Is The Emerging Church Hopelessly Utopian? [1]

Utopia1In this month’s Prospect, Anthony Dworkin explores the idea of utopias. Utopian ideas have been a disaster in the twentieth century: Nazism, Marxism, Communism… and we can go further back in history to see their failures in both political and religious manifestations.

In the 19th Century many utopians tried to create perfect societies in their small settlements, often in the ‘New World.’ Utopian visions are about creating utter harmony, and are thus about cleansing and getting rid of ‘dirt’. In the 20th Century, the mistake appears to have been to try to force these visions onto the world at large, and the ‘ethnic cleansing’ that so violently broke out as a result. Bush and Blair’s campaign to ‘rid the world of evil’ can really be seen as the last hurrah of this ideology.

Dworkin discusses John Gray’s book Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, which argues that after the horrors of the 20th Century and the Iraq/neo-con debacle, liberal society should lean towards abandoning all political idealism.

I myself can see some parallels here in the church. We’ve seen so much, seen so many projects with such great hopes flounder, so many prophecies of impending revival fall flat, that we’re just prepared to give up on any grand vision at all. And the corollary of that is: we stop pushing the dirt away at all. We abandon any difference/distinction from the society we are in.

Having spoken to many people over the years about the Emerging Church, I’ve heard people get really excited that ‘finally this is what we’ve always been looking for’… and then, more recently, say ‘I just don’t care and I want to jack the whole thing in.’

So is the Emerging Church conversation just another hopeless utopia? Should we just abandon any grand vision and admit that it’ll probably just end up hurting people?

I’ll try to answer that in the next post.


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5 responses to “Is The Emerging Church Hopelessly Utopian? [1]”

  1. How do you differentiate between emerging church and Emergent Church (TM)? Look forward to your response in the next post.

  2. Depends on how you understand utopia. For instance, Foucault’s unfinished idea of ‘Heterotopia’ is fantastic.
    That’s why the notion of ‘critical utopia’ is so important. Check out post 44 here.
    Vaux was a critical utopia Greenbelt is a TAZ.

  3. I just love the TAZ idea.
    As you say, wish we’d come across that earlier…
    I’ll try to differentiate between the two next post Becky 😉

  4. What attracted me to this movement was a genuine attempt to explore what it means to be the “the church.” What concerns myself (and many others) is what we see evolving is yet another white male, PdD dominated stucture repleate with a marketing machine. (I even had one person with national ties to emergent tell me that only church plants are emergent, thus discounting the signs of emerging church present in existing churches.) Yes, books and the like are necessary but I’m referencing attempts to brand an organic movement and in this branding process, I’m seeing too many people get burned. In fact, right now, I just tell pepole I’m trying to follow Jesus and leave it at that — and that’s a common refrain I hear from many people these days.
    However, has the church ever had a period of utopia? A skim of the New Testament shows just how flawed the disciples and the subsequent early churches really were. I take comfort in that becuase it tells me how despite my flaws, God will work through me. For me the true miracle of the Holy Spirit is that the Christian church is still striving, whereas the Roman and Greek gods tended to fade into history once their earthly empires fell.

  5. Not sure that it’s so easy to say that the utopian American communities of the C19 were about getting rid of dirt. Communities like the Shakers were given a lot of their numerical increases by the people made homeless or destitute by the economic circumstances of the 1820s and 30s and you don’t get much more dirty than dealing with those circumstances.
    The more interesting point seems to me to be that the flux in American society allowed far more latitude to people to get practically involved in utopian communities themselves, some of which produced extraordinary results. As US society settled down towards the end of the century, the utopian urge shifted away from practice and into literature. With a few exceptions, the utopias of the c20th were of an all-encompassing top-down nature, rather than the organic communities of the c19.