Transitology and emerging theology

As a practitioner and activist I have been fascinated by the idea of change for a long time, change on so many levels, and in so many ways. How individuals change, how communities change, how culture changes, how education changes, how young people change, how theology changes, how church changes and list goes on and on…..

For some time I have been questioning the depth of change, challenge and if any real transition was happening in emerging church thinking and theology, if we were on a road less traveled and willing to encounter G-d that can only be found in glimpses as we deny the false god we know. Often finding a sense of newness in some of Pete Rollins writing and in agreement with Kester Brewins post that there has been a sense of retreating. However I am unsure if this is conscious or circumstantial as the institutions catch up.

Kesters postthe backlash begins and the comments has prompted me to finally get around to this post.

At a basic level Transitology (derived from political science and initially examining change in latin america) identifies 4 elements to the change process. 1, structural factors are inadequate by themselves need actors to help make change, 2 change happens at times uncertainty, 3 Actors are assumed self interested, 4, Property rights of the wealthy need to be challenged.

I want to borrow from Transitology to say a few things about the change or lack of it, and current processes in the emerging theology debates.
1, The structures (and here I mainly mean the institutions and denominations) recognised the need for change and could not make the shift happen by themselves. They needed and still need actors on the edge of and preferably (in my mind) outside themselves to help make change happen.
2, The uncertainty and backdrop of the cultural shift to post (hyper) modernity is obvious, and the challenges it wrought both in terms of thinking and theological processes and in terms of subscription to institutions, commitment etc provided the climate of uncertainty needed for next shift, or as Phylis Tickle suggests the great emergence.

But it is the next two arenas of Transitology where I think we can draw some hope from and maybe build a bit of a platform to stop the retreat.
3, I think the backlash Kester mentions, comes from, and is coming from, a number of fields. Initial emergence was quite egalitarian, and practice driven by actors, working out what to do on the ground in the shifting context they found themselves. This flew in the face of self interest and created a platform for voices from the margin to be seen and heard. As the movement matured the voices shifted from the group to the individual, (which is needed as Actors play a key role), but in doing so could easily be seen as being less rooted in communities and practice or self interested. This will make it easy for people from outside emerging theology circles that are too lazy to get to know the actors to criticise them as self interested or unaccountable, as at a surface level they see people removed from their communities (or systems) and not practice orientated. I assume (like my own experience on the edge) that Kester with Vaux, and Pete with Ikon forged a depth of relationship created in the years of practice and risky experimentation that still remains. However, it may be helpful (particularly for the likes of me) to be given some pointers on grounding some of the thinking into our practice, and where actors are not involved directly anymore, to be dialoging with practitioners who are seeking to flesh out the christ they are speaking of on the ground, and to make these faltering attempts, and relationships public alongside the theological discourse. One of my greatest fears is that our key actors will be unfairly criticised from within (one field that the backlash may come from), and in doing so the movement will not embody the openess and acceptance, robustness and questioning that much of the emerging church is known for, and is certainly one of the changes worth protecting. This links to my final point, I do think the voices of the wealthy need to be challenged and this is two fold. There needs to be a challenge to the intellectually wealthy to root theological ideas on the ground. Secondly the growth of fresh expressions could be viewed as the wealthy institutions colonialising the grass roots, and in so (hopefully not intentionally) suppressing the voice of the actors and those on the edge who were and still are, key to helping make change happen. This may be the another field where the backlash comes from, but it will be disguised in many colors, as the tentacles of the wealthy and powerful are legion.

14 thoughts on “Transitology and emerging theology

  1. A good post Richard, I wanted to write more about new monasticism on Kester’s piece, but the conversation seemed to take a different turn. My point would have been that new monastics, if one can generalise with any legitimacy, have taken a more praxis centred approach, and this may have led to a disconnect between the theologians and those in the new monastic movement(s). I like what you say about wealth, very good stuff. I find myself as concerned as I am encouraged by the fresh expressions ‘thing’ and still dont quite know what to make of it. I guess one day it will all be obvious.

  2. Hi simon I would be interested to hear your views on much you see new monastics pushing the theological envelope. I find myself questioning if people are seeing the monastic history too unquestioningly and wonder who the new monastic orthodox heretics are? Have the people you mention in the comments in kesters post who have the emerging theology books found a way to root it practice?

  3. the people I mention are in ‘old’ monastic houses, and not new monastics as such. I think its fair to say that a praxis focus has meant that many new monastic groups have yet to push the envelope (myself included in that) but there are certainly orthodox heretics around, perhaps particularly in the anabaptist scene. I certainly dont see much coming out of the ’emerging’ or fresh expression scene, but then again… I cant afford to buy enough of the books to be sure!

  4. Great post. Very interesting indeed – and resonates with some stuff that came out of the initial conversation at GB. Will try to post on this later!

  5. I too am intersted in change, structually and personally. As a practitoner and therapist working with teenagers I am intersted in change. What causes it, what is needed to sustain it etc. As a therapist I feel that change cannot occur until we encounter our deep emotions and feelings – where we become aware of ego, why we do what we do and relfect and process the past. Working with Young people I know how important parents are to enbale young people to change, that these parents or appropriate adults create boundaries, time and and loving places. In my work with violent men and couples work – it is empathy, congreunce and uncondtional postive regard that creates change… not shame and knowledge.

    In terms of theology… and reading the recent debate on Kesters website… I don’t think any of this ‘new’ emerging stuff is new… I was frankly bored at greenbelt this year and felt that it had lost a sense of edginess and has become very predictable, comfortable and conusmerist. I’m fed up with the new heroes of theology which are still men(no change there) and the male centred theology that is often preached. I am bored with the new kinds of worship … none that really push the boundarties of theology like NOS did in the 90’s.

    My view is that few new to really emerge – the pioneers need to leave the old behind…(Donovan stuff!!) let it go, get away from it… only then perhaps a new thing will emerge. This is not easy… it is painful, it is a death… the seed must be buried, must die before it can produce new growth. ..even U2 said it…’all that you know is wrong’…. once we let it go then perhaps the new will emege. The desert Fathers/ Mothers left the city, left materialism and the old ways and embraced nothingness and isolation …

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  7. Hi James In the past few years I think I have been closer with where your coming by seeking not to explore church with a Christians but receding and working out what it is to believe with groups from the community etc. I would be interested for you to post where you are, if through your desert experiences you have found anything new etc

  8. As the emerging church has been committed to community, rather than the individual, this in my mind presents “newness” and a change from the previous, or old way, on a daily basis. The challenge to that is though that it is never about an individual experience, reaction, thought, or idea to bring the “edginess” that James and others want to see. Instead, perhaps, once we lose the sense of edginess, rather than point a finger toward the individual Actors who are leading, we need instead to become a more active part of the community. It seems to me, that’s where Christ reveals Himself. I believe that the greatest challenge for the Emerging Church is to remain committed to community, even in the struggle between the necessity of an Actor speaking on behalf of the community and the Actor’s need to remain tied in the deepest possible way to his or her community and so to Christ revealed. Perhaps the old that we are leaving behind is simply the need to as an individual think through and come up with a single “correct” answer. No longer is it about the individual and his or her conclusions, but now it is about the community and the process. Maybe the way to continue toward the new is perhaps by allowing ourselves to release the need to be right and instead to be free to participate in the ongoing discussions.

  9. Tricia – what you say makes much sense to me – I agree with you about the importance of community and the deep need we have to belong. However I am not sure what you mean by community and how this is somehow a new thing…. what do you mean by community? You also seem to assert that the individual is invalid which I have to disagree with you on. To be who you are is in my opinion a deep need in our society. As Merton asserted until we can be who we are you can not change. The risk of not knowing self can lead to a herd/tribe mentaility where power and ego are manifest.
    I think you are right about the need to discuss and to release the need to be right. However the questions I have is who sets the agenda? How do you get a voice? Who has the power? This is part of my problem with Greenbelt – the voices we hear are generally the book writers, men, networkers – For a proper discussion to emerge in my view the deeper issues need to be addressed which could include identifying male centred theology, embracing a more body-centred theology, becmoing more emotionally intelligent and not so reliant on the rational and cogintive, listening the voices of women , teenagers and children.

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  11. James – By “newness” of community, I meant that not necessarily the idea of community is new, but rather, the way that ideas seem to be honed or brought newness through discussion within community. In my experience with church (which is limited to the church in the States), the perspective has been that the best ideas come through the individual Actor who is best suited (likely most educated in the field) to propound them. But, as a result of being part of emerging communities, the shift has been that it is not just through the elevated individual, but instead through the discussion within the community that all gain a voice.
    Still, I agree with you in your assessment of the struggle that is to identify the broken or inadequate male-centered theology. I believe it takes the committment of all of us to work to move beyond our inadequate concepts on a daily basis. I know that, my first reaction is to want to speak louder to be sure my voice is heard and so to contractdict the apparent absolute-ness of what was said. Even as I do so, I risk drowning out the voices of those around me who have validity as well.
    And as to your comment about the knowing of self versus the herd mentality. I agree. That is to say that I believe discussion, and newness of ideas, emerge from a community (and in my mind when I say this I mean a group of people committed to living life deeply committed to knowing one another, learning to live like Christ, and exhibiting love for one another and the world around them) of people who know themselves as uniquely created beings but who are also able to put the pride of self aside in order to be a part of the discussion. When that occurs, I think it matters less who the Actor is speaking on behalf of the community (in fact that could change day to day) and instead matters more that all members of the group are participating in the discussion.
    And thank you for your astute comments in response to my attempt to be a part of the discussion.

  12. thanks for your response and comments Tricia – I like what you have said and the way you have said it
    and it makes good sense to me.

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