Anti-intellectualism in the emergent conversation

RadioactivesmallMatt Glock brings up the issue of anti-intellectualism in the emergent conversation from last week’s Divergent gathering. Matt, who deserves applause for carrying my bags through Geneva, needs your prayers today for his first shot of chemotherapy. He had his thyroid taken out a few weeks ago and is grateful for prayers in the virtual room at my party.

But to deal with the anti-intellectual thing. Jamie Smith brought this up on the Generous Orthodoxy blog and there is some serious discussion going on about the ” surprising elements of anti-intellectualism in the conversation.”

As for my and my house, I dont think its a simple matter of being too intellectual or anti-intellectual. We need deep and wide thinking that deals honestly with the issues, a thinking that relates directly to practice. I DO think much of our thinking is too western and eurocentric to be of universal good to the majority of believers who live in non-western countries and have much to teach us. I also think our gatherings are very male in both gender and subject matter, as well as favouring the middle class. Which is why Peter Rollins, who lives in a lower class apartment block in Belfast, was such a WONDERFUL addition to the conversation.

Emergent gatherings are probably more cognitive than what they used to be in the 90’s when arts and worship were a significant part of the program. But Emergent is not a denomination or a festival. Its a conversation and a safe space to tackle issues related to church. At least it is supposed to be.

But sometimes, and Jamie may have sensed this, there are pastors and Christian leaders who are not prepared to jump into a hard-core intellectual conversation that threatens their existing paradigm, or do not know how to do so. This makes it different than debates and intellectual exercises found at universities. Emergent must therefore find a middle ground. How do you experience Emergent?

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The panel on ethics: Paul Holley. James Smith, Brian McLaren, Jason Clark and myself (standing) as moderator. I didn’t really do well in this session. Brian and Jason did much better at moderating their sessions than I did. On my panel, Brian was the most gracious and Jason was bold and wise. Jamie also did very well. The podcast will be out this month.

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Andrew

Andrew Jones has been blogging since 1997. He is based in San Francisco with his two daughters but also travels the globe to find compelling stories of early stage entrepreneurs changing their world. Sometimes he talks in the third person. Sometimes he even talks to himself and has been heard uttering the name "Precious" :-)

19 Comments

  • Have to admit, I did wince a bit when I saw ‘Divergent’ being so lacking in diversity.
    But on the intellectualism bit, I also noticed you’d written:
    “The conversation we had was necessary but a little too intellectual. Maybe I am partly to blame for that. As I said in that final panel, if we demand that everyone know all these philosophers, history and must go through Seminary to participate in this conversation, then we are in need of Reformation ourselves.”
    I think this is very interesting, and actually fully connected to the gender debate too. Too many of these conferences end up with men trying to be the Alpha, using books now not spears or rocks, but pretty much in the same way.
    I’m not anti-intellectual at all – you’re right we need a balance. But I think we’ll only find balance in praxis. If a bunch of full-time, paid-up Emergers get together for a conference then is it surprising that things get too theoretical? Wolf’s rhythm of adoration and action could well apply here. I know I need a better rhythm of thought and practice.

  • For me, one of most attractive bigger ideas in living missionally was a hesitancy in dichotomising theory from praxis again?
    I think & feel that it doesn’t help us to think in such ways.
    Maybe I have woken up badly this morning, but could use ‘deep’ as a desciptor for everything we pursue in the way of God?

  • how do i experience emergent ? do i think the emergent conversation is anti intellectual ? tell you what guys – i don’t really give a rip because the conversation is becoming increasingly irrelevant to people like me – it is beginning to remind me of the kind of vacuous pseudo intellectual pontifications that victorian men indulged in after dinner in the library with the cigars – i am of the emergent underside – i am a woman pastor that’s spent the last 20 years of ministry journeying with friends and neighbours of all ages, races and genders into the desert that is life outside of organised religion – i am fully engaged going into and being in the world, living as a follower of Christ who just tries to get on with the business of relating and loving and being as gracefully subversive as is possible – by worldly standards i am told i have a ‘brilliant mind’ and can certainly hold my own in any political, educational and theological arena – but spending time ‘debating the “real” issues’ with a bunch of white, middle class, western male ministers is a complete turn off for someone like me – how do i experience emergent ? I agree so wholeheartedly with kester – thought and social praxis are crucial – but i also would add – there are other ways of knowing than the purely rational and intellectual – the most subversive and transformational thinking does not have to necessarily be of the linear, reasoned, analytical type that the world tells us is considered ‘real’ thinking – i intuit a lot, much of my knowledge is tacit and its meanings are not easily verbalised, my process is more affective, sensory, resonance based rather than factual, my conclusions are more liquid and transitory in nature – it is a very proficient form of ‘thinking’ and i would argue capable of being just as robust, rigorous and valuable as the more static, definitive intellectual endeavour emergent presently feels it is missing being engaged in
    why does emergent have to bow to the pressure to define itself according to what society thinks is valuable ? i think the more emergent pursues the agenda of the avante guarde the less relevant its conversation will continue to become – could you not go down that road please ?!?

  • yes, but Julie . . . what do you REALLY think? [he he]
    thanks for sharing that. my wife shares the same sentiment – and our journey is similar to yours . . being focused outside the boundaries and margins but trying to interpret to others within.
    i should add, in emergent’s defence, that the event was not a debate but a conversation with panels, meals, and 30 of us camping out in a huge house for a few days – both male and female
    and that some of the smartest people there were female – although the panel did not represent that.

  • I’m with Julie. And I’m beginning to tire of this whole “conversation” thing. I’ve read some good books, Kester’s being one of the better, but Emergent looks increasingly like a new Evangelicalism rather than a way of growing people spiritually. Since I’ve concluded that evangelicalism is just wrong headed and headed in the wrong direction, I just don’t want to emerge into 21st century evangelicalism.
    What really is the ultimate goal of the “conversation,” anyway. Is it to keep the church as we know it alive in a new culture? Or is it help people of today to connect spiritually with God and one another, as others before them have been striving to do for several thousand years?
    And, as for anti-intellectualism, when a professor feels uncomfortable around practitioners, it’s not the fault of the practitioners. There are real people’s lives to consider. I’d say that the good professor needs to get out more often. Philosophical and theological jargon does nothing for people whose lives are screwed up and they don’t know what to do about it. Having a passionate theoretical argument, then going out for a friendly beer is fine and good when the results of the theoretical discussion have no effect on real people. As an engineer, I’m very familiar with the gap between theory and application. Only a small portion of the professors I had in college had ever worked outside a university. Calculating a solution is much easier than implementing it. Now that the Information Age is in high gear, universities no longer control the market on knowledge and theory. Just as the church scholastics lost out to the universities, the universities will give way to industry and other knowledge consortia. Cries of anti intellectualism will likely grow louder and more common as the Enlightenment era closes.

  • i understand that it wasn’t a debate
    i guess my comments are really about what kind of a conversation is it becoming ?
    is it one that someone like me should want to be a part of ?
    do i have a responsibility to join it even if it is to subvert it ?
    would all the people that are like me have any hope of being understood in it ?
    if not why should i care about it ? God’s Kingdom might be extended in other ways
    i have deliberately, and quite successfully kept myself below the official emergent radar for what seems like many years now
    i simply don’t think that i possess the machinery that allows me to access it as a conversation that includes people from my culture, gender, age or sensibilities
    on my travels i have met hundreds of people like me that listen to the conversation from afar and discount themselves from it because it they feel they are just not included in its language and customs
    but that also means that there are an awful lot of lonely Christ following Kingdom livers out there who might need to be touched by it

  • julie
    you and my wife would get along famously. and much of the organic/house church scene that we have been a part of for the last decade has also avoided these theological discussions under the tent that is emergent.
    i have no disagreement with you. or with bill. in fact, i come to the conversation, somewhat out of place {i prefer festivals to conferences) as a practitioner-missionary who is helping to start new churches and looking for ways to interpret it backwards to the church. Emergent gives me a platform to represent the OTHER half of church that does not attend a church and others on the margins – where the focus of our ministry has been.
    and i am glad the emergent group puts up with me on occasion, allowing my voice to be heard.
    pray for me that when these opportunities arise to speak to the wider church, that i might better represent those who are voiceless but have much to say.
    as for the gender issue – look out for a new post on that in a day or two. Have you blogged on this recently?

  • yes i will pray – it is tough to be the go between !
    the gender issue – no blogging i’m afraid but we could have a conversation that would last a few years !!!!

  • I’d be interested to comment more once I hear the podcasts. I’m following this discussion from a distance with interest. For now two statements or questions stand out for me: (1)”…Emergent is not a denomination or a festival. Its a conversation and a safe space to tackle issues related to church.”
    (2)”there are pastors and Christian leaders who are not prepared to jump into a hard-core intellectual conversation that threatens their existing paradigm, or do not know how to do so. This makes it different than debates and intellectual exercises found at universities. Emergent must therefore find a middle ground.”

  • TallSkinnyKiwi: Anti-intellectualism in the emergent conversation

    Matt Glock brings up the issue of anti-intellectualism in the emergent conversation from last week’s Divergent gathering. … Jamie Smith brought this up on the Generous Orthodoxy blog and there is some serious discussion going on about the ” surprisi…

  • I meant praxis as precisely the idea of theory and practice combined/interdependent.
    And well said Julie. And Bill. And TSK. My wife is very much the same. I did blog a bit on this issue here:
    http://thecomplexchrist.typepad.com/the_complex_christ/2006/01/is_it_time_for_.html
    Basically, it’s not good enough to call it a conversation if the only people who feel bothered to speak are blokes. You need to be more pro-active.
    And I increasingly feel uncomfortable speaking at stuff unless there is a really good mix – which was true at the recent Moot thing. Plus, with Vaux over I’m not involved in so much front-line practice, so perhaps have less to say anyway.

  • good post, kester – here is the link for it.
    and so much more authoratative coming from a BLOKE! [just joking]
    i have just come from a fantastic event/experience in London that was led by the ladies of the emerging church – they organized us doing all sorts of learning experiences such as guerilla gardening and art exhibitions and my pizza party. no debates or MANLY displays of superior intellect and tangible results of sucessful numerical attraction to a single building at the same time . . . but highly profitable anyway.
    in fact, it was so encouraging and momentus that i should really blog on it tomorrow.
    great conversation – and i realize it is a super-emotional topic . . and one in which i have slipped up before [my infamous “girls” post] but i am so glad we can have it without the ANGST.

  • o.k. now i am stupendously bothered to speak about it
    here’s my vote for an angst free and very on-going open ended conversation
    what’s next ?

  • next is my blog post when i talk about gender equality in the emerging-missional church – expect it this week . . as soon as i get the video sorted out.
    and is there a place [blog?] where you publish your thoughts??????

  • no place sorry
    don’t like to broadcast the paucity of my knowledge
    plus also
    i am a hypersensitive off the scale intuitive soul poet that needs to get into a room with people, share some good food and laughter and then ‘watch’ God show up and do His stuff – can’t beat the eye to eye real thing eh ?

  • Andrew, i have to agree with you that much of the conversation is western and euro centric with middle-class white males. i would love to see what the conversation would include from places like the global south. Brian McLAren is doing this with the Amohoro project in Uganda next May that i hope to be participating in.
    Intellectual talk is good but sometimes i see it as what i call “intellectual masturbation” where these guys get together and stroke their egos over all their smarts.
    Both and all is needed. More women and minorities are needed as well, including women, different ethnicities, people of color, gay and lesbians, etc.

  • Existential Punk said:
    “Both and all is needed. More women and minorities are needed as well, including women, different ethnicities, people of color, gay and lesbians, etc.”
    Allright! Now you’re talking. Bring in the Samaritans, and the tax collectors, as well as the zealots.
    There’s still a problem, however. The people most needed aren’t going to fly to these conferences with names that end in “ence” because they do other things.
    How many great books will never get published for the same reasons that speakers with great wisdom will never be heard?
    Why is it that neither Socrates nor Jesus ever wrote anything down?
    Success is not measured in attendance but in diversity. Growth does not come from doing the same thing over and over, but from doing different things. Mediocrity will always attract a large following because most people are mediocre. Excellence is always on the fringe because it can be.

  • “much of the organic/house church scene that we have been a part of for the last decade has also avoided these theological discussions under the tent that is emergent.”
    Perhaps my issue today is confusing ’emergent church’ with organic/house church. My wife and I can only find an emergent group in our area whose meetings seem to center around book discussions that border on universal salvation.
    Please forgive my ignorance, as I am way out of the loop on this sort of thing. My introduction to the whole concept of anything but the sort of orhtodox church that I felt disenfranchised from was one summer long ago and far away.
    I guess I’m searching for something today.

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