Back to the Wild

I’ve been dying to get back to my discussion of Tony Jones’ book The New Christians as I think it’s one of the most important books on religion in America to come along in some time.  UU’s and other religious liberals have much to learn from and discuss with the Emergents about how to do church in the 21st Century.  Before getting back to those issues, I want to get into some of the areas where Unitarian Universalists will differ with Emergent Christians.

My two biggest theological squabbles are the divinity of Jesus and dogma of the atonement.  Emergents believe “Jesus is the crucified and risen Savior of the cosmos and no one comes to the Father except through Jesus.”  I disagree.

I do not believe Jesus was divine, any more or less than you and I are and or could be divine. (Be careful with this statement, though we are creatures capable of great depth.)   I do believe Jesus was great religious and spiritual teacher.

I do not believe that God required Jesus to die to make amends for his sins or yours or mine.  What kind of God would? Think about it.  Jones dismisses too easily the feminist critique (shared by many) that his amounts to child abuse.  Rebecca Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock handle this well in Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us, also see UU World Article (

I much prefer Universalist Hosea Ballou on the Atonement. UU blogger and minister Daniel Harper has kindly made Ballou’s Treatise on the Atonement available online here.

The essence of Ballou’s treatise:

As finite creatures, he argued, human beings are incapable of offending an infinite God. Therefore, he rejected the orthodox argument that the death of Jesus Christ was designed to appease an angry God, and replaced it with the idea that God is a being of eternal love who seeks the happiness of his human children. It is not God who must be reconciled to human beings, but human beings who must be reconciled to God. Ballou was convinced that once people realized this, they would take pleasure in living a moral life and doing good works. (

If any Emergents read this I hope they read this the spirit of  Tony Jones’ Dispatch #7 (from the Emergent Frontier):

Emergents believe that an envelope of friendship and reconciliation must surround all debates about doctrine and dogma.

I think that UU’s would do well to adopt that stance because although UU’s don’t have doctrine and dogma, some individual UU’s adopt theological positions that approach dogmatic stances about their own views, whatever they may be.  Whoever you are, you’ve probably been on the receiving end of a diatribe for being a (fill in the blank).   What if we were all more conscious about being theologically welcoming and surrounded our theological discussions with an “envelope of friendship and reconciliation?”

I also have trouble with Tony Jones’ biblical scholarship.  At times he does some great stuff.  He does a fantastic bit of fictional dialog between a “relativist” and a “Biblicist” where the relativist shows the biblical literalist that by picking and choosing between available translations, the literalist is also a relativist.   Yet, he often points to what Jesus “says” in the Gospels without ever once going into a discussion that Jesus may not have said it at all, but the Gospel writer may have put the words into Jesus’ mouth to make a theological point or promote a theological point, especially Jesus’ identity, especially in John’s Gospel, which has a lot of bearing on statements like “no one comes to the Father except through me.”  We won’t even get into Goddess and Mother, that’s a whole other argument.  Like I said, I like these guys and I think they’re really onto something about how to do church well in the 21st century.  We just have theological differences.  But I also think are Emergents out there who are UU’s – (pause for effect) – they just don’t know it yet!

Why do I think that way?

“I’m humble” an emergent might tell you, “because I don’t know what I’m wrong about today. I’ll speak with confidence, and I’ll speak with passion, I won’t speak with certainty.”

Dispatch 10: Emergents believe that theology is local, conversational, and temporary. To be faithful to the theological giants of the past, emergents endeavor to continue their theological dialog.

The moment that  we have all the bolts screwed in tight and all the nails hammered in, it’s at precisely that moment that we cease being faithful.

What can they teach us about what church needs to be in the 21st century:

Dispatch 16: Emergents believe that church should function more like an open-source network and less like a hierarchy or a bureaucracy.

I like it when Tim says “People experience God emotionally, intellectually, relationally, and  aethetically and this church aims to make every one of those experiences available to people.”

Rethinking the church as an activist organization means fundamental changes in the way the church is run. For the church to be responsive to the rapidly changing world, it must be light and quick on its feet.

Failures are a natural consequence of innovation and adventure.

Dispatch 17: Emergents start new churches to save their own faith, not necessarily as an outreach strategy.

Some of the new churches they have started meet in bars, lofts and church buildings abandoned by mainline denominations.  Of course the first thing the emergent congregation did was to take out the pews and the pulpit and put in sofas and chairs for worship in the round.

The best analogy Jones makes about the Emergent Church is in his Epilogue.  He compares the emergent Christians to feral animals, animals once domesticated that have returned to the wild.  “Attempts to redomesticate them will fail.”

If one takes the Christian-only barrier off the emergent movement, Unitarian Universalists may have found both the reason why congregations haven’t been growing by leaps and bounds and some answers as to how to achieve that growth.   It’s not so much about the theology as it is about a way to be a religious community in the new century.  People of faith are not tired of faith, spirituality and community.  They are tired of church, hierarchy, and bureaucracy.

The most striking thing the entire emergent universe is how much the already existing UU world resembles it and at the same time how much we can still learn from what is going in these congregations.

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