Friday, November 19, 2004

Without Author|ity 4: Tray Tables Up

OK, time to bring this plane in for a landing.

First of all, I have no truck with those who say that postmodernism never happened or that it's already done or that it's passé. And to those who say that postmodernism has lost its credibility in the academy, let me just say that I am neck-deep in the academy, and postmodernism the problem. That is, every field of study is attempting at some level to forge a way ahead after the "postmodern turn."

To drastically oversimplify, the postmodern philosophers have been trying to do philosophy after Auschwitz (Derrida and Levinas say as much). That is, the grand, unifying, utopian vision of the Enlightenment evaporated into the mist that it always was in the death camps of WWII, the oppressions of Apartheid, and the mess of Vietnam. The Enlightenment ideal led to a century of blood and horror.

So along came the postmodernists, attempting to hang on to philosophy but unwilling to resurrect Platonic metaphysics. That is, big, overarching, totalizing schemes for knowledge only lead to The Final Solution. So their response has been to problematize concepts like truth and knowledge.

One of the most compelling responses (for Christians at least) comes from Stanley Fish. Although people like Chuck Colson accuse him of total relativism, Fish is adamant that he does in fact believe in authority, but it is the authority of "interpretive communities." Persons do speak (and write) authoritatively, as I am doing right now; that authority comes not from "on high," not from a bishop or a judge or an elected official, synod, dictator, president, supreme court, or pope. It comes, instead, from the community in which the speaker/author has embedded herself. Here's Fish:

"We see that (1) communication does occur, despite the absence of an independent and context-free system of meanings, that (2) those who participate in this communication do so confidently rather than provisionally (they are not relativists), and that (3) while their confidence has its source in a set of beliefs, those beliefs are not individual-specific or idiosyncratic but communal and conventional (they are not solipsists)."

Fish is being both descriptive and prescriptive: this is actually how meaning is formed (in contextual, interpretive communities), and this is how we are to be sure that it is formed in the future (rather than letting it rest in the hands of a dictator or oligarchy). Here's how Steve Bush put it in a comment from an earlier post:

"My community exercises authority not through an appeal to the objectivity of a tradition or denomination nor through a solipsistic "take matters into your own hands" approach which would destroy community, but through a process of dialogue and discussion, in which we process together the decisions that need to be made, present suggestions, give reasons for our suggestions, and critique the reasons that we give. This is "authority from below" which is neither hierarchical nor individualistic."

Implication #1: The emerging church will deliberately practice a communal hermeneutic "from below."

Sub-implication: We will find ways to continually root out authoritarian tendencies, to unmask power structures (they grow like weeds, but we cannot quit weeding the garden). (If this can happen in denominational churches, in established and institutional churches, in "conservative" or "liberal" churches, then to God be the glory. I am not ruling that out (for God's Spirit is capable of all things), but I am skeptical -- I invite anyone to prove my skepticism unfounded.)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

What is the identity that the community is rooted in? If everyone in the community is participating in the dialogue, where is the source of their ideas (the "authority") that they are forming their opinions from and speaking from? What happens to Scripture? Must we let go of the idea of Scripture as authority for our lives? I recognize the difficulties that it brings to affirm that, but should we be so quick to let it go? I think we should be hesitant to cut ourselves off from the Christian tradition completely, it has been formative, there's no escaping that. Although Christ redefined much in his Jewish tradition, he still did not let go of it.

5:09 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

It's helped my understanding of this issue to look at it chronologically. God made Adam & Eve at a specific point in history and instituted the first rule (don't eat the fruit). The next several millenia resulted in an ever-increasing corpus of laws, structure, hierarchy, etc. Not all of this was bad, but much of it was. Jesus came at another specific point in history and tore down much of the hierarchy that had built up previously, but he didn't dismantle the structure completely. He brought things back into balance. The next couple of millenia have resulted in more expansion of laws, structure, and hierarchy (Constantine, the Pope, denominations, etc.). Not all of this is bad, but much of it is. Our purpose, I believe, is to again strive, through the Spirit, to bring things back to balance. Not elimination of authority, but restoring proper authority. This is tricky work, and the definition of "proper authority" is slippery. Thoughts?

6:37 AM  
Blogger tony said...

Doug Pagitt (in Reimagining Spiritual Formation) proposes that we consider the Bible as a member of our community. Kind of like the President (though maybe not this President): The First among Equals.

7:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

solipsism = 1. The theory that the self is the only thing that can be known and verified. 2. The theory or view that the self is the only reality.

I had to look that up and figured I'd save some of you the time!

8:48 AM  
Blogger Mike Clawson said...

so we're supposed to all become baptists? ;)

9:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A couple of things.

First, scripture as authority. Scripture has to be interpreted. That's where the interpretive community comes in. What each member of the community is saying in the community is not necessarily their personal experience or theologizing about God. It could well be an interpretation of scripture. That interpretation is checked against the rest of the community's and their communal traditions of reading scripture. Making scripture another voice (even a privileged one) in the conversation makes it sound as though the bible just speaks and doesn't require interpretation. That is a mistake. Speech requires interpretation as well, but the fact that the bible is a written text adds another layer. That should be acknowledged. The text-ness of the bible is a barrier, as are historical and cultural distance.

Second: why do we persist in this narrative of a pristine, egalitarian, original church that Jesus set up, only to have it all mucked up by Constantine? Seriously, people. Part of the postmodern sensibility is a suspicion of narratives. This is one we really ought to be suspicous of. What is that narrative doing for you? Why do you keep it?

There is a whole lot more I could say, mainly because I don't think hierarchy is the problem. The importation of democratic ideals into Christianity makes me uneasy the same way the importation of individualism does. But I will leave off. Wrong crowd for that I think.

10:04 AM  
Blogger Chris Enstad said...

Hierarchy is not the problem. Anastasia is getting all of my points.

I'm lifting several points of this post from an article called "The Talent Myth" by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker. While the article is about management myths I think it has so much to do with the postmodern discussion.

I think this phenomenon is going to blaze out like Enron. Read about how Enron worked and how they lifted up talent at the expense of experience and seniority. Read how each individual was free to go their own way. Read how they believed in their stars because they didn't believe in systems.

Read Eliot Cohen's book "Military Misfortunes in the Atlantic" where he puzzled over why the British were so much better at sinking U-Boats in WWII then the U.S. was. Turns out the British were better because they had a centralized command system... in order to sink a U-Boat someone had to tell you where it was and how to get there. The U.S., on the other hand, had an Admiral wed to a decentralized structure and believe one should never tell a peer how or what to do. Turns out this kind of "loose-tight" management doesn't help anyone sink U-Boats. It was the Navy's 10th Fleet that turned things around and it did so not by bringing in ANY new or more talented individuals... instead it organized them, gave them a mandate, aimed them and fired them at the enemy.

Is it really people that make organizations smart? Or perhaps can the organization actually make people smarter?

If we have to keep forcing people to think out of the box, why not fix the box?

Look, again, this seems to be about "playing" church and not getting to the heart of the matter. Are we battling an enemy or aren't we?

If all of these great minds are putting their energy into deciding what the church is or isn't do you think The Enemy is going to wait for us to get the troops in order?

11:46 AM  
Blogger Chris Enstad said...

And one further thing, Tony:

I invite YOU to prove to ME that MY skepticism is unfounded.

Everyone who says the emperor has no clothes in this is getting crucified for no good reason then the ol dismissal of being modern or not getting "it"... whatever.

to me emergent SHOULD change its name to "games rich people play with faith"

11:50 AM  
Blogger Fajita said...

Now is a time when cultural context, or a large number of collected subcontexts, allows for churches and denominations to do as Tony mentioned about the emerging church. Even denominations who are top down are in some way, "from below". I mean, how did each denomination get started in the first place?

The problem comes that once they go "from below" for a while, they return to top down. From a macro perspective their group is "from below" in that they are not governed by another, but from a less macro perspective, they are top down again in that their authority flows in that top down direction, but only within their group.

If emergent churches can start with a "from below" authority is not really in question. Can they stay that way? Is it sustainable? How will the emerging church avoid becoming top down once they exercise their freedom? The emerging church cannot stop emerging, ever, and it cannot emerge in ten years like it is emerging now.

Revolutionaries make great dictators once they get power...for the sake of the revolution, of course.

12:45 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

I'm glad people are talking about the question of authority. And I'd like to note the distinction between authoritarian and authoritative. As a parent, I try to be authoritative, that is, one who speaks with knowledge, as opposed to being authoritarian, one who lords over another with that knowledge.

Speaking of lords, I recall Jesus saying, according to Matt. 28, that "all authority in heaven and earth" had been given to him.

So, if we are to believe Jesus, should we not look at what he was talking about regarding authority? My theological mentor, Ed Schroeder (see: Thursday Theology at makes the case that when Jesus was talking about authority, he was talking about the authority to forgive sins. That is, he is the author of forgiveness, because he is God. And is that not the authority that really matters? For, to be in God's presence, do we not need God's forgiveness, obtained for us through Christ's death?

So, the question I'm asking is this: Is Jesus not the one who has authority? And should we not be looking at this in terms of what Jesus meant by having authority? Or am I switching the terms around here in a way that was not intended by Tony?

Enjoying reading your blog. I'm a new reader to this, turned on to it by Christian Scharen, associate director of the Faith as a Way of Life project. My wife is part of that group's "reflecting pool", as Christian puts it. Tony is also part of that group.


Michael Kunz

1:48 PM  
Blogger Jon said...

just a couple things about the comments so far: postmodernists aren't suspicious of narratives. we're suspicious of metanarrative(absolute or totalizing stories). jesus didn't really spend any time tearing down the structures. he did critique them at times, but he didn't tear them down. he showed us all an alternate reality that many would claim tears down instituations and structures. and if anyone tries to quote the turning over the tables story, God help me. it just isn't the same thing. lastly the examples of enron and britian are great..............for business and military operations. i'm not always quite sure what the church is supposed to be, but i'm quite comfortable saying we're not a business or a militia/military. the original colonies in the u.s. obtained freedom arguably by a decentralized form of combat. i can't think of any business that would benefit from decentralization, but i bet if i thought about it enough i could find some.

the problem i see with this, is that our communities for the most part are not diverse enough for this to really work. as we think about interpretation, it's tough because i am often surrounded by people who's interpretation is fairly close to mine. my community needs to be more diverse. this is one thing emergent is not (i know we're workin on it). the implication i can see is a perceived totalizing of theology and life. what i mean by that is, a community made up of white, suburban, educated people will develop a way of life that reflects their understanding of God's way of life. no matter how much change we create, it will still be a white man's gospel. this is not rich enough. it is not whole enough. we need more diversity in our conversations and emergent more than the united methodist church, or some other institution, is more likely to see diversity through. unfortunatly, in the u.s., we tend to put ourselves into communities (or create ones) where the vast majority of others are all alike. can emergent change this trend? i hope so.

1:54 PM  
Blogger Jon said...

i switched trains of thought without letting you all know. in the second paragraph my critique is with the community as authority. sorry.

1:59 PM  
Blogger Fajita said...

urban emeregence and suburban emergence and rural emergence will not look alike...should not look alike. Rural Arkansas will not emerge multicultural anytime soon. Metropolitan Detroit must emerge multicultural.

2:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a postmodernist and I'm suspicious of narratives. So there.

2:59 PM  
Blogger Mitch said...


I'm at the stage where I'm turning to God in prayer. To me, that means that I recognize that I am given authority to do precisely that: turn to God in prayer and thus gain understanding about something be it a bible teaching, a situation in life, a deep wound.

In response to comments. First Anastasia, you said that "Scripture has to be interpreted". My response is that *people* have to be interpreted. That 2000 years of people contributed in some way to the text of the bible makes the argument statement somehow... I don't have the word on hand. The "gospel according to Mark", "letter from Paul to the Ephesians". Written in one language and eventually [cough] translated to english.

In any case. In response to the talk "from below" authority. Is this a utopian democratic forum by which we come to consensus on spiritual matters, bible interpretations, programs or other such considerations?

All I can say (aside of course from all that other stuff that I've already said) is "wow". Viva la revolution? Think I'll stick to the revolution brewing in my heart.

That's a little more than just "wow" isn't it? :)

4:00 PM  
Blogger Fajita said...

Compare the way "authority" is communicated in Matthew 28 and Mark 1. Jesus declares "all authority" after his ministry (in the flesh on earth) and after the resurrection. However, in Mark 1 people notice his authority. He uses process to communicate his authorty, not content. He teaches, and heals and badda-boom badda-bing, people start saying he has authority...and it's different than the people with authoritative titles and no authority. "He's no yes-man, middle manager, putz. I like this guy." I think is how people might have seen him. So, did he have authortiy assigned to him by the people or did they notice the authority he already had? Well, there seems to be a both/and thing going on there.

Jesus has all authority, including the authority to release authority. Here is the place where the modern church struggles. It is very had to release authority once it is obtained, noticed, procured...whatever. It takes humility, trust, faith, risk and whole lot of other virtues(?) to release authority...ironically, the very traits likely to get people saying, "She (or he) speaks with authortiy."

Enjoying this conversation very much.

10:15 AM  
Blogger Mitch said...

ooooooh. So, taking a swing, is the problem with authority in the church that we didn't look and say "Look, he has authority, let's follow him" but instead "Look, he has authority, he's the one we're supposed to follow." That is the say, in the first case we perceive authority coming from a person's being and in the latter case authority is placed there by an institution but we don't necessarily bear witness to it?

In my last job I learned that a project is more successful (more likely to be successful) if the leaders appear naturally, growing out of the group as in the first case witnessed by his peers. I also learned that if a peer(s) is/are set on being the leader then the project tends to fail. And finally I learned that a leader chosen by management sometimes works and sometimes doesn't depending on, probably, whether or not they chose the natural leader for that group.

That being the case, my recommendation for this situation would be:

1) keep your preachers
2) organize yourselves into peer groups
3) let the peer group rise and fall naturally
4) use your preacher for overall direction and "safety" control

12:33 PM  
Blogger Chris Enstad said...

all of these postmodern communities that provide leadership (the emergent fellows, the "reflecting pool" at Yale (which I suspect has much to do to define FAITH before it can move on to talking about ways of life) will eventually provide the kind of structure they have all fled in the first place... the only difference is they will be in charge not someone else. I just cannot see an alternate reality than that.

And what are you busy organizing this new "church" *for*?

4:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Meet the new boss, same as the old boss."

11:10 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

I'm diggin' on Fajita's comments that Jesus not only had/has authority, but that he has authority to give authority to others....

and he does just that, as described in the Gospel of John...he gives his followers the authority to forgive each other's sins....the same authority that Jesus has...

I'll make a case that that is the key authority of God in Christ: forgiving sins. Another way to say that is, if sin ultimately is separation/distance from God, it's about reconnecting us with God. Isn't that what Christ does. And when Christ reconnects us with God, we end up getting connected with other Christ-followers as well.

But the author of all this, that is, the authority, is about reconnecting us to God and each/forgiving sins, elminating the separation that we have from God and each other.

That, I think, is the authority that people could see in Jesus in Mark 1.

Glad to be connected with y'all.

1:58 PM  
Blogger Fajita said...

To help unseparate people from God is a beautiful process to watch and a privilege to participate in. I get the privilege to see it happen in my counseling office quite a bit. When I see it or notice it happening, almost always, I feel like a spectator with great seats watching God do something special in the life of my client. When it happens, it is so cool and so obvious that the result of what is happening far outweighs the efforts I had to put into it. I got this bread and fish...out comes a feast.

I have found that the authority to forgive sin does not necessarily have to be communicated in the verbal package, "I (God/Jesus/Holy Spirit ...whatever) forigve your sins." These words are too often (but not always) contaminated by false assumptions, bad popular theology, or crazy Christian TV shows about "Jeeeezus." Sometimes it comes in a metaphor; other times it is in the unraveling of confusion; other times it comes in a new understanding; and other times in community (usually in community). Jesus came to set people free so that they can set people free. He has the authority and gives the authority to set people free. Setting people free is forgiving their sins, said in whatever way.

3:15 PM  
Blogger Jedi said...

I love the emergent conversation, and I think all you wonderful smart people are so cool?! But I'm really tired of hearing and reading the same arguments over and over again. Look, I'm part of the emergent movement . . . I'm not rich, I'm not playing with faith, and I don't claim to have any of the answers. I think most of the emergent movement is arrogant, because their fathers and mothers are arrogant - You know the Modern Evangelicals. I don't know what you guys are up to, but my church is full of sexual abuse victims, drug addicts, and few ex-evangelicals, whatever that means, and frankly, I rarly have time to deal with the high and loft thinking . . . of emergent or Chuck Colson . . . Somebody tell me how this helps the young women who lives in my home . . . who was sexually abused by her grandfather and mutilated in Satanic rituals. I honestly don't care if the Leadership structures are changing, if the emergent church is "theologically down a river without a paddle", or if postmodernism is good or bad or stupid. I've been chased out of churches, helped close two down, told I was a heretic, etc. I have begged the traditional and evangelical church to change. I've lived inside of them. I've planted an "emergent" church and had all the big mega church pastors and dominational people come down and have a look see. But in the end I just weep. Weep for the church. Weep for my wife and child, weep for my friends . . . Eh, ug, whatever . . . God is Good

10:50 AM  
Blogger Chris Enstad said...

I've spent the past week down on a river waiting for searchers to find the body of a 21 year old member of my mainline denomination who was drowned in a diving accident. Practice is where the rubber hits the road. In the end we have the Psalms, the promise, and the hope. I don't see how postmodernism has anything to do with the realities of life and death.

On another note, there's a great article in the newest Christian Century on the emerging church. The author describes it as a movement of post-evangelicals AND post-liberals. I have never been either, the Lutheran movement has always strived to be a third-way it is quite a proposition to the church catholic which has never been fully implemented.

I like it.


5:58 PM  
Blogger Jay Voorhees said...

I've only scanned the previous conversation, so I have no clue if this comment has any connection, but since this post appeared again on my Bloglines account it set me to thinking about Tony's original comments that "the emerging church will deliberately practice a communal hermeneutic 'from below.'"

Of course this is a true statement, but I would argue that it is true for all faith communities, be they congregational in structure or connectional (denominationally affiliated). Yes, I am a part of a denominational system, and yes there are times when the hierarchical nature of the the denomination intrudes into our lives and gets in the way.

Yet, in the stuff of everyday life, that identity is far less important that the congregation's self identity -- whatever that may be. When Mrs. Jones is on her last legs in ICU, the hierarchy doesn't intrude but rather people of faith gather together to pray and cook and do all the things that people of faith do. When the folks I hang with got together to bag potatoes for hunger ministries in Nashville, there was no sense of doctinal propriety in how we got covered with potato goo.

Maybe it's the nature of my tribe. A couple of years ago I was invited to be a part of a focus group for Thomas Nelson on adult curriculum (I got a couple of free books out of the deal). I was the only Methodist, sitting with a group of Baptists and independent Church of Christ leaders. The conversation turned to how the leadership of the church decided what curriculum to purchase. I listened with amazement at these churches whose pastors determine what the flock will study. When they turned to me, I laughed. "You think I get to choose? In the Methodist churches that I have been in, Sunday School classes operate on the feudal system -- each is autonomous and choose their own topics and method of study. If I tried to tell the people what to study they would run me out."

As I understand what you are suggesting you are saying that the point or method of interpretation of the traditions of faith (be they scripture or whatever) should arise from the people rather than being declared from on high. While I value and agree with that notion there are probems with that approach. If one is not careful it is easy for the prevailing hermeneutic to be based in popular interpretations or the lowest common denominator rather than honest discernment of God's intentions for those traditions.

Take the "Left Behind" series (please!). Most pastors that I know would say that the "Left Behind" series is a fun read, but is at best a creative interpretation of Revelation and Biblical prophecy (while some of us say that it's simply crap). Yet the hermeneutic from below gives that series of books far more authority that is deserving.

That is where the notion of pastoral leadership is, I think, helpful. Part of the process of the communal hermeneutic is for the community to recognize that there may be the need for persons who focus exclusively on the task of discerning God's voice at this time, and helping to lead the community to be faithful to that call. In a real sense, that is what Doug Pagitt is doing. Yes, he is very much rooted and based in the community and avoiding hierarchical power trips (I think), but he still functions as a primary voice of discernment for the community. He uses all the skills that he has obtained through the years, including his seminary education and reading to inform how he helps the community to be faithful to God's call.

That is true for any church, denominational or otherwise. The issue ultimately becomes whether a congregation places their faith in the institutional structures of the denomination, or whether they see the denomination as a resource to assist them in their faithful response to God's call. My experience has been in the latter, which is part of the reason that I continue in the denominational realm.


6:54 AM  

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