Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Why I'm (Not) Emerging/Emergent, But Support the Movement

I have been really excited about emergent/emerging Christian communities. Some people tell me a difference exists between "emergent" and "emerging," while others use the terms interchangeably. I don't know if a difference exists between the two and, frankly, I don't think I care all that much. I'm not trying to offend anyone's attempt to create an us/them binary, to put massive groups of people into a box, or to understand with good intentions other people by committing the aforementioned crimes; I just don't currently see an importance in the distinction due to my ignorance of it.

In case you missed it, I opened the last paragraph with "I have been." Those three words could imply continuance with the past or a breaking with the past, either, "I have been and still am," or, "I have been but am not longer." I am looking for a little bit of both connotations.

I am still really excited about emergent/emerging Christian communities and the conversations surrounding them. They are doing wonderful things and making some changes I enthusiastically support. Down with hierarchy, up with co-servanthood. Down with marketing and flattery, up with relationships. Down with isolation, up with intentional living communities. Down with monostructure, up with variety.

Did you notice I just said "they." It seems nearly impossible to analyze and communicate without creating us/them binaries, or, worse, I/them or I/it binaries.

I do not associate myself with any emergent/emerging Christian movement or group any more than I associate myself with any Christian denominational movement or entity. I am just as much Presbyterian as I am emergent as I am Protestant as I am Christian heretic as I am Christian apostate as I am Christian liberal or postliberal or postmodern or post-postmodern as I am Christian deconstructionist and process Christian and agnostic.

Alongside all those other words I just listed, "emergent" and "emerging" are labels promoting identity. Identities build walls. Identities build those us/them binaries. Derrida suggests working towards identification, not identity, a slight and genius play on words.

Identity is one thing; identification isn't one thing. Identity settles for conformity; identification is a dynamic, exciting, frightening, never-settling process. It doesn't involve getting rid of all our lovely identifiers like "emergent," "emerging," and "Christian." We keep those words and recognize they have no denotation and contradictory connotations--they are words, intrinsically meaninglessness words that continually take shape in conversation.

We use these words only when appropriate, not all the time. I'm never always emergent/emerging. Instead, I can identify with an idea or practice I associate with others who self-describe them and this idea or practice within an emergent/emerging movement. Alongside my emergent/emerging leanings, I have a tendency to find myself in Presbyterian (PC-USA) and Baptist circles, although I still have a preference for some theology I have always associated with Advent Christian circles.

With all this identification, I am never placed in a box, because no one will expect me to be the (nonexistent) definition of emergent, emerging, Christian, Protestant, evangelical, Presbyterian, or even "Presbymergent."

I include you in this identification, too. Whether you accept it or not, I don't think you have an identity, as much as I might sinfully judge you to have a few (I often try to put you in a box. Sorry.). With the process of identification, us/them shatters to I/Thou, to, more simply, "We." We are a community. We have commonalities and differences. I am different from and the same as you. We are never completely opposite, because on some level I am not me and you are not you, because we are both we.

I just took some notes on a book I read this winter: An Emergent Manifesto of Hope, edited by Doug Pagitt and Tony Jones, with chapters by Brian McLaren and Samir Selmanovic.

I've read books by Brain McLaren. He talks about Christians having "a generous orthodoxy," which attempts to maintain the idea of right belief within what he calls wide margins. Really, he is just promoting one orthodoxy to replace other, previous, "narrower" orthodoxies. He doesn't skirt around the many problems orthodoxy has as an identifier and creator of oppressive us/them binaries. Although saying great things about emergent/emerging, in A Generous Orthodoxy, McLaren simply and unfortunately touts another orthodoxy.

I haven't read any books by Samir Selmanovic, but I met him and listened to a presentation he made called "Learning to Love the Other in God, Self, and Society." Whereas McLaren wants to create a Christian community that accepts more people as "us," Selmanovic seems more concerned about becoming yourself, which you can only do in community with the Other. Selmanovic acknowledges the unavoidability of us/them and instead of creating a larger "us," like McLaren, he decides to engage with as many "Thous" as he can in order to be himself. In that presentation, Selmanovic spent more time on I/Thou than us/them.

Both of these men were present at the "Transform" conference I attended in Washington, DC this past April. So was Peter Rollins of Ireland. I don't think Rollins had a version of emerging/emergent like the other two. I think Rollins could even care less about being called Christian. Instead, he wanted to lose himself in order to find himself, to give up identity for the process of identification that could one day be resurrected with Christ. (You might call Rollins a fan of deconstruction.)

All three of these men were at the same conference, in some way associating with the emergent/emerging identifier. McLaren touts that label frequently. I know little of how often Selmanovic uses it, but I know he engages with an interfaith community. Rollins is often associated with Christianity and emergent/emerging, but he apparently spends a lot of time pointing out the deconstruction in those terms.

And yet, they were all enjoying each other's community. I love that part of the emerging/emergent movement. But I resist large parts of the emergent/emerging movement that are obsessed with being emergent/emerging. I don't like oppressive binaries and I saw those binaries hailed at Transform as many had a general distaste for education, certain ways of reading the Bible, and the institutionalized churches. Yes, many based this distaste on hurt, but hurt transformed into an oppressive us/them binary is not deconstruction, but rather entering into the alterity that hurt you and pushing that hurt back on those who hurt you.

I associate with much of what emergent/emerging people are doing--experimenting with faith and trying to get closer to God based on individual communities, not finding one way for everyone to do it in different situations.

And I associate with the tendency to not associate, which is why I have been and continue to be excited about the emerging/emergent church and why I am not now nor will ever be an emergent/emerging Christian, although I hope to be involved in such a definition-defying community one day, either an existent one or one I start.

Perhaps I am part of one or more right now.

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