Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Turtles All the Way Down
Scot McKnight's Critique of Heretic's Guide to Eternity

I knew I loved Scot McKnight for a reason.

Scot has been doing one of his many book review series, this one on A Heretic's Guide to Eternity by Spencer Burke of TheOoze.com. The series is worth reading throughout. My own reason for linking to it and commenting at this time has less to do with the actual critique of the book than what Scot writes about the emerging movement as a whole. Scot is associated with the movement, links to many of its leaders, and has a "friend of Emergent" button on his blog, so he's anything but a knee-jerk, uncomprehending rejector of the movement. I have wanted to write about postmodernism and the emerging movement for a while, but haven't felt that I understood it enough to comment. Scot is, however, not in that position. This is what he says--and it's worth noting that he prefaces his comments in this way he does:
I have to say the following — and I don’t do so with anything but sadness.

The emerging movement is proud of creating a safe environment for people to think and to express their doubts. Partly because of what I do for a living (teach college students), I am sympathetic to the need for such safe environments. But, having said that, the emerging movement has also been criticized over and over for not having any boundaries. Frankly, some of the criticism is justified. I want to express my dismay today over what I think is crossing the boundaries.
What Scot means by "boundaries" is a defining limit to how far one can go and still remain within Christianity. Burke rejects the personhood of God and the necessity of coming to God through Christ; he also argues essentially that everyone is born saved, although it is possible to "opt out" and send yourself to hell. People whose native culture is centered on another religion do not have to convert to Christianity to be saved. (Burke told Scot on the phone that he believes that it is because of Jesus' death and resurrection that people are included in God's grace from birth, but he doesn't say so in the book.)

The issue here is simply, how far may one go in expressing one's doubts, and still claim to be a Christian? Is there a "bottom line" to what it means to be a Christian, or, as the old joke goes, is it "turtles all the way down"? It seems to me to be self-evident that if there is no basic core of belief that is necessary to orthodoxy, then there is no such thing as Christianity at all.

Andrew Jackson on SmartChristian.com correctly observes that "No one should use Burke to condemn everyone in the Emergent movement." However, I don't see Scot as doing that. One of the problems that outsiders like me have in trying to comprehend the movement is that people who critique the movement (e.g., Donald Carson) are dismissed as not understanding it; when people ask questions to try to understand it, people in the movement refuse to "define themselves"; and when individuals within the movement are quoted in order to discuss their ideas, it is responded that "they don't speak for the whole movement." So how is one supposed to grasp or interact with it?

The emerging "conversation" is said to be a "safe environment for people to think and to express their doubts." All well and good; my own experience tells me that if you are free to doubt--honestly doubt--you can come back with a stronger faith than ever. But my suspicion is that "doubt" is all too often merely a code-word to mean rejection. Is the emerging conversation also a safe environment for people to think and express their beliefs? Is there any positive content to the emerging conversation? Or is it all simply rejection? Enquiring minds want to know.


  1. Keith,

    You ask "Is there any positive content to the emerging conversation? Or is it all simply rejection?"

    I hope you get a chance to read the discussion on Scots blog and see how the conversation developed. If you didn’t get a chance to read the rest of the comments here is one I posted in response to Scots comments.


    Thank you for your words and time you have devoted to this discussions. I have enjoyed the time we have been able to share here at the “Garage” and a couple of times on the phone. I have much respect for you and your responsibility as a instructor.

    May a say up front I do not deny the Trinity as you quoted from the book above “Instead, he is a panentheist — which means that “God is ‘in all,’ alongside my creedal view of God as Father, Son, and Spirit” (195).”

    When Father is used in scripture and prayer, etc. I see God much in the same way as you would - personal, with the best characteristics of a father, Son the same - as a son of the father and the incarnational image of God here on earth as God in Flesh and Holy Spirit as personally guiding me, comforting me and leading / convicting me in truth. I assume this would fit (at least loosely) in your “creedal” view of the Trinity. May I add this is a very dear part of my belief and I thought stating “along side my creedal view” would make that clear.

    The context for the subsection of the book focuses not on a denial of the Trinity but the question of how do we deal with the passages where God is not identified with one of these personal roles (Father, Son or Holy Spirit) but only as God. Do you equate God as Father, as the default? That is the way I used to think of God, but now I see the potential of both a Trinitarian creed along with a panentheist view. What if when scripture refers to God as “God” we begin to see God not as anyone of the three but wholly and completely all three and other. I don’t believe there are 4 persons to the trinity but I do see 4 ways of looking at the person and work of God - Father, Son, Holy Spirit AND God.


    Thanks for taking the time to read this and I hope we will all take the time to read, listen question and then make a judgement. If you get a chance to read the book for yourself, I would enjoy hearing your reactions as well.

  2. The more I look at it, the more it seems that "emergent" is just a trendy term that everybody wants to be associated with, but everyone who uses the term has a different definition of what it means. The same thing seems to be true for "post-modern" folks. I've never understood why anyone would want to associate themselves with a term they can't define.

    Being open to people who have doubts is fine, but it seems many who call themselves "emergent" are celebrating doubt as something to be sought after.

  3. Hi, Spencer! Welcome to my little corner of cyberspace.

    I did indeed get a chance to read more of the discussion on Scot's blog. I liked the fact very much that people could disagree heartily without the discussion degenerating into some of the ugly stuff you so often see on the web. I would also like to read your book sometime if I get the opportunity.

    I appreciate your affirmation of the Trinity, as well as the validity of looking at God from the standpoint of the One God apart from the three persons. Indeed, this *is* Trinitarianism; if we can't do that then we are either tritheists or Arians. I don't actually know, based on what you wrote, whether you regard the Trinitarian "persons" as objectively existing, or whether you simply see them as three ways of perceiving God. But I'm willing to leave that quibble alone for the moment.

    For me, however, there are two separate questions: whether we affirm the "persons" of the Trinity, and whether we regard the unified God Himself as "personal." Based on what Scot wrote--and he may have misunderstood you here--you seem to oppose "person" and "spirit": "seeing God as spirit more than person." It seems to me that the biblical portrait of God is always personal, regardless of whether we are considering Him from the standpoint of a particular member of the Trinity or from the standpoint of the One God. He may be more than a person--"superpersonal" if you like--but He is never less. The One God encompasses the three Persons. I'm not sure what is gained by opposing "spirit" to "person"; He is both spirit (not physical, omnipresent) and a person (capable of volition, thought, action, love, and relationship). Anything less than this is less than the Biblical conception of God.

    My post had less to do with your own particular views than it had to do with my frustration at trying to comprehend the emerging movement. It seems to me that even the attempt to do so is usually dismissed as a "modernist" impulse. From my point of view, the emerging movement, which prides itself on inclusivism, actually erects barriers to keep people out, and one of those barriers is a refusal to commit to shared commond ground with other Christians.

  4. Bob--

    I think that "emerging" and "postmodern" have become trendy, but I'm not sure that's all there is to it, or was to it, in the beginning. I do understand the impulse not to want to be labeled and pigeonholed, but at some point I would think that people would want to be able to explain what they're all about. Maybe I'm just not reading in the right places.