Phenomenology, Theology, Liberation & New Forms of Church
Just before you think I have been smoking something rather illegal by pursuing such a grand title, I want to start by saying I have had a period of enforced isolation following an operation, so I have been reading and reflecting on a number of things. So I want to paint a picture that connects these big titles above, and No, I am now off the codeine pain relief, so I am now feeling more coherent.
Some in the whole Emerging & Fresh Expressions scene are quite anti-theologial, which has always troubled me, partly because it can then predispose people to make the same mistakes as some of those who have come before us in their thinking and praxis. It is always better to be informed, even if you fundamentally disagree… At the same time, I want to challenge some of the particularly academic theological institution, who look down on phenomenology and its related discipline of Pastoral Theology. Some see these two areas as weak cousins to their more illustrious and more academic relatives. I think this is fundamentally false and elitist and plainly wrong if this has any centredness around the life and activity of Jesus Christ which challenged such power related perspectives in his time.
So here goes … Phenomenology is an important perspective and discipline that has arisen out of philosophical thinking and in the social sciences, that now in a post-modern context, helps us to reframe and understand things drawing on human experience. “Phenomenology” comes from the Greek words phainómenon, meaning “that which appears,” and lógos, meaning “study.” Experience-led thinking was clearly very important to Emerging & Fresh Expressions of Church. I encountered much of this in the research I did in my book “Emerging & Fresh Expressions of Church”.
Theology – is important to an understanding of God – “Theology” meaning the study of God. In the Christian spiritual tradition, Theology & Phenomenology are intrinsically linked. Theology arises out of experience, but importantly out of communities in praxis not just on bright-spark charismatic individuals who work things out for themselves. Praxis here – is the idea of right action – about the discipline of exploring questions arising out of experience that connect to the humanities to then dialogue between these various insights (note dialogue is inherently about talking in community) to then work out what right action may be in response to the question. So this is a discipline in living, of right living (orthopraxis), not just of right thinking (orthodoxy) – which I argue has been a curse in the church which does a lot of thinking but not much action when and where it matters!! But, there is a danger in a cuture that sometimes feels being post-society, where no one ever seems to think about responsibility for others and everything is centred on individual rights. As Jonathan Clark has said in his book ‘the republic of heaven’:
If theology arises out of experience, is there any stopping point before we reach theologies that are constructed by each of us individually? If not, is there such a thing as the Church at all – what do we have in common? It’s a possible extreme case of what Catholics have always accused Protestants of – allowing the theology of private opinion to take precedence over the Church’s tradition.
He then goes on to say: Part of an answer to this criticism may rest in the concept of praxis … Liberation theologies therefore depend not on an individual experience but on that of a group, within the social and economic context in which it is placed. Theology happens, moreover, in the interaction of the community with its context: it’s not something restricted to books and lecture theatres. So when a group of oppressed people concretely refuse to accept their oppression, theology is happening. For those people, new truths about God are being enunciated as much through action as through their reflection [and thinking].
I think Jonathan Clark is spot on here. I want to argue that many emerging & fresh expressions of church are trying to seek forms of spiritual community with this phenomenological, communitarian, participation and liberationist focus, (where this liberationist focus is usually articulated in the form of economic, social and ecological justice) in the face of the force and perceived oppression of the global market, unrestrained forms of global capitalism, obscene forms of individualism, the return of a dominant class system and new forms of under classes, poverty and increased deprivation. This I think is particularly true at the moment in the global credit crunch, which was driven by capitalist greed. The language of liberation and justice is increasingly being used.
What worries me a little about some new post-church initiatives is that they are often very individualistic with a dominant monolithic ideology, which starts by saying everything that was before is wrong and now we have got it right, (I don’t believe any faith can be monolithic if it is centred on collective experience). Often, where there is a leader who is very charismatic, and a powerful arbiter. These initiatives have a lot of energy, but often have very little to do with community, praxis and liberation. The little books I have written, particularly the last, “the becoming of G-d” I hope is an articulation of what the Moot Community has been exploring for the last six years. I hope it is not about my thinking, more an articulation of the insights and thinking of a community founded on shared phenomenological activity and a theology arising out of experience of God. Contrary to the language coming from some, I don’t think we need ‘revival’ or a ‘continuation of the reformation’ or a new expression of church to ‘finish off the reformation that the church did not complete in modernity’. These somewhat hard and radical voices seek to build a contextual church, by seeking purity out of plurality of thought by the language of ‘opposition’ and ‘competition’. I think this thinking is bankrupt in our now post-Christendom context. We don’t need a continutation of reformed theology for postmodern times, we need to find an authentic expression of the Christian faith centred on liberation not competition.
So increasingly, the focus of new forms of church, (from my perspective), needs to be that they can be experienced as life giving, enabling, loving, caring and places of belonging and liberation. It is not about being ‘Cool’ or the next new ideology to consume, or about having the best technologically driven alternative worship. The world has had quite its fill of ‘Cool’ people and new ideologies that have not brought lasting change. We need forms of community that dream big dreams centred on the values of the Kingdom of God. I hope Moot grows into this type of profound places of humanity, where the Christian faith can be experienced as a liberating event that enables people to find their common humanity, in a world that is driven by power, competition and consumption. So liberation has to be a key focus to emerging & fresh expressions of church, if they are stand any chance of reflecting the values of the Kingdom of God Christ exposed through the ancient world, and which we are called to love and act on now.
So to conclude, rather than being anti-theological, I hope Emerging & Fresh Expressions of Church increasingly seek to reframe theology to make it life giving, and that this will therefore need to draw on a Kingdom perspective, centred on liberation and experience, where we have a high view of seeking shared solutions and a communal phenomenology. Where we seek not to ‘win’ so that others ‘lose’ but as liberation theologies say, we seek to change the goal posts, to reframe things, to have no losers where all call share in the good things in life, where we have rights and responsibilities for all. If we hold this perspective, then our Society may look differently on the life and work of Christ, because after all, was this not what he was about?