Essay / Culture

Emergent Allergies: Systems

As part of an ongoing series of posts on emerging churches, I’m going to look at a few emergent allergies — things that get emerging churches itching and scratching and threaten to leave an embarrassing rash. As I noted in a previous post, the early days of deconstruction are receding from view as these churches (“EC’s” for short) sense the need to fill the crater made by such criticism with constructive alternatives. In a sense, then, beginning with allergies threatens to push EC’s back into the deconstructive corner. On the other hand, given all the straw men running around the blogosphere and given a too-frequent failure on the part of the critics of EC’s to listen with a degree of hospitality, starting with allergies might give us a chance to do some translation.

The first allergy we’ll look at, then, is the allergy of EC’s to ‘systems’. The scare quotes are necessary because, as we’ll see with all of these allergies, the first thing you learn is that these words are tossed around loosely and, as often as not, obscure rather than elucidate the landscape.

Kierkegaard is said to have remarked that Hegel, whose absolutist philosophy of spirit Kierkegaard fought tooth and nail, would have been the greatest philosopher to have ever lived, had he simply finished with a P.S.: ‘Of course, I could be wrong.’ For Kierkegaard, system meant hubris. To claim for oneself a system is to claim final, total knowledge of the way the world goes. Besides an assault on divinity, that’s just foolishly naïve (though it didn’t stop an early Renaissance figure like Pico della Mirandola from claiming that he knew everything there was to know).

The emerging allergy to systems is similar. It reflects what Scot McKnight calls a ‘chastened epistemology’. Bring together the noetic effects of sin, add a critical realism that recognizes the ubiquity of interpretation (our knowledge, though true — indeed, precisely because it is true — is always perspectival), a certain sense of mystery and a not-so-distant memory of churches that over-determined their congregations’ beliefs (or simply squelched any prodding questions) and you will tend to eschew any and all system-building. A system looks like Babel to EC’s, an attempt to do more and other than we should do with our knowledge, one in which we forget our place. Incidentally, that bit about the noetic effects of sin is important. Because we’re sinners (not to mention finite), attempts to close all the loops intellectually blind us to our penchant for mistaking and mis-reading and mis-handling reality.

This needn’t mean one is unable to think systematically, that is, coherently (though it’s a handy cop-out for sloppy thinking that is bandied about at times). And it needn’t mean one is unable to think comprehensively. In fact, there is a sense in which emerging churches display some of the more systematic thinking around — at least in their desire to bring the message of Jesus and the kingdom to bear on every facet of life. This is one of the critiques they bring to ‘modern’ (there’s another allergy) churches — namely, that they fail to see how the gospel implicates itself in economics, politics, etc. In that sense, the critique is of a failure of those churches to think and live systematically. Remember this next time you hear someone slam systems. And remember that they’re really (at least usually) slamming Systems, those structures and ways of thinking that eliminate the need for, even the possibility of surprise, novelty, U-turns (things important for people who believe in dead men rising). In short, ‘How could anyone have it all figured out?!’

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