Lately, as I’ve been proposing that we “non-believers” be seen as an integral part of the emergent/emergence movement, I’ve wondered what the “emergent ethos” consists of. What are the common traits?
I’m sure there will be some disagreement as to what these common traits are. Part of the beauty of the movement is its diversity. But, I hope that my observations are not too far off from the general feel of things.
One of the first distinctions that I think are important for many – if not most – among the emergent is the distinction between faith and belief. Maybe this isn’t true about all of church history, but at least more recently, many have seen propositional statements about God, Jesus, the Bible, etc. as inherently important to what it means to be a Christian. Of course, we all hold beliefs, opinions, ideas on all kinds of things. But, in the emergent ethos, belief is not primary. Beliefs come and go. What is primary is a personal commitment, an allegiance, a “faithfulness” or a “pledge.”
I think the first person I heard talk about a distinction between faith and belief was Harvey Cox, in his book The Future of Faith. In that book, Cox says the following:
Several years ago an acquaintance of mine described himself to me in a casual conversation as “a practicing Christian, not always a believing one.” His remark puzzled me, but it also began to clarify some of the enigmas that had swirled within both my personal faith and my thinking about religion and theology. His remark suggested that the belief/nonbelief axis is a misleading way of describing Christianity. It misses the whole point of not only Christianity, but other religions as well.
It seems to me that the mere inclusion of thinkers like Caputo and Rollins within the larger emergent movement requires that this distinction be held up as normative (since both of them would be considered atheists regarding any orthodox understanding of “God”).
I think I need to spend some more time working this out. But, my initial proposal is that this distinction has created a gap where those of us who can no longer “believe” can still belong to the movement. And, that small groups of people who share this lack of intellectual belief can and should commit to one another in the Way of the Christ (apart from “the church”).
What do you think? Should we non-believers be numbered among the emergent? Should we even be welcomed in to emergent events to speak from our perspective about what it means to fully embrace life without orthodox beliefs? I would guess that some within the movement and many coming from a similar atheist/agnostic/humanist perspective think that this proposal is ridiculous – and futile.
Should we instead distance ourselves from emergent and start our own “religion for atheists”, a separate “church for skeptics”? I applaud those efforts, but, honestly, I just don’t see that getting much traction. From my (limited) experience, many of these groups seem to be founded upon a negative critique, rather than a positive vision. If that is the case, I think it is doomed to fail.
I think emergent has a great opportunity to welcome us in. To embrace us, despite our doubts and our questions. To encourage the critical thinking necessary for a sustained movement. To listen to us. To learn from us. And, to partner with us in creating a better world for ourselves and future generations.