An Emerged Theology: Can We Actually Say Anything about God?

Nice bit of banter going on between Tony Jones and Pete Rollins, where Tony challenged Pete to ‘give up atheism for Lent’. Outlining what this might look like, he requests:

I’d like Pete to post some beautiful, flowery prayers on his blog.

I’d like Pete to make some conclusive claims about the characteristics of God.

I’d like Pete to answer some questions. I mean actually answer them, without telling a parable.

Beneath the humour I think there’s something interesting here. We’ve been talking about an ’emerging church’ for some years now – but when, if ever, might we see something that is emerged?

I think Tony’s second point is actually very incisive, and begs a key question: can we make conclusive claims about the characteristics of God? I’ve been challenged in the comments on a previous post to ‘leave the whole Christian narrative behind’:

I can understand if you want to see the Christian narrative as a helpful aid towards looking at the world through certain themes, but do you really think there is anything more to it than that? Do you really think the Christian God exists and Jesus was his only begotten son sent to save us?

These are ‘core’ questions. And yet I find myself unable to give simple answers to them and tempted to move into parable a la Pete. It seems that there has been a period of unbinding, of critique and deconstruction. But at some point that has to stop, and something has to be, rather than be in opposition to something else.

Somewhere on my shelves I have a copy of Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, and I wondered this morning – will we hit solid ground and be able to publish a systematic emerged theology any time soon? If so, what would it contain?

In ‘Other‘ I set out how a parallel situation in quantum physics, with its uncertainty principles, precipitated a huge crisis in what was ‘knowable’ about our universe:

In 1926 Werner Heisenberg outlined his ‘uncertainty principle’, which requires that ‘when the position of an atom is measured, the measurement process will leave the momentum of the atom changed by an uncertain amount inversely proportional to the accuracy of the measurement.’ Simply put: you can’t at the same time completely accurately measure both the position and velocity of a particle. Why? Because in order to observe anything, our eyes, or some other recording instrument, need to respond to the photons of light bouncing off the thing we are observing. The problem that Heisenberg established was that at the sub-atomic level, a photon bouncing off a particle would actually cause that particle to change direction. In fact, this phenomenon is occurring all the time: every time we shine a light on something we are moving it ever so slightly, it’s just that in the visible world of everyday objects the effects are totally negligible. But at the quantum level, these ‘observer effects’ are significant – and, without delving into the complex mechanical reasoning, lead to an basic level of uncertainty about a particle’s state.

Physicists did not like what Heisenberg had to say, because of the suggestion when this theory is extrapolated that there is actually no objective reality at all – things only ‘exist’ when we actually look at them. It was this that Einstein objected to; this that led to major arguments with Bohr over many years.

Regardless of this division, one key implication of Heisenberg’s work remains: as we attempt to look closer and closer into the structure of matter, matter itself becomes more and more elusive. In other words, though it may actually objectively exist, at some zoom level the world is no longer fully observable. […]

For those of us who claim faith, there is a zoom level beyond which talk of God becomes impossible. This is the realm of faith. Our languages, our metaphors, simply break down in the face of some deeper, invisible reality. Though that reality may exist, we cannot observe it, and nor can it fully be put to the test.

The uncomfortable realisation that the physical world was, at its core, ‘strange’ seems paralleled in the church by what we might call the ‘crisis in divine immanence’ over the past twenty years. As the crisis in physics gave birth to an iconoclastic movement of quantum theorists, reacting against what they perceived as the failings of classical theory, so the crisis of immanence in the western church has perhaps precipitated the movement known as the emerging church – who in turn I see as reacting against the failings of what we might call ‘classical theology.’

Perhaps a systematic ’emerged theology’ is never going to happen precisely because the key tenet of such a theology is that systematic analysis cannot apply. If so, where would that leave us? Is a completely relativistic world all we have left?



8 responses to “An Emerged Theology: Can We Actually Say Anything about God?”

  1. Katherine

    can’t we have both/and rather than either/or? that is, laying hold of the thing that is ’emerged’, while also keeping looking for what is still emerging? as it relates to God, isn’t this the eternal dance between the via negativa and the via positiva? surely both have their place, and always will…

  2. Have you ever read any Cornel West? There is a page from one of his early books that I always return to on this subject. I found it compelling in any case. I have embedded the page on my blog hence the link… not sure how to do that here in the comments. 😀

  3. This is a good article, thanks for posting it.

    One quote:

    We are inscribed in the hermeneuticual circle with a dim hope for awareness of the whole, but with no intellectual access to it.

    What West is saying links with one of the key themes of ‘Other’ – that is, our ‘self’ is in paradoxical tension between facticity and transcendence. West’s location of ‘truth’ in the person of Christ can thus be extended to suggest that truth itself is in that same tension: it has elements of facticity (there are properties that can be listed and known) but it is not just that. It has – as any person does – transcendent properties too.

    In other words, the truth will never be fully described. There is no finite list that will contain it – and this must mean that Scripture is not – cannot be for any Christian who affirms that Jesus is ‘the truth’ – the locus of the complete and exhaustive truth.

    However, nor is truth completely transcendent. It is not entirely unknowable – and this is a position that we must equally resist. The world is not entirely relative. In other words, there must be things that Pete can say about God. But will he this Lent?!

  4. I think you’re right to point out that the Word of God is always first and foremost the person of Christ. However, the same tradition then usually goes on to say something about Scripture to the effect that it is an inspired witness to the Word of God because of the action of the Spirit.

    So I would suggest that whilst God is unknowable, he is at the same time made known because he came in the incarnation. I would also suggest that there is a role for the Spirit in giving us eyes to see God as revealed in Jesus (see for example St Athanasius and his working out of what metanoia means in terms of the hypostasis of both Son and Spirit with the Father).

  5. Dana Ames

    Kester, I am just finishing a little (but “thick”) book by Christos Yannaras, a contemporary Greek philosopher/theologian, which was recommended by a friend of mine: “On the Absence and Unknowability of God: Heidegger and the Aeropagite”. I think you would resonate with what Y. is saying about why modern folk, esp Europeans, are “atheists”. He thinks Nietzsche had a point, and anyone who thinks that really grabs my attention! (I’ve also read Y’s longer “The Freedom of Morality”, which was quoted in the article I referenced on the other post, and which really helped my understanding of the EOrthodox way of approaching all sorts of theol/phil issues.)

    When I read excerpts from Pete’s work, and yours too, I see you both dancing with the things Y. talks about in his work – which have echoed through the eastern church since the 4th/5th century. I do hope you have time to take a look at OAUG soon.


  6. Glad you liked it. I could read West all day! Yes it is a matter of becoming comfortable with an intersubjective epistemology over the Cartesian methods when it comes to this kind of Truth.

    Modern methods are great for measuring the movements of bodies through space and planes through the air (because they work), why shouldn’t we use the same criteria for finding appropriate theological tools? Does it facilitate “life sustenance, self-formation, self maturation and societal amelioration”?

    The question that concerns me is not whether “the Christian narrative [is] a helpful aid towards looking at the world through certain themes” but whether our Christian narrative facilitates desirable outcomes. Perhaps on a personal level the fruit of the spirit would be a good start? And moving up to the social/economic/political, does your theology aid communities in getting free? If not, it’s time for a rethink.

  7. rodney neill

    Very interesting and keys questions…..I will ponder this and give considered opinion instead of usual kneejerk rant


  8. Jonathan Hunt

    Kester: Is a completely relativistic world all we have left?

    Yes. Enjoy it. (muhahahahahaha)

    I cannot see that the ’emerging’ church would _ever_ be able to define _any_ systematic at all. If it did (whatever ‘it’ is), it would cease to be what it is. (Whatever it is).