What He Said

In connection with the thread developing from yesterday’s observations on doctrine and emergence, I wanted to add Augustine’s observation from On Genesis (li. 8. de Genes. ad liter. cap. 5.):

Melius est dubitare de occultis quam litigare de incertis.

It is better to make doubt of those things which are secret, than to strive about those things that are uncertain.
(From the English supplied by the translators of the Authorized Version of the Bible)


You should, of course, never trust a preacher who says, “Finally. . . ,” especially when he’s talking about a subject on which he has no standing from which to claim authority. So, from here on, you’re on your own.

But I really did mean “finally.” When I wrote to Kyle at the end of his course, I adduced four characteristics that look like pertinent signs of “emergence” from this limestone-tower perspective: breadth/depth of participation, decentralization of power, worship that the congregation embraces and understands, and a commitment to a vision of truth that respects both the vitality of staking something on one’s truth-claims with the humility of observing how frequently our most cherished theological forebears have disagreed with one another, or over- or understated the importance of one premise or another. I frequently cite with relief the Church of England’s nineteenth Article of Religion: “As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch, have erred, so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith.” The Church errs, and when it finds itself in error needs to reassess its ways, repent of errors, and reform its living and manner of Ceremonies, and also its matters of Faith. The modern church came increasingly to identify right doctrine as a basis for exclusion of err-ers, on the premise that a decreasing number of disciples of Jesus actually understood rightly what the Church should be about; an emergent church should, I think, be more ready to endure uncertainty within the church about which controverted topics needed to be determined right here, right now, and the newly-established Bad Guys expelled (or otherwise punished).

The “emerging” spirit about which I’m talking will find a home where people care enough about theological truth to sustain disagreements about it within the community. That doesn’t make truth “up for grabs” or irrelevant (despite what a common knee-jerk response wants to make it). It means that truth comes clear over time, and that however confident we are that our position bears the impress of God’s very own truth, we have not finished learning. Our certain knowledge of the truth about God stands in the shadow of our sister’s equally certain knowledge, and until some extrinsic criterion resolves the disagreement for us, no one of us can afford to stop our ears at what our ardent sibling in Christ would urge us to consider. That attitude may be more “propositional” than “grammatical”; it’s not Lindbeckian-ness that makes “emergent,” but understanding that truth itself has an emergent dimension that can’t be pinned down and put away.

I’ve started calling this a hypomonic relation to truth, alluding to the high value that the New Testament authors put on the virtue of hypomonê, “endurance,” “long-suffering.” Such an outlook trusts that where brothers and sisters disagree, and their faith on matters other than the disputed topic harmonizes with the faith received from the saints, God will in the long run make resolve conflicts that seem in the short run to be intractable. No one gives up their strong truth-claims; they do, however, decline to use truth as a lever for excluding those with whom one disagrees.

That requires me to make explicit my assumption that ont every congregation should be “emergent” (as I sketch emergence here). If your faith is such that your conscience requires you to banish those who permit women to teach in the church, for instance, by all means go ahead — but such a firm conscience will leave little room for the unexpected, and (to belabor a point) “unexpectedness” constitutes one of the touchstone features by which we recognize emergent phenomena.

And Another Thing

In reflecting on “emerging-church” matters, I’ve earlier suggested that emergence (in church life) should involve breadth and depth (I should perhaps have added “length and height”) of people’s involvement in a shared life, and involves a kind of leadership more than a particular form of leadership.

The third point by which I’d expect to identify emergence in church life involves worship — but I suspect that the specific characteristics of worship matter less than does the extent to which they’re internalized and integrated to the coherent life of the congregation. Thus, a congregation committed to very catholic worship, for whom the rhythms and choreography of catholic worship make sense, and enliven their sense of who they are and how they serve God, may be more “emergent” than a gathering of twenty-somethings in a coffee shop who are there for reasons they don’t quite understand, doing cool stuff with candles and labyrinths. The latter will be “emergent-church” in a social-category sense — but “emergence” (in the sense I think most helpfully relevant) involves a community’s constituting a whole greater than the sum of its parts, and it would be easy enough to find a rave congregation that amounts to a good deal less than its sum. Worship that lends symbolic expression to the inchoate beliefs and the explicit teachings of the congregation matters more than whether PowerPoint or praise bands are involved.

It should go without saying that I’m not knocking coffee shops or PowerPoint (I like coffee shops, and when I want to knock PowerPoint I’ll go for the throat). Congregations in coffee shops can worship in ways that conduce to emergence; indeed, such congregations have the emergent-advantage that the force of routinization doesn’t weigh down their praise with the kind of habituation that issues in heedlessness. So I’m not arguing against coffee-shop congregations, or trying to propose that all Anglo-Catholics are automatically “emergent” (believe me, we’re not, no question).

But as with leadership, so with worship: it’s not the formal characteristics that brand it as “emergent,” but the spirit. If there’s one thing that falsifies claims about emergence, it would be the claim that these preliminaries predictably bring about that result. Whatever else that is, that’s not emergence; “emergence” involves a subsequent complexity that one couldn’t predict on the basis of its constituent parts (whether those ingredients include incense, labyrinths, PowerPoint, or fancy vestments).



Originally uploaded by StGenevieve.

I gather that today was the all-time heaviest load on flickr (which makes sense, once you think of it). I had set our Jennifer up with an account, and she was having a hard time completing uploads; evidently there’s a good reason. This is a picture she took of our local fashion model; she says she’s uploading a picture of me singing into a Dishmatique, but so far that hasn’t appeared in her photostream. The picture of Si and Laura is cute, though.

Congratulations, Stewart, Caterina, Eric, and all.

As I Was Saying

I think I left off here:

[Again, entirely unauthorized pontificating follows. And I’s sure that Soularize is wonderful, I was just grabbing the name, Jordon, since I knew it was a big get-together.]

For the second, I would put little emphasis on the formal status of leadership and more on how leadership is carried. To indulge in a pop-cultural figure, I wouldn’t in the least mind having Aragorn as my king — much less, indeed, than I mind having Bush as my duly-elected President. By the same token, I would pay less attention to whether a pastor be ordained, or elected, or dragged off the street on Saturday evening, than on whether such a leader exercises her or his authority so as to shore up his/her own standing, or (alternatively) to cultivate the maximum strength and leadership among other participants in community life. You can do that as an appointed rector, or as an elected elder. You can grasp for power in indirect ways in an “emergent” setting, and you can disperse power in an apparently hierarchical setting.

So the formal structure of a congregation — whether it be constituted as a top-down magisterium or a bottom-up populist forum — can imply a certain distribution of power, but the formal structure can also mask the way power operates. “Emergence,” as I understand it, has less to do with the way corporate legislation gets passed than with the ways that a community would arrive at a sense of what might be possible, plausible, the right thing to do — before any formal decision gets made. (As my colleague John Dreibelbis often says, “If you have to appeal to the canons, you’re already in trouble.”)

What They Don’t Get

Is my money, evidently. Yesterday I felt the whimsical impulse to listen to the Boomtown Rats’s track “Me and Howard Hughes,” from the Tonic for The Troops album. I looked in the iTunes Music Store — no luck there, just greatest-hits compilations from the Rats. Rhapsody and emusic seemed unwilling even to let me know whether they had what I wanted unless I registered; sorry, I’m not going there. Allofmp3.com and Napster? Only greatest hits (but at least they let me search before I register). Insound would sell me the whole CD for $23.

The punch line is that in the halcyon days of Napster Classic, one can be sure that somebody would have had “Me and Howard Hughes” available for sharing. It’s exactly the kind of selection that online distribution works best for: a relatively obscure track by a marginally popular artist, not worth keeping in stock in a store, not worth manufacturing onto CDs with jewel cases and printed covers, but simple to make available online, for aficionados to buy — unless, of course, no one bothers to make it available commercially.

And I’m still looking for the track of Tom Robinson playing “1967 (Seems So Long Ago)” from the first Secret Policemen’s Ball album. . . .

(wood s lot reminds me that Ani DiFranco seems to get it, which makes me glad I bought her last album the minute it showed up online.)

We Interrupt This Program

Just want to cast a trackback vote in favor of Jon’s advocacy of rolling category-variable templates into the core functionality of Moveable Type. Part of my plan for the Seabury redesign involved setting up different templates for each of the categories. I can probably use the Salo Maneuver from the Disseminary design (I have to re-implement that in the aftermath of the MT reinstall), or Stepan’s Per-Category Templates plug-in at nonplus.

But ingenious as Dorothea’s workaround is, I’d rather just be able to call on a different template for each category. Please, SixApart.

Where I Left Off

So, if the term “emergent” applies to churches in a non-Pickwickian sense, what might that term indicate?

[Warning: I bear no certification to talk about “emergent church” matters. I’m a certifiable theologian with interests in technology and church life — but I’m not the kind of guy who gives influential presentations at Soularize or writes popular essays at TheOoze. Consult official spokespeople for official insight.]

I wrote to Kyle about four possible manifestations of a spirit of “emergence” in an end-of-term email. I suggested to him that the emergent spirit shows itself in breadth and depth of congregational involvement in activities that observers might identify with the church; in lack-of-investment in leadership as power, and strong investment in leadership as voluntary commitment to heightened service and accountability; in worship that in which the congregation senses itself intelligibly involved (not the object of an indifferent display, but participants who understand and relish their roles — whatever those roles may be); and commitment to an understanding of theological truth that attends less vigorously to borders than to satisfactory ways of articulating the truth.

For starters.

Thus, for the first (“breadth and depth”), I’d argue that “participation” is a wan characterization for distinctive features of emergence in congregations . One can “participate” in pro forma ways that have no real relation to the mode of ecclesial vitality that’s worth bothering to identify as emergent. At any given Episcopal parish, plenty of people participate — but that doesn’t make St. Alphonso’s an emergent Episcopal parish. Congregations marked by a spirit of emergence would have a higher general degree of engagement in various community activities, and more diverse activities associated with congregational life (the poetry readings and gallery activities we hear about, along with more conventional outreach ministries). There might be less (internal) sense of particular behavior as a “church” activity, since it arises readily from the convergent interests and shared commitments of congregants; that would, of course, communicate powerfully the congregation’s sense of who it is and what it stands for, such that interested people might notice and join in.

In other words, I guess that an “emergent” congregation would be recognizable precisely to the extent that its common life doesn’t entail saying “Jesus” all the time — not because Jesus is unimportant to them, but because the congregation’s love for Jesus doesn’t come out explicitly at the bowling alley, or the informal [un]employment counseling get-together, or the bicycling group. That’s not a missed opportunity for evangelism; it’s exactly the kind of deep commitment that will speak for itself, over the long run, if people will stop chattering about Jesus long enough to allow space for a quieter voice.