Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Inadequacy of Labels, and Frustration

If there is one thing regarding my religious endeavors I regret, it is calling myself an "Emergent Christian."

Let me explain why.

I live in the south, and have experienced religion in a very limited context. Evangelical Protestant Conservative Christianity. I can also never be part of this religious movement/branch/label because of my experiences with it. Not because I'm bitter, not because I've been hurt by some people that represent it, but because of what it is. So let's talk about this label a little bit.

It is defined firstly by the points of Evangelicalism, which are crucicentrism, biblicism, conversionism, and activism. In other words, the Cross is central, the Bible is the ultimate authority (whatever that means depends on the specific denomination/beliefs of the person), a desire to proselytize/"spread the good news", and being active in one's community. At least it's equal parts doctrine and practice.

To be Conservative in the Christian context is nebulous at best, but it generally refers to holding to certain doctrines of Christianity where Liberals supposedly do not. It has political implications, but in a strictly religious sense, it need not be political. In the South, it usually is. However, more to the point Conservativism accuses the Liberals of buying into the "Spirit of the Age" and allowing doctrine to suffer for it. Sadly, they bought into Modernity in a different sense than doctrine, as it now argues on the same playing field as the Liberal Modernist Christians. In other words, to be a Conservative is to hold to a Philosophical Orientation that argues in the mode of pure reason. Being an Evidentialist is a good example of this, and faith almost exists outside the realm of Conservativism, as a presuppositional and purely practical means. Liberals tend to embrace this more fully, becoming practical to the excess.

To be Protestant is to follow the tenants of the Protestant Reformation, and to have a "spirit of Protest" about your religious convictions. This explains why Protestantism has more branches than any other in Christianity...Protestants enjoy arguing. The Protestant Reformation was a Protest against the abuses of the Roman Catholic Church, and Reformed Christians are the most radical, and perhaps the most true, form of Protestants.

If you wanna get really ironic, this post is probably protestant in some form. *cringes in horror*

To be a Christian is to venerate and follow the teachings of Christ to the best of one's ability. That is, of course, to follow according to one's understanding of what that is. Christians come into disagreement because Christ was in many ways a mysterious and contrary figure, and we know about very little of his life, probably less than 5%. What is recorded in the Scriptures is enough to confuse, it seems. That is, if you read it according to a certain set of Philosophical Presuppositions and as an isolated work.

I can't be this set of labels because I disagree with over 90% of it and because of the abuses it naturally falls into, but moreso because the underlying Philosophy is one of categories, Foundationalism. Foundationalism starts with privileged premises, things above reproach in an argument, and argues to natural conclusions using rigorous logic from there. This is correct if one's logic is not flawed and if one's presuppositions are correct. If either of these things are broken or wrong, then the whole thing is monstrous. Furthermore, if you question a presupposition, you are a curse upon a community of Foundationalists, and they will be threatened and respond reasonably according to the way they are. Ostracization is a way of putting this lightly. Being called a heretic is not uncommon, even if one is asking questions or reframing. See: Rob Bell.

So, in comes Emergent Village, which came to be called the Emerging Church movement, which is now supposedly called Hipster Christianity. Unfortunately, this last label is all too fitting.

The Emerging Church in its' prime was a Postmodern form of Christianity. That is, it came to a much more Coherentist view of Truth, viewing it as multivalent and grand. It was also ambiguous to the logical Foundationalist, and hence it was jammed into categories. Postmodernism by itself is a category, though the closest definition one can come to is a suspicion and disdain of metanarratives, which are stories regarding Ultimate Reality. So Postmodern Christianity, depending on who you talk to, is a suspicion of the metanarratives told by people, usually the Conservative Evangelical Protestants in my area, and it tended to look to more ancient roots of Christianity, trying to find the "correct" metanarrative, and usually adding the qualification that one can never get there fully.

Unlike the Neo-Reformed and Reformed, who insist their 16th Century views are 1st Century originated, the Postmodern Christian looks at other Church fathers (or hip dudes that write about other Church fathers) and deconstructs and reconstructs continually according to one's Philosophical orientation, trying to get back to what Christianity "really" is and what it can be today in a form that is more true.

The problem is, of course, they gained more and more labels for themselves. Because labels are easy, and they communicate faster than explaining and leaving ambiguity where it should rightfully be. So we come to Hipster Christianity, which is another step in Emergent solidifying into another movement in Christianity, just like Evangelicalism, that will probably be called something that has a meaning by the end.

Because Emergent became hip, and the younger generation likes it. Their theologies became shaped by finding the obscure writing, the theology that no one gets, and that makes them hip and deep. The mystery became a fad instead of a given, and it became about what is cool rather than trying to find Christianity's roots.

Yeah, I'm getting old. Moving on.

Postmodernism, as a natural development out of the rational Modernism, is merely another thoughtform. The moment it took itself too seriously, began to solidify into something with coherent answers, it was no longer Postmodernism. It was another step in the Modern world. This is because people have not changed, and they still want answers. The problem is, Evangelicalism and "Emergentism" are both irrelevant.

Labels are irrelevant to people and the way they move, grow, think, question, believe, doubt, feel, and think. They are inadequate, and should be treated as such.

Don't get me wrong, labels are not evil. They are inadequate. I could not speak to you without labels, but I guarantee you you are not thinking the exact same thing I am from reading this post. This is why conversation is more important than labels. People are naturally disconnected, and this is not the state we long for. Hurt comes from the connection with others being disrupted, dissonance flowing down it, and something in us being broken or battered. To disconnect, and to make things easier, we create labels, systems, theologies, philosophies, where conversation, intrigue, Theology and Philosophy are more helpful.

Let me explain. Conversation as opposed to labels. Connection as opposed to disconnection. Intrigue as opposed to systems. Wonder as opposed to apathy. Theology as opposed to theologies. Philosophy as opposed to philosophies. A practice, a way of life, as opposed to jamming our souls into labels. Wielding labels as inadequate tools that lead to connection, as opposed to being defined by them.

Because no one likes it when someone defines them as "just an Evangelical."

"Just a conservative."

"Just a foundationalist."

"Just an adherent to [pick a system]."

"Just an Emergent."

"Just a heretic."

It hurts, because we're more. When we are told we don't care about something we desperately do care about just because our approach is different, our label is not the same as another's, and our Philosophy, our Theology, our way is a little different. It is at this point that people are refusing to understand and are disregarding us. People become irrelevant because their philosophy is the only thing relevant to them. Naturally, one wants to lash back out, but these people deserve pity. They isolate themselves from anyone not like them, and the more rigorous they are with their definition of themselves, the more alone they are.

No matter how in love a person insists they are with rejection, they do not want it. They simply convince themselves they do because it's easy. It's the way out of feeling weak and taken advantage of, of a hard life that is worth it for the chance of being understood, of being accepted despite one's blunders and faults.

I regret calling myself an "Emergent Christian" because I am more. People still think I don't believe in the Trinity, people still think I believe in the idolization of community, and I'm more than any of it. So are you.

Emergent was a movement of Frustration, and I fear that people have missed the point. I fear that with everyone mad and jamming public figures into old labels, we are simply. Missing it. We no longer interact with people, we interact with demons or angels, drastic moralizations of constructs of things that were once people, because we can't see past our prejudice.

When safety and understanding at any cost become an idol, it becomes prejudice. And prejudice means lack of seeing. Blind people cannot help but run into each other, not because they're stupid, but because they can't see. What's sad is, for some people to stop being blind, all they need to do is stop being stubborn and open their eyes. A scary thought, considering people can run from themselves much more easily with their eyes closed. Regardless of running into things, they can cast blame on themselves or on anyone but thesmselves, simply because they won't open their eyes to who they are, the power they have, the responsibility being a person implies, and the beauty of all of it.

There's a better way than this. There has to be.

Friday, April 1, 2011

On Universalism and Love

Warning: this post is very specific regarding the book "Love Wins." If you haven't read it yet, go read it before reading this post.

I wrote a review recently for Rob Bell's book "Love Wins." This will be the third post inspired by that particular book. However, as you can see from the post, I'll also be talking about Universalism, which many other reviewers have decided to write about, and I have yet to.

So, Bell writes his fifth book, after being largely left alone aside from the occasional heretic or false teacher accusation since his first, and the result is nothing short of spectacular. People are mad before it even comes out, writing scathing reviews with many implications regarding him as a person, his church, etc. People are also raving and excited about it from before it comes out, and all of this craziness is still continuing. Some people are still writing scathing reviews and talking about how Christianity is in danger, and some people are still writing in defense of Bell's book. The funny thing is, the groups tend to talk past each other, and in the cases of direct engagement, they're passive aggressively, often condescendingly, hostile toward each other.

So, let's try to make sense out of one particular of this, shall we?

One of the things you'll hear in every negative review and almost no positive reviews is the accusation of Universalism. What's interesting (and ironic) is that this term itself is ambiguous, as it refers to many different movements and a whole array of theology.

In its' most basic form, Universalism is a Philosophy or Theology with implications for everyone. For example, most Christians tend to hold to a Universalist view on sin, that is all have sinned, universally.

So let's narrow this down then. Obviously, we have a book regarding Christianity, religion, God, spirituality, etc, and it talks about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person that has ever lived. Most criticism tends to come from the view presented of the afterlife, or of the existence of good and evil in a metaphysical/eternal form. So, the Universalist accusation most specifically refers to someone's fate in relation to God, usually after death.

The problem is, this is still simplistic. What does any of that mean? Does it mean that everyone will be in this realm called "Heaven," no matter what they do or what kind of a person they are? Does it mean that universally everyone will end up in the same place, whether that's heaven, hell, or neither one? If so, does that mean physically, spiritually, or in some other ambiguous form? Or does it perhaps refer to something besides the typical conception of Heaven and Hell being one of two destinations after death? Could it refer to a present reality? How would universalism fit that?

Here's the problem with this accusation.

The Reformed/Conservative/Negative reviewer states that "Love Wins" downplays God's Wrath by getting rid of Hell. They insist that God can only be brought full glory and honor by conscious, eternal torment of those that do not accept Jesus. They speak constantly of life after death, and they speak of this life as the only opportunity to make that decision.

The Emerging/Postmodern/Positive review states that "Love Wins" brings us back into focus with who God is, and states that God can only be brought full glory and honor by insisting on his power and Love, and speaks of Heaven and Hell in present terms, usually leaving ambiguity for what happens after we die, after the Eschaton (End of the Age), and such.

As you can see, both of these views not only have ambiguity, but they are talking past each other. This is classic because it speaks not only of two groups with two different ways of reading the Bible, but it speaks loudly of differing Philosophical Presuppositions.

The focus of present reality vs. future reality. Potentiality vs. Actuality. Love vs. Wrath (though both groups strongly emphasize that they take both into account). Most importantly, however, we are looking at an attack on the Western, Enlightenment spawned, mindset by a Postmodern/Eastern understanding of how things are.

The truth is, regardless of theological claims, both groups are well represented in the Church, and have been for a long time (many centuries at least). Both groups also had ancient predecessors that lead up to the Postmodern group, the Enlightenment group, the East and the West, and all of the other groups.

Obviously, I am simplifying something very complex for the purpose of discussion. There are not only two sides to this issue, there are as many sides as there are people. However, when a revolution happens, an old philosophy comes under scrutiny by a new one. That is the context of our discussion, and it's been happening for years.

The Enlightenment crowd need not be so shocked that a book like "Love Wins" came out. It's been a long time coming.

Now, in light of this, let's come back to Universalism.

To the Enlightenment thinker, Universalism means that nothing matters in this life, because everyone goes to Heaven. That is the emphasis, and that is dangerous to them.

To the Postmodern thinker, Universalism means that we're talking about an old category. That's why none of them mention it: it's simply not relevant to the discussion. To them, old thought patterns are what is dangerous, so of course Universalism is dangerous.

This is why Rob Bell is not writing Universalism. He is not speaking of the Classical Liberal movement, nor is he speaking of a life where nothing matters. His thoughts have come to shape and be shaped by many Postmodern Christians, because that is the way he speaks and writes.

Heaven and Hell do not mean what you may have heard them to mean in this work, they mean something different. Universalism cannot apply to that, and when it comes to life after death, things become very mysterious very fast. Bell speaks in definite terms regarding his theology, regarding what is happening right now in this world, regarding the clear and present Kingdom, and the present realities of Heaven and Hell.

Salvation is no longer defined intellectually, because it never has been. It's a matter of the whole person, and it's nearly impossible to define, and yet it is so simple. The Enlightenment definition, the Sinner's Prayer, the need to intellectually affirm certain points, those things are fading as a definition of Salvation.

It totally makes sense to me that a lot of people are threatened by the movement that "Love Wins" represents. However, to label it as Liberal or Universalist is to completely miss the point of what it is. If Bell wrote that everyone definitely comes to God, goes to Heaven, and the physical domain of Hell is emptied, then I think Universalist would be a good definition. Instead, he writes with hope, speaking from his understanding of God (an understanding coming from Scripture and the historical and cultural Jesus), and says what he believes about it (which people have been screaming for for a long time). Could it be wrong or unbalanced? Sure. But it is what it is, and no amount of swords desperately stabbing straw men of it will change that.

However, one thing is clear: Universalism, Liberalism, Conservativism, Evangelicalism...these words will all become memories or be redefined by necessity in the coming years, and Philosophically, we will move on, hopefully to a better place.

Opinion Section: I have believed for a long time in a Theology of Love. When I look at Jesus, it is the only thing that makes sense. To me, this book was a breath of fresh air, an affirmation that all of the years of being misunderstood/having to hide so I could get a break from accusations of heresy were worth it. Like Bell, I will say I believe in the historic, orthodox Christian faith, and I'd very much rather call it the "New Humanity," the way all humans can be what we were made to be. The Kingdom is Renewal, and I do my best to be a part of that. I'd like to think that even my Enlightenment brothers and sisters are trying to do that as well, and regardless of backlash, criticism, or anything else, I will continue to think the best of them. Love is not about who agrees with you, nor is it about how you are treated. It's an action, and a way of life, that I choose to call "Heaven," and I'm trying to figure out how to bring that around me as much as possible.

What's your story?