October 22, 2006
Who’s More Spiritual: Emergent or Traditional Evangelicals?
Okay, so no one's had the chutzpah to frame the question so baldly. But each group seems to assume the answer in its favor--at least, that's the impression you'd get from some emergent critiques of traditional evangelicals and from some traditional-evangelical critiques of emergents. But what if we asked the question directly, and tried to answer it just as directly: Who is more spiritually mature? On the whole, are emergent believers or traditional evangelicals more faithful in their following of Christ?
To answer, we need a clear standard for measuring Christian spirituality. The best one is given by Jesus (Mark 12:29-31), but presumably both emergents and traditionals have already read that and used that for their critiques of the other. Could we find a standard of Christian spirituality that encompasses Jesus' teaching yet offers fresh points of differentiation? We might consider the four "nonnegotiable essentials" of Christian spirituality laid out by Ronald Rolheiser in The Holy Longing:
1. Private prayer and private morality: "In many of the spiritual classics of Christian literature, the writers ? suggest that we will make progress in the spiritual life only if we, daily, do an extended period of private prayer, and only if we practice a scrupulous vigilance in regards to all the moral areas within our private lives. In essence, that is the first nonnegotiable within the spiritual life."
2. Social justice: "? according to the Jewish prophets, where we stand with God depends not just upon prayer and sincerity of heart but also on where we stand with the poor. ? All Christian churches have always taught this, in one way or the other, and they have also always, in their best expressions, lived it out."
3. Mellowness of heart and spirit: "Both as liberals and conservatives we too easily write off this third prong of the spiritual life, rationalizing that our causes are so urgent, we are so wounded, and our world is so bad, that, in our situation, anger and bitterness are justified. But we are wrong?"
4. Community as a constitutive element of true worship: "? anyone who claims to love God who is invisible but refuses to deal with a visible neighbor is a liar, for one can only really love a God who is love if one is concretely involved with a real community (ultimately an ?ecclesial community') on earth."
Being fool enough to set out on a fool's errand, I now offer my thoughts as to whether traditionals or emergents better capture these essentials.
On "private prayer and private morality," I give the nod to traditionals, who have strongly emphasized daily "quiet times" and published multitudinous devotional books and guides, as well as scrupulously observed not swearing, not watching movies that might incline one to lust, and so on. Score so far: Traditionals 1, Emergents 0.
On "social justice," I give the nod to emergents, who from the beginning have emphasized the missio dei, the mission of God to the world in compassion and justice, and who have called congregations not so much to church growth as to church giving. Emergents have also readily and in widespread ways engaged the problems of AIDS, global warming, and Darfur. Score so far: Traditionals 1, Emergents 1.
The category "mellowness of heart and spirit" does not play to traditionals' strengths, given their more immediate descent from fundamentalism, which needed to oppose the corrosive effects of modernism, plus traditionals' many parachurch ministries, which require fundraising appeals to survive. The Emergents move ahead, 2-1.
In the final category, "Community as a constitutive element of true worship," however, traditionals lead. Though emergents desire authenticity and community, several emergent-flavored books (like this one) make it seem like you can set up your own organic alternatives to a local church that has pastoral oversight, a connection to tradition, and the sacraments. Bad idea. Traditionals tie it up in the fourth quarter: 2-2.
A tie. Hmmm.
If this assessment has any value (and many, I'm sure, will say it doesn't), it would say the following:
? If traditional evangelicals want to grow in the areas of social justice and "mellowness of heart and spirit," one of their best teachers would be emergents.
? Conversely, if emergents want to grow in the area of private prayer and private morality, and "community as a constitutive element of true worship," they might find tutoring at the knee of traditionals.
? Therefore, if we were to redo this assessment in five years, the group that will be "most spiritual" will be the one who learns the most from the other.