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I Received a Fascinating Email…

…from one of my heroes and a pioneer of the internet. He encouraged me to post this but asked that his identity be withheld.

Dear Tony,
I actually procrastinated a bit this morning and read your chapter (partly because I’m interested in new books, as I’m writing one of my own). Obviously (given the length here) either I really wanted to procrastinate, or your writing struck a chord. Probably both. I thought the chapter was well written and interesting, but I wanted to lodge one very basic critical complaint. You, in line with the reported view of the “emergent” Christian phenomenon (which was entirely new to me, thus my interest), apparently believe that there is a “third way” and a “more complex reality” than left and right. This is a claim about political philosophy, ultimately, and difficult for this philosopher, at least, to swallow.

That’s because one can draw a clear distinction between the left and right: the left stands for Social Progress (i.e., Egalitarianism) and the consequent breaking with Traditions of all sorts wherever necessary, while the right stands for what they regard as the positive elements of our past, with special emphasis on “traditional” morality and minimal government. At the level of ideology, these are mostly mutually exclusive, even if they aren’t jointly exhaustive options. And even if we find current notions of left and right, progressive and conservative to be ultimately incoherent, there are other much more coherent “axes of disagreement” that roughly (not perfectly) match up to the left-right divide. For example: more legislation of morality (right), or less (left); more control of economic life (left), or less (right); more secularization (left), or less (right); more internationalism and pacificism (left), more nationalism and emphasis on military defense (right). To fail to recognize that these are very real, very relevant differences of political view is not anything like enlightenment; it is merely to bury your head in the sand.

The only other movement I can think of that really successfully mixes the cherished doctrines of the traditional left and the traditional right is the libertarian movement. But libertarianism is still an ideology! It still takes specific positions on the above ideological divides: less legislation of morality, less control of economic life, more secularization.

Still, I think it’s great, if true, that a new kind of Christianity is emerging in which left and right are brought together and put their differences aside. If it does so by pretending that there aren’t differences, or that the differences aren’t meaningful or that they don’t matter, however, they’re fooling themselves and the facts sure to come back to bite them in their fantasies, as facts are wont to do!

If I had to guess, I would say that the leaders of the emergent Christianity phenomenon (as you’ve described it) are, in fact and perhaps unadmitted to themselves, good old-fashioned liberals. It is one of dear old habits of the left to reject all “categorization” in political terms, or to say that they lack ideology, or are “mainstream” or “moderate” (with everyone to their right often being dismissed as knuckle-dragging right-wingers). But if they are liberals that actually tolerate conservatives, instead of dismissing them as knuckle-draggers, that’s wonderful. Likewise, if the movement has fundamentalists who nevertheless are willing to break bread with gays instead of saying they’ll go to hell, great. Sounds like real Christian love to me. 😉

The point, which I’m not saying you don’t already get, but which doesn’t come out in the first chapter, is this: you can’t escape ideology except by escaping politics altogether. You can, of course, form communities in which ideology doesn’t matter so much. Sure, society has long had many groups and whole institutions in which that was the case–sports clubs, for example. But it would be a mere confusion to think that the possibility of such communities somehow means that there is now magically another way of “doing politics.” No new political discoveries will come out of emergent Christianity, but if the community is actually made up of diverse people who actually tolerate people with viewpoints that are very different from their own, that’s fantastic.

The worry I would have about “Emergent Village” is that it wants to be inclusive and tolerant, on the one hand, and yet committed to political action (“missional”), on the other hand. My question is why you would expect that, over the long haul, a particular bent of political action would not emerge in the group, which would then drive off (or keep away) people of one ideological stripe. In particular, probably, over the long term, the progressives will come to set the “missional” agenda, and thereby alienate any conservatives on board. (Unless you have some specific constitutional way to prevent this from happening–an Emergent Village “neutrality policy.”)

The only way to guarantee true ecumenicism, I imagine, would be to avoid political and other divisive issues altogether, not to pretend that people can be led to agree about things which they manifestly do not agree about and never will. But this actually demonstrates the impossibility of “true ecumenicism” of Christianity: as long as there are fundamentalists, there will be people who regard the entirety of the Bible as “literally” interpreted as crucial and not anything to be ignored or set aside. Those people will always appear more “conservative,” and you will always appear “liberal” compared to them. Sorry, until all Christians share the same basic ideology, ideology-free Christianity ain’t going to happen.

And, speaking of ecumenicism, why have there been so many different Christian “movements” to bring Christians together? Why can’t we even bring the together-bringers together? Do you think yours will be able to accomplish this?

The really interesting and exciting thing about Emergent Village to me is not the alleged change in religious attitude, or the ecumenicism (to believe that, I’d need to see hard data); it is that religious life is being vigorously reorganized (for some people) via the Internet. That was news to me. That, more than the other features, strikes me as what is what is truly innovative about emergent Christianity. To that extent, it reflects an ongoing, broader shift toward using the Internet to reorganize society generally.

For the record, I’m an agnostic and have been since the age of 16 or so. I’m just not one of those Christianity-hating agnostics/atheists–I actually take tolerance seriously. If I were a Christian, I would be very excited about your movement. I’m still waiting for a group of agnostics that I like. 🙂

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