Will-To-Power & Anti-Intellectualism in Recent Emergent Conversations

Tony Sig

Still (sort of) A Friend Of

There was a time when I thought of myself as “Emergent.”  Indeed, as I have posted before, I have certain significant sympathies with some “Emergent” ideas and thinkers; I’m no Mark Driscoll’ian re-verter to a pre-emergent state.  But I’ve most certainly become strongly convinced of Catholic Christianity as received in the patristic horizon and find the unconsumated Derridean “trace” and “never-being” of the Church in some Emergent thought to be rhetorically violent.

Indeed I’ve seen some recent examples of anti-intellectualism that have rather frustrated me.  Rather than “naming names” and contributing to the endless use of the internet to anonymously defame people I’m going to stick to the concepts and explain why I think they constitute in some cases a will-to-power and in others a nascent anti-intellectualism.

There have been some using an old narrative to provide a critique of the Church which is quite overused. In regards to how the Church uses and abuses power is very relevant and incisive, but with regards to how the Church reflects theologically, is fundamentally flawed.  This old narrative is the one about the “Greek Fall” of the church.  The story goes like this:  Once upon a time the church was a tiny band of common and egalitarian followers of Jesus who thought “biblically.”  Then Nicaea and Constantine happened (yes, the narrative is this simplistic-hence why it is too easy) which “Constantinianized” the church, who lost the “real” “biblical” story and transformed it’s thought into foreign and evil “Greek” “metaphysical” categories of thought.  This “Greek Fall” of the church has continued to this day and is finally becoming overthrown by the grassroots emergence thinkers most of whom read a lot of Caputo and Moltmann.

Now I will certainly allow that the way in which the legalization and officialization of Christianity occured gave space for long historical abuses of power.  But anyone who thinks that churches and bishops and Christians never abused authority before Constantine is someone who just hasn’t taken any time to read patristic (or New Testament!!!) literature.  Similarly, so-called “Greek” thought is used all throughout the New Testament.  There are those who use the “GF” narrative sometimes and easily to move from “Greek” ideas in the early church are bad to “Greek” ideas in the New Testament are bad.

There are many problems with this but I’ll keep to one in particular that has me riled up.  Cultural mediation goes all the way down.  Before NT authors were “using” Greek “ideas” OT authors were using Greek “ideas,” and before that they were using a whole slew of Ancient Near Eastern “ideas.”  There is no pure Hebrew narrative and there is no single “biblical” narrative outside of the traditioning communities.  We cannot reach back, peel off Greek, or Akkadian, or Babylonian layers and reach some “biblical” “un-philosophical” and “pure” narrative.  The logic and the argument fails to convince.  People; Narratives; Scriptures; Educations – none of them come in a vacuum.

…Now to another recent incident.  There is a longstanding allergy to “systematic theology” in some Emergent thought.  At one time I shared such an allergy.  I would still reject any presumption to create a systematic theology that sought to close off and totalize it’s narrative but what I’ve come to believe is that what initially may have been a judicious use of Lyotard has turned to a misunderstanding of what he was getting at; or at least how I take Lyotard.

The problem with a “meta-narrative” is not the size and scope of the story being told but the manner in which its truth claims are presented as authoritative.  The problem with “modern” narratives is that they laid claim to authority by use of a second story, that of “reason,” to substantiate all knowledge claims.  In post-foundational epistemologies to which I am sympathetic, there is no way to reach outside of a narrative to justify and lend authority to the narrative.  It’s truthfulness is judged by how well it explains all phenomena that it claims to comprehend and how widely and deeply it’s claims are assumed by authoritative story-telling communities.  Such stories can be as large as they can manage and still not be “systematics” in a “modern” fashion provided they allow for critique, for dialectic, for growth and resist totalization and oppression of other voices on a priori grounds.

Now not everybody needs to systematize their theology.  But the refusal to dialogue with those who draw out seemingly logical strains implicit in ones own theology, be it “systematic” or not, is to hide behind an anti-intellectual screen at best and if ones own theology constitutes a critique then at worst it constitutes a will-to-power.  It hides ones foundations beyond critique while secretly using those same foundations to critique others.  It is especially evil when one uses a philosopher such as Derrida or Caputo to critique other philosophies and theologies and then when asked to defend ones beliefs to hide behind anti-systematics.

These problems seem to repeat themselves over and over again in different ways to me as I keep in touch with some “emergent” thinkers.  This is the inevitable rhetorical violence of using significantly “academic” insights to create and sustain a “populist” movement.  I guess we’re all still waiting for emergence to grow up, as indeed the whole of creation is waiting for all the church to “grow up,” so I don’t say this as self-righteous gloat but as a goad, part of the dialectical pruning and salvation of the Church and the whole world.

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7 Comments

  1. No pure narrative: Precisely! It’s that originalist instinct so prevalent in conservative evangelical circles (and others) simply papered over. The arrogance of saying, “we’ve got the real, original story over here.”

    My only problem with the Constantinianizationasionalizationishisticness of Christianity (I saw I misspelled and just decided to run with it) is that it cut off a certain line of reasoning, which up to that point had been controversial but within the umbrella of the church, as heterodox or unorthodox. Can’t remember the difference.

    Kinda like when King Henry just kinda said, “Nope. England has it’s own church.”

    And it was the linking of the church’s narrative to the state, which is still something the ECUSA does, in my opinion.

    But yeah, totally loved your nameless critique of the most nameful man in Emergent Xianity. 🙂

    Reply

  2. O David, there are two very nameful people in Emergent here referenced.

    I totally agree on ECUSA. We’re the ones who created THE National Cathedral after all.

    I think that “Constantinianizationasionalizationishisticness” should be deemed the Word of the Day.

    Reply

  3. Crap! I’m out of date, then. There are TWO? Or is the one just so grand that the one appears as two. I should never comment on blogs past 9:30. This is the result.

    The Word of the Day would be hard to Tweet, I’m afraid, given the 140 character limit.

    Reply

  4. Anthony, I agree with your observation that Greek ideas influenced Christian thought long before Constantine.

    However, I think the critique of Constantinianism as it was made by pre-Emergent theologians (Yoder, Hauerwas, Clapp, et al.) remains valid. In fact, it seems to me that American evangelicalism’s support of America’s increased nationalism and militarism after 9/11 is an example of a continuing Constantinianism (blurring of church and state, embrace of power, acceptance of violence, etc.). I don’t think a rejection of the Nicene Creed simply because of Constantine’s involvement is valid, though. Is that what you’re concerned about–Emergents rejecting Nicene catholicity? I wasn’t aware this idea had entered into the Emergent conversation. Many Emergent churches use the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed as their (only) statements of faith.

    On the subject of systematic theology, it seems to me that one’s theology can be consistent without being systematic. I believe the Emergent critique of systematic theology began with the basic observation that the Bible is more a work of narrative theology than of systematic theology. The Nicene Creed is also more narrative theology than systematic theology.

    Reply

    1. Great comments Josh, as always.

      For what it’s worth, in this post I’m not addressing “The Emergent Church” considered as a whole thing. I think that it is diverse enough that such a thing is preposterous. So I have two specific recent theological excursions from specific people in mind when I wrote this.

      With regards to “Constantinianization,” I understand that the critique is pre-Emergent, keep in mind that I said “old story.” I would also agree that as the Church became the church of the Roman state that the identity and vision of the Church shifted strongly. I also agree that the way in which the church/state connection has been used has often been sinful (Though I think that the American/Evangelical connection is much much weaker than say the Russian/Orthodox connection). What I don’t buy though is the way that “Constantine” has become a cipher that holds all sorts of ideologies, only some of which have a clear hold on the evidence. I wasn’t also really referencing any rejection of Nicene catholicity. I agree that many I know of use those creeds as the only statements of faith.

      Re: Systematic Theology – My concern is more here having to do with epistemological and/or philosophical grounds to reject systematics than with narrative vs systematics. I imagine that if we hashed this out we’d agree more than we’d disagree. But for now I’ve got to head off for coffee.

      Peace,
      Tony

      Reply

  5. Thanks for the helpful clarifications, Tony. I’m guessing I know the two theologians you have in mind; I’m at a disadvantage as I haven’t read either of their most recent books.

    Reply

  6. Josh,

    Could you either expand or clarify what you mean by

    “The Nicene Creed is also more narrative theology than systematic theology”

    I would say that the Nicene Creed is very systematic.

    Reply

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