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Omaha, Nebraska, United States
I am more and more convinced that most congregations die from a staggering lack of imagination. Let's change that. Drop me a line on email or leave a comment if you have thoughts on God, Jesus, congregations, the church or whatever.... I look forward to our conversations.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Emergence Christianity 2013 (EC13)--Ontology in Memphis

This is a review of a weekend with people who were interested enough  in "Emergence Christianity" to gather for a couple of days in Memphis, TN to listen to Phyllis Tickle review her history of "Emergence." (It is the title of her most recent book (Emergence Christianity: What it is, Where it is Going, and Why it Matters, 2012). Memphis in January is always a bit dicey, but God apparently approves of Ms. Tickle, and the weather was a balmy 75 and only rained as we were leaving. It is good to be one of God's chosen.

I did not know what to expect from this event, but I went as a representative from Darkwood Brew, and I was looking forward to meeting some of the folks we've had on that program. I got a chance to do that when I hooked up with one of our partners, Cameron Trimble of The Center for Progressive Renewal which is always great. We (Scott Greissel, the Producer) handed out some T-shirts, some coasters, a few DVDs, and a lot of good will. I did wish Eric and Chris (the host and co-host of Darkwood Brew) were with as the amount of people I met who had seen the show was incredible, and they would have probably sparked even more interest by their presence. Phyllis Tickle spent the better part of 10 minutes holding up DWB in one of her presentations, and we were well-received.

I have mixed feelings about "emergence," and especially as it relates to Christianity, and even more so "new" expressions of Christianity. Because, well, emergence is not new. It has been used as a Christian metaphor for centuries, and I am sure that even Pseudo-Dionysius could be translated with the word "emerge" every now and then. About the first book I read for my doctoral work was Johannes Baptist Metz's The Emergent Church, and while I understand that "emergence" is different than what Metz argues for in his work, I was a bit skeptical of the term.

The history that Tickle presented showed that there is enough multiplicity and diversity to the term to make it useful, but as one person remarked on the Facebook page for the event, "...there really is no substance to the terms. They signify nothing. Discuss." And it's precisely in that quotation that I see the biggest problem for "Emergence Christianity." It has a faulty ontology.
Creeping Fog

Most people (of the emergents, but a lot of Christians who are not emergent too) try to put something (a substance) behind their metaphors. There is no "something" there. Although we experience matter in our physical universe, it is not the component of our reality--relationships are. Because relationships constitute reality, what we experience is the impact of the relationships outside of us working with the relationships inside of us. (whatever "us" may be, and I am not writing that book.) So to search for "substance" behind a word like "emergence" is to miss the point of emergence. What emergence is turns out to be a constellation of relationships that encircle a group of people trying to explore God. God's own self might be emergence in this sense, as it seems arguable that God is in search of relationships which expand and explore God's life and being. (This would be one way to understand Creation and Redemption, for example.)

So although the folks are excited to try new ways of being Christian in the world these days, they are working with an ontology that is not the way most of us see and experience reality. I was even treated to a very meaningful speech on "family" in which the person tried to describe family, but ultimately gave up and just called it the people you value in your life...which is good for what it is, but my brother does have a different relationship to me than my neighbor (both of whom I value), and we usually call one family and one not...and I am physically related to my children in a way that I am not related to my wife. (My kids and I share DNA, for example.) So this is a tricky thing to try and describe why Christianity needs to be different in the coming millennium, and I appreciated all that I heard. I believe Christianity DOES HAVE TO BE different, but it is different because of who God is, how God is, and what God does. Until we come to grips with the ontological reality of God as relationships, most of our difference will just be putting the deck chairs on the other side of the deck of the Titanic. We'll just get a different view of a sinking ship.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

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