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The Invention of the Emerging Church Movement

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Social scientists frequently employ contested categories or concepts (Beckford 2003, 13) in the description and analysis of ethnographic data. In other words, a conceptual gap often exists between emic self-description and etic secondary formulation. Informants don’t always acknowledge or accept scholarly terms and definitions. Using Gladys Ganiel’s recent and informative interview as a springboard which with to address her and sociologist Gerardo Marti’s book, The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emergence Christianity (OUP 2014), the following response considers such a conceptual gap by briefly exploring the politics of secondary appropriation, i.e., the implementing of first-order terms for second-order purposes. Before weighing the implications of informant resistance to secondary definitional work, however, it might help to consider what exactly terms like “The Emerging Church Movement” (ECM) and its terminological correlates (e.g., emerging, emergence, or emergent) intend to describe.

According to one of Marti and Ganiel’s informants, the ECM is “Christianity for people who don’t like Christianity” (7). The movement—assuming for a moment that it constitutes such an entity—arose in the 1990s in a series of critiques of popular evangelical subcultures, ecclesiology, and theology. Marti and Ganiel define Emerging Christians as a particular group “sharing a religious orientation built on a continual practice of deconstruction” and characterize the ECM as “an institutionalizing structure, made up of a package of beliefs, practices, and identities that are continually deconstructed and reframed by the religious institutional entrepreneurs who drive the movement and seek to resist its institutionalization” (25-26). Other social scientists have qualified the phenomena as consisting of (post- or quasi-) evangelical discontents who, experiencing a “severe disenchantment” with broader evangelicalism, engage in a particularly intentional movement of religio-cultural critique (Bielo 2011, 5-6), or as a do-it-yourself, postmodern, inclusive, grassroots, anti-institutional force (Packard 2012). Individuals engaging in these conversations of inevitably structuring, institutional resistance to institution itself often describe themselves as undergoing processes of de-churching (i.e., as de-churched; Packard 2012) or de-conversion (Bielo 2011). Much more might be said about the people who identify through non- or anti-identification maneuvers along these lines. But what I find especially interesting is the secondary, scholarly work that goes into proposing an authoritative definition and subsequent definitional criteria and then determining, via elaborated definitional grids, who counts as part of the proposed order.

Marti and Ganiel, to be sure, are well aware of the issues involved in the positing and defending of secondary taxonomies. “In attempting a social scientific analysis,” the authors clarify early in the introduction to The Deconstructed Church, “we acknowledge that we focus on a set of groups that resist definition.” Such resistance, they continue, is at times even “passionate and obsessive” (5). Few dialogical insiders, further, are willing to define whatever it is that the moniker “ECM” attempts to delineate, as its diverse constituents embrace irony and contradiction and lack “systematic coherence” (5). In fact, “avoiding labels is part of avoiding stigma” and even socio-cultural identities based in rejection of labels might indeed constitute a group identity if enough persons coalesce within and around a similar critical stance. All of this strategic secondary work of naming and defining seems justified, at least to a point. I’d argue, recalling Jonathan Z. Smith, that the job of the scholar is to produce and defend illustrative, second-order, taxonomic terms; classifying for reasons of elucidation and illumination is at the heart of the academic and religious studies endeavor (Smith 1982).

But regardless of the ECM’s amorphous and messy self-descriptions, such ambiguity does not dissuade Marti and Ganiel from formulating a definition. Instead, “rather than noting its ‘anti-institutional’ orientation and succumbing to a hopeless lack of definition,” the scholars delineate not only a definition but a multiple-part characterization of (or criteria list for) the entity (for lists of qualifying attributes or characteristics, see Marti and Ganiel 2014, 29-30; Packard 2012, 7-10, 145-165; Bielo 2011, 10-16). The ECM, then, as a nebulous “congregational movement” (55-56), mostly resists insider definitional clarification even though, as Bielo demonstrates, “The Emerging Church” label itself has emic—not etic—origins. Even though social scientists employ the term, Bielo considers its dubiousness. “The [‘Emerging Church’] label itself is increasingly of little interest to adherents as a meaningful self-identifier,” he writes, “but the movement it was intended to capture continues to thrive” (2011, 5). Here we witness the categorical resistance followed abruptly by a deliberate scholarly adoption or appropriation of the term. Bielo’s strategy, along with those of social scientists to follow, is a secondary maneuver; theological terms become academically productive and useful as they move from native to exterior domains.

Late-modern informants well versed in post-modern, anti-essentialist philosophy and post-colonial theologies don’t often like labels. Ascribing to a particular category is not simply a theological choice made in some imaginary free market arena of American spirituality; self-identifying is a politically laden and significant act, a tactic that requires potential constituents to make close consideration of the implications that aligning with a certain collective will have (and especially a non-traditional, boundary pushing, and theologically suspect one, according to some sectors of evangelicalism). With the use of secondary terms such as emergence Christianity or even “the ECM” we witness emic rejection but subsequent etic adoption, a veritable domain switch in a terminological sense.

“Invention,” a word I used in the title of this response, is surely too strong of an action word to use in this case. But the ECM is nonetheless a thoroughly problematic category. Not many people, if we take the existing works on the phenomenon as standard, self-identify with or see as meaningful proposed (i.e., adopted/adapted) scholarly descriptive terms. But Marti and Ganiel have given us one of the most important analyses to date of a set of events and developments we might at least provisionally agree to categorize under the heading(s) in question. Personally, however, I find questions of terminological genealogy most interesting. Why emerging or emergent church or emergence Christianity as classifications and not, say, post-evangelical or missional as ones? (I wonder if most scholars might agree that the application of entirely generic, social scientific terms, in place of emically derived ones, would prove an unproductive exercise. Don’t our informants need to recognize themselves in the works about them we produce?) In the staking out of what terms denote—academically, secondarily—Ganiel and Marti’s book is a helpful example of the ways scholars and collaborators mete out meaning, in a quasi-collaborative sense, through words, labels, titles, and terminologies in a relational, dialogical, even circular, fashion. No, “invention,” then, is too simple a qualification. We might amend the title of this response, more appropriately, to something like “The Invention of the Emerging Church Movement as a Productive Scholarly Taxon.”

[An extended version of this post can be found at the author’s blog site.]

Works Referenced

 Beckford, James A. 2003. Social Theory and Religion. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Bielo, James S. 2011. Emerging Evangelicals: Faith, Modernity, and the Desire for Authenticity. New York University Press.

Douglas, Mary. 1980 [1966]. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Marti, Gerardo and Gladys Ganiel. 2014. The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity. New York: Oxford University Press.

Packard, Josh. 2012. The Emerging Church: Religion at the Margins. Boulder, CO: First Forum Press.

Smith, Jonathan Z. 1982. Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown. The University of Chicago Press.

Resisting Conformity at the Margins of Marginal Christianity

In what her interviewer has reckoned to be the first Religious Studies Project podcast to focus solely on the study of an expression of contemporary Christianity, Gladys Ganiel introduces listeners to a modern religious orientation that deserves sustained scholarly attention. The Emerging Church Movement (the ECM) might be numerically small but it is, she suggests, far from insignificant.

Despite a growing number of ethnographies of individual emerging church congregations, as well as critical overviews of the emerging church conversation as an identifiable form of religious discourse, many scholars of religion have either never heard of the ECM or claim, as Josh Packard suggests, that emerging Christianity must ‘join the mainstream or die out’.[1] It is assumed that it is merely a ‘transitional reaction’ against modern evangelicalism that will merge with the liberal mainstream, especially if, as Robert Warner declares, ‘post-evangelicals define themselves negatively and seem unlikely to develop a sustainable and distinct theological agenda’.[2]

But against such assessments, as I have argued elsewhere, emerging Christianity is structured around identifiable sets of values, beliefs and practices that lend it cohesion and relative stability whilst also enabling divergence.[3] Ganiel’s book, The Deconstructed Church (co-authored with Gerardo Martí), is an important academic analysis that also takes the ECM seriously as a phenomenon that is organised around a clear (albeit contested and continually ‘deconstructed’) set of activities.

Graffiti outside The Menagerie, Belfast, where Ikon first began meeting. Photo credit: Mark Berry, safespace community, Telford.

Graffiti outside The Menagerie, Belfast, where Ikon first began meeting. Photo credit: Mark Berry, safespace community, Telford.

Acknowledging the difficulties surrounding the identification and definition of a subject of study that is not only deliberately diverse but also intentionally resistant to definition, Ganiel and Martí nonetheless discern within emerging Christianity a distinct religious orientation built around the practice of deconstruction. The Deconstructed Church illustrates in particular how these practices encourage the creation of pluralist congregations and of what Ulrich Beck calls ‘cooperative egoism’,[4] facilitating a strategic form of religiosity through which participants undertake ‘meaning work’ that maintains tensions between individualism and collective identity. Such practices are driven by what Ganiel and Martí call ‘the religious institutional entrepreneurs’ who seek to resist the institutionalization of this orientation under pressures to conform to inherited forms of Christianity – primarily what participants see as the ‘Seeker Megachurch’ and the ‘Solemn Mainline’ models. As James S. Bielo has observed, the emerging church is therefore a particularly rich research site for the empirical study of interacting Christianities, since its religious and cultural critique is dependent upon prevailing traditions as interlocutors.[5] The question of this deconstructive orientation’s ultimate sustainability is, as Ganiel acknowledges, open to debate. But it is also ripe for scholarly study, and for critical consideration from a variety of disciplinary perspectives.

My own research has focused on understanding how the identifiable social or cultural imaginaries that structure what I call the emerging church discursive milieu interact with continental philosophy and radical theologies.[6] As Charles Taylor has noted, when theory ‘penetrates and transforms’ an imaginary, new practices are either taken up or improvised.[7] It is the innovative communicative practices and expressive acts of an emerging church imaginary, which is transformed when emerging Christians engage with the philosophical traditions of deconstruction and materialism, that most interest me – and I see emerging church figures like Peter Rollins (a founder of Ikon, Belfast) and Kester Brewin (a founder of Vaux, London) as catalysts for such an engagement.

In The Deconstructed Church, however, Ganiel and Martí focus on deconstruction as a sociological process that enables the ECM to ‘establish competitive arenas in response to pressures for conformity’ whilst nonetheless continuing to conceive of God in the ‘relatively concrete terms’ of conventional Christian theism.[8] This means that Ganiel and Martí are better able to more adequately represent the mainstream of the ECM than I am, for entrepreneurs like Rollins and Brewin push the emerging church conversation in more radical directions as they engage the work of thinkers like John D. Caputo and Slavoj Žižek. Popular figures in North American emerging Christianity would not understand crucifixion and resurrection in the ways that Rollins does and would not state their disbelief in a personal God or divine salvation as Brewin has.

‘What makes emerging Christianity “Christian”?’, Ganiel is asked in this interview. In her response, she sympathises with those within the ECM who treat this question as one that deflects from more primary issues of concern. She refers to an instance – recounted more fully here – that also recalls the response Rollins gives to the question of the historical resurrection of Jesus. He says, ‘Without equivocation or hesitation I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ’, by which he means that he does so every time he fails to ‘serve at the feet of the oppressed’ and yet also affirms that resurrection in those ‘few and far between’ moments when he stands up ‘for those who are forced to live on their knees’.[9]

Such an apparently evasive answer frustrates not only researchers seeking clarity about the beliefs held by emerging church entrepreneurs like Rollins, as Ganiel notes, but also those who wish them to conform either to traditional theistic belief or to modern atheistic belief.

Rollins’ critique of religious idolatry and ideology is intended as more than a corrective to conventional Christianity that would enable Christians to discover the God beyond the idol ‘God’ and a richer faith beyond instrumental religion without challenging more fundamentally their continued reliance on what he might call – following Žižek – ‘a subject supposed to believe’ on their behalf; namely, priests, Christ, God, the community of believers, the church structures themselves (the buildings, the liturgies, the statements of faith), etc., that sustain the fantasy of the presence and coherence of meaning, purpose, value and truth. On the other hand, however, the experience of the death of such a subject does not result in conventional atheism, since it is not only God that dies (i.e., that does not exist) but a transcendent source of or an absolute justification for any universal principle or set of principles, including those provided by reason as well as by revelation.

Rollins and Brewin are on the margins of a numerically marginal expression of Christianity. However, just as the significance of the ECM lies not in its relative size but in its manifestation of a religious orientation that seeks to resist conformity with inherited models of Christianity, the significance of these two marginal figures lies in the ways in which they seek to resist conformity with both modern western theism and modern western atheism. Rollins and Brewin are, therefore, two of the ‘expert theorizers’[10] within the ECM whose engagement with continental philosophy and radical theology is contributing to the construction of what I call an emerging a/theistic cultural imaginary.[11]

Both Rollins and Brewin propose that there is revolutionary political potential in the kinds of spaces that they advocate, and I am interested in exploring how to measure that claim, even if, as Ganiel notes, there are methodological difficulties in determining the impact of emerging Christianity on society more broadly. I would especially like to examine further the discursive motif of suspension in their work and to investigate empirically the communal practices that enable such a suspension of belief and identity. These religious (or, rather, ir/religious) spaces are imagined to be individually and collectively transformative, temporarily subtracting participants from their social roles and relations and allowing them to envision new forms of interaction and association: ‘we not only affirm one another in excess of our culturally given identities but expose these identities as contingent’, Rollins writes, concluding that thereby ‘we can more productively engage in exploring how to transform society’.[12] But the efficacy of these practices of suspension has yet to be documented. What kinds of sociality are exhibited in and encouraged by participation in ‘suspended space’? And what is the relationship between such spaces and participants’ wider social, political and economic lives?

 

Bibliography

Beck, Ulrich, 2010, A God of One’s Own: Religion’s Capacity for Peace and Potential for Violence, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Beck, Ulrich, and Johannes Willms, 2004, Conversations with Ulrich Beck, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Bielo, James S., 2009, ‘The “Emerging Church” in America: Notes on the Interaction of Christianities’, Religion 39/3, pp. 219-32.

Ganiel, Gladys, and Gerardo Martí, 2014, ‘Northern Ireland, America and the Emerging Church Movement: Exploring the Significance of Peter Rollins and the Ikon Collective’, Journal of the Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religions, 1/1, pp. 26-47.

Martí, Gerardo, and Gladys Ganiel, 2014, The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Moody, Katharine Sarah. 2010, ‘“I Hate Your Church; What I Want is My Kingdom”: Emerging Spiritualities in the UK Emerging Church Milieu’, The Expository Times 121/10, pp. 495-503.

  • forthcoming, Radical Theology and Emerging Christianity: Deconstruction, Materialism and Religious Practices, Ashgate.

Packard, Josh, 2012, The Emerging Church: Religion at the Margins, Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers / First Forum Press.

Rollins, Peter, 2009, ‘My Confession: I Deny The Resurrection’, (January 01) http://peterrollins.net/2009/01/my-confession-i-deny-the-resurrection/

Taylor, Charles. 2004, Modern Social Imaginaries, Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.

  • 2007, A Secular Age, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Warner, Robert, 2007, Reinventing English Evangelicalism, 1996-2001: A Theological and Sociological Study, Milton Keynes: Paternoster.

 

Notes

[1] Packard, The Emerging Church, p. 31. Growing academic interest in emerging Christianity is starting to be reflected in the programmes of some of the major conferences in the field of religious studies. For example, in August this year there was a panel on the ECM and the transformation of ‘conventional’ Christianity at the Association for the Sociology of Religion annual conference. And there will be sessions on emerging Christianity at the 2014 American Academy of Religion and Society for the Scientific Study of Religion conferences as well.

[2] Warner, Reinventing English Evangelicalism, p. 230, fn. 62.

[3] See Moody, ‘“I Hate Your Church; What I Want is My Kingdom”’.

[4] See Beck, A God of One’s Own and Beck and Willms, Conversations with Ulrich Beck.

[5] See Bielo, ‘The “Emerging Church” in America’.

[6] See Moody, Radical Theology and Emerging Christianity.

[7] Taylor, A Secular Age, pp. 172 and 175. See also Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries.

[8] Martí and Ganiel, The Deconstructed Church, p. 26 (italics removed); and Ganiel and Martí, ‘Northern Ireland, America and the Emerging Church Movement’, p. 45.

[9] Rollins, ‘My Confession’.

[10] Martí and Ganiel, The Deconstructed Church, p. 81.

[11] See Moody, Radical Theology and Emerging Christianity.

[12] Rollins, ‘The Worldly Theology of Emerging Christianity’, p. 84.

The Emerging Church

What do you get when you mix a dash of pub culture, a splash of irreverence, a healthy dose of conversation, a smattering of postmodernist critique, a drizzle of discourse on problematic concepts such as ‘religion’ and ‘the secular’, and a host of other eclectic and idiosyncratic ingredients to taste? Depending upon the measures, one possible outcome could be an ideal-typical podcast from your friends at The Religious Studies Project. Prepare in a slightly different manner and your culinary exploits could produce a manifestation of the Emerging Church. However, in the case of the latter, similar results might be obtained from a completely different set of ingredients.

The Emerging Church Movement (ECM) is notoriously difficult to define. What are scholars of ‘religion’ to do with a trend seemingly emerging both within and without many contemporary manifestations of (Western) Christianity, that is both anti-institutional and ecumenical, aims to avoid hierarchies and power structures, embraces creativity, deconstruction and experimentation, and actively promotes a ‘neutral’ and ‘non-judgmental religious space’ where almost anything goes? In this week’s podcast, Chris is joined by Dr Gladys Ganiel to discuss this ‘problematic’, important and boundary-pushing phenomenon.

In The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity (Oxford, 2014), Ganiel and co-author Gerardo Marti write:

“We define Emerging Christians in terms of sharing a religious orientation built on a continual practice of deconstruction. We characterize the ECM as an institutionalizing structure, made up of a package of beliefs, practices, and identities that are continually deconstructed and reframed by the religious institutional entrepreneurs who drive the movement and seek to resist its institutionalization. As such, the ECM is best seen as a mix of both reactive and proactive elements, vying for the passion and attention of Christians and nonbelievers. Emerging Christians react primarily against conservative/evangelical/fundamentalist Protestantism but also against other forms of traditional Christianity that they have experienced as inauthentic. At the same time, they proactively appropriate practices from a range of Christian traditions […] to nourish their individual spirituality and to enhance their life together as communities.” (25-26)

What is it that makes this movement ‘Christian’? What does it do to traditional understandings of ‘religion’ and ‘secularization’? How does one research such a seemingly diffuse and unbounded phenomenon? Is it only a matter of time before this movement undergoes a process of systematization? These questions and more form the basis of a discussion which took place in May 2014, at the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin in Belfast, a couple of days after the 3rd Annual Conference of the Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religion.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

 

An Astrology (and Spiritualities) for the Modern

Campion’s suggestion of Theosophical astrology being an astrology for the modern, in the context of a revision of the Enlightenment and ‘modernity’, sheds light on the place of alternative, holistic, and esoteric spiritualities in the modern world.

An Astrology (and Spiritualities) for the Modern: A Reflection on Nick Campion

By S. Francesca Po, King’s College London

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 5 December 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Nick Campion on Astrology (3 December 2012).

‘[Theosophical astrology] is an astrology of modernity’, suggests Nick Campion in his interview with the Religious Studies Project.  However,  before even coming to this suggestion, David Robertson asked some very challenging, informed questions on the assumptions about astrology—particularly, if contemporary astrologers have ‘reinterpreted’ astrology in order to appeal to the cosmology of modernity.  This question is also relevant to many alternative, holistic, and ‘postmodern’ spiritualities, which I hope to focus on in this reflection.

Firstly, Campion clarifies the concepts of the Enlightenment and modernity.  Regarding the Enlightenment, what is commonly understood as a period that triumphed reason is currently being challenged, as many of the advocates for ‘reason’ during the Enlightenment were devout practitioners of Rosicrucianism and esoteric Freemasonry.  The concept of ‘modernity’ is just as complex.  Giving the example of the founders of modern art, Campion points out that they too were practitioners of esoteric traditions: Wassily Kandinsky, the founder of abstract art, was a Theosophist, and André Breton, the founder of Surrealism, was an astrologer.  The Enlightenment and modernity are not, perhaps,as pragmatic, empirical, or objective as academic scholarship may have previously thought.

That being said, Campion continues, the notion of ‘modernity’ being something that is countered against or opposed to esoteric traditions is simply not valid, because the Enlightenment and modernity were actually heavily driven by esoteric worldviews.  He argues that labelling the New Age ‘postmodern’ is problematic in the same way.  His suggestion that ‘[Theosophical astrology] is an astrology of the modern’ is simply to display continuity in history: astrology has always existed with no breaks, there are always competing currents of which religious/spiritual/esoteric practices have more validity or effectivity, and there are always practices that are committed to developing alongside the rest of culture.  In this case, Theosophical astrology is part of the continuous lineage of astrology in the West, and has developed a system that is compatible with the modern worldview.

My research focuses on the population in the United Kingdom and the United States that have no religious preference (the ‘nones’) and generally are not institutional attendees (the ‘unchurched’), but may still engage or sympathize with religion.  This research led me to ethnographic work on various non-religiously affiliated social groups – namely the ‘integral milieu’ (otherwise known as the ‘intellectualist wing of the New Age’ [Heelas, 1996, p. 5]) and the ‘post-Christian milieu’ (the more ambiguous branches of the Emerging Church, to be detailed later in this article) – that may generally be considered alternative, holistic, or ‘postmodern’.

Within my research, like Campion, I have also encountered the problem with using the concept of ‘postmodernism’ as a label for these spiritualities.  ‘Postmodernism’ has been defined as ‘incredulity toward metanarratives…’, ‘frank revelations of theoretical perplexity, testimonies to dramatic shifts in reality, and expressions of existential despair’, and ‘a stylistic promiscuity favoring eclecticism and the mixing of codes; parody, pastiche, irony, playfulness and the celebration of the surface “depthlessness” of culture’ (Christiano, 2007, p. 47).  Although many of the groups I am studying are generally ambivalent of metanarratives, recognize the complexity of existence, and favor eclecticism, I have observed that they do actually recognize tangible truths, even if only temporary ones, and ultimately strive for a depth that one can be comfortable in, even if it may not be attained.  Kevin Christiano argues that:

‘a postmodern religion would not be captured within a church—or not a highly conventional such organization…  Religion in postmodernity would be ahistorical and anti-traditional…  Most of all, it would not hesitate to implode on the individual, and it would not regret the mess…’  (Christiano, 2007, p. 48)

Although the groups I am studying are not at all traditional constructs of religious institutions, they do exhibit historicity and tradition, and though they may have the ability to ‘implode on the individual’, they would probably attempt to ‘clean up the mess’ of it.  Within my observations, alternative, holistic, and ‘postmodern’ groups may, at most, only resemble postmodernism, but are actually continuous with the lineage of modernity.

More specifically, two ‘postmodern’ religions or spiritualities that are actually continuous with modernity are the ‘progressive milieu’ (Lynch, 2007, p. 10) and the Emerging Church. The ‘progressive milieu’ is what Gordon Lynch calls the milieu of individuals and groups coming from the progressive branches of all religious traditions.  They engage in many practices and have many ideas that may be considered alternative, New Age, or ‘postmodern’, but Lynch argues that they are actually continuous to modernity using a similar argument as Campion (Lynch, 2007, pp. 65-70).  He says, ‘progressive spirituality is not so much postmodern, as a particular form of modernism – a softer modernism – a spiritual way of living for the modern age’ (Lynch, 2007, p. 68).

Similarly, the Emerging Church is a milieu of individuals and groups that generally do not identify with any religious tradition, explores and experiments with a wide range of religious and philosophical ideas and practices, but claim groundedness in Christianity.  Historian Dominic Erdozain and sociologist Walt Scalen both argue that the Emerging Church is continuous with the same ‘spirit of reason’ as the Enlightenment, and shares a lineage with Enlightenment evangelicals (Erdozain, 2011, p. 93, 121; Scalen, 2010, p. 72).  Erdozain says, ‘[Evangelicals] had to step away from the inherited structures of the faith before they could engage with their culture.  They were the pioneers of the emerging church’ (Erdozain, 2011, p. 93).

Campion’s suggestion of Theosophical astrology being an astrology for the modern, in the context of a revision of the Enlightenment and ‘modernity’, sheds light on the place of alternative, holistic, and esoteric spiritualities in the modern world.  Alongside my own observations and research, I find Campion’s insight an imperative one in the study of contemporary religion.  The spirit of challenging and experimenting with religious ideas and practices is not simply a passing ‘postmodern’ project within the human desire to place meaning in a chaotic cosmology—it is a ‘spirit’ that has always existed in human history.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author

S. Francesca Po is currently a doctoral student of Theology and Religious Studies at King’s College London, and is teaching modules on Buddhism. The working title of her thesis is ‘After “Spirituality”: An Emerging Common Sociality Among the New Age, Religious, and Religiously Unaffiliated in the United Kingdom and the United States’ under the supervision of Dr. Marat Shterin. Prior to being at King’s, she lectured at the University of San Francisco; received an M.A. in Philosophy and Religion, with a concentration in ‘Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness’ at the California Institute of Integral Studies; a B.A. in Religious Studies and Music at the University of California at Berkeley; served in the United States Peace Corps in Kazakhstan; and has had a career as a high school teacher of philosophy and religious studies, and campus chaplain. She has published and spoken on various subjects, including: nonviolence, politics, popular culture, religion, sociology, and spirituality. For an institutional biography, visit: http://www.kcl.ac.uk/artshums/depts/trs/people/stuprofiles/research/po.aspx

In-text References

  • Christiano, K. J. (2007). Assessing Modernities: From “Pre-” to “Post-” to “Ultra-.” The Sage Handbook of the Sociology of Religion (pp. 39–56). London: SAGE.
  • Erdozain, D. (2011). Emerging Church: A Victorian Prequel. The Great Tradition – A Great Labor: Studies in Ancient-Future Faith (pp. 92–121). Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Pub.
  • Heelas, P. (1996). The New Age Movement: The Celebration of the Self and the Sacralization of Modernity. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Lynch, G. (2007). The New Spirituality: An Introduction to Progressive Belief in the Twenty-First Century. London: I.B.Tauris.
  • Scalen, W. (2010). The Emergent Church: Cutting Edge or 60s Redux. The Year 2010 Proceedings of the ASSR-SW, 66–74.

Emerging Church Recommendations

  • Bell, R. (2011). Love Wins: At the Heart of Life’s Big Questions. London: HarperCollins UK.
  • Cox, H. (2010). The Future of Faith. New York: HarperCollins.
  • DeYoung, K., & Kluck, T. (2008). Why We’re Not Emergent: By Two Guys Who Should Be. Chicago: Moody Publishers.
  • McLaren, B. (2010). A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that are Transforming the Faith. London: Hachette UK.
  • McLaren, B. D. (2007). Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Inc.
  • Rutba House. (2005). School(s) for Conversion: 12 Marks of a New Monasticism. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publ.
  • Sweet, L. (2000). Postmodern Pilgrims: First Century Passion for the 21st Century Church. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group.
  • Sweet, L., Sweet, L. I., McLaren, B. D., & Haselmayer, J. (2002). A Is for Abductive: The Language of the Emerging Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
  • Wilson-Hartgrove, J. (2008). New Monasticism: What It Has to Say to Today’s Church. Ada, MI: Brazos Press.

Integral Milieu Recommendations

  • Aurobindo. (1985). The Life Divine. Twin Lakes, WI: Lotus Press.
  • California Institute of Integral Studies. (2012). The California Institute of Integral Studies. Retrieved from http://www.ciis.edu/
  • Esalen Institute. (2011). Esalen Institute. Esalen Institute. Retrieved from http://www.esalen.org/
  • Gebser, J. (1985). The ever-present origin. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.
  • Grof, S. (2000). Pschology of the Future: Lessons from Modern Consciousness Research. SUNY Press.
  • Kelly, S. M. (2009). Coming Home: The Birth and Transformation of the Planetary Era. Herndon, VA: Lindisfarne Books.
  • Macy, J. (2007). World as lover, world as self: courage for global justice and ecological renewal. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press.
  • Swimme, B., & Berry, T. (1994). The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era–a Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos. New York: HarperCollins.
  • Tarnas, R. (2011). Passion of the Western Mind. Crawfordsville, IN: Random House Publishing Group.
  • Wilber, K. (2000). Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications.

Podcasts

The Invention of the Emerging Church Movement

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Social scientists frequently employ contested categories or concepts (Beckford 2003, 13) in the description and analysis of ethnographic data. In other words, a conceptual gap often exists between emic self-description and etic secondary formulation. Informants don’t always acknowledge or accept scholarly terms and definitions. Using Gladys Ganiel’s recent and informative interview as a springboard which with to address her and sociologist Gerardo Marti’s book, The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emergence Christianity (OUP 2014), the following response considers such a conceptual gap by briefly exploring the politics of secondary appropriation, i.e., the implementing of first-order terms for second-order purposes. Before weighing the implications of informant resistance to secondary definitional work, however, it might help to consider what exactly terms like “The Emerging Church Movement” (ECM) and its terminological correlates (e.g., emerging, emergence, or emergent) intend to describe.

According to one of Marti and Ganiel’s informants, the ECM is “Christianity for people who don’t like Christianity” (7). The movement—assuming for a moment that it constitutes such an entity—arose in the 1990s in a series of critiques of popular evangelical subcultures, ecclesiology, and theology. Marti and Ganiel define Emerging Christians as a particular group “sharing a religious orientation built on a continual practice of deconstruction” and characterize the ECM as “an institutionalizing structure, made up of a package of beliefs, practices, and identities that are continually deconstructed and reframed by the religious institutional entrepreneurs who drive the movement and seek to resist its institutionalization” (25-26). Other social scientists have qualified the phenomena as consisting of (post- or quasi-) evangelical discontents who, experiencing a “severe disenchantment” with broader evangelicalism, engage in a particularly intentional movement of religio-cultural critique (Bielo 2011, 5-6), or as a do-it-yourself, postmodern, inclusive, grassroots, anti-institutional force (Packard 2012). Individuals engaging in these conversations of inevitably structuring, institutional resistance to institution itself often describe themselves as undergoing processes of de-churching (i.e., as de-churched; Packard 2012) or de-conversion (Bielo 2011). Much more might be said about the people who identify through non- or anti-identification maneuvers along these lines. But what I find especially interesting is the secondary, scholarly work that goes into proposing an authoritative definition and subsequent definitional criteria and then determining, via elaborated definitional grids, who counts as part of the proposed order.

Marti and Ganiel, to be sure, are well aware of the issues involved in the positing and defending of secondary taxonomies. “In attempting a social scientific analysis,” the authors clarify early in the introduction to The Deconstructed Church, “we acknowledge that we focus on a set of groups that resist definition.” Such resistance, they continue, is at times even “passionate and obsessive” (5). Few dialogical insiders, further, are willing to define whatever it is that the moniker “ECM” attempts to delineate, as its diverse constituents embrace irony and contradiction and lack “systematic coherence” (5). In fact, “avoiding labels is part of avoiding stigma” and even socio-cultural identities based in rejection of labels might indeed constitute a group identity if enough persons coalesce within and around a similar critical stance. All of this strategic secondary work of naming and defining seems justified, at least to a point. I’d argue, recalling Jonathan Z. Smith, that the job of the scholar is to produce and defend illustrative, second-order, taxonomic terms; classifying for reasons of elucidation and illumination is at the heart of the academic and religious studies endeavor (Smith 1982).

But regardless of the ECM’s amorphous and messy self-descriptions, such ambiguity does not dissuade Marti and Ganiel from formulating a definition. Instead, “rather than noting its ‘anti-institutional’ orientation and succumbing to a hopeless lack of definition,” the scholars delineate not only a definition but a multiple-part characterization of (or criteria list for) the entity (for lists of qualifying attributes or characteristics, see Marti and Ganiel 2014, 29-30; Packard 2012, 7-10, 145-165; Bielo 2011, 10-16). The ECM, then, as a nebulous “congregational movement” (55-56), mostly resists insider definitional clarification even though, as Bielo demonstrates, “The Emerging Church” label itself has emic—not etic—origins. Even though social scientists employ the term, Bielo considers its dubiousness. “The [‘Emerging Church’] label itself is increasingly of little interest to adherents as a meaningful self-identifier,” he writes, “but the movement it was intended to capture continues to thrive” (2011, 5). Here we witness the categorical resistance followed abruptly by a deliberate scholarly adoption or appropriation of the term. Bielo’s strategy, along with those of social scientists to follow, is a secondary maneuver; theological terms become academically productive and useful as they move from native to exterior domains.

Late-modern informants well versed in post-modern, anti-essentialist philosophy and post-colonial theologies don’t often like labels. Ascribing to a particular category is not simply a theological choice made in some imaginary free market arena of American spirituality; self-identifying is a politically laden and significant act, a tactic that requires potential constituents to make close consideration of the implications that aligning with a certain collective will have (and especially a non-traditional, boundary pushing, and theologically suspect one, according to some sectors of evangelicalism). With the use of secondary terms such as emergence Christianity or even “the ECM” we witness emic rejection but subsequent etic adoption, a veritable domain switch in a terminological sense.

“Invention,” a word I used in the title of this response, is surely too strong of an action word to use in this case. But the ECM is nonetheless a thoroughly problematic category. Not many people, if we take the existing works on the phenomenon as standard, self-identify with or see as meaningful proposed (i.e., adopted/adapted) scholarly descriptive terms. But Marti and Ganiel have given us one of the most important analyses to date of a set of events and developments we might at least provisionally agree to categorize under the heading(s) in question. Personally, however, I find questions of terminological genealogy most interesting. Why emerging or emergent church or emergence Christianity as classifications and not, say, post-evangelical or missional as ones? (I wonder if most scholars might agree that the application of entirely generic, social scientific terms, in place of emically derived ones, would prove an unproductive exercise. Don’t our informants need to recognize themselves in the works about them we produce?) In the staking out of what terms denote—academically, secondarily—Ganiel and Marti’s book is a helpful example of the ways scholars and collaborators mete out meaning, in a quasi-collaborative sense, through words, labels, titles, and terminologies in a relational, dialogical, even circular, fashion. No, “invention,” then, is too simple a qualification. We might amend the title of this response, more appropriately, to something like “The Invention of the Emerging Church Movement as a Productive Scholarly Taxon.”

[An extended version of this post can be found at the author’s blog site.]

Works Referenced

 Beckford, James A. 2003. Social Theory and Religion. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Bielo, James S. 2011. Emerging Evangelicals: Faith, Modernity, and the Desire for Authenticity. New York University Press.

Douglas, Mary. 1980 [1966]. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Marti, Gerardo and Gladys Ganiel. 2014. The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity. New York: Oxford University Press.

Packard, Josh. 2012. The Emerging Church: Religion at the Margins. Boulder, CO: First Forum Press.

Smith, Jonathan Z. 1982. Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown. The University of Chicago Press.

Resisting Conformity at the Margins of Marginal Christianity

In what her interviewer has reckoned to be the first Religious Studies Project podcast to focus solely on the study of an expression of contemporary Christianity, Gladys Ganiel introduces listeners to a modern religious orientation that deserves sustained scholarly attention. The Emerging Church Movement (the ECM) might be numerically small but it is, she suggests, far from insignificant.

Despite a growing number of ethnographies of individual emerging church congregations, as well as critical overviews of the emerging church conversation as an identifiable form of religious discourse, many scholars of religion have either never heard of the ECM or claim, as Josh Packard suggests, that emerging Christianity must ‘join the mainstream or die out’.[1] It is assumed that it is merely a ‘transitional reaction’ against modern evangelicalism that will merge with the liberal mainstream, especially if, as Robert Warner declares, ‘post-evangelicals define themselves negatively and seem unlikely to develop a sustainable and distinct theological agenda’.[2]

But against such assessments, as I have argued elsewhere, emerging Christianity is structured around identifiable sets of values, beliefs and practices that lend it cohesion and relative stability whilst also enabling divergence.[3] Ganiel’s book, The Deconstructed Church (co-authored with Gerardo Martí), is an important academic analysis that also takes the ECM seriously as a phenomenon that is organised around a clear (albeit contested and continually ‘deconstructed’) set of activities.

Graffiti outside The Menagerie, Belfast, where Ikon first began meeting. Photo credit: Mark Berry, safespace community, Telford.

Graffiti outside The Menagerie, Belfast, where Ikon first began meeting. Photo credit: Mark Berry, safespace community, Telford.

Acknowledging the difficulties surrounding the identification and definition of a subject of study that is not only deliberately diverse but also intentionally resistant to definition, Ganiel and Martí nonetheless discern within emerging Christianity a distinct religious orientation built around the practice of deconstruction. The Deconstructed Church illustrates in particular how these practices encourage the creation of pluralist congregations and of what Ulrich Beck calls ‘cooperative egoism’,[4] facilitating a strategic form of religiosity through which participants undertake ‘meaning work’ that maintains tensions between individualism and collective identity. Such practices are driven by what Ganiel and Martí call ‘the religious institutional entrepreneurs’ who seek to resist the institutionalization of this orientation under pressures to conform to inherited forms of Christianity – primarily what participants see as the ‘Seeker Megachurch’ and the ‘Solemn Mainline’ models. As James S. Bielo has observed, the emerging church is therefore a particularly rich research site for the empirical study of interacting Christianities, since its religious and cultural critique is dependent upon prevailing traditions as interlocutors.[5] The question of this deconstructive orientation’s ultimate sustainability is, as Ganiel acknowledges, open to debate. But it is also ripe for scholarly study, and for critical consideration from a variety of disciplinary perspectives.

My own research has focused on understanding how the identifiable social or cultural imaginaries that structure what I call the emerging church discursive milieu interact with continental philosophy and radical theologies.[6] As Charles Taylor has noted, when theory ‘penetrates and transforms’ an imaginary, new practices are either taken up or improvised.[7] It is the innovative communicative practices and expressive acts of an emerging church imaginary, which is transformed when emerging Christians engage with the philosophical traditions of deconstruction and materialism, that most interest me – and I see emerging church figures like Peter Rollins (a founder of Ikon, Belfast) and Kester Brewin (a founder of Vaux, London) as catalysts for such an engagement.

In The Deconstructed Church, however, Ganiel and Martí focus on deconstruction as a sociological process that enables the ECM to ‘establish competitive arenas in response to pressures for conformity’ whilst nonetheless continuing to conceive of God in the ‘relatively concrete terms’ of conventional Christian theism.[8] This means that Ganiel and Martí are better able to more adequately represent the mainstream of the ECM than I am, for entrepreneurs like Rollins and Brewin push the emerging church conversation in more radical directions as they engage the work of thinkers like John D. Caputo and Slavoj Žižek. Popular figures in North American emerging Christianity would not understand crucifixion and resurrection in the ways that Rollins does and would not state their disbelief in a personal God or divine salvation as Brewin has.

‘What makes emerging Christianity “Christian”?’, Ganiel is asked in this interview. In her response, she sympathises with those within the ECM who treat this question as one that deflects from more primary issues of concern. She refers to an instance – recounted more fully here – that also recalls the response Rollins gives to the question of the historical resurrection of Jesus. He says, ‘Without equivocation or hesitation I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ’, by which he means that he does so every time he fails to ‘serve at the feet of the oppressed’ and yet also affirms that resurrection in those ‘few and far between’ moments when he stands up ‘for those who are forced to live on their knees’.[9]

Such an apparently evasive answer frustrates not only researchers seeking clarity about the beliefs held by emerging church entrepreneurs like Rollins, as Ganiel notes, but also those who wish them to conform either to traditional theistic belief or to modern atheistic belief.

Rollins’ critique of religious idolatry and ideology is intended as more than a corrective to conventional Christianity that would enable Christians to discover the God beyond the idol ‘God’ and a richer faith beyond instrumental religion without challenging more fundamentally their continued reliance on what he might call – following Žižek – ‘a subject supposed to believe’ on their behalf; namely, priests, Christ, God, the community of believers, the church structures themselves (the buildings, the liturgies, the statements of faith), etc., that sustain the fantasy of the presence and coherence of meaning, purpose, value and truth. On the other hand, however, the experience of the death of such a subject does not result in conventional atheism, since it is not only God that dies (i.e., that does not exist) but a transcendent source of or an absolute justification for any universal principle or set of principles, including those provided by reason as well as by revelation.

Rollins and Brewin are on the margins of a numerically marginal expression of Christianity. However, just as the significance of the ECM lies not in its relative size but in its manifestation of a religious orientation that seeks to resist conformity with inherited models of Christianity, the significance of these two marginal figures lies in the ways in which they seek to resist conformity with both modern western theism and modern western atheism. Rollins and Brewin are, therefore, two of the ‘expert theorizers’[10] within the ECM whose engagement with continental philosophy and radical theology is contributing to the construction of what I call an emerging a/theistic cultural imaginary.[11]

Both Rollins and Brewin propose that there is revolutionary political potential in the kinds of spaces that they advocate, and I am interested in exploring how to measure that claim, even if, as Ganiel notes, there are methodological difficulties in determining the impact of emerging Christianity on society more broadly. I would especially like to examine further the discursive motif of suspension in their work and to investigate empirically the communal practices that enable such a suspension of belief and identity. These religious (or, rather, ir/religious) spaces are imagined to be individually and collectively transformative, temporarily subtracting participants from their social roles and relations and allowing them to envision new forms of interaction and association: ‘we not only affirm one another in excess of our culturally given identities but expose these identities as contingent’, Rollins writes, concluding that thereby ‘we can more productively engage in exploring how to transform society’.[12] But the efficacy of these practices of suspension has yet to be documented. What kinds of sociality are exhibited in and encouraged by participation in ‘suspended space’? And what is the relationship between such spaces and participants’ wider social, political and economic lives?

 

Bibliography

Beck, Ulrich, 2010, A God of One’s Own: Religion’s Capacity for Peace and Potential for Violence, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Beck, Ulrich, and Johannes Willms, 2004, Conversations with Ulrich Beck, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Bielo, James S., 2009, ‘The “Emerging Church” in America: Notes on the Interaction of Christianities’, Religion 39/3, pp. 219-32.

Ganiel, Gladys, and Gerardo Martí, 2014, ‘Northern Ireland, America and the Emerging Church Movement: Exploring the Significance of Peter Rollins and the Ikon Collective’, Journal of the Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religions, 1/1, pp. 26-47.

Martí, Gerardo, and Gladys Ganiel, 2014, The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Moody, Katharine Sarah. 2010, ‘“I Hate Your Church; What I Want is My Kingdom”: Emerging Spiritualities in the UK Emerging Church Milieu’, The Expository Times 121/10, pp. 495-503.

  • forthcoming, Radical Theology and Emerging Christianity: Deconstruction, Materialism and Religious Practices, Ashgate.

Packard, Josh, 2012, The Emerging Church: Religion at the Margins, Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers / First Forum Press.

Rollins, Peter, 2009, ‘My Confession: I Deny The Resurrection’, (January 01) http://peterrollins.net/2009/01/my-confession-i-deny-the-resurrection/

Taylor, Charles. 2004, Modern Social Imaginaries, Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.

  • 2007, A Secular Age, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Warner, Robert, 2007, Reinventing English Evangelicalism, 1996-2001: A Theological and Sociological Study, Milton Keynes: Paternoster.

 

Notes

[1] Packard, The Emerging Church, p. 31. Growing academic interest in emerging Christianity is starting to be reflected in the programmes of some of the major conferences in the field of religious studies. For example, in August this year there was a panel on the ECM and the transformation of ‘conventional’ Christianity at the Association for the Sociology of Religion annual conference. And there will be sessions on emerging Christianity at the 2014 American Academy of Religion and Society for the Scientific Study of Religion conferences as well.

[2] Warner, Reinventing English Evangelicalism, p. 230, fn. 62.

[3] See Moody, ‘“I Hate Your Church; What I Want is My Kingdom”’.

[4] See Beck, A God of One’s Own and Beck and Willms, Conversations with Ulrich Beck.

[5] See Bielo, ‘The “Emerging Church” in America’.

[6] See Moody, Radical Theology and Emerging Christianity.

[7] Taylor, A Secular Age, pp. 172 and 175. See also Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries.

[8] Martí and Ganiel, The Deconstructed Church, p. 26 (italics removed); and Ganiel and Martí, ‘Northern Ireland, America and the Emerging Church Movement’, p. 45.

[9] Rollins, ‘My Confession’.

[10] Martí and Ganiel, The Deconstructed Church, p. 81.

[11] See Moody, Radical Theology and Emerging Christianity.

[12] Rollins, ‘The Worldly Theology of Emerging Christianity’, p. 84.

The Emerging Church

What do you get when you mix a dash of pub culture, a splash of irreverence, a healthy dose of conversation, a smattering of postmodernist critique, a drizzle of discourse on problematic concepts such as ‘religion’ and ‘the secular’, and a host of other eclectic and idiosyncratic ingredients to taste? Depending upon the measures, one possible outcome could be an ideal-typical podcast from your friends at The Religious Studies Project. Prepare in a slightly different manner and your culinary exploits could produce a manifestation of the Emerging Church. However, in the case of the latter, similar results might be obtained from a completely different set of ingredients.

The Emerging Church Movement (ECM) is notoriously difficult to define. What are scholars of ‘religion’ to do with a trend seemingly emerging both within and without many contemporary manifestations of (Western) Christianity, that is both anti-institutional and ecumenical, aims to avoid hierarchies and power structures, embraces creativity, deconstruction and experimentation, and actively promotes a ‘neutral’ and ‘non-judgmental religious space’ where almost anything goes? In this week’s podcast, Chris is joined by Dr Gladys Ganiel to discuss this ‘problematic’, important and boundary-pushing phenomenon.

In The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity (Oxford, 2014), Ganiel and co-author Gerardo Marti write:

“We define Emerging Christians in terms of sharing a religious orientation built on a continual practice of deconstruction. We characterize the ECM as an institutionalizing structure, made up of a package of beliefs, practices, and identities that are continually deconstructed and reframed by the religious institutional entrepreneurs who drive the movement and seek to resist its institutionalization. As such, the ECM is best seen as a mix of both reactive and proactive elements, vying for the passion and attention of Christians and nonbelievers. Emerging Christians react primarily against conservative/evangelical/fundamentalist Protestantism but also against other forms of traditional Christianity that they have experienced as inauthentic. At the same time, they proactively appropriate practices from a range of Christian traditions […] to nourish their individual spirituality and to enhance their life together as communities.” (25-26)

What is it that makes this movement ‘Christian’? What does it do to traditional understandings of ‘religion’ and ‘secularization’? How does one research such a seemingly diffuse and unbounded phenomenon? Is it only a matter of time before this movement undergoes a process of systematization? These questions and more form the basis of a discussion which took place in May 2014, at the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin in Belfast, a couple of days after the 3rd Annual Conference of the Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religion.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

 

An Astrology (and Spiritualities) for the Modern

Campion’s suggestion of Theosophical astrology being an astrology for the modern, in the context of a revision of the Enlightenment and ‘modernity’, sheds light on the place of alternative, holistic, and esoteric spiritualities in the modern world.

An Astrology (and Spiritualities) for the Modern: A Reflection on Nick Campion

By S. Francesca Po, King’s College London

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 5 December 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Nick Campion on Astrology (3 December 2012).

‘[Theosophical astrology] is an astrology of modernity’, suggests Nick Campion in his interview with the Religious Studies Project.  However,  before even coming to this suggestion, David Robertson asked some very challenging, informed questions on the assumptions about astrology—particularly, if contemporary astrologers have ‘reinterpreted’ astrology in order to appeal to the cosmology of modernity.  This question is also relevant to many alternative, holistic, and ‘postmodern’ spiritualities, which I hope to focus on in this reflection.

Firstly, Campion clarifies the concepts of the Enlightenment and modernity.  Regarding the Enlightenment, what is commonly understood as a period that triumphed reason is currently being challenged, as many of the advocates for ‘reason’ during the Enlightenment were devout practitioners of Rosicrucianism and esoteric Freemasonry.  The concept of ‘modernity’ is just as complex.  Giving the example of the founders of modern art, Campion points out that they too were practitioners of esoteric traditions: Wassily Kandinsky, the founder of abstract art, was a Theosophist, and André Breton, the founder of Surrealism, was an astrologer.  The Enlightenment and modernity are not, perhaps,as pragmatic, empirical, or objective as academic scholarship may have previously thought.

That being said, Campion continues, the notion of ‘modernity’ being something that is countered against or opposed to esoteric traditions is simply not valid, because the Enlightenment and modernity were actually heavily driven by esoteric worldviews.  He argues that labelling the New Age ‘postmodern’ is problematic in the same way.  His suggestion that ‘[Theosophical astrology] is an astrology of the modern’ is simply to display continuity in history: astrology has always existed with no breaks, there are always competing currents of which religious/spiritual/esoteric practices have more validity or effectivity, and there are always practices that are committed to developing alongside the rest of culture.  In this case, Theosophical astrology is part of the continuous lineage of astrology in the West, and has developed a system that is compatible with the modern worldview.

My research focuses on the population in the United Kingdom and the United States that have no religious preference (the ‘nones’) and generally are not institutional attendees (the ‘unchurched’), but may still engage or sympathize with religion.  This research led me to ethnographic work on various non-religiously affiliated social groups – namely the ‘integral milieu’ (otherwise known as the ‘intellectualist wing of the New Age’ [Heelas, 1996, p. 5]) and the ‘post-Christian milieu’ (the more ambiguous branches of the Emerging Church, to be detailed later in this article) – that may generally be considered alternative, holistic, or ‘postmodern’.

Within my research, like Campion, I have also encountered the problem with using the concept of ‘postmodernism’ as a label for these spiritualities.  ‘Postmodernism’ has been defined as ‘incredulity toward metanarratives…’, ‘frank revelations of theoretical perplexity, testimonies to dramatic shifts in reality, and expressions of existential despair’, and ‘a stylistic promiscuity favoring eclecticism and the mixing of codes; parody, pastiche, irony, playfulness and the celebration of the surface “depthlessness” of culture’ (Christiano, 2007, p. 47).  Although many of the groups I am studying are generally ambivalent of metanarratives, recognize the complexity of existence, and favor eclecticism, I have observed that they do actually recognize tangible truths, even if only temporary ones, and ultimately strive for a depth that one can be comfortable in, even if it may not be attained.  Kevin Christiano argues that:

‘a postmodern religion would not be captured within a church—or not a highly conventional such organization…  Religion in postmodernity would be ahistorical and anti-traditional…  Most of all, it would not hesitate to implode on the individual, and it would not regret the mess…’  (Christiano, 2007, p. 48)

Although the groups I am studying are not at all traditional constructs of religious institutions, they do exhibit historicity and tradition, and though they may have the ability to ‘implode on the individual’, they would probably attempt to ‘clean up the mess’ of it.  Within my observations, alternative, holistic, and ‘postmodern’ groups may, at most, only resemble postmodernism, but are actually continuous with the lineage of modernity.

More specifically, two ‘postmodern’ religions or spiritualities that are actually continuous with modernity are the ‘progressive milieu’ (Lynch, 2007, p. 10) and the Emerging Church. The ‘progressive milieu’ is what Gordon Lynch calls the milieu of individuals and groups coming from the progressive branches of all religious traditions.  They engage in many practices and have many ideas that may be considered alternative, New Age, or ‘postmodern’, but Lynch argues that they are actually continuous to modernity using a similar argument as Campion (Lynch, 2007, pp. 65-70).  He says, ‘progressive spirituality is not so much postmodern, as a particular form of modernism – a softer modernism – a spiritual way of living for the modern age’ (Lynch, 2007, p. 68).

Similarly, the Emerging Church is a milieu of individuals and groups that generally do not identify with any religious tradition, explores and experiments with a wide range of religious and philosophical ideas and practices, but claim groundedness in Christianity.  Historian Dominic Erdozain and sociologist Walt Scalen both argue that the Emerging Church is continuous with the same ‘spirit of reason’ as the Enlightenment, and shares a lineage with Enlightenment evangelicals (Erdozain, 2011, p. 93, 121; Scalen, 2010, p. 72).  Erdozain says, ‘[Evangelicals] had to step away from the inherited structures of the faith before they could engage with their culture.  They were the pioneers of the emerging church’ (Erdozain, 2011, p. 93).

Campion’s suggestion of Theosophical astrology being an astrology for the modern, in the context of a revision of the Enlightenment and ‘modernity’, sheds light on the place of alternative, holistic, and esoteric spiritualities in the modern world.  Alongside my own observations and research, I find Campion’s insight an imperative one in the study of contemporary religion.  The spirit of challenging and experimenting with religious ideas and practices is not simply a passing ‘postmodern’ project within the human desire to place meaning in a chaotic cosmology—it is a ‘spirit’ that has always existed in human history.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author

S. Francesca Po is currently a doctoral student of Theology and Religious Studies at King’s College London, and is teaching modules on Buddhism. The working title of her thesis is ‘After “Spirituality”: An Emerging Common Sociality Among the New Age, Religious, and Religiously Unaffiliated in the United Kingdom and the United States’ under the supervision of Dr. Marat Shterin. Prior to being at King’s, she lectured at the University of San Francisco; received an M.A. in Philosophy and Religion, with a concentration in ‘Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness’ at the California Institute of Integral Studies; a B.A. in Religious Studies and Music at the University of California at Berkeley; served in the United States Peace Corps in Kazakhstan; and has had a career as a high school teacher of philosophy and religious studies, and campus chaplain. She has published and spoken on various subjects, including: nonviolence, politics, popular culture, religion, sociology, and spirituality. For an institutional biography, visit: http://www.kcl.ac.uk/artshums/depts/trs/people/stuprofiles/research/po.aspx

In-text References

  • Christiano, K. J. (2007). Assessing Modernities: From “Pre-” to “Post-” to “Ultra-.” The Sage Handbook of the Sociology of Religion (pp. 39–56). London: SAGE.
  • Erdozain, D. (2011). Emerging Church: A Victorian Prequel. The Great Tradition – A Great Labor: Studies in Ancient-Future Faith (pp. 92–121). Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Pub.
  • Heelas, P. (1996). The New Age Movement: The Celebration of the Self and the Sacralization of Modernity. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Lynch, G. (2007). The New Spirituality: An Introduction to Progressive Belief in the Twenty-First Century. London: I.B.Tauris.
  • Scalen, W. (2010). The Emergent Church: Cutting Edge or 60s Redux. The Year 2010 Proceedings of the ASSR-SW, 66–74.

Emerging Church Recommendations

  • Bell, R. (2011). Love Wins: At the Heart of Life’s Big Questions. London: HarperCollins UK.
  • Cox, H. (2010). The Future of Faith. New York: HarperCollins.
  • DeYoung, K., & Kluck, T. (2008). Why We’re Not Emergent: By Two Guys Who Should Be. Chicago: Moody Publishers.
  • McLaren, B. (2010). A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that are Transforming the Faith. London: Hachette UK.
  • McLaren, B. D. (2007). Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Inc.
  • Rutba House. (2005). School(s) for Conversion: 12 Marks of a New Monasticism. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publ.
  • Sweet, L. (2000). Postmodern Pilgrims: First Century Passion for the 21st Century Church. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group.
  • Sweet, L., Sweet, L. I., McLaren, B. D., & Haselmayer, J. (2002). A Is for Abductive: The Language of the Emerging Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
  • Wilson-Hartgrove, J. (2008). New Monasticism: What It Has to Say to Today’s Church. Ada, MI: Brazos Press.

Integral Milieu Recommendations

  • Aurobindo. (1985). The Life Divine. Twin Lakes, WI: Lotus Press.
  • California Institute of Integral Studies. (2012). The California Institute of Integral Studies. Retrieved from http://www.ciis.edu/
  • Esalen Institute. (2011). Esalen Institute. Esalen Institute. Retrieved from http://www.esalen.org/
  • Gebser, J. (1985). The ever-present origin. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.
  • Grof, S. (2000). Pschology of the Future: Lessons from Modern Consciousness Research. SUNY Press.
  • Kelly, S. M. (2009). Coming Home: The Birth and Transformation of the Planetary Era. Herndon, VA: Lindisfarne Books.
  • Macy, J. (2007). World as lover, world as self: courage for global justice and ecological renewal. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press.
  • Swimme, B., & Berry, T. (1994). The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era–a Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos. New York: HarperCollins.
  • Tarnas, R. (2011). Passion of the Western Mind. Crawfordsville, IN: Random House Publishing Group.
  • Wilber, K. (2000). Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications.