Tuesday, March 15, 2005

The Emergent Church and Fear of Universals

Darrell Guder
Originally uploaded by Phil Steiger.
In my quest to better understand the shape of the latest thoughts and trends in the church world, I picked up what is proving to be an interesting book, The Continuing Conversion of the Church by Darrell L. Guder. I have made my way through about a third of the book so far and would like to comment on a couple of things as I go along.

So far I have greatly appreciated Guder's emphasis on evangelism as a theology, or more accurately, a practical theology, for the church. He encourages us not to loose sight of the evangelistic core of the New Testament. I am looking forward to reading his insights regarding the implications for the church with regard to the shifts in American culture and the shifts in church culture.

My one complaint so far has to do with a passage in which Guder repeats what is becoming a mantra from Emergent Church circles. I do not know myself if Guder 'officially' aligns himself with the EC, but he just might given his take on some of these central issues. The passage I would like to deal with comes at the beginning of his chapter, "God's Mission Is Good News." My first quote here is, I think, essentially true as far as it goes:

This good news about God is rooted in a particular history. Although the modern mind has been affronted by the biblical emphasis upon a particular, specific history as the event of God's self-disclosure, it is essential to the goodness of this news that it be historical....Through the particular encounter of God with Israel, the good news that God is loving and purposeful enters into human history and becomes knowable.

I think such a statement is true in a pretty straightforward kind of way. God revealed Himself to humanity through the people and history of one particular group of people. What Guder says in the next paragraph, however, corrupts his own argument:

Apart from such a particular history, Christianity has no universal message to proclaim. The Bible is not a collection of universal ideas cloaked in a particular history.

I find such an argument not only demonstrably false, but false in such a way as to make the rest of Guder's book pointless if you were to take it seriously. To limit my thoughts to a few nutshells:

To which culture do we limit God's revelation? One might assume that Guder is referring to Israel when he writes "a particular history," but then the New Testament disagrees with that when the Greeks are a crucial part of God's revelation in history. What about the half-Jews of the Diaspora? What about the barbarians, Scythians, slaves or freemen? The point is, although it is hip in Emergent circles to speak of "culture" and how God reveals Himself within a culture, the term "culture" is notoriously difficult to define. If you are going to base a crucial point of an argument on the notion of "culture" then you had better try to define it. I haven't yet read an Emergent author do so. God revealed Himself to Nebuchadnezzar in the OT and I don't think he was Jewish in any discernable way whatsoever.

The very fact that within God's revealed Word there are multiple cultures proves that there are "universal ideas" within His revelation to those cultures. Paul, a Jew, translated the "universal ideas" received in the Jewish Scriptures to Greeks.

What I don't entirely understand is the Emergent fear of "universal ideas." All that phrase simply conveys is that there are things in this world which are the case for all people at all times. Christians, of all people, should cling to the fact that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself. If that proposition (gasp!) is not universal, then we of all people are to be pitied the most.

Guder goes on in the same paragraph:

Such universal ideas are merely the product of human imagination and creativity.

Such as that one? Is it universally the case (the case for all universals expressed by humans) that all universals are merely the product of human imagination? If the answer is yes, then Guder has pulled the rug out from his own argument, and if it is no, then Guder has pulled the rug out from under his own argument.

Again, it is hip in Emergent Church circles to assert that things like universals don't exist, but there is simply no getting around them. To assert that they do not is to assert something which you think is true universally.

Additionally, if you agree with Guder's assertion, you have left yourself in an unenviable position. You have no good reason to believe 2+2=4. Each time you get up in the morning, you have no good reason to believe the laws of physics are the same as they were yesterday. You have no good reason to believe that torturing babies for fun and profit is wrong all the time. I, frankly, don't want to be in that position.

It is unfortunate that Guder's book makes this philosophical move. I think there is a lot of intellectual and spiritual stimulation to be had from his project, and I look forward to what else he has in mind.


Bob Robinson said...

Good assessment.

I, too, struggle with the current trend to disparage universal ideas. I think that the proper desire to swing the pendulum away from purely propositional statements as the starting point of theology has swung it too far for some.

My understanding of a proper view is this: Propositions grow out of narrative and relationship. In the modernity, where Reason ruled, we started with propositions and looked to stories merely for illustrations of these statements. God’s Bible reads, at times, like propositions (i.e., in the epistles), but most of the time it reads like story. We are to immerse ourselves into the story to find God.

But the “universals” are there, certainly.

Again, the pendulum may be swinging too far: We must find the universal truth through our cultural setting (to not know that our culture influences our worldview and interpretation of things is to be ignorant). But that does not mean the universal truth somehow changes from one culture to another. It means that the universal truth is expressed in different ways from one culture to another.

Rev. Mike said...

Maybe it's the fact that Guder taught at my alma mater before he went to Princeton, so I'm used to reading between the lines or translating stuff like this. Or maybe I'm out to lunch because you've actually read the passage you reference in context, while all I have is the quote you've posted.

Whichever the case may be, I just don't hear him saying what you're suggesting here, Phil. It sounds to me like he's trying to point to the particularity of God's revelation in a specific history of a specific people at specific points in that history, particularly the specific revelation in the person of Jesus Christ, and if that's the case, it baffles me why you have a problem with that. Nothing in that particularity excludes the particular revelation to others who are the seed of Abraham as well. Maybe I'm reading too much Reformed theology into this, but that's what I hear when I read the passage you've quoted.

Whenever I read you discussing the emergent church, you seem drawn to the facet of postmodern relativism that is expressed by SOME elements of the emergent church, but not all. The argument you then seem to be making regarding Guder is that if the emergent folks are into him, he MUST ipso facto be skirting universal, propositional truth and absolutes.

Have I missed your point completely? If so, sorry. If not, I think you're reading a lot into what he's saying, and I don't get your objection.

Phil Steiger said...


Just recently I used the pendulum image when discussing the EC movement with someone. I agree that they are reacting to areas in which the pendulum may have swung too far to the Modernism/Enlightenment end, but they themselves are taking the pomo thing way too far to the other end (in my opinion). There may be corrective elements in a dialectic that swings the pendulum to the other extreme, but there isn’t much helpful in taking that far swing to be our new ecclesiastical norm.


Thanks again for your thoughts. I need to be kept honest! I too agreed wholly with Gruder’s statements about God revealing Himself in a particular culture to a particular people at a particular time. In fact, I think I said that that sentiment was true in a pretty uncontroversial way.

What then shocked me were the following statements which dismissed “universal ideas” lock, stock, and barrel. Unlike you, I don’t have much exposure to Gruder’s full theological view, but the portions I quoted seemed pretty straightforward. Maybe he qualifies them elsewhere and I don’t know it, but they would take some serious qualification. I think part of what confused me was the train of thought: God’s revelation was in history, therefore to pick transcultural universals out of Scripture is improper (in large part because “universal ideas” are human inventions anyway). I simply don’t think there is any kind of necessary dichotomy between historical revelation and transcultural universals.

As for my evaluation of the EC, I don’t feel bad about being a little heavy-handed when it comes to the postmodernism behind the movement. You are right that it comes out in only some of them, but the crucial issue is-who are they? They are the leaders and vanguard of the movement. I have posted before concerning the areas in which I agree with the EC movement, and I meant them sincerely. But I have also said that if the postmodernism which seems to seep through the core of the movement is not gotten rid of, the EC will find itself left behind by not only the church, but by the culture as well. Personally, I don’t want to see that happen (though many might find that hard to believe).

To put it succinctly, the core values of postmodernism are antithetical with the core values of orthodox Christianity. (Notice I didn’t say-the core values of the EC are antithetical with orthodox Christianity.) All the ideals many find themselves enamored with in postmodernism (community, mystery, social justice, etc.) can be found in orthodox Christianity sans the corrosive influence of relativism and pragmatism. It is my conclusion, then, that the growing symbiotic relationship between the EC and pomo culture needs to be severed.

Duncan said...

I've just posted a summary of The Continuing Conversion of the Church at http://godpost.blogspot.com

My reading of 'universal ideas' in Guder's work is a reference to foundationalist idealism - the idea that God is the ultimate in (insert your favourite ideal). To talk about God being in Christ reconciling the world to himself is in fact seeped in narrative. To talk about the importance of truth is an example of universal ideas.

On another angle, there is a strong tension between the particular and the universal when it comes to showing Christian faith to be accessible to people of particular cultures (like the Jewish or Muslim) as well as something that can be engaged with across cultural barriers.