A Critique of the “Emerging Church” Movement

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The term “emerging church” identifies a loose collection of individuals from both Evangelical and Liberal Christians traditions who want to go beyond current ideological divisions between the two groups. They tend to be “postmodern” (or “ultramodern,” as I prefer to say), and are often willing to place all Christian doctrines as contingent and changeable given sufficient dialogue between Christians and between Christians, adherents of other religions, and agnostics/atheists. In a way they are radically individualistic, holding the Kierkegaardian view that people must find their own path to Christian faith. However, many also focus on small groups and house churches in order to build community. They believe that worship styles must adapt to the current chaotic postmodern world. Many also tend toward socialism or social democratic liberalism, which they include under “social justice,” though many emerging church adherents participate in projects to better their communities. They emphasize spirituality and spiritual formation, using an eclectic approach with resources from different Christian (and sometimes non-Christian) traditions.

Although my focus will be on critiquing the movement, I first will focus on positives. A major strength of the emerging church movement is its emphasis on spiritual formation. In the past, churches have de facto ignored spiritual development, and seminary training was intellectualistic with little room for developing spirituality. Although the New Testament, particularly the Pauline letters, emphasize all of a Christian’s life as part of spirituality, surely there is room for prayer, meditation, and other forms that help draw a person closer to God in his whole being, not just in his head. Good spiritual formation should help in moral development, including the habituation in good actions that leads to moral virtue.

Another positive is the works of mercy performed in communities by Christians in the emerging church. They put their labor where their mouth is, and work at homeless shelters, at educational programs for disadvantaged youth, and for programs trying to transform crime-ridden communities into communities of virtue.

There are a number of theological difficulties, however, with the emerging church movement. First, the theology is amorphous, varying widely fro individual to individual. There may be a loose unity of thought, but even then there lacks a commitment to the finality of any dogmas the church has pronounced. Influenced by the epistemological relativism of postmodern thought, these Christians flounder about as they seek their own personal theologies. How far a person drifts from traditional orthodox Christianity is left up to the individual. There is no firm theological ground on which a person can stand. What if someone, in his personal journey, denies the bodily resurrection of Christ or the Virgin Birth? What if someone challenges traditional sexual ethics on marriage, which has already been tried by some emerging church members, including scholars who have influence on young people? If such conclusions are part of one’s “personal jouney,” do they apply to others? If so, this is inconsistent; if a person denies consistency as an epistemological norm, there is no room for further discussion. The Christian who accepts the bodily resurrection of Christ, is on the postmodernist account of knowledge and belief, no better off than the person who denies it. There is no metanarrative, no “Truth” with a capital “T,” The result is theological chaos, and William Butler Yeats cry, “the cenre cannot hold” becomes reality. Even spiritual formation, rather than using approaches in one tradition that can only be adequately understood within that tradition, takes A from the Eastern Orthodox, B from the Roman Catholics, C from the Baptists, and so forth, to some up with suggestions for members to find their individual methods of spiritual formation. The loosening of tradition to the point that it has no meaning can only lead to significant numbers of Christians leaving the faith and turning to Buddhism, Hinduism, or some other non-Christian religion. Others may turn to Humanism. What could be wrong with that on the emerging church’s conception of truth?

Of least importance, but deserving to be mentioned, is the political naivety of the emerging church movement. It assumes that the best way to gain “social justice” is by a socialistic or left-wing social-democratic system of government and economics. “Social justice” is often considered to be synonymous with “socialism.” This view ignores other alternatives to the greedy corporatism dominating America – examples include redistributionism what encourages more local ownership of  property or agrarianism. Usually the best efforts to aid communities are small scale, within an individual community, where those who help are the residents or know the residents well. The Roman Catholic principle of subsidiarity surely applies here.

Overall, I believe the emerging church movement is more of a negative rather than a positive for Christianity. A creative recovery of tradition is a better alternative to the individualistic theological chaos of the emerging church movement.

Culpable Ignorance

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In an otherwise excellent book by Shaun Nichols and Stephen Stich, Mindreading (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2003), Nichols and Stich dismiss telepathy as a “supernatural” ability. Later, they mention “mystics” saying they have telepathic ability. The term “mystic” seems to be used in a pejorative sense, in which “mystical” means “anti-scientific.” These claims amount to ignorance that approaches being culpable. No one who has read the literature of parapsychology would hold that they claim that psi, including telepathy, is a “supernatural” ability. It is considered to be a natural power just as other powers of the organism (circulation, respiration, the five senses, etc.) are natural powers. Although some parapsychologists are Cartesian dualists (J. B. Rhine and Charles Tart approach Cartesian dualism, though with qualifications), even in those cases the soul is not considered to be a supernatural entity. There are theories of psi based on quantum physics (Dean Radin) and there are evolutionary theories of psi (James Carpenter) which do not even imply the existence of a spiritual realm.

To make the claim that psi is a supernatural ability, Nichols and Stitch require evidence. Instead of actually reading the parapsychological literature, they allow their personal biases to get in the way of objectivity. The only way a philosopher can make such broad and misinformed claims is failure to read the appropriate scholarly literature. Now if one has an a priori bias against psi to the point that one assumes that any putative scientific work on psi is “unscientific” (unless it is to “refute” psi), then one will fail to read the relevant literature. This an emotional, not a reasoned, reaction. I can respect a critic’s statements opposing the reality of psi if the person has done the appropriate reading and research. What I cannot respect are broad claims made from ignorance–and to dismiss an entire phenomena as non-science is both a claim from ignorance of the literature and is an ignorant claim. Philosophers surely can do better than this.

Baby Fuel

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I suppose, like Wesley Smith, I should not be surprised that over 15,000 aborted babies were incinerated as medical waste in the UK, with some of the remains used as fuel. The systematic dehumanization of the unborn child began with the rebellion against traditional norms in the 1960s. The UK was the first of the two to legalize abortion with the passage of the 1967 Abortion Act. The United States Supreme Court, in an act of judicial fiat, legalized abortion in the January 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling. As Smith notes, incinerating aborted babies is the end-result of denying personhood to the fetus. The body of an adult who dies is considered to be a body of a former person and worthy of some respect. Aborted babies, having never been considered persons, are treated like any other piece of medical waste. If they have never been persons, they are things and can be treated as mere utilitarian objects. “We need to recycle fuel instead of just throwing it away, so why not use aborted fetuses.” While logical given the premisses of the pro-abortion crowd, this use of aborted babies marks a new low in the decline of morality in the West. A society that kills its most vulnerable cannot escape the social consequences, including a cheapening of human life in general. How much lower can the UK (and Canada and the US) go? I doubt there is a bottom limit.

The United States Should Mind Its Own Business

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Once more the United State government, with the help of a cowardly, subservient media composed of the usual coalition of convenience o the war wing of the Democratic Party and the Neoconservatives, is sticking its nose where it does not belong. Attempting to follow up on the failures of Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the earlier disaster in the Balkans, the U.S. is now helping to stir the pot in the Ukraine. The  political unrest in the Ukraine reeks of the stink of the influence of the CIA and other American “intelligence” agencies. The media is playing up reports of human rights atrocities on one side in the Ukrainian dispute in order to stir up conflict with Russia. As usual, President Obama, carrying forward the tradition of Ruaaia-hating in the United States, “warns” Russia not to be involved in the Ukraine.

The sheer hypocrisy of the United States is sickening. While the U.S. is no worse than other countries, its claim to be a shining city set on a hill somehow exempt from fallen human nature should turn the stomach of anyone not brought up on the gruel of American civil religion. The U.S. had no problem subjugating its own rebellious states with the loss of 600,000 lives, and it engaged in mass murder in the Philippines conflict in the early twentieth century after starting a war with Spain in 1898 which was about imperial conquest and nothing else. Since then American interventionism has increased, especially after Woodrow Wilson’s utopian scheme of spreading American democracy throughout the world.

Thus the United States interfered in a conflict in the Balkans it did not understand, leading to the victory of the enemies of the United States who funded Al Qaeda and other Muslim terrorist groups with American support. In Iraq, millions died, including many children, in America’s crusade against Saddam. In Afghanistan, the Taliban is poised to retake the country, which it will absent continual American intervention that can only, at best, delay the inevitable.

The issue between Russia and Ukraine is an issue between those two countries. It is none of the business of the United States. If Mr. Obama, who is outclassed by Mr. Putin in leadership in every respect, believes that the most effective Russian leader in fifty years will give up Russian naval bases in the Ukraine and avoid influencing a country which is of vital stragetic interest to the Russians, he is naive and foolish. Russia refuses to be kowtowed by American pressure to change its legal system to reflect American anti-Christian secular values.  The newly rejuvenated Eastern Orthodox Russia has been a counterweight to the growing atheism, secularism, and watered-down Christianity of the United States, and the American elite classes resent that. The elites believe that they can teach Russia a lesson in the Ukraine. God forbid that they try to do so. As for warmongering Neoconservatives, if they wish to risk a nuclear war with Russia for the Ukraine, they are welcome to travel over there and fight themselves. To fight a war with Russia is sheer madness, and provoking them is close to insanity as well. The United States should get out of its empire mode and be a more modest nation. Hubris has been the downfall of many nations in human history. The United States, by overreaching itself in interventions that are none of its business and not in the U.S.’s national interest, needs to heed the proverb in the Bible: “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”

The Moral and Political Divide in Academia

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Today I was researching the ethics of embryonic stem cell research for articles from the last five years–and I could not find a single article in a “mainstream” bioethics journal opposing the practice. I am sure there may be some I missed, but the point remains that the vast majority of articles in such journals as The Hastings Center Report, The American Journal of Bioethics, and the Journal of Medical Ethics support the ethical acceptability of stem cell research. To find articles in opposition to the practice, I had to find Roman Catholic and Evangelical journals. On issues such as abortion, the divide is there, though slightly less sharp.

On political issues, there was a sharp division. It is no secret that the New England Journal of Medicine almost (though not quite) exclusively has articles supporting either the Affordable Health Care Act or more socialistic alternatives. This journal has been one of the academic driving forces for a socialistic direction in health care reform. Whether socialism would be better or not, surely there could be more balance in such a widely respected journal. Classical liberals and traditional conservatives must look elsewhere to find articles supporting their position, and sometimes the best places for them to look are the conservative “think tanks.”

Regarding postmodern relativism and the various “isms” of identity politics, literary journals are filled with such bunk. Literary traditionalists are forced to the conservative or traditional Catholic journals to publish their material. Academic Questions, published by the National Association of Scholars, itself a reaction against the radicalism of post-1960s academia, publishes fine articles from a traditional perspective (and not only by conservatives–many liberals are also frustrated with multicultural ideology).

It is not only the liberal/conservative or traditionalist/”progressive” split that divides scholarly journals; in philosophy, journals are divided between those who publish almost exclusively analytic philosophy, those emphasizing phenomenology and existentialism (as well as postmodernism), and pluralistic journals that publish articles from a variety of perspectives. Philosophers, at least, have enough variety so they can find good pluralistic journals such as the American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly or the International Philosophical Quarterly. Politics, and not only quality, plays a role in which articles are accepted to which journal.

What we see in contemporary academia is a hodge-podge. Yeats’ “the center cannot hold” is true of contemporary higher education. After the decline of the Catholic consensus with the Reformation and later, the Enlightenment, the Christian view of reality was replaced by Enlightenment universalism. This has broken down, so now, even in the same field (at least in the Humanities), scholars hunker down in their small groups, go to particular conferences of mainly like-minded people, read journals of like-minded people–it is as if academic is divided into denominations like religious groups. Political correctness has stifled debate between those with different points of view, so academics from one perspective keep to themselves and do not often interact with those from another perspective. Although it is difficult to have dialogue between different traditions, it is possible, as Alasdair MacIntyre points out in his book, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?

However, it is unlikely that such dialogue will take place on a large scale. Academia is just as divided as our society, and is not as much engaged in a cultural war as it reflects the cultural divide in the wider world. Without a central vision, society falls apart as does academic, and all the bureaucratic “solutions” by accrediting agencies and others will not put Humpty Dumpty together again.

The Existence of Jesus Christ

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There is one thing I have discovered–that those who do not wish to accept Jesus as the Christ will go as far as to deny even atheist scholars’ claims that He lived from around 4 B.C.E.-29 C.E. in ancient Palestine. One recently claimed that only a branch of scholars influenced by Christian apologetics accept the existence of Jesus. My sense is that someone who is ready to deny the vast majority of scholarship, not only Christian, but also atheist, agnostic, and Jewish scholarship, is unlikely to be persuaded by a blog post. I will summarize the evidence–first apart from the gospels:

Both Tacitus, Suetonius, and Pliny the Younger (in his letter to the Roman emperor Trajan, 112 C.E.) mention Jesus as the founder of Christianity and that he was crucified under Pontius Pilate. These are the sure references to Jesus in extrabiblical literature of the second century. There is a reference, though later edited by Christians, to Jesus in Josephus, a first century Jewish historian.

St. Paul, writing around 54 A.D. in I Corinthians, mentions the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. His letters all presume the existence of the historical Jesus only 25 years after his crucifixion. In addition, the four gospels, which may or may not have been written by the traditional authors–and that does not matter–give detailed descriptions of Jesus’ life–and all were written in the first century A.D. Despite differences in detail (which we also find in descriptions of Socrates, whose existence no one doubts, by Plato, Xenophon, and Aristophanes), which are to be expected in multiple accounts of any person’s life, most historical details fit the situation in Palestine during Jesus’ lifetime. Matthew and Luke made use of Mark and possibly a hypothetical document called Q (for Quelle, the German word for “source’), they also made use of oral tradition dating back to those who knew Jesus. The amount of time from Jesus’ life to the New Testament writings is incredibly short by standards for most religious figures such as Gautama Buddha or Confucius. Jesus’ existence is as well attested as the existence of most of the historical figures studied from the ancient world.

There is a great deal of pseudo-scholarship out there that denies Jesus’ existence, usually by means of assertion rather than argument. Mainstream scholarship of all creeds or lack thereof accepts Jesus existence–if we denied it on the critics’ grounds, we would have to deny the existence of Plato, Julius Caesar, Herod the Great, and other ancient historical people. The similarity of the Jesus story to dying and rising god stories proves nothing about Jesus existence. The critics are inconsistent–they demand absolute, quasi-mathematical proof for Jesus’ existence, but not for other historical figures they accept as having existing.

Why fly in the face of so much evidence? Probably denial of the obvious is an act of the will rather than an act of the intellect. People who want no part of Jesus find it easier to push him out of their world if they accept the view that he never existed. They are not interested in evidence, but in sophistry that may work with many people who are unaware of the evidence. I remember C. S. Lewis’ scene in The Last Battle, when Aslan throws Jewels at the dwarfs who reject him–they claim that the jewels are straw. Some individuals are so hardened that they refuse to listen to any evidence regarding Jesus, even for a position accepted by all serious Biblical scholars in the academy.

Jahi McMath, Brain Death, and the Lies of the Medical Establishment

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After post-tonsillectomy bleeding, Jahi McMath suffered a cardiac arrest that damaged her brain. She was declared brain dead. The hospital wants to remove her ventilator, but the family is opposed. While there have been extensions granted by judges, the hospital, the medical establishment, the State of California, and the bioethics establishment have ganged up to force Ms. McMath’s ventilator to be removed. The hospital refuses to do a needed tracheotomy since “we can’t operate on a dead person” (this in spite of the fact that the hospital would support removing the organs of a person declared “brain dead” even though that is surgery as well). The hospital refuses to authorize transport, and under California law, the coroner “has to release the body.” This is an example of declaring a person dead by fiat and is a logical consequence of the acceptance of “brain death” criteria beginning in 1968.

Henry K. Beecher was the chairman of the Harvard committee on brain death. In an article in the 1968 JAMA, he argued that brain death should be considered death in part because organs could then be harvested from the patient while they are still perfused with oxygenated blood. In later articles he was more explicit in saying that death was redefined in the interests of organ transplantation. The 1981 Uniform Determination of Death Act (UDDA) or a compatible law has been passed in all fifty states. The law says death can either be declared after cardiopulmonary arrest or when the “whole brain” is dead. The President’s Commission report claimed that once the brain is dead, the body’s organic unity is gone.

Brain death criteria are not well-supported by evidence. Cicero Coimbra, a neurologist in Brazil, has noted that one of the tests to determine brain death, the apnea test, which involves removing the ventilator from a patient suspected of being brain dead for three minutes to check for spontaneous respiration. Dr. Coimbra points out that this test can itself cause brain death in patients who are not initially brain dead. He also argues that there is hope for some of these patients–hypothermia and other treatments to preserve brain cells may have good results. There have been cases in which a person was about to have organs removed for transplantation–and the person fully recovered. It is possible that removing a ventilator from Ms. McMath might take the life of a person who might not otherwise die from her head injury.

The entire brain is not dead in most cases of brain death–studies have found EEG activity in the majority of so-called “brain-dead” patients tested. For organs to be removed, body temperature has to be close to normal, and body temperature is mediated by the hypothalamus, which is part of the brain (along with the pituitary gland, part of the endocrine system). Supporters of brain death claim that these parts of the brain do not count–one wonders what else they would say would not count if further evidence of continuing brain activity is found.

As the recent President’s Council report points out, brain dead people are organic unities. Their blood circulates, and oxygen/carbon dioxide exchange continue. While the ventilator provides oxygenated air, machine dependence is not equivalent to death. Some conscious people are ventilator-dependent, and no sane person would consider them dead. The President’s Council identified death with loss of respiratory function combined with permanent loss of consciousness. Why, then, does ventilation count for life and not the heartbeat? Also, given that our knowledge is limited concerning the generation of consciousness in the brain, claims of permanent unconsciousness are arrogant at best.

I respect Arthur Caplan as a significant scholar in bioethics. What I cannot respect is his ignoring opponents of brain death in his public statements as if there is no current debate on the topic in academia. It reveals a lack of respect for opponents of brain death criteria, some of whom are physicians (Dr. Coimbra and Dr. Alan Shewmon as well as the late Richard Nilges practice or practiced neurology). Professor Caplan is surely aware that just because a law says death occurs at a certain point does not imply that the law is correct. Many bad laws have been passed–the UDDA may be another example of bad law.

Current bioethicists tend to think that patient autonomy is fine when the patient (or the patient’s family in the case of an incompetent patient) refuses care. But if a patient or patient’s family wants continued care, then there are appeals to “futility,” as if “futility” is not a value-laden term. “Death” is also a value-laden term and can be used for utilitarian ends such as justifying organ harvesting from heart-beating donors or to save money by removing a ventilator from a little girl. The hypocrisy of many doctors, hospital administrators, and “bioethicists” is sickening. The trashing of the value of Ms. McMath’s life is ethically monstrous. Given the history of movements such as the eugenics movement and experiments such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, I wonder what motivations are really in the minds of some of those most eager to remove Ms. McMath’s ventilator. Utilitarianism now trumps the value of human life, and medicine is corrupted to the point that I wonder whether some doctors are really practicing medicine any more.

If it were determined that Ms. McMath could not recover, the family’s wishes should be honored, even if the care Ms. McMath receives is “extraordinary care.” The family would also have the moral right to ask that the ventilator be turned off — but autonomy goes both ways and not only in the direction that cynical “bioethicists” desire.

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