Two Sides of the Same Coin  

Posted by Joe Rawls

"Emergent Christianity" is a movement that originated among evangelicals during the '90's. This is not the place for a detailed description of what "emergent' is, but in very broad terms it is characterized by postmodern philosophical orientations, egalitarian ecclesiastical organization, a preference for storytelling rather than asserting dogma, and a "generous orthodoxy"--you can believe in the Trinity and still hang out with gays and Jews, which is not exactly a big priority over at Focus on the Family. Also, there is a strong interest in recovering some traditional aspects of Christian spirituality, such as meditation and even (gasp!) icons.

Tony Jones (pictured) is a leader in the emergent movement and has written The New Christians: dispatches from the emergent frontier (Jossey-Bass 2008) which is, I suspect, the best introduction to the subject currently in print. He talks a lot about worldviews, sets of (frequently unacknowledged) a priori assumptions about how the world works, and how Christians all along the theological spectrum get hung up on notions of "truth" that are actually more indebted to enlightenment rationalism than to the Tradition. The following excerpt appears on pp. 154-155.

Liberal brothers and sisters care about truth too, though they sometimes seem squeamish about the truth of the biblical narrative. I had the pleasure of hearing the biblical scholar Marcus Borg speak recently, and in the question-and-answer session after his address, he was asked a question he's surely been asked hundreds of times: "Professor Borg, what about the empty tomb on Easter morning?" After a bit of theological hemming and hawing, Borg responded, "If I were a betting man, I'd bet--my life or one dollar--that the tomb was not empty. Or that there was no tomb."

Why would the resurrection seem unbelievable to Borg? It's because he is beholden to a certain framework for historical truth: if it violates physical laws, it's probably not "true" (at least not in a factual, historical sense; he still considers it "true" in a literary, metaphorical, even spiritual sense.) He is unwilling to entertain two mutually contradictory ideas simultaneously: (1) that the physical laws by which the universe operates hold unremittingly and (2) that events that break those laws--such as resurrection, miraculous healings, and transfigurations--really did happen. In his talk, Borg referred to those who hold the latter as "fideists," people who allow faith to trump reason.

But Borg has fallen into the other gutter of the bowling alley, allowing reason to trump faith--his, we might say, is a "faith in reason." But the problem with reason is that what we human beings have considered "reasonable' (a geocentric universe, slavery, healing with leeches) has often been overturned.

John Piper, who stands on the opposite end of the theological spectrum, is beholden to a similarly modern framework. After the Interstate 35 bridge collapse in August 2007, Piper wrote about the tragedy, which happened just a mile from his church in Minneapolis. "The meaning of the collapse of this bridge," he wrote, "is that John Piper is a sinner and should repent or forfeit his life forever." He went on to explain that God (seemingly not beams and girders) holds up every bridge in the world, and if one ever falls, God has a perfect reason for it.

What's ironic is that both Borg and Piper want an airtight understanding of God, a God that makes perfect sense. For Borg, it's a God who does not defy the physical laws of the universe. For Piper, it's a God whose sovereignty requires his personal responsibility for all calamities. Each man is constricting God by forcing God to play by certain rules: the rules of physics or the rules of sovereignty. And each is attempting to squeeze all the paradox out of God.

But emergents don't fear paradox; they embrace it. God can be the creator of the universe and the breaker of the rules of physics. God can be sovereign yet not the author of evil.

So, again, the emergents are left to chart a middle course, one between the fideism (in human reason) of the left and the fideism (in the supernatural) of the right. As is so often the case, the "truth" lies in between, in a person (Jesus the Christ) who was truly human and truly divine--in faith, not fideism.

This entry was posted on Saturday, April 5, 2008 at Saturday, April 05, 2008 . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


great point. Tertullian thought the sameway.

"It is, of course, foolish if we are to judge God by our own conceptions." Tertullian 210 A.D.


April 6, 2008 at 6:12 PM

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