Muscular Christianity or Fluid Theology?
Letting go of certainty and learning to flow with the future.

Barry Taylor is back with another excerpt from An Emergent Manifesto of Hope (Baker, 2007), edited by Doug Pagitt and Tony Jones. As our culture abandons any sense of certainty, how should Christians respond? Taylor invites us to consider a less dogmatic and "muscular" view of our faith in favor of one that is comfortable in the ever-shifting currents of our world.

The times in which we live are intense on any number of levels. The threat of terror haunts the world like a specter; issues of global poverty and disease are constant reminders of economic disparity

and human despair. Our world has also recently been rocked by a series of natural disasters, the sheer force of which has raised renewed concerns about environmental issues and the ramifications

of our commitment to fossil fuels, chemicals, and other resources on the planet. The impact of globalization and its many discontents on various parts of the world is a continuing part of our daily lives. Along with this, we in the West find ourselves drowning in choices, trying to balance our rampant materialism with a renewed desire for meaning and purpose.

These are certainly not the times to be seeking self-preservation, but that seems to be the general focus of the church today. Everywhere we turn we see books, conferences, workshops, and a host of other

resources that focus on what can be done to preserve the church, and we are willing, it seems, to employ any marketing device to make it happen. Trend watchers and marketing strategists offer ways in which churches can connect with the culture. We brand and market Christianity in attempts to make it viable again.

But what if we let go of our need for a branded and marketable entity and turn instead toward a new way of living and being in the world? This is not an entirely new idea. Dietrich Bonhoeffer posited a "religionless Christianity" in the 1940s, but what if it is an idea whose time has finally come? What if "religion," and by this I mean the institutional and organizational form around faith, is no longer necessary for the future of faith?

Religions exist in certainty and sanctity; faith lives in inquiry and fluidity. The reason traditional faiths are having a hard time of things is that the present situation is one in which certainty is suspect and sanctity is being redefined.

We should consider letting go of our obsession with certainty; we do, after all, "see through a glass darkly," as the apostle Paul reminds us. It is hard to claim clarity when shadows linger over what is revealed. The future of faith does not lie in the declaration of certainties but in the living out of uncertainty. "Believing that one believes" is how philosopher Gianni Vattimo puts it: "To believe means having faith, conviction, or certainty in something, but also to opine - that is, to think with a certain degree of uncertainty." Our declarations about matters of faith are always fragmentary and provisional.

April 10, 2007

Displaying 1–10 of 30 comments


October 10, 2007  9:45am

My problem with this entire conversation is, no one is honest about what it is that we are to be "fluid" about. It is the virgin birth? How about the authenticity of the scriptures? Or the Lordship of Jesus? Or the "doctrine" of holy living? What about heaven or hell? Or atonement through the blood of Jesus alone? You see, the emergent position is no position at all because it leaves averything up to the individual! I have no problem re-thinking the methods and even the emphesis of ministry, but the foundational truths of the Bible can never be "fluid." This is what make Christianity unique. Truth outlasts cultural transition! There has to be some Non Negotiable Doctrines that are the foundations of our "faith." Without foundations, there can be no true faith, only deception. Harris in response adds: "I think the ultimate question is this: Do we believe it is the power of doctrine that advances the Kingdom of Heaven, or the power of Christ? If doctrine is a necessary component then we are hopelessly lost in a sea of relativity. (Compare the doctrine of the 100 top churches to see the countless contradictions) If it is Christ alone then we are still in a sea of relativity, but with the hope of a Savior to guide individuals into loving action." My friend without doctrine (simply what you believe) there is no means of guidence. Without doctrine, why follow Jesus at all, if there is no heaven, hell, judgement, moral code, no true and only God, why bother? Let's party! See, it is impossible to have "fluid" doctrine and have any type of moral compass. Jesus was the only who said, "you can't call me Lord unless you do what I say..." It is impossible to separate the person of Jesus from the principles Jesus taught, and Jesus said real dogmatic things such as "...I am the way, the truth, and the light. No man comes to the Father except through me..." He also said, " word is truth..." Either the Bible is the absolute source of spiritual truth or it is full of lies and mistruths! You can't have it both ways! This seems to be just another attempt of liberal thinkers (some would say,"non-thinkers") who produce dogmas that have symbols without substance! This position, or better yet, non-position is so ambiguous that there no certainity at all. This provides no comfort, security or foundation for faith and will destroy the church not build it!

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Francis Beckwith

April 17, 2007  11:22pm

"The enlightenment experiment provided the contextual pressure that led the western church towards a "muscular" and "foundational" view of our Faith. That shift in self-understanding cost us some very important aspects of our faith- mystery being perhaps the greatest casualty of all." I'm not sure what to make of this. If you are offering an historical account, then you are a practicing foundationalist, since you are offering a theory that you believe corresponds to reality. On the other hand, if you are not, then we can safely ignore it without fear of believing a falsehood. The problem is the suggestion that one must equate "rationality" with the "Enlightenment," which is the one thing that modernists and postmodernists have in common: the former accept it and the latter reject it. However, there is a third option, a fuller understanding of rationality, one defended by Thomas Aquinas, JP II, and Pope Benedict XVI. Here you have mystery and rationality, faith and reason, in full complement.

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Tim Roy

April 13, 2007  2:34pm

I agree that we must, in great humility, admit how much we have yet to learn of the Father's love. I also agree that we must approach those outside the faith with love and grace rather than harsh condemnation. However, I must disagree with the attack on the Church as an institution. The flock groups together for mutual edification, and the flock has shepherds, leaders - this is no more and no less than what the Epistles call for. The Church is not optional. To love God is to love the body of Christ. The Church should indeed cease to attempt to market herself - but only so that she may better feed the sheep with nourishing food. I must also draw issue with the epistemological implications of this article. The purpose of inquiry is to come to the truth - and truth there is, though it is viewed through a dark glass. Christianity tells the fullest story possible about the human experience, drawing all of life into a coherent narrative, better than any other philosophical story can do. The religion of Jesus, God's son, is indeed a robust faith.

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Josh Foreman

April 13, 2007  1:49pm

I think Roger's post illustrates how these two sides are talking past each other. He says, "the Biblical alternative to this is not to surrender the non-negotiables of the gospel…" But I don't see that being proposed. I see a different attitude towards them. I understand and know Christ and His story, and it becomes my gospel because I can tell people about how it has changed the story of my life. I'm not holding these FACTS out as a litmus test and telling them they must believe X,Y and Z to be saved. I'm telling them that my belief in X,Y and Z changed me and I think it will change them too. Roger says, "What happened to the principle of being salt and light?" But I don't see any proposals to hide our light or stop being flavorful. It seems just the opposite to me. The proposal is to stop consolidating all the light and salt in warehouses called church buildings, and start spreading it around in a relational way rather than an informational/advertising campaign way. Roger says, "Sometimes we are so concerned with being relevant that we are emptied of substance." As if the modern church is not emptied of substance with it's business structure and seeker sensitivity that boils down to telling people what they want to hear. Is ‘5 Bible steps to more wealth' or ‘Paul's secret to business success' (yes, I'm slightly exaggerating to make a point) really substantive? The question is what kind of ‘substance' do we want to have? Informational or relational? Does knowing a litany of facts save you? Or is it a relationship? Then Roger drops this little insult: "We end up connecting with the people of this world, but we have no longer have anything meaningful to connect them to!" Nothing to connect them to? Is Christ nothing? Do I need a building and a list of dogma to complete Christ?

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April 13, 2007  11:16am

What a delightful treatise, it could be retitled the Episcopal Church Manifesto! Regardless of what Mr. Taylor says in the last paragraph, "This is not a slide into relativism but a commitment to nondogmatic (sic) specificity." That is exactly what it is. It is license to reinterpret the Gospel, the Epistles, and the whole Bible as society sees fit. It will let you go from being "in the world but not of the world" to becoming "of the world" too! What an opportunity! It is the blue print for the deterioration of the Episcopal Church over the last 35 years. If you don't believe me or agree with my opinion, fine, but do this for yourself – Google the name "Paul Tillich." If you read Paul Tillich's biography you will discover how his theology was forged behind the lines WWI when the primary duty of German Army chaplains was to dig graves. The theology of Paul Tillich is the basis for what Mr. Taylor writes and for what has happened to the Episcopal Church and what is happening in other "mainline" denominations. Be warned.

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Roger Marshall

April 13, 2007  1:57am

I fail to see how the only two alternatives that face us are to swim with the cultural flow (which Barry recommends) or to paddle around in our own little pool (which he does not). It is true that too many Christians are content to remain trapped within thir own little ghettoes - speaking witin their own communities a language that would not be understood by anyone who ventured in from the outside. Nevertheless the Biblical alternative to this is not to surrender the non-negotiables of the gospel, and just sing and swing to whatever tunes happen to beplaying outside.What happened to the principle of being salt and light? What happene to Paul's words in Ephesians "have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but raher expose them", or in Romans 12 "Do not conform to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind"?How can we do this if we are following the flow? Sometimes we are so concerned with being relevant that we are emptied of substance. We end up connecting with the people of this world, but we have no longer have anything meaningful to connect them to!

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April 12, 2007  4:51pm

Barry seems to be suggesting that "church" as we know it may cease to exist and that makes some, including myself, a little uneasy. But as I survey the landscape of "Christendom" as it now exist, I think he is dead-on. Many churches won't survive much longer unless they make pretty radical changes that they may not be capable of making at this point. I wrote a post about this a while back that you can read if you like and in fact my blog discusses these kinds of things. The ship we are currently sailing is taking on water fast and we need a new ship more adept for sailing the postmodern sea we now find ourselves on. (The problem is right now that "new ship" is still in drydock being constructed – we waited a long time to even start building.) I think it is important we distinguish "church" from the "Kingdom of God". The former changes and evolves over time – it has for 2000 years – but the latter transcends any particular church and is eternal. I do not personally think emergents claim that what they are proposing is somehow new and innovative. In fact, they often encourage a return to ancient practices that the church has used for centuries – the ancient/future approach. They are simply suggesting what is obvious – "church" as we do it now in the West does not seem to work and is not succeeding in helping us live out our calling as the church – making disciples for Jesus and teaching them to do the things he did. They're trying to offer some alternatives that might be more attractive to the culture we now live in and make a few more disciples for Jesus along the way. If you've grown up in church your whole life as I have, some of what they propose may seem a bit radical, but radical may be what we need right now. Remember people thought Jesus was pretty radical too. extreme as well.

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April 12, 2007  2:55pm

To James Gibson's last comment, I can only say that throughout the ages there have been probably millions of instances where the Truth did not set people free, but was instead used to enslave, control, manipulate and even to kill. I am not saying that as one who does not subscribe to the authority of the Scriptures, but as one who most certainly does. But there is much revelation today that is finally putting to rest some of the gross misinterpretations many of us have held as truth. Much of that revelation is coming from the missional paradigm. Why? Because at last Christians are realizing that God's Word best makes sense when applied to the way we relate to the totality of life as opposed to the reductionist view of relegating one's time with God to a couple of hours a week religious observance. How any Jesus-follower can't get excited about the prospects of such revelation, and moreover, seek to undermine it, escapes me.

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April 12, 2007  1:33am

i am not sure that when the word jesus uses that we translate in english as "know" means what you are asserting. i think it is more akin to relational, existential knowing than rational/emperical knowing. and yes it isn't "ours" in that we own the gospel. but it is "ours" in that it is the gospel we believe, as opposed to alternative forms of that gospel, or other belief systems. josh is right and he is backed up by minds like Kant and Barth who also did not believe that we could "know" with certainty but we can "know" in a relational existential way.

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James Gibson

April 11, 2007  12:43pm

Josh Foreman wrote: None of us KNOW truth. We Christians make claims of revelation that can not be proven because they reside in out existential interpretive faculties. We believe x, y, and z to be true. We don't know them to be. So what is so wrong with having the humility to present our gospel on those terms? The problem is, the Gospel is not "ours" to present on those terms, which are more akin to Pontius Pilate ("What is truth?") than to Jesus Christ ("You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free"). If you do not KNOW the truth, then you are not free to present the Gospel as mere opinion. Such would be the height of human arrogance. To KNOW the truth, as revealed and embodied in Jesus Christ, is to be constrained to share it out of humble obedience to the One who has bought your redemption with his own blood.

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