I was an “emerging Christian” before “emerging” was cool. I was the one asking questions in seminary years ago. I had imagined seminary would be filled with lots of passionate debates and discussion just like the rabbis-in-training had enjoyed in the movie, Yentl. And afterwards, we’d go have tea and bagels (or beer and pretzels if you were really subversive). I was too naïve then to realize that asking questions was simply not done. Certainly not the kind that not only wonder aloud about what we do, but also question our core assumptions, our starting place. One simply does not question what we claim as orthodoxy, nor how it has shaped us not only for good but also for harm, nor how we create positions and postures that seem at the core to foster an insulated, exclusive faith, as well as producing pastors-to-be who were unprepared to deal with the realities of human struggles. Instead of engaging in rousing conversation, people told me they were praying for me. Some looked genuinely concerned, as if I was going to hammer 95 theses to the door of the student center or spontaneously burst into flame. But I thought these were important questions. I eventually came to realize that neither reaction was necessary; I was disruptive enough just for being female. My questions simply reinforced their idea that Eve could not be trusted.
So I find it heartening in these days that many others are putting their voice and hearts to this same holy discontent. I was unable to attend the big Emerging Church conference in New Mexico this past weekend. But through the tweets and Facebook I heard some of the main points. And it was good stuff but nothing new to me. That is actually a good thing. It’s like the Spirit is once again singing over us and we are all hearing the same tune.
Some call this stirring that is amongst us emerging Christianity, others call it progressive Christianity. Diana Butler Bass (another new favorite author) believes that the emergence that is happening is calling us beyond the categories of conservative-moderate-liberal, and the polarities that these categories create within the Church. There’s lots of questions, lots of hope, lots of longing, lots of one-anothering, lots of old category busting. It can be frightening to those of us raised on “rock theology”, that is, believing we always know and always have our footing. But the good news, she says, is that as untethered and rootless as emerging Christianity seems to be, there is a story that is being recalled, filled with ancient traditions of social justice and worship and following Jesus. There is something to glean from a shared past that is both grounding and freeing. She calls this, “generative Christianity.”
So then, says Bass,
Generative Christians maintain that the past, present and future- the living the dead and the yet to be born- are intimately related in God. In less theological language, [Bellah] insists that “remembering [ancient stories] leads to what is ahead: “Communities of memory that tie us to the past also turn us toward the future as communities of hope.” Tradition is a lifeline to hope. Without it, progressive Christianity easily devolves into yet another political and social agenda, a largely secular worldview dressed up in religious language or blessed by a passing prayer.
The very cool thing is the traditions and stories she refers to are outside of the “Big C” history of the church. She says,
“Big C” history is the “us against them” morality tale of a suffering church that is vindicated by God through its global victory over other worldviews, religions, or political systems. Militant Christianity tolerates (and often encourages) schisms, crusades, inquisitions, and warfare as means- metaphorical if not actual – to the righteous end of establishing God’s will on earth.
The “Big C” story often is the only story we are ever told. And we are rarely called to reflect upon the sad fact that it is the story of when the Church lost herself, partnering with politics and power, altering our self-understanding and our purpose in the world. It may have given us a rock of sorts to stand on, but removed us from the living Jesus.
So Bass has written a history gleaned from stories of Jesus followers throughout the millennia. They are mostly ordinary folk through whom we can trace the presence of Jesus throughout the last 2,000 years – the Jesus who moves within us to love neighbor as ourselves, and who stretches the idea of neighbor to an ever-broadening inclusive sweep. You know, that Jesus who asks us to give to anyone who asks, and to love the stranger, heck, even to love our enemies. That wild man Jesus, who is not to be figured out but loved and trusted. We do not stand on Him, He holds us. It is scary to let go and trust His presence.
And, Butler adds, there is something subversive about hearing the stories of those who did not write the “Big C” history. Theirs are not the stories of conquest, expansion and power yet they can bring down empires. I guess I can relate to subversives. They may feel small, unwanted and ineffective but they follow Jesus, who is still walking amongst us throughout history and time, bringing low the mountains and filling the valleys, transforming one soul at a time.
…And in these days, I think Jesus is reclaiming His Church.
(quotes are from “A People’s History of Christianity” by Diana Butler Bass.)