Where Now Is Our Authority?

November 15th, 2011

Drawn from Tickle's essay appearing in the Participant's Guide to Embracing Emergence Christianity by Tim Scorer

As we approach any discussion of the peri-Emergence, we note, realistically and honestly, that the authority being disestablished over the past 15 decades (and even now), is the authority under which most Americans born prior to 1965 or 1970 have been shaped and reared. We are not, in other words, looking at the disestablishment of an authority, but at the disestablishment of the authority that has always been the guardian, instructor and counsellor for many—if not most—of us. Under those circumstances, the tenor of the conversation unavoidably shifts from a matter-of-fact overview of a neutral entity to a personal and sometimes threatening analysis of an unstoppable process. We would do well to remember that each of us is probably going to feel threatened (or at the very least discomforted) at one place or another, and that we have an obligation as participants in a guided conversation to respect empathetically not only our own pain or disquietude, but also that of all other participants.

That having been said, we need to acknowledge as well that the authority whose demise we are tracing is indeed that of sola scriptura and/or of its presentation as Protestant inerrancy. That demise raises not only the question of where now is our authority, but also the resultant one of what then is the nature of Scripture’s authority now. One cannot—indeed one should not—make blanket statements about Emergence Christianity and Emergence Christians as if they were a solid block of uniform theology and praxis, values and actions. That simply is not true and never could be. Both are composed of human beings, and human beings are ever and always different one from another, more often than not contentiously so. That should not stop us, however, from looking at what seems to be a consensus on some issues.

Emergence is in no way interested in, or inclined toward, disestablishing the authority of Scripture; rather it is dedicated to freeing that authority from the constrictions of literalness. As with the matter of how not to speak of God, so here too there is real fear among Emergence Christians that literalism is a form of apostasy. That is, trying to contain and confine God’s word within the prison house of human logic and human comprehension is to act with an unconscionable degree of arrogance. It is to deny and destroy paradox, which is always an informing part of faith, and to demand of deity that God makes “sense” out of that part of God’s Self which is Word. More to the point, at least at a daily level, it is still to function within a modernist or Enlightenment sensibility, one that is reductionist, trying to possess reality by breaking it down systematically into its component parts, thereby destroying both the beauty and the power-bearing mystery of their articulation.

The word myth had little standing in modernism or Enlightenment thinking. It was, in fact, relegated by the Reformation and subsequent Enlightenment to naming that which was “nonfactual.” Emergence Christianity, like the secular thinkers of the Great Emergence itself, is suspicious of “factual” per se and seeks to perceive the greater and instructive truth that is contained in story. It does not ask that that wisdom or instruction be always and ever understood in the same fashion by those who engage it; it asks instead—indeed argues—that such wisdom be always and ever true, whether correctly perceived or not.

The ancients—once more we find Emergence driving us back to the words and names of our forebears—the ancients had the word mythos, from which we obviously derive myth. But Emergence thinking, be it Christian or otherwise, now uses mythos as a way of speaking about the sweet and healing fragrance of meta-narrative. Mythos is the story of what a culture is or a people are. It contains, in other words, the soul of truth. Emergence and its citizens believe in the mythos, unfettered and always honored, more than in either historicity or non-contextualized fact. This leads Emergence Christians to be not literalists, but actualists. The best way to explain such a position, understandably enough, is to tell a story:

Some twenty years ago now, I was addressing a Cathedral gathering on the historicity of the Virgin Birth. The Cathedral young people had served the evening’s dinner and were busily scraping plates and doing general clean-up when I began the opening sections of the lecture I had come to give. The longer I talked, the more I noticed one youngster—no more than seventeen at the most—scraping more and more slowly until, at last, he gave up and took a back seat as part of the audience. When all the talking was done, he hung back until the last of the adults had left. He looked at me tentatively and, gaining courage, finally came up front and said, “May I ask you something?”

“Certainly,” I said. “What about?”

“It’s about that Virgin Birth thing,” he said. “I don’t understand.”

“What don’t you understand,” I asked, being myself rather curious by now because of his intensity and earnestness.

“I don’t understand,” he said, “what their problem is,” and he gestured toward the empty chairs the adults had just vacated.

“What do you mean?” I asked him.

“Well,” he said, “it’s just so beautiful that it has to be true whether it happened or not.”

That one statement from a young Emergence teenager still stands for me—and always will—as a telling example of Emergence Christianity’s understanding of Scripture and the nature of its authority. It is also a consoling one to call to mind at times like these.

adapted from: Embracing Emergence Christianity: Phyllis Tickle on the Church's Next Rummage Sale a 6-session study by Phyllis Tickle with Tim Scorer, copyright 2011 by Morehouse Education Resources a division of Church Publishing Incorporated, used with permission.


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