The Ironic Faith of Emergents
The experience of "ironic faith" is pervasive—though rarely noticed—in the work of McLaren and other emergents. The irony is that they have deconstructed the very thing they were most committed to, and are left with what many call post-evangelicalism.
Ironic Faith as a Third Way
Listen to these lines from Jewish writer Joseph Epstein that describe his own ironic faith: "I find myself more impressed by the mysteries of life and more certain that most of the interesting questions it poses have no persuasive answers, or at least none likely to arrive before I depart the planet. … I suffer, then, some of the fear of religion without any of the enjoyment of the hope it brings. … You live and you learn, the proverb has it, but in my case, You live and you yearn seems closer to it."
I'm not saying McLaren's or any of the emergent leaders' thinking approaches Epstein's posture; their yearning emerges from belief in Jesus Christ. But the emergents' commitment to their previous evangelical faith is ironic, and no one can understand emergent without understanding this experience. For what it is worth, I, too, have been through the experience of ironic faith, for some of the reasons I'm about to mention, but I have come out of that experience with a modest, moderate, and chastened form of evangelicalism. For this reason alone, I stand alongside the emergent and emerging crowd as a fellow traveler. Consequently, I have as much concern with the strictures of neo-Fundamentalists as I do with the loss of theological clarity in the emerging movement. For me, the emerging movement offers the hope of a third way.
Very few emergent folks I have encountered have any chance of returning to a robust, traditional evangelical faith. As emergents learned and listened in their evangelical churches and institutions, they realized they could not accept much of what they were being taught. Though they remained within the comfortable confines of these institutions, their faith became ironic. Yes, they were Christians, but not quite what most people meant by that term.
Evangelical thinkers such as D. A. Carson, R. Scott Smith, John MacArthur, and Kevin DeYoung and Ted Cluck (authors of Why We're Not Emergent) warn of the dangers of emergents' theological drift and draw lines in the sand. The emergents I know are numb to both the warnings and the lines; they have heard those warnings and they have crossed those lines. They are surprised by neither and are not likely to turn back. Instead, they are building a new theology that "emerges" from the story they find themselves in—namely, the shift from modernity to postmodernity.
The Catalysts of Ironic Faith
The origins of ironic faith among evangelicals can be found in at least eight catalysts. These catalysts move disaffected evangelicals from an ironic faith within evangelicalism to a fork in the road: Either abandon traditional evangelicalism for an emergent form of post-evangelical Christianity, or abandon Christianity altogether.
First, emergents believe the epistemic foundation of conservative evangelicalism, the doctrine of Scripture's inerrancy, does not sufficiently express the truth about the Bible. Inerrancy is for them the wrong word at the wrong time, though it may have been the right word for a previous generation.
Second, emergents believe that the gospel they heard as children or were exposed to as teenagers is a caricature of Paul's teaching—what McLaren sometimes calls "Paulianity." The discovery of Jesus, the Gospels, and his kingdom vision creates an irony: "If we are followers of Jesus, why don't we preach his message?" Emergents I know are sometimes wearied or put off by Paul, yet enthusiastic about Jesus and the Gospels. When McLaren describes the message of Jesus as a "secret message," he speaks of the emergent discovery of the radical kingdom vision as really new. The political vision and the global concerns of emergents flower from the discovery of Jesus.