mike or Julie or Tony or Doug or Spencer or Scot or whoever) on X issue."

And finally, just to speak personally, but while I have my own critiques of some of my fellow emerging folk, quite honestly, none of them tend to be very similar to the "many criticisms" you're probably thinking of. I'm sorry, but I just don't agree with most of those critics. I suppose in the interest of fairness I ought to be able to say "well, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle" but to be perfectly honest, I just can't. I think they are just flat out wrong. Whether it's Driscoll's opinions on women, or Piper's opinions on substitutionary atonement, or Carson's opinions on postmodernism, or whatever, I just don't agree. It would be misleading of me to say "well, you know, they have a point".


At 3/28/2008 06:57:00 PM, Blogger Scot McKnight


Following this conversation; good one though I do think some generalizations apply ... but I've had the microphone for those.

One issue I'd like to see more of us address, mostly because it is so pervasive in much of what we think on justice issues, is a thoroughgoing theory of the economy at work in our critique.

If I may make a suggestion to you for your PhD work -- and this in public of all places -- integrating economic theory into your PhD work on religion and culture could be a learning experience for you and a dynamic core to your work that could shed light on lots of justice issues.

Anyway, a bit of a rabbit trail away from what you are doing on this post. I do think there are some serious biblical frameworks for many justice issues that are not actually derived from things like socialism and the like. The sad thing is that many Christians don't know those biblical frameworks -- unless they've read folks like Sider or Hauerwas or others -- so they will accuse by using modern theories.

Now a very subtle pushback because I think you yourself have clarified it well: to call yourself "progressive" lets the labelers define what you are, and I don't know that "progressive" is the best term for your views. What do you think?


At 3/28/2008 10:53:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Thanks for your thoughts Scot. And yes, there are some good biblical foundations for a Christian view of economics. In fact, I don't know anyone who seems to be taking their opinions on the matter directly from any kind of socialist theory. I hear that kind of critique mainly from those who are too unimaginative to consider that just because one criticizes trickle-down capitalism that doesn't mean the only other alternative is full-blown socialism.

(Though I should also say that I think we need to stop treating "socialism" like such a dirty word all the time. Some socialism isn't bad. We've had socialized education in America almost since the beginning and I don't hear too many people complaining about that. And personally I think socialized health care might not be such a bad idea either.)

As for "progressive", I just don't think there are any good terms out there yet to describe me and other Christians like me. I use "progressive" only because it is subtly different from and provokes slightly less hostility than "liberal", and it carries similar connotations as the word "emerging", i.e. a sense of moving forward. But if you have a better word I'd love to hear it. At any rate it's too cumbersome to go around calling myself a "post-Religious Right, anti-Imperial Christian who is concerned about social justice, creation-care, peacemaking, and poverty among many other things".


At 3/29/2008 09:30:00 AM, Blogger David Fitch

Mike ...
I think in all fairness, the critique you're talking about (I've heard it a million times from within academia) is that the emerging church writers speak on these issues of social justice, Jesus and the gospel/kingdom of God, the church, modernity etc.. without a sense of all the diaogue and histiory of theological engagement that has gone on regarding these issues for almost thirty years in regards to evangelicalism, and eighty ninety years in 19th 20the century theology. It comes off therefore, a bit naive, retracing the same theological moves without awareness of the interaction, practical lessons an theological lessons already learned. The best part of what can be offered within theology as an academic discpline (and there is plenty bad about it) is that it is a discplined acadmic conversation that keeps tract of the ongoing learnings and progressions within the history of the conversation. In some ways, emerging authors seem to be oblivious to the advancements and mistakes learned from this ongoing conversation.
peace ...thanks for your blog ... its good stuff ..


At 3/29/2008 10:16:00 AM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Hey Dave,

That's an interesting critique which may or may not be accurate, but that's not really what I was referring to. In fact, I wasn't even referring to criticism of the "emerging church" per se. My focus was broader, including any "progressive" Christians, not just emergents. And the criticism I was referring to were those who want to dismiss our politics as "merely" Marxist, or liberal, or Democrat, or whatever. That's rather different than your critique about not being historically aware.

And quite honestly I didn't have academics in mind when I wrote this (except for maybe Scot when he claims that we're basically just Democrats). I was primarily thinking of those blog trolls who show up in my comments to call me a Marxist whenever I use the word "oppressed" (for instance, check out the third comment on this post). I was also thinking of Andrew Jones when he recently accused Brian McLaren of being enamored of liberation theology in his new book and Brian called him on it, pointing out that he hardly references liberation theologians at all.

In that light, your critique is almost the flip side of the one I'm responding to here. The critics I'm thinking of are saying "you guys are too influenced by this other stuff", and I'm saying we're not, in fact we've hardly read some of it. And of course your critique is then "well maybe you should read it because it's all been said before". Seems like we're damned if we do and damned if we don't, eh?


At 3/29/2008 10:43:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous

Good topic for conversation - and good conversation. I am in the throes of finishing my dissertation. At the ASHE conference this past fall a former prof. from MIT told me this good advice - getting your dissertation through is a political issue. Save your best work for after you finish it. Somewhat cynical, but rather realistic.

Regarding the issue of the origins of being progressive, I offer this little piece from Gloria Reuben's text The Making of the Modern University - I think this captures some of the root of the more recent debates:

"Educational reformers eased the tension between the desire for moral training and their anxiety about religious oppression by adopting the distinction between theology and religion. They identified denominations as the institutional counterpart to theology and as the true cause of repression in the colleges, ans asserted that universities, independent of church control, could truly be free religious institutions (p. 77)."

The issue in in what is regulative of legitimate forms of knowledge and morality. The late 19th century saw higher education eschew dogmatic boundaries in order to rethink these conditions of legitimacy.


At 3/29/2008 10:47:00 AM, Blogger Mike Clawson

One other thing Dave regarding your own criticism. You yourself are part of the emerging church conversation. Would you consider yourself uninformed and oblivious to the "ongoing theological conversation" on these topics over the past century? Do you think Scot is? Brian reads a lot, do you think he is unaware of the history of the social gospel or liberation theology, or Hauerwas? Tony is finishing up his PhD. Do you think he's uninformed? Was Stan Grenz? John Franke? Brian Walsh? Tom Wright? Phyllis Tickle has lived through most of it, is she uninformed when she says something qualitatively new is happening?

In other words, do you think this critique is actually accurate or is it just another strawman?


At 3/29/2008 10:59:00 AM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Thanks for your comment drew. I confess though that I didn't quite follow your train of thought. In what way is your quote related to the origin of being progressive? And more specifically, of being a progressive Christian of the sort that has arisen more recently? If you could expand on your comments that would be much appreciated. Forgive my density.


At 3/29/2008 12:53:00 PM, Blogger Rae Ann Fitch

OK ... I think I get what you're saying. and it's an interesting take which I'll mull over and post on myself because I think it's really important. and just for the record, I think that there are alot of well read emerging church authors ... I consider Brian McLaren extremely well read more so than the average academic (myself included). Nonethelss, those people who gather at AAR or SoCE or Theology Conferences ... talk in these ways .. and I agree with some of their observations ... the question is why? based on what? I do think the emerging church movement could be helped if its more popular authors engaged the debates in these terms. Of course they wouldn't dsell a many boosk (wink wink). Something for us all to talk about ... I'm making this case on my next post on Brian I'm about to put up over at


At 3/29/2008 12:54:00 PM, Blogger David Fitch

ooooopa .,. that last post under the name Rae was by me, David Fitch. My wife's name is rae. Sorry ..


At 3/30/2008 12:28:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous

Mike, I've always appreciated your straightforwardness:

"I don't care if following Jesus makes me sometimes look like a "liberal" or a "Democrat" even. I'm simply trying to follow where he leads."

When I read this, I start thinking it's time for all ideologies -- even some which have become entrenched within the institutional church - to yield to the moral authority of living as Christ lived. If persecution results -- especially persecution from the religious elite -- then we may be closer to the Master than we realize.

Now, regarding something David Fitch said:

...emerging church writers speak on these issues of social justice, Jesus and the gospel/kingdom of God, the church, modernity etc.. without a sense of all the diaogue and histiory of theological engagement that has gone on regarding these issues for almost thirty years in regards to evangelicalism, and eighty ninety years in 19th 20the century theology.

David, I think I understand the value for emergents (and others) to know something of the history of theological/philosophical dialog regarding these issues, and I agree. What I find myself wondering, though, is whether there isn't something to be said about the value of contributions that sometime come out of left-field, and from those who do not have that "history" as pre-existing "screen" or point-of-view? Or, I suppose what I may actually be asking myself is, is there a place in a culture that seems to embrace an open-source paradigm, for "academics" - with their valuable "histories", and non-academics - with their refreshing naiveté, to truly value each other's contribution when it comes to important matters like justice, the redistribution of wealth, planet-care, etc.?

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this, David (or Mike's or Karl's or Scot's or anyone else's for that matter). Thanks.


At 3/30/2008 08:56:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous


Sure. The issue that this piece raises is in terms of education it was the university's full inclusion of scientific reasoning at the expense of dogmatic non-negotiables that truly forced theology to find some way to negotiate intellectual boundaries that were simply not there before. So religion had to find out how to engage in an open dialogue with other disciplines. It is at this point that we find the development of theology in the US form two tracks: one went the direction of evangelicalism that retained the devotional sense of Scripture, and the liberal/progressive which explored different methods to weave modern scientific discourse into theology. The Scopes trial is where this split and then a further split in evangelicalism where fundamentalism broke off came to a head. Hope that clarifies... D.G. Hart's book That Old Time Religion traces some of this trajectory nicely as well. I didn't really finish the previous thought as my boys were going ballistic ;-)


At 3/30/2008 09:22:00 AM, Blogger Donna D

I think the accusations of "swallowing" ideology without any thought is just projection.


At 3/30/2008 03:32:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Drew - thanks for the clarification.

Donna - LOL, excellent observation. Though I will point out that I sometimes get this same critique from atheists as well when they encounter my "emerging", "progressive" approach to faith. They inaccurately accuse me of simply trying to twist or water down my faith to make it fit with more liberal ideas that I've encountered elsewhere. What they don't realize (and often refuse to believe when I tell them - Darryl for example) is that I didn't come to these views through an encounter with "liberal" ideas that challenged my faith. I came to these views by digging in deeper to my own faith.


At 3/30/2008 06:55:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous


I have had the same experience. The phrase "they" have used (mainly in the Atheist v. Christian Google group) is, Sure, when you can't give a reasonable answer, make s#$% up.

Many atheists have a hard time dealing with progressive Christianity because it does not fit into the strawmen of Dawkins, et. al. regarding Christian belief.