The New Atheism, the Emergent Church, and other things I disagree with: An analysis

This post is dedicated to @EmergentDudeBro.

I have been known to mock the New Atheism, for example by suggesting that reading Marx will “blow their minds.” My reason for saying this, of course, is that Marx responded to his generation’s equivalent to the New Atheists by pointing out that critiquing religion on the level of “false beliefs” is necessary but not sufficient — indeed, it completely neglects the material conditions that lead people to embrace religion. I have taken Marx’s basic idea in a somewhat different direction, insofar as I have long believed that the real problem with the evangelical Christian communities in which I lived for the first two-thirds of my life was not the opinions they held on various metaphysical issues, but the concrete material strategies that they used to maintain people’s group loyalty. Teenagers, for instance, are subject to intensive emotional manipulation at the time of their life when they are most vulnerable to it. On the one hand, they are made to feel ashamed of their spontaneous bodily urges, and then church participation is put forward as the way to unburden themselves. On the other hand, they are provided with a full range of social activities so that the church will become their primary group of friends — a strategy that is strongly reinforced insofar as the church is presented as the one safe space in an implacably hostile world. (I remember being viscerally afraid to start middle school after all the propaganda I’d been subjected to, half-expecting that I would be shot when someone took a break from openly having sex and doing drugs in the hallway between classes, etc.)

Though I am far from an expert in the Emergent Church movement, from my interactions with them, they seem like a kind of variation on the theme. One impulse behind the Emergent Church is to explicitly de-emphasize the importance of orthodox belief, to make doubt an integral part of people’s spiritual life, and so forth. Yet their practices of emotional manipulation seem to be essentially unchanged. The difference from the traditional church is quantitative, not qualitative — they are more opportunistic in providing people with rationales for staying loyal to their Christian identity (doubt is a bonus, not an obstacle! you can drink craft beers! we don’t openly hate homosexuals!), but in the end, the goal is to maintain group identity by any means necessary. As we’ve seen in recent online controversies, one important strategy is to occlude real-life divisions in the hope of including everyone. They embrace diversity, for instance, by being open to the concerns of LGBT people and providing space for those who hate and deride them. They push for group unity by castigating people who introduce division by suggesting that LGBT people might not want to be in community people who hate them — a common strategy for taming the oppressed in the history of Christianity, this time advanced under the cover of “open dialogue.”

In the end, the goal is to get people to embrace Christian identity simply for its own sake — with no regard to whether the community is damaging to them. Emergent types are more slippery than most Christians, essentially going along with anything anyone says so long as it will increase their willingness to maintain some kind of Christian identity. I once had a conversation with a “cool youth pastor,” for instance, who listened to Wilco and drank beer and wasn’t a dick about his beliefs. No matter what I said, he insisted that we fundamentally agreed. Even when I said that his work was actively destructive insofar as he was convincing young people to stay affiliated with an institution that was hurting them and was going to hurt their children as well, he nodded along, sure that our disagreement was more or less semantic. There was room for me and my opinions in the church! Indeed, they would be so much better for having my dissenting voice to keep them honest! I feel similarly whenever I interact with Pete Rollins — it’s frustrating that he always insists that he’s open to every critique and really respects dissenting opinions and is incredibly enriched by them, etc. However distant he gets from the institutional church, he’s still deeply Christian in form, and the opportunistic openness that he has embraced as his way of distancing himself from Christianity is the most Christian thing about him.

When I was in seminary, I was sometimes aggravated by liberal Christians’ discomfort with Christian identity and their unwillingness to actively reclaim Christianity and the Bible over against the fundamentalists. I still think that those types of fights are strategically valuable, but I’ve come to a deeper appreciation of liberal inauthenticity over the years. Every attempt to reclaim Christian identity, even with good reasons and for good ends, always threatens to become an attempt to vindicate the master-signifier of Christianity, to elevate it above all other struggles and forms of identity (which are always produced out of some struggle and are always continually engaged in struggle).

Many people have claimed that the New Atheists are “just as bad” as fundamentalists due to their insistence on their (lack of) beliefs. I think that this discussion allows us to make a similar claim from another direction — they are still “Christian” in form insofar as they elevate atheism as their master-signifier. I had a Twitter argument with one seemingly good-natured New Atheist who was appalled that I painted the whole group with the brush of Dawkins’ racist imperialism. It gradually became clear that he was a kind of “Emergent” New Atheist, trying to leave things open so that everyone had a seat at the table (i.e., everyone could be identified with New Atheism). While it was disturbing to him that New Atheists could hold such reprehensible views, the important thing was to maintain the unity of the group by downplaying any struggle or division that might arise from the slippage between “secular reason” and anti-Islamic sentiment. And in fact, we can often see the same kinds of emotional manipulation at work among New Atheists — while I was mocking the New Atheism on Twitter, dozens of people tried to shame me as a kind of “reverse racist” or for being “just as bad” as people who stereotype Muslims. It’s structurally identical to how Emergents and other Christians weaponize liberal values like open dialogue to shame their critics.

What’s the solution to this? I don’t know for sure, but I can at least describe where I’ve arrived for the moment. More and more, I’ve been drawn to claim that I’m in some way “Christian” (as an adjective, a cultural description) — who could deny it, after all the forces that have shaped me and all the things I’ve actively chosen to study and stake my career on? — but I’m not “a Christian” (as a noun). This could be viewed as a kind of reprise of the strategy of another group of Christians castigated as “inauthentic” by Evangelicals: Catholics who continue to describe themselves as “Catholic” (usually only in adjective form) even though they rarely practice and keep their distance from the official Church organization.

This kind of inauthenticity is an attempt to deactivate Christianity as a master signifier — I do not identify directly with it (as “a Christian”), nor do I define myself over against it. It’s part of the material of my life, which I can put to use as I choose. I make no effort to vindicate the “true” Christianity that finally disproves the slander of the fundamentalists who falsely claim the name. Let them claim the name. The name is not my concern. Other struggles are more important to me than the struggle over that particular name.

19 thoughts on “The New Atheism, the Emergent Church, and other things I disagree with: An analysis

  1. Part of what is so troubling/telling to me about this whole discussion is that when the critique comes from a white male (Adam or me), the response is usually “We actually agree with you if you would just nuance this a bit more!” Whereas, when critique comes from non white straight cis abled males, the one who criticizes is, at best, ignored, or worse, ridiculed and harassed.

  2. Reading the link Hollis provided, I was struck by a similarity with the strategy of the ‘aesthetic’ approach to theodicy – that evil and suffering are merely the necessary shades required to make of creation a beautiful picture, when considered as a whole. On this view, if we experience evil as evidence against God’s power or benevolence, it is because we finite and sinful creatures lack the right ‘inclusive’ divine perspective. Could it be, then, that what is going on in the emergent church discourse is a kind of implicit theodicy? ‘Look how radically different beliefs do not count ‘against’ God, if viewed from the correct vantage point!’ So we can continue to induct people in Christian community and narrative, embracing doubt and diversity, but all the while surreptitiously justifying our real position: that our inclusivity embodies the divine perspective, and is thereby elevated above all actual material conflict. Oh Marx, we need you now.

  3. Interesting comparison to new atheism….. Could it just be that in the US atheists are scrambling around for some kind of public identity–or at least some are, and are doing it publicly–that we get things like “Invite an atheist to church day” movements that happened earlier in the month, etc.?

    I think a difficulty here too is what do we mean by “emergent,” etc. As “Emergent” has kind of dissolved into various discussions, categorizations of kinds of discussions, etc., etc., it’s increasingly difficult to define who or what is emergent–moreso than before. My attraction to emergent/emergence has always been as it seemed like a prime location to ‘do’ radical theology, and while, for example, Pete’s overall project isn’t radical theology, I like that he is moving in these directions that “thinking God anew” becomes possible for those within the church and taking his ideas seriously.

  4. Chris, it seems like you are in a good position to answer this question. I’ve never understood why the left-wing of the EC movement doesn’t just realize that the mainline church has already anticipated most of their criticisms of evangelicalism. You’re a UCC pastor, which has the reputations of being one of the most liberal denominations of mainline Protestantism. Why do you even need to associate with such a movement, if the major participants have been evangelicals (who, in my opinion) are for some reason in denial that they should just join mainline churches? Their fear of becoming mainline Christians is probably driven by the stereotypes and propaganda that they were exposed to about the dangers of liberal Christianity while being associated with the evangelical church.

    Responding to your comment more pointedly, can you not do ‘radical theology’ in the UCC? It would seem to be that it’s more inclusive and liberal than the EC movement.

    Adam’s comments about the EC’s strategy vis-a-vis LGBT issues was evident in this post I wrote a year and a half ago. He made similar criticisms in the comment section. As a bonus, the comment section is perhaps the most unsavory in AUFS history –

    I was called a bigot, amongst other things, for suggesting that it’s worth breaking fellowships with people in church who believed that LGBT people were sinners.

  5. They can’t become liberal Protestant because the last conviction to die for an evangelical is that one must never become a liberal. I’m not sure I’ve even fully overcome that.

  6. I guess this is consistent with one of EmergentDudeBro’s tweet: Sometimes I think about throwing in the towel and going mainline, & then can’t believe I’ve sunk so low. Gonna be a dark night of the soul.

  7. Jeremy, I remember that, and it was a good post. I was called a bigot during the Q&A section of my paper at STN2 by some guy who felt that drawing a line in the sand and saying that certain kinds of Christianity are simply false. I think Hitler even came up in reference to me.

    Although I am UCC, you are surely aware that I found my place in the UCC as the last place I could go–no other church would really accept me, after a really nasty fallout with the Methodists that I think I tried to make work and just couldn’t. My wife convinced me to step away from what seemed to be a lost cause. Radical theology wasn’t going to happen in the UUA, either, and even process thinkers are kind of marginalized as hopelessly conservative there. I am glad to be in the UCC and am trying to shape some of the theological conversations here as much as I am able, but actual theological radicalism is kind of rare–in fact, a national staff member openly states that her rejection of radical theology led her into the UCC in, of all places, the current UCC confirmation workbook for teenagers. Part of my move with having the theological summit this fall is to reclaim theology in the UCC–at the General Synod of the UCC in 2005, where gay marriage was denominationally affirmed, the more provocative issue that was voted upon was creating a situation where theological training is now no longer required to be an ordained UCC minister with full standing (e.g. someone with a M.Div. degree). We’re ordaining people who hade likely had little, if any, exposure to the canon of the theological tradition. I don’t think this is creating a crisis, but it’s affirming where we already are as a movement, nontheological. Heck, the sitting president of the UCC was on the board of this new ‘Bible’, The New New Testament–a fact that I think reflects the very embodiment of liberalism at work here, looking backward for sources of liberalism rather than looking forward for an offensive faith.

    It’s a good question–why do I need an emergent movement? I met Tony Jones at the Charlie Brown’s bar in Princeton during one of the annual Princeton youth ministry conferences. John Vest and I went to chat with him after he gave a no-empty-seat presentation, and there weren’t that many people who actually showed up to meet with him–the conference session kind of went the direction that these things go, with Princeton Presbyterians claiming that Calvin invented emergent, that sort of thing. I had just read his book The New Christians, which was new at the time and outlined where this ‘movement’ or conversation came from and stated where he felt this was going, and I think the writing was already on the wall that what they had started had gotten a little out of hand (in retrospect, it reminds me a little of Jonathan Edwards’ self-enacted backlash against the excesses of the awakening he himself began).

    So, looking back on it, and in these contexts, the “emergent” conversation came from evangelicls and mainliners who went to good seminaries and then found themselves hitting institutional barriers while working as youth ministers and children’s ministers. They found resources in liberal churches published by David C. Cook. A new movement of youth workers in churches was brewing, and Princeton responded with programs that encouraged youth ministry to be the theological sandbox of the church, because nothing else is working. I was working as a youth minister, having left the Methodist church and starting a Ph.D. because I knew I had little to no professional future in the church. Something about the movement inspired me to return, but return on my terms, balls out and not compromising the way I thought I had to before.

    I still met opposition in the UCC’s ordination process. Serious opposition. Some of the clergy I met there didn’t understand their own theological heritage, didn’t understand their own polity, and didn’t know theology outside of their own localities–which as far as I could tell were their own offices in places not exactly known for challenging the system–Short Hills, NJ, comes to mind, if you know what I mean. The word “bullshit” came up a bit by my colleagues while discussing my theological perspectives.

    But it was this ‘time’ spent as a youth minister, and finding companions in this ’emergent’ conversation, that inspired me to keep trucking forward.

    So too it was during this time I read Rollins’ How (Not) to Speak of God. I liked it a lot. I hear what Adam’s saying, that it might seem like a big language game, but if you are working in a church or working through ecclesiastical apparatuses we are playing language games. Tillich taught us how to do this. Altizer’s language is deeply liturgical and metonymical simultaneously. It’s whether we can make the language games meaninful and life-giving.

    And I think Adam is right; for evangelical “emergents” being “emergent” is a little like saddlebacking, it’s as far as one will go and still claim virginity from the dirty whore of liberalism.

    Sorry for the long response.

  8. Chris, I had no idea what your background was. Thanks for the history. That helps contextualize your current theological moves. It’s sad that the UCC is so theologically impoverished. I attended a PC(USA) church for two years in the DC Metro area and taught a LT class during the adult spiritual growth hour. The pastor was really encouraging of those sorts the class (even had one class focusing on Queer Theology).

    What’s curious about these conversations is the ways in which liberation theology and radical theology are creating the fundamental antagonisms and conflicts between various groups. For instance, is radical theology anymore “radical” than liberation theology? It seems like both traditions vie to be more prophetic but one can certainly see how the liberationists view radical theology as nothing more than Western theology pushed to its nihilistic end. Of course, the radical theologians will critique liberation theology as being needlessly doctrinal, blah, blah, blah. These twitter fights continue to reveal how many “radical” theologians have never taken seriously liberation theology which helps to explain many blind spots that have inhibited the EC movement.

    Brad and I asked Peter Rollins questions here about his project and the political influence of his theology. He failed to respond.

  9. One issue I kind of have–as I brieftly discussed in my STN2 wrapup–is what is now being called “radical theology.” I think that radical theology that refuses to recognize other, as you say, prophetic radical theologies is problematic–not all theological debates occur on twitter (is a debate anything but a fight on twitter?), recalling, of course Cone’s opportunistic polemics against Altizer years ago. What I would rather see is a radical movement that takes seriously liberation, feminist, process, death of God, and even ‘radical evangelical’ approaches, which may include emergents. And others They don’t need to be integrated, but rather in dialogue and taking each other seriously.

  10. What’s certainly telling is the “Mount Rushmore” of radical theology at the STN2 conference was Hegel, Tillich, Derrida and Caputo. Why the fuck is Tillich and not Altizer counted amongst the four (not to mention Caputo or Derrida!)? Moreover, I’ve always felt that Altizer had a deeper resonance with Barth than Tillich. I think there’s a different genealogy of radical theology that can be traced from Barth to Altizer to Hamilton to Mark Taylor to Winquist, etc. This is a tradition that I think has been ignored or neglected for a variety of reasons by this postmodern radical theology, probably because it is more explicitly atheistic. The first tradition wants to rescue God from idolatry whereas the latter is trying to cope with the nihilism in the wake of God’s death.

  11. Right; what I find interesting in posturing radicalism in this way is that it brings Altizer and Vahanian into dialogue through Winquist, even if that is a really forced conversation. And I think we see in Robbins and Crockett (who were featured prominently at STN2) — and others — a need to open the conversation to liberation and other radical theologies. Perhaps this openness is the problem with this kind of thinking that Adam is discussing in the OP.

  12. I don’t imagine that Adam’s critique of openness would apply to affording marginalized theological voices a space to dialogue with radical theology. His critique seems more aimed at the ways in which the “openness to dialogue” is a marketing tool to absorb everyone into the conversation. Also, the openness is driven by the anxiety and avoidance of conflict that attempts to harmonized groups of individuals who have irreconcilable conflicts (e.g. the LGBT question).

  13. My problem isn’t with openness as such. My problem is that the Emergent types I’ve been in contact with seem to be open to others in the same way that the Borg Collective is open to others.

  14. Couldn’t we make a similar argument, though, about a ‘movement’, or collective, or group of people who work to try to bring divergent groups of in-fighting together? Mentioning again that the emegernt folks largely had work or contact in or with the field of youth ministry, where these ideological divides are often experienced directly, and took off during the Bush years, where these divides became more extreme. That a synthesis position is often necessary?

  15. Though I do hear what you’re saying– the emergent youth minister who plays theology like he is UCC, but is ultimately scared of liberalism (I think of Tony Jones’ critique of the UCC ‘God is still speaking’ ads as a good example of someone who wished they came up with it first, therefore it must be wrong) while still holding on to affiliation in a church that disallows women to speak in the sanctuary, etc.– is clearly problematic, but this is what we are seeing among these churches.

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