Dispatch 10: Emergents believe that theology is local, conversational, and temporary. To be faithful to the theological giants of the past, emergents endeavor to continue their theological dialogue.
Tony Jones, The New
Christians, p. 111
Ok, so, Jones gives us three characteristics of Emergent theology. Now, what do those things mean, and are they true or not.
Jones, on p. 112 of the book, gives three paragraphs of something like an explanation for what he means by theology being "local". I'm not going to give the full content of those paragraphs, but excerpts.
...everything that emanates from me (like this book) is essentially local in
that it proceeds from the locus of my person...As my attempt to reflect on
notions about God, theology is inherently local
To put it in the converse, theology is not universal, not is it transcendent. The God about whom we theologize is transcendent, but our human musings about God are
not...Professional theologians...are sometimes tempted to write and speak with
the confidence that their theology is somehow clean or sterile or untainted...But of course, they're just as local as the rest of us...
...Recently, I received an e-mail announcement that a local group of
emergent Christian leaders was gathering in Pittsburgh. Their desire? To begin a
conversation about "Pittsburghian theology"...
So, what does any of this mean?
For example, what does "local" mean? Or, to try to be plainer, how big or small must or can an area or a group be to be "local"? For example, looking more at his Pittsburgh example, what if the people of a certain area or district in Pittsburgh thought that having a theology for the whole city was too broad and big, and they wanted to have one for their district or neighborhood that may have differences from what the big city theologians would want? What if it came down to a neighbor, a street, a city block, or even an individual home or even an individual person?
Similarly, what about those who would think that having a theology for a city would be too small? What about surrounding counties and towns? Or a region in the state of Pennsylvania? What about the whole of Pennsylvania itself?
And no matter how big or how small a "local" may be, what about when differences come about? What if the Pittsburghian theologiy is different in some important ways from the Pennsylvanian theology? What if the theology of Export, PA, which is close to Pittsuburgh, has some important differences from the Pittsburghian theology?
What about non-emergent Christians? Will the Pittsburgh Emergents allow non-Emergent Christians to have their theology without criticism, even if it is vastly different from their own?
What about any kind of agreement/disagreement with neighboring theologies? If, for example, the Philadelphian theology adheres to an end-times view that is Dispensational, and the Pittsburghian theology is Full Preterist, how will that effect their interactions? Or if the Ohioan Theology holds fast to Substitutionary Atonement while Pennsylvanian theology thinks that SA makes God into a child abuser, how will those differences effect their relationships?
Also, If the Pennsylvanian theology goes Full Preterist, while the Philadelphian theology believes in Dispensational, how will that effect their relationships? Can the Pennsylvanian state theologians allow the Philadelphian city theologians to have such a different view? Will the state theologians not try to put pressure on the city ones to change their views?
And none of that deals with relationships out of their Emergent groups, with Baptists and Lutherans and Muslims and others, or even an individual Emergent group or person that simply will not buy in to any larger group's local form of theology.
And what if someone moves from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia? If they agreed with the Pittsburghian theology and had disagreements with the Philadelphian, would they have to change their minds to fit in with the Philadelphians when they moved to that "local"?
As well, if theology is merely "local", what does that do to the Bible and how any particular "local" may interpret and use it? How, for example, are they to take such commands as "You shall not steal"? Is that a statement of merely local theology, and we do not need to worry about it now? Or does any particular "local" have to determine what is for them stealing? What if there are differences in what particular "locals" think of as acts of stealing?
I would contend that the word "local" as Jones uses it here is ill-defined, perhaps even essentially meaningless. It is used more for its 'feel good' effect then any other reason.
I would further contend that it is self-contradictory. To say "theology is not universal, not is it transcendent" is itself to make a universal and transcendent theological statement.
Also, Jones himself does not really believe that theology is merely local. If he did, he would not make, could not make, any statements of either praise or criticism to the theological teachings or practices of any other group or church or individual. But he does so, which puts paid to any notion that his theological ideas are merely "local".
I'll have to get back to the other two characteristics later.