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The ironic Faith of Emergents
McLaren shows us not only where ‘post-evangelicals’ are going, but also how they get there.
The experience of “ironic faith” is pervasive—though rarely noticed—in the work of McLaren and other emergents. The irony is that they have deconstructed the very thing they were most committed to, and are left with what many call post-evangelicalism.
Ironic Faith as a Third Way
Listen to these lines from Jewish writer Joseph Epstein that describe his own ironic faith: “I find myself more impressed by the mysteries of life and more certain that most of the interesting questions it poses have no persuasive answers, or at least none likely to arrive before I depart the planet. … I suffer, then, some of the fear of religion without any of the enjoyment of the hope it brings. … You live and you learn, the proverb has it, but in my case, You live and you yearn seems closer to it.”
I’m not saying McLaren’s or any of the emergent leaders’ thinking approaches Epstein’s posture; their yearning emerges from belief in Jesus Christ. But the emergents’ commitment to their previous evangelical faith is ironic, and no one can understand emergent without understanding this experience. For what it is worth, I, too, have been through the experience of ironic faith, for some of the reasons I’m about to mention, but I have come out of that experience with a modest, moderate, and chastened form of evangelicalism. For this reason alone, I stand alongside the emergent and emerging crowd as a fellow traveler. Consequently, I have as much concern with the strictures of neo-Fundamentalists as I do with the loss of theological clarity in the emerging movement. For me, the emerging movement offers the hope of a third way.
Very few emergent folks I have encountered have any chance of returning to a robust, traditional evangelical faith. As emergents learned and listened in their evangelical churches and institutions, they realized they could not accept much of what they were being taught. Though they remained within the comfortable confines of these institutions, their faith became ironic. Yes, they were Christians, but not quite what most people meant by that term.
Evangelical thinkers such as D. A. Carson, R. Scott Smith, John MacArthur, and Kevin DeYoung and Ted Cluck (authors of Why We’re Not Emergent) warn of the dangers of emergents’ theological drift and draw lines in the sand. The emergents I know are numb to both the warnings and the lines; they have heard those warnings and they have crossed those lines. They are surprised by neither and are not likely to turn back. Instead, they are building a new theology that “emerges” from the story they find themselves in—namely, the shift from modernity to postmodernity.
The Catalysts of Ironic Faith
The origins of ironic faith among evangelicals can be found in at least eight catalysts. These catalysts move disaffected evangelicals from an ironic faith within evangelicalism to a fork in the road: Either abandon traditional evangelicalism for an emergent form of post-evangelical Christianity, or abandon Christianity altogether.
First, emergents believe the epistemic foundation of conservative evangelicalism, the doctrine of Scripture’s inerrancy, does not sufficiently express the truth about the Bible. Inerrancy is for them the wrong word at the wrong time, though it may have been the right word for a previous generation.
Second, emergents believe that the gospel they heard as children or were exposed to as teenagers is a caricature of Paul’s teaching—what McLaren sometimes calls “Paulianity.” The discovery of Jesus, the Gospels, and his kingdom vision creates an irony: “If we are followers of Jesus, why don’t we preach his message?” Emergents I know are sometimes wearied or put off by Paul, yet enthusiastic about Jesus and the Gospels. When McLaren describes the message of Jesus as a “secret message,” he speaks of the emergent discovery of the radical kingdom vision as really new. The political vision and the global concerns of emergents flower from the discovery of Jesus.
Third, exposure to science in public education, universities, and personal study has led emergents to disown the traditional conclusion that when science and the Bible conflict, science must move aside. Although they refuse to give the Bible the trump card in this game, they remain committed to it, but now with a different view of what the Bible actually is. The Bible, so many emergents will openly admit, employs various literary genres and shows an ancient perception of how the cosmos works. So they are both left-wing and right-wing, committed to the Bible and open to new ideas.
Fourth, emergents were burned by the lack of integrity among popular evangelical media figures. They watched or heard the stories about Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart and the fall of leader after leader both national and local. Knowing what the Bible says and what leaders are (perhaps) doing behind closed doors creates irony, if not cynicism. For some, the lack of integrity among leaders casts doubt on the whole institution of the church. Emergents compare what Jesus had in mind and what Paul saw come to pass with what is going on, and decide to start all over again as if for the first time—this time with authenticity.
Fifth, public schools drilled the messages of multiculturalism and pluralism into emergents’ heads and hearts, while their churches were teaching them that all those without explicit faith in Christ were doomed. Possessing both a faith that is particular and an intimate knowledge of religious pluralism produced a tension that was nearly intolerable. For many, it results in a commitment to Jesus Christ alongside a more pluralistic view of world religions, or a broadening of what it means to be a “Christian.”
Sixth, emergents sometimes exercise a deconstructive critique of the Bible’s view of God. Sometimes I hear it in ways that are no more interesting that Marcion’s old (and heretical) critique of the violent God of the Old Testament. Yet upon close inspection, the rumblings are subtler and more sophisticated, and the struggle is palpable and genuine. For some emergents, the Bible includes portrayals of God that cannot be squared with their understanding of a God of love. For a group less concerned about traditional understandings of inerrancy, such portrayals are interpreted as the way ancients talked about God, with later biblical revelation seen as clearly presenting a God who is altogether gracious and loving.
Seventh, homosexuality. Emergents are not so much pro-gay or pro-lesbian as they are convinced that sexuality is more complex than many acknowledge. They are committed both to the Bible, which has strong denunciatory language for homosexual practices, and to live alongside gay and lesbian friends and family members.
Finally, ironic faith grows out of emergents’ realization that language plays a large role in our faith and our claims to know the truth. Even a first-year college course in literature or criticism exposes students to philosophers Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Richard Rorty, or Stanley Fish, and few students are left unchanged and unchallenged. Emergents reason that theology is language-bound; language has its limits; the Bible is in language; that means the Bible, too, has the limits of language. The Christian faith, many emergents conclude, is language-shaped and that means it is culturally shaped. Why does one language—either ancient Middle Eastern or modern Western—get to tell the whole story? Emergents by and large plead for a multilingual approach to theology, which can lead to an ironic relationship to the language of the Bible and Western theology.
Scot McKnight also wrote McLaren Emerging for Christianity Today.