Elise Amyx’s critique of the Emergent Church movement‘s theology and social philosophy is a good one (you can read it here). I’ve read some of McLaren’s work and found it well-intentioned but lacking on a number of levels. I appreciate the spiritual longing that informs both McLaren’s work and the Emergent Church Movement in general but I find both inconsistent. Both seems to hold dogmatically to being non-dogmatic. There is also a tendency to hold moral relativism as the only absolute moral standard.
More importantly for me as an Orthodox Christian and priest, for all that there is an interest in the liturgical and spiritual practices of “ancient Christianity” this interest is more appropriate for tourists than disciples.
This brings me to Nicholas Freiling interesting comment that “the ‘Christian hipster’ culture is simply a resurgence of interest in the ancient, historical Christian faith, and especially the Eastern Orthodox doctrine of ‘theosis’, whether the hipsters know it or not.” I confess I don’t know enough about Christian hipster culture to be sure how accurate this is. But as an Orthodox priest I am confident in my assessment of my Church’s understanding of theosis.
The very first thing I would point out is that theosis is not unique to the Eastern Orthodox Church; it is also part of the spiritual patrimony of the Roman Catholic Church. For example, St Thomas Aquinas and St John of the Cross—to name but two—both write about the deification of the person. In the context of the discussion here this matters because while there are theological differences between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, there is a fundamental agreement that theosis is the goal of the Christian life.
There is also an agreement that our deification is rooted in divine grace poured out in the sacraments—especially baptism, chrismation/confirmation and the Eucharist—and acted upon personally in the ascetical life. (On the latter point I think Metropolitan Jonah’s keynote at Acton University gives a good practical summary.)
What both East and West, even after the schism, would also agree that deification is not, contrary to McCracken’s assertion, a question of “heaven … com[ing] down to earth” but rather of bring earth up to heaven. We see this for example in Gothic church architecture. The faithful travel symbolically from earth to heaven down the long nave that unites the narthex and the altar, that is earth and heaven.
In my own tradition this same journey is expressed several times in the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom. For example, after the sermon and just before the beginning of the Anaphora (Eucharistic prayer) in the prayer at the Cherubic Hymn the priest prayers that “No one bound by worldly desires and pleasures is worthy to approach, draw near or minister to You, the King of glory.” Later he asks that God the Father receive the gifts of bread and wine on the heavenly altar. Indeed the whole of the Liturgy is understood to be taking place not on earth but in heaven.
I do agree, practically at least, with Hunter (or at least Nicholas’s summary of his argument) that we must develop “a life of faith–where Christ infiltrates every aspect of life, at work or church–rather than searching for the ‘faith moments’ of life.” And yes, I would also agree—and more importantly affirm as consonant with the Orthodox and Catholic understanding of theosis—with Nicholas’s statement “that eternal life begins now as we grow closer to the person of Christ.”
I am however at a loss as to how we live all this without concurrently developing a Christian culture, however inadequate it will be relative to the Kingdom of God. Yes let us as Christians, by all means, see to “the creation of hospitals and the flourishing of art, the best scholarship, the most profound and world-changing kind of service and care – again, not only for the household of faith but for everyone.” But for me as an Orthodox Christian, this is precisely what it means to “win the culture” and why I am involved in cultural debates.
Where I would disagree, or at least argue that “hipster Christians” are at odds with the classical soteriological teachings on theosis (and Elise points this out) is in their willingness to identify the Kingdom of God with this life. Yes we experience the Kingdom in this life but only partially, proleptically as Orthodox theology has it.
At the core though I think my disagreement with the Emergent Church and hipster Christians boils down to the difference between a sacrament and a non-sacrament view of the Christian life. Are the sacraments a necessary part of Christian life? In other words, is the Christian world view and anthropology, necessarily sacramental?
The Orthodox (and Catholic) understanding of theosis—and so of cultural engagement—is rooted in the sacraments as the prophetic acts of the Church. They remind us that the Kingdom of God is not divorced from this life but neither can it be identified with this life. This is a distinction that I think is unclear in the Emergent Church movement and among Christian hipsters.
Again, an excellent post with very thoughtful comments.