A tweet from Andrew Jones (‘An original emerging church criticism: “Don’t conceive we crapper undergo Absolute Biblical Truth” ’) led me to Pastor and Author Bob DeWaay’s resolute and curiously robotic critique of the ‘Emergent Church’ on SO4J-TV. On one level the clip reinforces all my prejudices against conservative religious broadcasting. Bob DeWaay is so determined to defend his rationalistic, word-based, doctrinaire orthodoxy that I am left wondering whether he has much idea at all about what is happening (and why) under the banner of ‘emerging’ at the crumbling boundaries of the modern church.
The cultural and intellectual gulf that underlies this debate is exposed to almost poignant effect. The whole phenomenon is very difficult to understand, DeWaay says, because ‘even the thinking behind Emergent isn’t how most of us have been trained to look at the world and how we think.’ Well, precisely. The reason why his doctrinaire orthodoxy is under attack is that people don’t think that way any more. Something has to give here. It is quite extraordinary to hear him admit that he cannot understand how postmoderns who have lost confidence in absolute and foundationalist epistemologies (not exactly how he puts it) can still talk about having hope. Then he blithely dismisses the Emergent view that life is about relationships and experience – as though somehow hope has nothing to do with such things.
I also get rather indignant at the glib accusation that the emerging movement is abandoning biblical truth – OK, yes, partly because there is some substance to the accusation; but partly also because some of us our trying very hard to show that scripture itself resists the simplistic, rigid, personalized categories of conservative orthodoxy. But enough about my pain…
Having said all that, I will admit to having rather enjoyed DeWaay’s critique of contemporary theologies that imagine wonderful, hopeful futures without taking account of the realistic power of sin to mislead and corrupt and destroy what is good.
In the end you can’t just live out of your imagination, but that is exactly what postmodern theology is and what it does. It creates an imaginary theology where God is in the future drawing everything into himself and things are getting better, so we can go out here in the world and look around and find the kingdom of God.
There is certainly an over-confident element in emerging theologies that indeed imagines that human culture is on a steady upward trend towards some sort of utopian omega point, or the kingdom of God, when all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well. I don’t know if that is what Tony Jones had in mind when he wrote that ‘we are on a tractor beam of redemption’, but it sounds likely.
What puzzles me, though, is why the emerging movement should have a problem with the idea of a final judgment. Is there something intrinsic to emerging theologies that is fundamentally incompatible with the thought that humanity will ultimately, in some way, be judged for its wickedness? After all, the concern for justice is a hallmark of the emerging church. Why should we then want to affirm the final victory of injustice? Is it simply because we confuse the idea of a final judgment with misplaced, medieval notions of hell as a place of eternal torment?
I think DeWaay badly misinterprets New Testament eschatology when he depicts the final judgment as an outpouring of God’s wrath upon the earth – to my mind that is a serious diminution and distortion of biblical truth. But, at the same time, I don’t see what is to be gained by eliminating from our final hope the conviction that in making all things new the Creator will destroy everything that is inimical to righteousness, justice, love and life. I’m with you there, Bob! Stay real!