God Has Left the Building, and Some People Hit the Road: A Taoist Christian Moment?

“An answer is an invitation to stop thinking about something, to stop wondering. Life has no such stopping places, life is a process whose every event is connected to the moment that just went by. An unanswered question is a fine traveling companion. It sharpens your eye for the road.” —Rachel Naomi Remen

Phyllis Tickle describes Christian history as undergoing a massive shift roughly every 500 years, and says it is time for another one. Establishing the religious book department at Publishers Weekly gave her insight to write The Great Emergence, her signature book, that defines our current era, the 4th major turn in Christian history. The first three reshufflings were: Constantine’s Influence, The Great Schism, and The Reformation. The way I see it, discipleship is the crucial task now, during The Great Emergence.That is to say, the mission currently is not to count and categorize converted souls, but to attend to a transformation on life’s journey.

The existential question for Christians on the journey of Great Emergence, according to Tickle is, “Where, now, is the authority?”

Where is the authority for how one should live? Literate and drenched in information, people are seeing difficulties and incongruences in saying simply that “the Bible is my authority.” A further complication is that people have the sense that meaning must be found in a broader sphere than what would be known at the moment of conversion or what would be packaged and orchestrated by a church. How does one find guiding wisdom? With competing proof texts? Which part of the Bible holds the key to interpreting the rest? In addition, church authority continues to dwindle related to a steady stream of revelations about child abuse, financial scandals, and secret maneuverings within organizations. So, can one trust church authority? Where, now, is the authority?

One could say a well-lived life during The Great Emergence is one in which a person stays engaged in the task of grappling between chaos and order. Though not categorized as an emergent voice, or explicitly Christian, Jordan Peterson is cresting on a measure of fame with the bestseller, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. This is one example of an attempt to help people contend with life’s complexity. People are not on a quest for certitude, but, instead, want guidance for discipleship. Without explicitly naming Taoism as a remedy or reference, I see people on the edges of Christianity, “leaders” in The Great Emergence, modeling some concepts in alignment with Taoist thought as they live in creative participation in the world. Such a journey pushes away from institutions and creeds. People are experiencing life and spirituality as “buffered” selves, separated from particular churches and certain mantras of enchantment that had previously been mediated by religious leaders (Taylor, 2007).

I have noticed four similarities between Taoism and The Great Emergence: 1) A distrust of words, 2) An embracing of the fluidity in life—a natural action without struggle (Wu Wei), 3) Recognition of tensions (Yin/Yang), and 4) The motif of walking on a path.

The Great Emergence moves to invalidate what has become an institutionalized orthodoxy readily caricaturized as a sort of afterlife management system with a vending-machine-god narrative that says, in effect:

We have found the truth.

Our god is better than yours.

Seek forgiveness, be saved, then nothing you do will matter.

Believe like we do and you can get what you want.

Otherwise, you will die.

Or, our story is right and our god is right.

Come join us or we will knock your butt.

The moral bankruptcy of this narrative has been unmasked. The words have no authority. Many who want to follow Christ are finding another way. Since many Christ followers detect that God has left the building, they have hit the road. This has resulted in a shift from centralized authority. Christians are on individualized paths. Where is the authority? Each one is finding her own. Familiar rules and jingles do not have the cache they once did.

One of the people leaving organized religion is Rob Bell, who has become influential for people wanting to pursue something else. Pastor, author, podcaster, and pilgrim, Bell positions himself away from stilted biblical literalism and aligns his work with using the Bible in a variety of ways including as a narrative and as poetry; this has some similarities to how people use the Tao De Ching. Some say Bell weakens and delegitimizes the Bible, calling him a heretic, with particular umbrage at his emphasis of a loving God and his skepticism about the existence of eternal hell fire.

Fittingly, Andrew Morgan’s 2018 documentary about Bell is titled The Heretic. However, Bell’s admirers would say his work is a result of taking the Bible very seriously, so seriously as to acknowledge the weakness of basing a religion on a theology that comes from manipulating over 700,000 words that comprise the canon. For example, like other voices in this Great Emergence, Bell chooses to focus on the truth that God is love and that each person should live in accordance with that assumption. He points to the inadequacy of words to describe God, finding “biblical support” for his stance with passages where God says, “I am that I am,” or in the phrase, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” which seems to say God is bigger than words. Bell points to the psychological and societal benefit that would come if each person felt an unconditional love from a deity; this would be more than merely affirming a premise, it would transform.

Bell emphasizes a pragmatic stepping out on a fluid journey guided by Jesus’ teachings and rejecting a systematic configuration of scripture concerned solely with metaphysical implications. In fact, Morgan’s documentary features Bell surfing, which reminded me of Wu Wei. Bell makes the analogy that life is like surfing. One responds to whatever comes, but the ocean of water represents the abundance of God’s love. Brian McLaren, another voice in The Great Emergence,also refers to the themes of journey and love and fluidity in his books. The concept is explicit in his one year devotional, We Make the Road by Walking, which provides numerous unconventional slants on Christianity.

Rejecting dualistic, black/white answers, those in The Great Emergence realize that there are more than two ways, and that life is full of grey areas, which one will navigate in tension and

within a spectrum of choices. I see space for an appreciation for Yin/Yang without explicitly naming it. In 2013, I was one of the planners of a conference that featured Brian McLaren as a keynote speaker in addition to Muslim and Jewish speakers. The event was called “A Third Way: Beyond the Conservative/Liberal Divide to a Christian Identity Refreshed by Interfaith Dialogue.”

This was a platform for creating space for nuance and noticing commonalities and differences. It was a place of give and take. Yin and Yang. The attendees were enthusiastic, but after the event many people, who chose not to attend, criticized it in print and in public settings. From what I gathered, critics were concerned that Adventists would converse with people of other faiths without maintaining an explicit goal of converting and showcasing the correct beliefs that the Adventist Church espouses with confidence.

A signature feature of the new phase of Christianity,The Great Emergence, is that the triumphant name-it-claim-it-blood-covered belief system must be overshadowed by a system of respect and commitment to a path dedicated to providing a way to flourish for all people without regard to tribe. McLaren and Bell are just two of dozens of authors who are uprooting tenets of orthodoxy by pointing to obvious problems in a plain biblical reading and providing some support to those who want a new way forward in a complex world.

It seems that Russian writers plowed the ground to make space for a critique of Christianity before issues reached the current critical stage in the West. Consider, Dostoyevsky’s quote about hell: “What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.” Or consider the words of Solzhenitsyn, “But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

One could say this is a shift from an age of creedal belief to an age of spirit informed responses. McLaren uses the term “orthoaffinity” as the way Christians must relate to each other and with those outside the faith. The Great Emergence is permeated by humility with which one releases certitude and embraces flexibility, while maintaining a commitment to proceeding on the journey in love. Such a detachment seems Taoist. However, the “new kind” of Christian in The Great Emergence differs from Taoism in that it emphasizes the love of God as a North Star and words of Jesus as a map.This brand of Christianity leaves the institution, moving into a diffused interplay with all reality.

The idea of some overlap between Christianity and Taoism is one I hold lightly. Those who are on the journey of The Great Emergence, differ from Taoism in one key way. That is with regards to a belief in a God of love who wants to interact personally with each individual. The Great Emergence has grown organically with no organization or massive effort to indoctrinate or persuade to join a new denomination or to align with a new thought leader. Instead, according to Tickle, it arises in response to many societal changes. Many choose to warn against “emerging church” or “emergent Christianity,” while not adequately addressing the underlying issues that Christianity faces now.

In my view, the situation is one where tribalism and scapegoating have been transported into the Christian community. Rather than come humbly alongside people who are trying to maneuver in a world with new tensions, many Christian leaders choose to spend energy calling out the heresies of emerging groups.

The question remains, “Where, now, is the authority?” How does one read 700,000 verses to arrive at a conclusion about God’s character? One becomes like those one admires. One becomes like the god one serves. Such psychological truisms have implications for Christians now. I believe that those kindling a fight against The Great Emergence are misguided to state the issue is mainly about upholding the term “biblical authority.” It would be wiser to commit to be a catalyst to launch people in spirit-drenched discipleship with confidence in God that is based on biblical evidence. An unfortunate fear-based lament about the loss of “biblical authority” seems to reflect the notion that right belief trumps right action. A dedication to discovering the nature of the Christian God and to providing tools for people to use on the journey of life in the 21st century might be two steps that could help people at this time.

What did Jesus say? “Make disciples.” Telling stories that would draw the listener into an unexpected space that left room for a person to imagine was a key part of Jesus’ discipleship training course. It might be time for a conversion, the word translated from the Greek “metanoia,” a changing of one’s mind. Can Christians who are concerned about empty church buildings learn anything from Tao?

Notes & References: McLaren, B. (2010). A New Kind of Christianity. New York, New York: Harper Collins. McLaren, B. (2014). We Make the Road by Walking. London: Hodder & Stoughton. Morgan, A. (Director). (2018). The Heretic [Motion Picture]. Press, C. T. (2013, September 7). Forum in Chattanooga to Examine the Christian Divide. Spectrum Magazine. Chattanooga, TN. Remen, Rachel Naomi. (2016). Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories that Heal. New York: Penguin Group. Taylor, C. (2007). A Secular Age. Cambridge: Belknap. Tickle, P. (2008). The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

Carmen Lau is a board member of Adventist Forum, the organization that publishes Spectrum. She lives and writes in Birmingham, Alabama. Photo by Holly Mandarich on Unsplash.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/8789
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M6

Thank you Carmen for this thought provoking and balanced presentation of our present state of our religious journey. Our metanoia - the journey of changing one’s mind, heart, self or a way of life - will become a reality only when we begin to understand things from God’s perspective and surrender to His will. Filling the church is not joining God’s people. We need to be more concerned with filling our souls.

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Challenging–and very pertinent to a time when conventional Adventist fixation on enemies within Christianity, beside seeming self-puffing, overlooks the criticisms posed by the increasingly secular cultural elite.

No issue is greater than the major overhaul conventional Christianity must now take on.

I do think, however, that this will require diligence against distortion of humility, either by way of relativism, or–what is just a bit different–“decisionism.” I admire Rachel Naomi Remen. Still, her remark, insightful as it is, that an “answer is an invitation to stop thinking about something, to stop wondering" may mask over the fact (as I would say) that sometimes “wondering” is moral failure. Imagine a mother “thinking through” whether she should feed her child. Imagine a Christian “deciding” whether or not to torture a child or support a dictatorship.

Thanks, Carmen, for the arresting essay.

Chuck

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I have three observations in response to this article:

  1. I am concerned lest the ersatz Taoism become yet another creedal approach where believers check themselves against the Tao standard to see if they are conforming to what they perceive is going on around them. By definition, to define is also to divide into a them/us dichotomy.

  2. The filling of empty church buildings may be irrelevant to the emerging church. That has the flavor of the institutional church attempting to co-opt the emergent changes in order to achieve its goal of robust membership at the expense of any actual realization of harmony in heterodoxy. Historically, once those pews are filled, it devolves into a struggle for power and control, a struggle in which the institutional church is far too adept for its own good.

  3. There may be a need to address the bankruptcy of creedal churches. These institutions have done little to confront society’s past errancies at the moment of greatest impact. In fact, they too often align themselves with those errors in the interest of preserving their own power and influence at the expense of moral relevancy, a dramatic example of that failing being the Holocaust.

The interesting thing about creedalism is that creed based faiths all take the position that every other creed is permeated with flaws compared with their own. This belief is so wide-spread that it may represent a universal truth about the failure of Christianity when it attempts to coalesce into hardened systems of belief. As I recall, old wineskins are hardened as well, and that became problematic to the skins when new wine arrived.

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Thank you for the great discussion and for considering the ideas in this article. I do not have an answer and I know I am not able to fully define the problem. But there is a problem—

I will not be comfortable pointing to any way besides “Jesus Christ and Him crucified”—and to say it is time to go forth in discipleship.

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This is well said. I believe that the greatest Teacher who ever lived is being drowned out by every possible point of view. Perhaps we make this too hard. After Paul’s somewhat precarious philosophical discourse with the great scholars at Mars Hill, he concluded that going forward, he would preach Christ and Him crucified.

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Agreed!

What do you mean by “somewhat precarious discourse”? Sounds interesting.

I suggest that it might be the “leaders” are merely providing what the most vocal group in the flock wants. When leaders become concerned in the affairs of their popularity amongst men (and since they are financially beholden to them), they seem to lose the part of the message you have touched on here.

When we divisively exclude those with deeds and doctrines different than ours, we implicate our belief that we have the correct deeds and doctrines. Jesus final prayer from the cross for Abba to forgive us ALL for we neither KNOW nor DO what is right, but we are heirs by adoption by inheritance-ALL mankind, not just our klan, our tribe, our kingdom, our kind.

The royal commandment-to love all, with our all-can it be that hard?

Apparently, yes, because we find ways to justify to not love all, with our all.
And that is missing the mark, despite our lofty doctrines and vaunted deeds.

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I think Paul’s determination to alter course infers that this discourse became just another fragile philosophical theory subject to scrutiny and easily dismissed. I believe his sermon was precarious from the standpoint that it could perhaps be easily dashed to pieces by those gifted with the art of ridicule. This is by no means definitive. It was intended to be an opinion. His determination to preach Christ serves as a reminder that sometimes truth is beautiful in simplicity and can be quickly obscured by the noise we often hear around us.

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Your essay does strike an echoing chord in my own experience. What helps me with the biblical “authority” issues as well as the loss of some “center” around which contemporary faith can fruitfully orbit, is the singular concept of the suffering God–especially as articulated by Jurgen Moltmann in his magisterial work THE CRUCIFIED GOD. See below for some striking quotes:

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These are powerful quotes. Thanks for sharing them, @JXLB.

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Complicating simplicity has been a major problem affecting the Christian faith (and certainly other faiths as well). The attempt to “interpret” the Bible, or the act of adding extraneous writings to it, has been the main threat to those who are following the faith.

I wish the Bible’s simplicity could be preserved. Sure, other writings may help encourage a Christian life, but they cannot be considered a source of biblical truth - because they are not. And when any extraneous writings are given too much attention they may end up leading to the temptation of creating creeds. Creeds are constructed to give the Church “authority over and control of” the crowds. Well, the crowds don’t need that, they should just reject any creed, and stick only to the simplicity of the Bible as their authority

I believe that we must in many ways make a U-turn and give simplicity back to the Bible. There is way too much interpretation and way too many books around, all doing nothing but complicating simplicity.

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Love the “Zephyr of the Holy Spirit” turn of phrase.

On this weekend of studying the Trinity across the country, so fascinating to study Sophia, the Spirit that assisted the Son in creation, is described as Wisdom in Proverbs, and remains as mysterious as the wind.

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Even Protestant Christian church leaders seem to have developed an inflated respect for mere words of scripture over its supporting picture-illustrations to be found in the Created world, until even Christians will deny that Creation. Yet, that very ‘sola scriptura’ begins by stating the Authorship of ‘the heavens and the earth’ and all that is found in them. This Creation was also spoken – directly, untranslated – by the ‘Word’ of God, and the sciences that studied the results of that first ‘Word’ of God were also suppressed during the Dark Ages before Protestants tried to reform the Roman Christian church. It wasn’t just the second ‘Word’ of God – the Bible – that had suffered.

Scooting up in time to right now, at Andrews University, where SDA religion-pastors are taught:

It was the theologians of our SDA religion that recently group-published a book essentially denying that humans can be ‘reborn’ into overcoming sin before Jesus comes, as Jesus described to Nicodemus.

Yet, in the science department of that same university which studies the human creation – and simultaneously as the SDA theologians’ religious book was introduced to the public – only one lonely voice (perhaps unwittingly) spoke with the authority of the ‘Author’ of that human creation, in stating clearly that brain science is now proving that simply ‘by beholding’ we humans do in fact ‘become changed’ through the working of ‘mirror neurons’ – either for evil, or for good.

The lonely voice belonged to Dr. Susan Allen, DNP Program Director at Andrews University and her authoritative article was published in the Lake Union Herald, April 2018 edition . . . ‘How can these things be ?’

We SDAs need to understand sooner than later that acknowledging the authority of ‘sola scriptura’ – without simultaneously acknowledging and teaching the ‘first witness’ (of 2 ) ‘Authority’ of the Creative ‘Word’ of God – is not only going our own way, contrary to that ‘Word’ (heresy) but is in fact ‘anti-Christian’. Jesus, Himself, refused to study ‘scripture alone’, without harmonizing it with the lessons He had also ‘written’ before, in His creations. We call those harmonies ‘parables’. And if we SDAs continue to refuse to unite them and keep our ‘religion’ divided from our ‘science’, instead . . . we will certainly not ‘stand’.

How can one prominent SDA university continue to be credible when the ‘truth’ from the leaders of its science and religion departments is so in-credibly , and simultaneously opposed ?

Author-ity’ is ‘Creator-ity’.

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Why would a Christian wait for some magical date in the future to completely stop sinning? Just wondering what kind of delay would be in place?

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The great emergent movement, the emergent church, emergent theology. This is literally Babylon in the making. It is deception mixed with truth such that were it possible even the very elect would be decided. This is Babylon come out of it.

Hey Jeremy S @jay0143,
What is the basic premise of the emergent church?

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Perhaps if we structure the question as:

Imagine the picture below were an Emergent church, describe its characteristics.

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When thinking of the emerging church, it is helpful to think about the whole cultural shift that encompasses more than how the “church” is changing. For example, The Reformation brought a new emphasis to the church, but it also changed culture as people became more literate and felt freer to explore thoughts beyond the dogma and tradition. Some would say the scientific revolution and the rising emphasis of human rights would be a part of the cultural shift that came in The Reformation.

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The historical Christian obsession with the suffering of Jesus and his death is just another of the many reasons to move on to something more relevant to modern man in his search for meaningful existence.
As someone said, it’s much harder to live with a purpose than to die for a cause. So rather than fixating on Jesus’ penchant for drama and martyrdom, or trying to determine what he would have the disciples he’s left hanging for the past 2,000 year do, it’s time to glean whatever wisdom we can from what he said—probably those words that don’t rely on miracles to somehow prove their veracity—and get on with the task of living lives that matter to the living.
Once one understands that the purpose of the book “Fun With Dick and Jane” is simply learning to read, he need not go back and do an exegesis of Jane’s Teachings or undertake a study of why and how Dick died. Similarly the Bible Stories can be seen as that, just stories, while the real lesson of The Good Book is that god is available to anyone at anytime.
So what we need is a better book—The Best Book, as Sears would have undoubtedly marketed it—that really could never be a book at all, because it would confess from the first sentence that it would never be able to rise above the limitations of words and thoughts about God. That book would somehow convey the notion that God hasn’t left the building, He is the building just as he is the inexpressible but eternally experienced Tao in all things. And it would insist that to believe otherwise is to be conned into thinking that ones identity is not first and foremost the creator of all one sees. As Master Eckhart said, “Thou art that” and to believe anything to the contrary is as if the sea had been convinced it could some how touch something without making that thing wet.