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Sunday, July 4, 2010

PCUSA General Assembly - Day Two.1


This morning I went to something called "Being Church Leaders In a Time of re-Formation" with Phyllis Tickle as the featured speaker. When I got there I was surprised to see that it was sponsored by The Presbyterian Foundation, of all things, and included a free breakfast. My assessment of the Foundation was elevated a couple of notches.
Tickle spoke without notes on ideas based on her book The Great Emergence. She started by rattling off a long list of circumstances indicating the kind of enormous, wall-to-wall shift we are going through right now culturally. Her point was that this is not just a church or Christianity thing; these changes, which are the Great Emergence she is talking about, are happening across the board to everyone. From technology to the family to geo-politics to (and she didn't even mention this) ecological crises, we are in a time when everything is being disrupted.
Tickle points out that, for some reason, this kind of thing tends to happen almost like clockwork in places where Latin/Western culture has had an impact, every 500 years. The last such period was the Reformation/Enlightenment. What she calls "emergence Christianity" is part of this transformation as its Christian, ecclesiological dimension.
Tickle points to the work of Walter Rauschenbusch as the beginning of the ticks towards emergence (I add that of Kierkegaard, around the same time), in the mid-1800's). The movement is not unified but already splintering. One of these splinters is the "hyphenateds," that is, groups of Christians doing emergent things while remaining loyal to their old denominations.
She gave 8 broad and uncomprehensive characteristics of emergence Christianity: deinstutitionalized, non-hierarchical, "allergic to real estate," missional, obedient, Trinitarian (learning from Eastern Orthodoxy, she says), and concerned about social justice. On this last point, she went on a bit, describing emergence Christians as critical of the "inhumane kindness" approach of many Christians to mission as a kind of paternalistic, charitable, one-way generosity, which preserves power inequalities. Emergence Christians are more interested in identifying with and building relationships between people.
Her main point, perhaps, was about authority. Each one of these cultural transformations is a crisis of authority. Our authority in Protestantism since the Reformation has been sola scriptura. Tickle broke it to us as gently as she could, but she insisted that sola scriptura no longer holds. It has been breaking down for at least a century under the weight of contradictory experience. The gift to the world we received with sola scriptura was education; the liability was extreme divisiveness. The authority question is one that emergence Christians will have to answer. She maintains that Scripture will always be part of the mix. Another part is shaping up to be the community. (See my blog post on Wiki-theology.) A third leg of the authority stool has yet to be determined. (I think it's going to have something to do with practice.) (This is based on "Hooker's stool" which informs historical Anglicanism: scripture, tradition, and reason, the last two categories being now inadequate.)
If authority is the big question, Tickle identifies 3 not quite so big questions: 1. we need a post-Christendom theology of religion which can be authentically Christian, accepting of other faiths, and not wedded to the State and its politics. 2. We need a theological anthropology which allows us to talk intelligibly about what a human being, and in particular what the soul, is. 3. We need a way of talking about the Atonement that makes sense, now that penal- substitution is bankrupt. The Atonement "is how and where we live."
Tickle identifies the following theologians as among those whose work reflects this emergence sensibility: Bonhoeffer, Rahner, Cox, Moltmann, Volf, and McLaren. I didn't get the impression it was an exhaustive list.
I hope people heard her. Judging from the discussion with moderatorial candidates the evening before, much of the church is out of the loop on this, the most important and comprehensive "elephant in the room" right now. We're still trying to resuscitate the corpse of the old paradigm.

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From there we went to worship. I found worship to be wonderful, on the whole. It began with some Native American elements: blessing the Four Directions. There was colorful liturgical dance and a procession. The music was excellent: a mixture of many different styles. Bruce Reyes-Chow preached a stirring if somewhat unfocused sermon. Great images, memorable stories, sobering facts... but not much gospel. It is hard to worship authentically in these cavernous conference spaces sitting in cramped straight rows of folding chairs.

We do try hard to be multi-cultural, to our credit... but we remain aging and overwhelmingly white. Still I imagine this worship was light-years from what my father and grandfather experienced in the General Assemblies they attended.

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