Kant you tell it’s different in church now?

I had Ethics class today at Uni.  A quick spin through feminist and postmodern ethics.  It was hard work but fascinating.  One of the many thoughts that struck me was that these ethical theories explain clearly the differences in Traditional Church and Emerging Church.  I’ll try to explain.  For me the main differences in the two forms of church would seem to be something like this:

Traditional Church
Meta narrative, justice, generalisation, rules, preaching, structure, right and wrong, telling, creeds, liturgy

Emerging Church
personalisation, discovery, engagement, how does that work for me?, collective decisions, creative.

I wondered if it was about taste, preference, what you are used to.  People say that old people like church as it is because they are comfortable with it.  I don’t disagree, but why do they engage more easily with traditional church and why are there exceptions?

I think it’s all about ethics.  Traditional church was born out of the Enlightenment.  It is big on Reason and Knowledge.  On experts and rules that apply to everyone (10 commandments and stuff).  It is all based on the ethics of Kant.  His ethics of Justice that apparently us men like.  Rules, fair play and justice.

The thing is our postmodern society with its feminist critique would suggest that we have moved away from Kant’s rigid ethical framework to a world which is much more willing to say that knowledge is contextual, rules are not universal but depend on the place and circumstances of their application.  There are no experts, at least none that know more than me about my life.  Perhaps an Ethic of Care is where we find ourselves with more consideration given to how our decissions and actions affect people around us and around the world.

So, back to where I started this ramble, the church.  Is the church for telling us how it is?  Enforcing the rules?  Telling us what to believe and how to believe it?  Or is it about giving us the tools to make good decisions?  To share our stories, our experiences of God in our lives and to make a difference to the lives of others?  I know which I’m more comfortable with, but I think I maybe understand a little better why other people might want the other kind of church, and that’s ok.

For another illustration of what I’m talking about click HERE to read Jonny Baker’s comparison of traditional church concerns and his emergent community.

5 thoughts on “Kant you tell it’s different in church now?”

  1. I haven’t really thought this through properly yet, so bear with me.
    I’m wondering if your comment about the older generation preferring ‘traditional’ church is a ‘continual truth’. By this, I mean that the older generation will always prefer a traditional church. I know that doesn’t altogether make sense, but where I’m going with the thought is this:
    It seems to me that your picture of emerging church fits well with early life and of self-discovery. We explore our own awareness of our acts, our moral choices, our ethics.
    But there then comes a point, or rather there is a transition, when we need to fit our personal story into the the bigger picture. Our self-awareness expands to meet, and be aware of, its interaction with others. We then need to work out, perhaps, a reshaping of our personal ethic as it is informed by others. Arguably, from a Christian perspective, traditional church is the ‘establishment’ that we fit into. After all, our personal ethic cannot remain exclusively personal, our own personal construct, if we claim to be Christian. It must be conformed to the ethic we learn from scripture and/or tradition. But, just because traditional church is traditional, doesn’t mean it’s unchanging. As more people fit their story into it, there is movement and change that accommodates those stories.
    I agree that liberation and feminist and black theologies (and many others) are challenging the traditional church and moving it beyond Kantian rationalism. There is a rediscovery of liturgy and symbolism and these changes are happening in traditional churches and perhaps that makes them emerging churches in reality. And I guess that’s the point. Emerging church isn’t a separate entity. It’s simply the visible element of change that is rippling backwards through the church. Arguably, today’s emerging church is tomorrow’s traditional church and a process of slow change (think glaciation timescales in some places) is always happening.
    Tell me in 20 years or so whether you are more comfortable in traditional or emerging church.

  2. I would agree that ’emerging church’ isn’t a separate entity, more a development but I’m not sure that a move away from Kantian rationalism will result in another generation of people who like the ‘traditional’.

    I’m sure that young people already fit their ethic into a wider context but I’m not sure that people will have the same need or same pressure to conform to a dominant ethic as in the past. One of the traits of ’emerging’ church is people are keener to hear something and then work out what to do with it, how to apply it or to challenge it, rather than to be told how it is and what they should think. That would mean a perpetually changing church perhaps?

  3. Actually, thinking about it a bit more, I’m wondering just how ‘Kantian’ the traditional church is. Here’s a extract from the Dictionary of Historical Theology:
    “For the most part, Kant rejects the corporate, historical, traditional and liturgical aspects of religion. For him the religious life is the moral life of individual obedience to duty.”
    To be honest, that sounds more like ’emerging church’ with its emphasis on a personal morality, focussed on God.
    And another:
    “His philosophy represents the rejection of tradition, community and canon in favour of autonomous reason and the free individual.”
    And this, to my mind, becomes the biggest danger in ’emerging church’. The focus on the individual, the individual’s experience, the individual’s ‘value’, eventually overshadows one of the major distinctions of the Christian faith – the Trinitarian God. In our Trinitarian doctrine we don’t simply acknowledge the ‘individual’ Father, Son and Spirit, but also acknowledge, and emphasise, the communal nature of the Trinity. ANd if we are to claim that we are made in the image of God, then we must also acknowledge that we are to be ‘in community’ and not just a collection of individuals.
    I agree that when church becomes a place that tells you what to think rather than a place to make you think, then it has overstepped its authority. Proclamation of the Gospel is not about laying down rules. It is about holding up the teachings of Jesus as a ‘mirror’ to our life and seeing if we are reflecting back Jesus or ourself. In this respect, I think it is about more than ethics. Ethics, in the broadest sense, is about living the ‘right sort of life’. Christian ethics means that the normative base is Jesus. We, therefore, need to rely on ‘church’ to provide that normative framework within which we fit a Christian ethic. Without ‘church’ there is the risk of having no checks and balances against which we can set our personal ethic. Ultimately, I believe, at the root of even ’emerging church’ there needs to be an accepted and acceptable ‘tradition’. And yes, I agree that that will always need to be reforming.

  4. I wonder if focussing on Kant is a little bit of a red herring. I think what I’m saying might be a little more general than just one man’s theory. I’m wondering if the church views Christ through the lense of the Enlightenment? If it does then that will be problematic for a generation or two of people who have pretty much rejected that way of thinking in favour of a post-structuralist world view.

    The arguements we get into in the church are broadly about ‘What did Jesus mean?’ and ‘How do I apply that?’. You would go about answering those questions in very different ways, depending on your world view. The problem as I see it, evidenced by the rapid decline in church attendance, is that the Church isn’t providing the framework people are looking for to grapple with those questions.

    I think we could perhaps agree that ‘tradition’ and ‘traditional’ mean different things in this discussion. I would agree with you that any form or expression of ‘church’ would refelct a particular tradition. It might be that the tradition we see in the emerging and new forms of church are not those based in the Enlightenment, but in post-structuralism. All I’m saying is that this must be problematic for the established church because if it is true then these new churches will reject the hierarchy and dogmatic approach of the establishment and will find little common ground in the two traditions.

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