Friday, August 05, 2011
Are Emergents Merely Liberal?
A mild debate has been stirred up in the blogosphere over a guest post by Brandon Morgan over at theologian Roger Olson's blog in which Brandon suggests that emergents are not critical enough of liberal mainline theology, and thus are in danger of not offering any meaningful alternative to liberal Christianity. Olson himself followed up Brandon's post by seconding his concerns and encouraging everyone to read it. A few days later, Tony Jones responded by challenging both Morgan and Olson to support their analysis with more than anecdotal evidence. Olson was apparently hoping for a more positive reception of Morgan's critiques and thus put up another post asking whether emergents are able to take constructive criticism. While I don't think I can give a response that is any more positive than Tony's (seeing as how I generally just disagree with Morgan's assessment), I did feel compelled to respond. The following is comment which I posted at Olson's blog and have chosen to also re-post here. If you wish to react to my comments, I would recommend that you do it over at Olson's blog rather than here so that it will be part of the wider discussion (since my blog doesn't get much traffic anymore.)


As a deeply involved participant in the emerging conversation, I will venture a response to Brandon’s initial post. My apologies for not doing so sooner, but it was only recently brought to my attention.

The part of Brandon’s post that I resonated with most was when he asked “Have Emergent folks succeeded in transcending the evangelical-progressive division in American Protestantism. Have they formulated a holistic theological approach able to include the benefits of both sides and jettison the negative aspects?” I like especially how he framed this in terms of keeping the good and rejecting the bad from both traditions. That, I feel is what the emerging church is all about, valuing all traditions, but not blindly or uncritically – what Brian McLaren described as “generous orthodoxy.”

However, I was disappointed that Brandon went on to frame the rest of his post around what the emerging church was (or was not) rejecting about the liberal/mainline traditions. He made it seem like unless we could show ourselves to be thoroughly different than liberal mainliners in all of the ways that he himself thought we should be different, we therefore simply were liberals who ought to just own it and join those denominations. But why such a heavy emphasis on difference? What happened to “including the benefits of both sides”? If emergents happen to be embracing some of the same themes and theologies and emphases as more traditional mainliners, what is so horrible about that? Aren’t there many good and important aspects of those traditions that need to be reclaimed by post-conservative emergents who were lacking those insights in their evangelical upbringings? Must we only ever be about critique?

But the fact that some of us are embracing some aspects of the mainline tradition doesn’t mean we have uncritically swallowed all of it. As someone who was raised in a very conservative evangelical background, but has also recently gotten a masters degree at a liberal mainline seminary, I have close personal experiences with both traditions – and I can confidently say that being an emergent was not just the same as being a liberal mainliner. In some ways I was still much more “conservative” than many of my mainline classmates. In other ways, I was much more “progressive”. For instance, both my “emergent” passion for mission and my openness to innovation and experimentation in ministry methods and liturgical practices, was rather different from much of what I experienced of the mainline approach. However, I get the sense from Brandon’s post that those weren’t exactly the specific differences that he thinks I ought to have had with my liberal mainline friends – which may simply reflect Brandon’s own personal opinion about the relative merits of the liberal theological tradition, an opinion which I and other emergents may or may not share. Ultimately, however, I think what set me apart as an emergent was not where I happened to fall on any particular issue of theology or practice, but simply on my openness to questioning and re-imagining all of it – theology, liturgy, ministry, whatever. Hence the inherently conversational nature of emergence Christianity – it’s not about where you land, it’s about whether you’re willing to place everything on the table and engage in the dialogue in the first place.

(BTW, I also want to note that I’m uncomfortable with how unprecise we’re being in throwing around this term “liberal”. As Roger Olson himself has recently noted on this very blog, “liberal theology” is a very specific thing historically speaking, and is really very rare among Christians these days, even in the mainline denominations. It properly only refers to the classic liberalism of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Most mainliners, chastened by the neo-orthodox critiques of the mid-twentieth century, have tempered or refined their theologies quite a bit since then. So if you want to accuse emergents of [merely] being “liberal,” I think you need to be a little more specific about which aspects of mainline theology you’re referring to with that term. It’s really a very diverse and nuanced tradition.)

Another factor that I don’t think Brandon recognized in his post was the reality that the emerging church is not exclusively a post-evangelical movement. Many emergents already are and have long been mainliners – people like Phyllis Tickle, Nadia Bolz-Webber, Carol Howard Merritt, Bruce Reyes-Chow, Adam Walker Cleaveland, Troy Bronsink, Karen Sloan, Ryan Kemp-Pappan, Nanette Sawyer, Karen Ward, Jonny Baker, and many others. That’s why it seems a little odd when Brandon asks why emergents don’t just join the mainline denominations – some have already been there there all along.

That being the case, I think it should be recognized that each of us are more qualified to critique what we know first-hand. Thus it is natural for post-evangelical emergents to be more critical of their evangelical background while withholding judgment on the liberal mainline which we are much less familiar with. I agree with Brandon that there needs to be an emergent critique of that tradition as well, but shouldn’t we leave that to those emergents who are themselves mainliners? It’s the whole “No one’s allowed to make fun of my mama except me!” thing. Just seems sort of rude and tacky to go tearing into someone else’s tradition when you aren’t a part of it and don’t really know that much about it firsthand anyway.

Anyhow, I guess you could say my response to Brandon’s post boils down to this: implying that emergents are [merely] liberal really misses a lot of the complexity and nuance of both the emerging movement and of mainline theology itself. Thus, as Tony Jones noted, Brandon’s claim needs to be based on more detailed examination and not simply anecdotal impressions, as well as more thorough definition of what exactly it means to be “liberal”. I think if one engaged in that examination, it would become clear that most emergents like some aspects of “liberal” theology, but have not embraced it in every aspect. In other words, we’ve been doing exactly what Brandon said we should, “including the benefits” and “jettisoning the negative” (though some of us may disagree with Brandon on what, specifically are the benefits and what are the negatives).

P.S. I do also want to highlight one other point Tony Jones brought out – Brandon’s odd use of “they” instead of “we” when talking about the emergent movement. If, as both he and Roger Olson seem at pains to emphasize, Brandon really is an insider to the emergent movement, why this distancing language? It immediately makes it feel like yet another outside attack rather than friendly constructive criticism from the inside. That was unfortunate, and probably contributed to the number of “defensive” responses you may have gotten.