On Reconstruction and the New Wave of Emergence

Earlier this week on Patheos, Emergent friends shared their thoughts about where we are and where we are going. We are riding a new wave of emergence where action and contemplation meet, where new theological rubber is hitting the road. I think it’s an interesting time across the landscape of American Christianity, not only in emerging circles. It’s as if the soil has had time to gather up and process the minerals of theological conversation and discussion and action and practice and liturgy that have been happening around tables and in coffee shops and in classrooms and communities of faith for the past 20 years. And it’s also processing the empty space, where people have lost faith and left, where bridges are left half-built or half-destroyed, where institutions and congregations have died and closed doors. In between those seeds and that empty space, something is growing. And I think it’s going to be something pretty beautiful once it breaks above ground and reaches up toward the skies.

It reminds me of something I read from W.V.O. Quine, once:

We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction.

-W.V.O. Quine in Word and Object, quoting Austrian philosopher Otto Neurath

Descartes told us to tear down the house, to take it down to the studs and start “clean,” but that project has always seemed overly destructive. I watched a number of people do that in the 90’s, and as a pastor, it’s devastating to see and to walk with people through the rubble that follows. Getting to the point where they are ready to build another house (or just have the energy) is slow and arduous. Sometimes they don’t, which is what news articles like to call the “nones.” But I wonder if Quine is right to remind us that we aren’t really in need of a house, anyhow, but a boat. And we don’t need an entirely new boat; we just need to revamp in a few places. Because we’re still in motion, even as we’re trying to figure out where to go next. We’re still sailing along, trying to make sense of the ever-changing landscape around us.

A boat is what we’ve needed to build all along, because what else would be equipped to ride the tides of change and the waves of the future that inevitably come? And what kind of fool would we be to destroy the whole boat while riding in it?

Jesus spent a good chunk of time in a boat. And in transition, too, walking from place to place. Christianity is a movement faith, a moving faith. And if we find along the way that our boat is a little rickety in places, we don’t need to panic. We don’t need to jump ship. We can simply choose to remove the old beam and set a new one in its place and keep the beams that are still working well right where they are. This isn’t only boat repair: it’s boat upcycling. There seems something gospel-true about that.

I’m eager to see this new wave of emergence play out, as we figure out how to live between the forced binaries the world seems so fond of forcing on us. Maybe we don’t want to buy a house, and maybe we don’t feel the need to jump ship. Maybe we’ll just revamp our boat, one beam at a time, and keep sailing.

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