Has What Emerged Retreated? | Returning to Institutions [2]

by , under Blog Series, Emerging Church, Theology

'Rumspringa' by Paul Richard James

'Rumspringa' by Paul Richard James

Emerging/Retreating [1]

I’m quite surprised at the traffic caused by the last post – been the most read thing I’ve posted for a while, and that seems to suggest that the theme has resonated, though not all in agreement. I had a good chat to Jonny on the phone yesterday, who said he initially thought the post was a wind-up, and then that, if serious, it was ‘romantic tosh!’

Well, it wasn’t a wind up. Jonny’s point was that he increasingly feels that those who remain outside of institutions tend not to have the resources to change anything, and that they tend not to last either. He may have a point. My point was not meant to be a value judgement – more an observation that the trajectory of movement away then return was one that appeared to signify a ‘retreat.’

Moreover, I’m convinced that the attraction of ordination to those in leadership of emerging groups does have something to do with finding security. I’m less concerned with people simply heading back to church; more concerned about people entering the ordination process, which I find troubling – as Jonny has found out reading through ‘Other’ where I examine the birth-narrative of the priesthood. You’ll have to buy it to find out why!

At least two themes in the book are pertinent here. The cycles through which communities and organisations go through have been really interesting me, and I will talk about those later. But firstly, I think it’s really important to look at the process of maturation – how we grow up as people of faith and the different ways in which our faith is expressed as we mature.

In the book I look at this through the prism of Jesus’ temptations, and the connections with puberty and preparations for parenthood:

[One] perspective on the journey of maturation is that of the ‘two halves of life’, separated by some kind of public ritual which displays our movement from the first to the second half. This same basic journey is undertaken in virtually every culture on earth. Young men from the Maasai undergo circumcision as part of their initiation into adulthood, Bar Mitzvahs perform a similar function for Jews, and Australian Aboriginal boys spent months preparing for their full entry into society, with sacrifices and lessons on tribal law all part of the process. For some Christian groups baptism serves this purpose, and for some parts of groups like the Amish, this may be preceded by a period of ‘rumspringa’, where adolescents actually leave the community for a period to experience ‘English’ life – with all its sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll – before returning and taking up full membership of the church.

We can see an archetype here: it is precisely in the time around puberty, when we gain the biological ability to reproduce and become parents, that all cultures and faiths seem to demand a period of ‘excursion’, a time away from the host community, often in physically demanding conditions, to prepare themselves for the task of parenthood. As we have seen, this is the plot of countless movies and books, from Austen to Dickens: a young girl looking for her prince (or vice versa) must undergo a journey of sorts, a rupture, a move away from the family home, facing all sorts of trials before returning triumphantly and enjoying a wonderful wedding.

The gospel makes interesting reading through this prism: Jesus is born in miraculous circumstances and then, at a particular time in his life, leaves home, undertakes a journey with a band of followers, is frustrated, suffers, leaves the reader under the impression that he has died, but then comes back victorious to await his ‘bride’.

The question that I think is pertinent here: to what extent can the ’emerging’ phenomena be paralleled by this ‘rumspringa’? In other words, is it an excursion away from the institutions of faith – a temporary act of heresy that is then put away – or a more fundamental departure? In other words, can the Emerging Church ever be a mature ‘second half of life’ expression?

The point of the departures outlined above is that they appear to serve as preparations / ‘odysseys’ for parenthood. In almost all cultures they occur around the time of emerging fertility. So perhaps the emerging/retreat dynamic could be seen as a sort of necessary ‘rumspringa’  – a ‘dirty excursion’ before they return to the host community when they reach the time of ‘reproduction’ – in a spiritual rather than biological sense. To connect with Jonny’s point above – it’s only on the return to the institution that people can really give birth to something significant.

While I think there is something in this parallel, I don’t think the archetype outlined above necessarily fits well with the emerging situation. Why? Because the institution we are talking about is seriously dysfunctional – and one only need read the comments in the previous post to hear that clearly. So this is not about the prodigal son going away and coming back to his good home. Here are prodigals with genuine issues about a dysfunctional family life, and what should be done in response to that.

In many ways these excursions outlined above can actually serve to reinforce the dysfunctional institutions that send them, rather than reinvigorate them. The Amish are a good example of this: sudden exposure to ‘English life’ sends those who can’t cope running back to the fold even more committed than ever to not breaking out from it, and often more committed to return to the familar – if even dysfunctional – practices that they are used to.

So when people are returning to the institution, as I think they are when it comes to new forms of ordination, I think the key question is the form of maturation that this signifies. One could see it in a positive way – that people have their rumspringa and then return to the nest to become spiritual parents. Or one could see it less positively – people return to the nest because the fear of actually giving birth to genuine newness is so profound.

Sorry, that’s a long post…


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  1. Gav

    Or maybe, there’s a realisation that there is no ‘genuine newness’ to be birthed, i.e. there only ever has been, and ever will be new reconfigurations of what has already been – ‘there is nothing new under the sun’. Having realised this, maybe some are returning to the institutions for comfort and safety at the cost of authenticity and some like me, decide that ideas of faith etc remain interesting, but are ultimately a romantic/metaphysical project and opt for a rational naturalistic atheism and think hard about how they can incorporate the good stuff inherited from their faith journey like community and work something out within a godless context?

  2. KB

    That may well be true.

    When Richard Rohr does his workshops on ‘The Two Halves of Life’ – highly recommended – he notes that ‘St Paul takes endless chapters in Romans to say what the Dalai Lama puts in one sentence:

    “You must learn the Law very well, in order to know how to break it properly.”

    I wonder if you are using the idea of the ‘Big Other’ as a way of constructing a law of life, and then dismantling it like scaffolding once that rule has been established and inhabited?

  3. Gav

    Maybe. Although, with a now naturalistic understanding of the universe I am cautious of replacing my previously held Christian worldview with some other ideology that is somehow fashioned out of the ashes of faith.

    Thinking about John Gray’s Straw Dogs I’ve been wondering a lot lately whether in the light of humans being a product of Darwinian Evolution and just another animal occupying space on a small planet somewhere in the middle of the known universe, whether our post-enlightenment liberal humanist ideas about progress, morality and the self are indeed rooted in the aftermath of and still steeped in religious ideology and if that be the case, what are the significances of this?

    What kind of ideology can we think about in this context? Perhaps the very evolution of humans in to their modern selves, when we gave up being hunter-gatherers and exchanged the violence of our wild existence for the relative safety of grouping together (this being the birth of politic and organised society) We have gained many things like art, scientific advancement, medicine, but perhaps the desire to remove ‘violence’ through grouping together means that the violence has just been transferred inside and within the various systems of cultural and political organisation? A necessary trade-off in order to maintain the system and ‘safety’ from the wild outside/other.

    What I’m saying is that maybe the very thing that enabled our species to advance so far and aimed at keeping the wild violence of our fragile existence at bay is the very thing that ends up sustaining the violence within our cultural and political systems?

    Thinking about your previous post, perhaps the only ultimate solution is the ‘violence of utopia’ as you put it or the dispensing of ideology all together? But where does that leave us, if not back in the ‘violent’ wilderness? Maybe that is the truth of our existence afterall?

  4. Adam Moore

    Speaking from my own context, I’m not sure I care as much about connection to institution as I just want to see something interesting and new. And I’m not really seeing it – inside or outside the institution.

    Though personally, I do struggle with ever moving back into a more institutional setting (which for me primarily means paid professional staff, hierarchical leadership, big budgets, etc. There doesn’t have to be a major denominational connection).

    But the following quote from your first post does always keep me struggling with this:

    “When times are hard, and my sense is that after a period of energetic pioneering things are seeming harder, the retreat to what is familiar is tempting, especially when that offers financial stability, job security and a fuller sense of personal worth.”

    That hits it dead-on for me (especially the last point – a fuller sense of personal worth!). Is the gain of remaining outside the institution worth the loss? Is there a possibility for a different kind of institution? I am more likely to move toward a new institution than to retreat to an existing denominational setting.

    Sorry if this is just rambling…I’m thinking this through (along with the help of Jonny’s latest post).

    [And thanks for the bookstore rec – that should work very well. Though I may have to resist now that I hear it’s part of an institution!]

  5. KB

    Don’t worry Adam – you have FULL permission to use that store! Ha ha. For those who want to read Jonny’s response, and mine to him in the comments below his post, click here.

    In terms of ‘new institutions’ – I’ll try to post something on that tomorrow…

  6. Adam Moore

    Also, I’m interested in what Barry Taylor’s thoughts are on this as someone in the institution (he’s within Episcopal Church, right?).