Saturday, June 03, 2006

Gnosticism and the emerging church

With all the hype surrounding the public discovery of the gospel of Judas and the Da Vinci Code, gnosticism has been in play quite a bit lately. It's caused me to do a bit of thinking about the degree to which gnosticism is playing out in Christianity these days. I've heard a good lot of arguments from emerging church folks that criticize the modern evangelical church of gnosticism in its reliance on scientific methods of discovery, which pave the way to a higher knowledge of God. I actually think there's something to that.

However, I've also observed (in myself and others) a kind of smugness within the emerging church circles. While it is true that we have been awakened to a lot of the broken ways of thinking that modernity and mainstream evangelicalism have brought about, I believe we need to be careful here. When I have conversation with emerging types about the state of the church in North America, it seems that we tend to fancy ourselves as those who have figured stuff out to the degree that we've arrived at some higher state of spiritual awareness. Of course, we'd never state it in those terms, but I have to wonder if there's not some of that going on just below the surface. Is that not a gnostic way of thinking?

Just trying to keep it real. Feedback? Pushback?

posted by Steve at 11:06 AM
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8 Comments:

Blogger philjohnson commented at 3:39 PM~  

Steve

Interesting that you intuit the "smugness" in some of your encounters and feel uncomfortable about whether you manifest it too.

I maintain that the cultural exegesis in many EC networks suffers from great gaps. One of the major omissions is the side-lining of any serious missional call and encounter with the new spiritualities and new religions that have shifted the culture in postmodernity. As phenomena (not theology) EC is a trend for the Church that was first manifested in the 1980s in New Age.

I'd suggest that the smugness problem is not specifically "gnostic", though I do feel that in some places spiritual discernment is sorely lacking.

If you want to toy with the allusion to "gnosis", then consider how quite a few EC bloggers are over-confident in their assumption that blogging is changing the church and that the whole world is linked to the Internet. The fact is that much of the impoverished world cannot afford electricity needed to run a computer, and even in the indistrialised world Internet connections are not always good (e.g. problems in rural Australia with Internet services).

The confidence in technology can manifest a quasi-gnostic attitude that sociologists of religion call "tech-gnosis". That is, in order to be part of the emerging conversation one first of all has to have a computer (or access to one), and be initiated into the tech-jargon and gadgets. If you do not own an ipod or mp3 player, cell-phone, know about viblogging and all the fancy software, then you are "excluded" by "tech-gnosis".

Theologically there is a need for some EC people to mature beyond a romanticising of selected morsels of church history -- like the Celtic Church had it all together. There is a need for critical discernment about the sociological and missional trends and challenges, like working out what are the unpaid bills of the church; such as recognising that the new religions are the mirror image reflected back at us for all the things Christians have neglected to do.

The analysis of postmodernity in EC is very inadequate because there is a superficial understanding of the commercial elements of the new spiritualities, which are only obvious on the culture's surface today. However 25 yrs ago the culture was impacted by new spiritualities, and now the praxis and beliefs and ideas of that time have burrowed down inside the culture at a grass roots level and in academia. I do not see EC people talking about how to grapple with non-Christians who see reality through the lens of karma and reincarnation, who practice yoga and hold to Hindu-based view of energy-bodies in the human, of the eco-spiritual challenges posed by neo-pagans and wiccans, of divination and guidance in widespread new folk religiosity, and the list goes on. Frankly there are many in the missions community who feel that EC has the posture and slogans and jargon of missions, but oddly enough are not showing sufficient interest in direct dialogue with the missions community on how to disciple people in new religions. Part of the problem is also exacerbated as some EC people set aside critical discernment and embrace panentheism without realising the implications of this theologically.

One of my colleagues and I have been persistently blogging on these issues but despite the claim that EC involves an egalitarian open conversation, there are surprisingly few takers willing to talk with us about the kinds of concerns I've alluded to above. While that is not gnosticism, it might be a kind of white western middle-class elitism being manifested by some (but not all) who take the tag "EC".

Anonymous Existential Punk commented at 11:18 PM~  

I can agree with Phil on some points he makes, like the following:

"then consider how quite a few EC bloggers are over-confident in their assumption that blogging is changing the church and that the whole world is linked to the Internet. The fact is that much of the impoverished world cannot afford electricity needed to run a computer, and even in the indistrialised world Internet connections are not always good (e.g. problems in rural Australia with Internet services)."

The ec is middle class, white male, western domiminated. They say they are working to change this. An example would be the Amohoro Project Brian McLAren is a part of that will take place next May in Uganda, conversing woth African Pastors and a few Westerners about the affects of postmodernity and post-colonialism and what can be done.

Questions:

"there is a superficial understanding of the commercial elements of the new spiritualities, which are only obvious on the culture's surface today. However 25 yrs ago the culture was impacted by new spiritualities, and now the praxis and beliefs and ideas of that time have burrowed down inside the culture at a grass roots level and in academia. I do not see EC people talking about how to grapple with non-Christians who see reality through the lens of karma and reincarnation, who practice yoga and hold to Hindu-based view of energy-bodies in the human, of the eco-spiritual challenges posed by neo-pagans and wiccans, of divination and guidance in widespread new folk religiosity, and the list goes on."

What are "NEW RELIGIONS" Phil speaks of? Those he mentions have been around a very long time.

"There is a need for critical discernment about the sociological and missional trends and challenges, like working out what are the unpaid bills of the church; such as recognising that the new religions are the mirror image reflected back at us for all the things Christians have neglected to do."

I don't understand what this has to do with and feel confused by this comment.

"One of my colleagues and I have been persistently blogging on these issues but despite the claim that EC involves an egalitarian open conversation, there are surprisingly few takers willing to talk with us about the kinds of concerns I've alluded to above."

I'm interested further in what Phil and his colleagues are meaning with all this.

Thanx!

Anonymous andrew commented at 12:05 AM~  

seems like every generation has to fight gnosticism in some form

where do you see it in the EC, or at least it potential to sneak in to the EC?

Blogger Petey commented at 2:55 PM~  

I don't know Phil, but here's one thing he said:

"Frankly there are many in the missions community who feel that EC has the posture and slogans and jargon of missions, but oddly enough are not showing sufficient interest in direct dialogue with the missions community on how to disciple people in new religions. "

And, I could be wrong, but doesn't this statement kind of reaffirm the problem EC leaders have pointed out - that Christianity in modernity has focused way too long on "doing missions" and not "being missional." Everything that I've read and discerned has shown me that the EC posture of being missional means that they are striving to engage people of all spiritual walks and attitudes on regular basis as they would any old friend from "inside" religious circles. In my naive eyes, that seems to be a much greater starting point for fulfilling the Great Commission than "doing missions." I guess one could say that the missions "posture" of the EC church is the point altogether.

pt

Blogger Steve commented at 9:16 PM~  

Interesting comments here.

Andrew, I've observed an attitude of gnosticism more than an outright theology of it. It tends to happen when a group of middle class white guys get together to "enlighten" one another. It's good to talk about things and sharpen our thinking when we're together . . . but all too often, I think we linger in those moments a little too long, which is when we start feeling pretty good about ourselves, and how we've figured things out, and finally been able to "get it."

Phil, there's some stuff I agree with, and some that I struggle with. I'll chew on this a bit more and come back soon to it.

Keep it rockin' people.

Blogger philjohnson commented at 12:35 AM~  

Folks nice to see some thoughtful reflections. Let me try to clarify or amplify a few remarks.

Existential Punk asked what "new religions". The term new religions is somewhat generic in that it can cover a wide spectrum of groups. However, here I'm referring to a few diffeent things:
a). the onset of do-it-yourself spiritualities that have ensued since the late 1980s;
b). Internet-based religions like Matrixism and jediism;
c). New groups that base themselves on the channelled book " A Course In Miracles";
d). New Age spiritualities;
e). Neo-Buddhist groups that have formed (Friends of the Western Buddhist Order; people who take the tag "Buddhist" on the basis that they have read a few books, heard the Dalai Lama speak and practice meditation on their own);
f) Wiccan based groups, Church of All Worlds, a whole set of neo-pagan traditions that have emerged since the 1960s.
The list could go on and on.

Existential Punk was also puzzled by my reference to sociological trends and to "unpaid bills".

I have blogged about this so much that I am sometimes prone to too much shorthand, so there are some gaps that need filling in.

What I'm driving at is that this kind of spirituality has been closely studied by sociologists of religion. Their writings highlight a number of issues that are not even registering in EC discussions. Some of those issues have missiological implications if we take time to read the field-studies and then reflect on how those who pursue these pathways constitute "unreached people groups".

What I'm also meaning here is that this spirituality has had a major sociological influence on the rise and shape of postmodernity. It this particular point which is often mentioned in passing, or is not acknowledged in many Ec discussions (in books, e-zines, blogs, conferences etc).

Another problem is if you are unfamiliar with say new age and decided to familiarise yourself with it by visiting a new age exhibition. If you inspected a festival you might infer certain things about this spirituality and its impact which could be misleading. Basically if you dropped into a "new age" festival today you'll see commercial exhibitors selling goods and services to "browse shoppers". If you examined the festival closely you might conclude that it is light-weight, commercially-driven and a bit faddish on the trinkets for sale.

My point though is that this commercial manifestation is the fluffy end of the spectrum and no longer represents the hard-core of this kind of spirituality. The hard-core penetrated the culture in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and various practices and ideas have now burrowed down into the culture. Some of these things have become "mainstream" and unless you know what to look for it may not necessarily be immediately obvious. I say this because in church cultures in the west we tend to be a bit insular.

I also used the expression "unpaid bills". This expression encapsulates the following idea: whenever the church ignores or under-emphasizes certain biblical teachings a vacuum is created. When we neglect to do something that Scripture teaches it creates a gap in our theology, in our apologetics, in our ethics and in our missional work. When the gap affects society, it becomes the breeding ground for a non-Christian alternative to arise. So the gaps we create become our "unpaid bills", we create spiritual debts that non-Christian spiritualities intuitively try to fix up. So over several decades the church generally has said and done very little on ecological issues. This occurred due to a de-emphasis on "creation theology" (here I'm not referring to creation v evolution debates). Our stewardship and guardianship role has not been emphasized, and recent years has brought the problem to the foreground with pollution, diminishing natural resources etc. As we have been silent into the vacuum has rushed a whole series of nature-based religions or eco-spiritual groups. Their influence extends into anti-globalisation protests, the underground Rave dance culture networks globally (some DJs known as techno-shamans) etc. Creation theology has been an unpaid bill. There are many other examples I could list but hopefully this one suffice as an illustration.

My argument for several years has been this: cults, new religions and alternative spiritualities try to pay the church's unpaid bills. In effect then these other spiritualities become the mirror image reflected back at us for all the things we have neglected to do.
Now if we identified our "unpaid bills" in theology and praxis, and to do so we would have to spend time looking at the appeal and cosmologies of new religions etc, then we would be well on the way to revisiting Scripture and the heritage of Christianity to find answers to our debts. Our missional work would include (but not be solely defined by) theology and praxis that directly addressed these unpaid bills. And in doing this we would begin dialogue and bear witness directly with people who are devotees of neo-paganism, new age etc.

Petey raises the issue on missional attitudes and perceptions in traditional and EC networks. My basic point is that I'm part of a global network of missional people who have been at work in the field for many years now (and have published material with case studies on how we do things). We have not seen anyone in EC publications interact with our networks, review our publications, or even approach us to say "hey can we talk and mutually benefit from such dialogue".

Another way of putting this is that in light of the above clarifications on "unpaid bills" etc, I have not seen any clear discussion on how EC people are meeting devotees of these various spiritualities. For to do so raises significant questions in missions, in theology and in apologetics.

I have probably droned on here and taken up a lot of pixel space. It was not purpose to come and comment here as an advertisement for my blog or my books and articles. But if Steve does not mind I am taking the liberty of listing six URLs here where you can sample a few of my blog posts on a couple of the themes above.

You can also look the e-journal "Sacred Tribes Journal" at www.sacredtribes.com/ of which the second issue is devoted to dialogue with neo-paganism (as just an example of the issues I wish was discussed more frequently in EC networks).

http://circleofpneuma.blogspot.com/2005/03/diy-spirituality-and-pop-culture.html

http://circleofpneuma.blogspot.com/2005/04/contextual-missions-new-religions.html

http://circleofpneuma.blogspot.com/2005/04/esoteric-spirituality-pop-culture.html

http://circleofpneuma.blogspot.com/2005/05/churchs-unpaid-bills.html

http://circleofpneuma.blogspot.com/2005/08/partridge-drane-debate-spirituality.html

http://circleofpneuma.blogspot.com/2006/05/emerging-church-discerning-cultural.html

Blessings
Philip

Blogger Greg Y commented at 10:09 PM~  

I like the idea of the emerging church because there is some recognition that traditional forms of worship and doing church are not in line with the culture of today. If the emerging church means figuring out a way of doing church that fits our times and that helps make the message of Christ--the gospel--resonate with people than I am for it.

Christianity is a world view that has its basis in the scriptures. You refer to "broken ways of thinking that modernity and mainstream evangelicalism have brought about". If you mean to say that the plain revelation of God about Himself in the scripture is somehow incorrect or inadequate or insufficient, then you are not much different than the Gnostics Paul talks about in the book of Colossians.

The Christian worldview is that men are broken and separated from God by sin. However, by God's grace, we can have fellowship with God and eternal life by believing in Jesus Christ, God's son, who died for our sins and rose again on the third day. When the emerging church talks about a "discussion", "new orthodoxy", and a "developing theology", that tells me that the emergent church thinks that the scripture is not sufficient for us. If this is so then the emergent church is just a bunch of heretics.

Anonymous Existential Punk commented at 9:35 PM~  

Phil,

Thanx for your kind and thorough explanation. i love dialogue but feel i don't have all that much to say, or new to say. Sorry you and your friends don't feel as if you've been heard.

Existential Punk

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spirit farmer data

I'm Steve Lewis. This used to be my blogging home. My online home is now at SpiritFarmer.com. When this blog was my active online home, I lived in Seattle. Now I live in London, UK. I follow Jesus (poorly most of the time), worship simply, read a lot, watch culture, go to school, listen to music, write, enjoy art, and drink a lot of coffee.
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