A review of Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church (2005)
My Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
In Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church Carson seeks to “become conversant” with the emergent church. I first note that the title does not accurately reflect Carson’s tone and objectives. For example, it is hard to find any suggestions made by Carson for conversations and dialogue between mainline Evangelicals and those in the E/emerging/Emergent church. This is essentially Carson’s final word on the subject, not a book meant to stimulate further dialogue. Carson’s final charge is particularly revealing and a bit condescending as he speaks to the Emergent Church: “They need to spend more time in careful study of Scripture and theology than they are doing, even if that takes away some of the hours they have devoted to trying to understand the culture in which they find themselves.” (234)
In this book there is primarily one aspect on which Carson rests his case, and it has much less to do with Scripture or theology than it does with philosophy. Throughout the book it is abundantly clear that for Carson the issues of church/Scripture/theology/culture all come back to an epistemological issue. That is, for Carson the church must privilege knowledge. I am not suggesting that Carson discards experience or spirituality or emotional aspects of the faith. Rather, I am submitting that Carson privileges knowledge as first philosophy. For Carson it is right and correct epistemology that drives his theology and hermeneutic.
Carson begins by taking as a given that it is epistemology that is the distinction between modernity and postmodernity: “The majority view is that the fundamental issue in the move from modernism to postmodernism is epistemology…In my view it is this epistemological contrast between the modern and the postmodern that is most usefully explored, as it touches so many other things.” (27)
This is a fundamental point for Carson, and it is followed through for the remainder of the book. (crf. 27-33, 40-41, 57-58, 122-124, 188ff.) Most of what Carson does can be seen as a defense of privileging knowledge as the most foundational pursuit. This is most particularly the case when Carson speaks of truth. (“The discussion in this book could be recast as a debate between the claims of truth and the claims of experience.” 218) “Truth” on Carson’s development is always propositional and related to knowledge.
Carson’s treatment of Lindbeck’s Crusader example on page 144 is particularly revealing. The scenario is of a Crusader who is bashing in the skull of an infidel and crying out, “Christ is Lord.” Carson comments:
The statement “Christ is Lord” is in fact true, objectively true, insofar as it refers to the extra-textual realities: the (objective) Christ is Lord of the universe, its Maker and final Judge, regardless of whether he is confessed as such or not or, as in this instance, confessed as such while an action is being undertaken by the confessor that flies in the face of what it means truly and faithfully to confess Christ as Lord…The statement, in other words, is objectively true…” (144)
This example is very telling, for a few reasons. First, it reveals Carson’s bias towards propositional truth. For Carson the truth of the statement is found in the proposition, and this has nothing to do with the context in which it is uttered, or it furthermore has nothing to do with the person who is uttering it or their own existential relationship to truth. For Carson it is the truth of the proposition that we must be primarily concerned about. This is a theme that runs throughout the book. (See especially 218ff.)
Also note that Carson has no problem, whatsoever, in abstracting propositions from their context in the stream of life and evaluating them for their propositional truth content. But it is at this point that Carson tips his hand and reveals his failure to understand the contemporary culture. For the emerging culture, and for many in the postmodern world and church there is little interest or desire to abstract propositions from their context in life. That is, the proposition that the Crusader utters is not relevant if the life-style and spirit of that same Crusader is untruthful. I think this is a key point. Many, like Carson, from mainline Evangelicalism and conservative church backgrounds who do not understand the current culture seem to believe that “postmoderns” are all relativists, and this is the typical polemic leveled against the so-called postmodern culture. The first thing wrong with this is that there is no uniform “postmodern” movement. But more importantly, there are some in the culture that are simply looking for a truth that is more holistic and authentic. For many of a “postmodern” ilk there is nothing true about the Crusader. To rip his objectively true statement out of the context of his infidel-bashing just seems wrong. Yet Carson seems content to disconnect statements from the reality in which they are embedded.
Perhaps the propositional statement is true in a propositional sense, but why privilege “truth” as merely propositional? Can we not say that the Crusader’s actions were untrue? Or that the untruth in his soul and spirit denied Jesus Christ, who proclaimed himself to be the way, the truth, and the life? Furthermore, even if we grant the truth of the proposition uttered it is meaningless. It is meaningful for Carson and others who privilege the proposition, but this is simply not the case for the emerging culture.
This move by Carson is indicative of much of the popular, conservative Christian response to so-called postmodernism. Truth exclusively refers to propositional truth, and these propositions can be freely and liberally ripped from their context in life and examined for their “truth value” regardless of whether or not the person speaking the truth is hacking away at someone’s skull in a blood-thirsty rage. What this really goes to is that in this so-called postmodern era there has been a significant shift from epistemology to ontology. From knowing to being. I would suggest that the quest for true propositions has been replaced by a quest for an authentic life.
I believe that Carson is wrong about privileging epistemology. But keep in mind that this book is reactionary. It does not project a vision for reaching the emerging culture, and furthermore it is simply reacting to the mistakes of many in the E/emerging/Emergent movements who, themselves, seem to think that the postmodern turn is about epistemology! It is interesting that for all of the clamoring very few (if any) of the pop-Christian writers (on either side of this argument) seem to understand the nature of the philosophical and cultural shift from propositional knowledge to authentic being. It seems to be a rather obvious shift, and one that should deserve more attention.
For example, take Carson on page 219: “Truth and experience do not have exactly the same sort of footing. Truth itself, rightly understood, may correct experience, but not the other way around.” Carson’s statement is disturbing on many levels. Once again Carson only allows “truth” to be defined on propositional terms – truth as knowledge. But worse than this is that Carson dichotomizes and pits “truth” (propositional) over and against experience. I am at a loss to understand this move. Surely we may think we have possession of true propositions, but experience could certainly serve as a corrective. The Pharisees thought that they possessed many true propositions, but when they experientially confronted the physical embodiment of truth, Jesus Christ himself, they remained unmoved. (John 8) Carson has tried to cover for himself by saying that the truth “rightly understood” cannot be corrected by experience. But he is merely begging the question because as finite beings we must remain humble and open to experiences that might correct what we think are true propositions. We may think that we posses true propositions “rightly understood,” but it would seems naïve to suggest that we could collect a few true propositions and then close ourselves off to any corrections from the experiences of life. Is it not a basic trait of wisdom that one learns and gains insight from one’s experience? Yet for Carson it would seem that we could store up a warehouse of untouchable propositions that we take as true and then reject any corrections that our life experiences might offer.
But the real point is this: Why pit these two (propositions and experience) against each other? My own study of Scripture is that the human person is a whole being – a thinking, feeling, experiential being. And while knowledge might certainly serve as a corrective I do not think that the evidence of Scripture suggests that we should allow ourselves to give knowledge the pride of place that Carson gives it. Rather, I would suggest we do better to view ourselves more holistically as spiritual creatures who are connecting with God and others on multiple levels.
In Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church Carson does offer some helpful insights on issues related to the study of Scripture as well as the necessity of knowledge/epistemology. Yet it remains very difficult for me to get past the fact that he dichotomizes epistemology/ontology as well as propositions/experience and then proceeds to privilege epistemology, knowledge and propositions as the more sure thing for the life of faith. He takes this for granted and then proceeds to make his case against the E/emerging/Emergent church. But I submit that what he takes for granted is precisely the point of contention. In this generation and in especially in the current cultural context the church needs to more carefully consider the place of knowledge and the place of being. Too often pop-Christian books like Carson’s duck the primary issue and then spend the vast majority of pages working under a presumed assumption. This sells books, makes money for publishers, and gives us something to argue about, yet I fail to see how it advances the kingdom or cultivates a truly reflective Christian faith. Instead we become merely a reactionary church.
A LOVE SUPREME
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Monday, April 30, 2007
A review of Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church (2005)