I cringe when I hear the emerging church described as liberal. I’m an American from a conservative evangelical background, so maybe that’s because I got so used to hearing ‘liberal’ used as a term of derision when I was growing up.
Or maybe it’s because critics of the emerging church, especially in the United States, seem especially fond of tarring the movement with the ‘liberal’ brush.
This could be an effort to deride and discredit the emerging church. On the other hand, I can see where these critics are coming from. Many of the emerging church’s critics believe that we can discover an absolute truth here on this earth, and many involved with the emerging church doubt that we can. So by the critics’ definition, that makes the emergents ‘liberal.’
Peter Rollins is a (really!) liberal Christian theologian and church leader working in a seemingly negative-theology tradition. He does workshops where he for example tells Christians to be atheists.
Rollins – the Belfast-born philosopher now identified with the emerging church both in Ireland and in the US – is not just described as liberal but ‘really!’ liberal.
I don’t think that the person who wrote this description on YouTube is using ‘liberal’ here to mock Rollins. But even so, the fact that this is the first adjective they use to describe what they heard Rollins say is unsettling for emergents who don’t see themselves as part of the classical ‘liberal’ Christian tradition.
For example, in his book, The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier, (2008, Jossey Bass) Toby Jones puts it this way:
‘Emergents reject the politics and theologies of left versus right. Seeing both sides as a remnant of modernity, they look forward to a more complex reality’ (p. 20).
That means that emergents are self-consciously articulating something they perceive to be different, a third way.
Crucial to that third way is their emphasis on living out their faith in the real world, rather than focusing on particular dogmas and beliefs. To boil it down, Christianity is how you live, not what you believe.
To push this further, as Rollins does, emergents might say that the feeble beliefs that we can articulate in words and creeds can’t really tell us enough about what God is like.
In the YouTube descriptor of Rollins’ talk above, the commentator writes: ‘He does workshops where he for example tells Christians to be atheists’.
Yes, Rollins ends the clip with one of his characteristically mind-bending claims, saying that Christians are atheists when they acknowledge that God is more wondrous than we could ever imagine.
But it’s a redefinition of atheism – not a recommendation to join the Richard Dawkins Fan Club.
Rollins says that every kind of atheism is a rejection of a particular theism. The insight of Christianity, then, is that Christians recognise that they cannot pin down a theism that tells us 100% what God is like.
So Rollins is saying that Christians do not and cannot make any claims about God that ultimately do him justice, therefore they are atheists (or a/theists, if you prefer).
The test of this theological snippet, of course, is whether this view of God inspires people to live graciously in the ‘real world’ – if that is what those involved with the emerging church are indeed calling the church back to do.