By the end McLaren’s book, I could not help but to think that fundamentally he wrote about identity—what is the nature of Christian identity? Who am I as a Christian? Who are we as the church? And what are we to be and to do in this world? In some ways, this was not a stretch to see—after all, every chapter in the second part started with “why I am…” Yet I wonder if McLaren, or emergent church folks, have genuinely wrestled with issues related to religious identity. If not, doing so would raise important questions for the entire project.
I would suggest that religious identity is forged through a matrix of beliefs, practices, and stories. Beliefs and practices are mutually reinforcing components of our identity—what we believe leads to certain practices; and our practices tend to reinforce our beliefs. These beliefs and practices gain legitimacy from the stories that we tell about ourselves or that others tell about us. While it might be possible to believe, practice, and story-tell as an isolated individual, it is much more likely that beliefs, practices, and stories will happen within a community and particularly within a community that has a long history or tradition. As a result, our traditioned communities both inculcate, form, and reform a particular religious identity that helps us to make sense of the world and to engage the world in our various callings. Or to state it in the opposite direction, our identities are embedded in particular communities; we take on the community’s beliefs, practices, and stories as our own and only forsake them with great mental, psychic, and physical energy.
With this understanding of religious identity as the background, I would like to raise questions about the entire emergent strategy of seeking “to find a way to embrace the good in many traditions and historic streams of Christian faith, and to integrate them, yielding a new, generous, emergent approach that is greater than the sum of its parts” (18). One question is whether such a strategy is even possible. After all, the beliefs or practices of certain religious traditions are part of a matrix (or cultural system, to use Clifford Geertz’s phrase) that are not easily transmuted or transformed without changing their meaning. In part, because our beliefs and practices are storied—there are reasons and stories behind why we do and believe the way we do. And so, is it actually possible to take a little bit from Anabaptists, merge it together with some things from the Anglicans, shake on top a little Catholicism and Presbyterianism, and emerge with something new, stronger, better?
As a matter of fact, it was at this very point that the criticisms raised by Michael Horton come home. While I think Horton failed to grapple fairly with the emergent movement on their own terms, his point that this presented a modernist form of consumerism was exactly right. For who gets to determine one’s religious identity? Does the community (or religious tradition) have the “right” to catechize or inculcate their beliefs, practices, and stories into their adherents? Or does the individual have the “right” to determine, shape, transmute, or transform that identity into something “new” and “postmodern”? Ultimately, at the point of who is the authority, McLaren’s propose shows itself to be “most-modernist” in terms of the self-made Christian and her smorgasbord identity.
And so, I would suggest that the hope for an emerging generation is not the same attempt, made by non-denominational churches for the past thirty years, to be a lowest common denominator collage for religious identity. Rather, it is “re-tribalization,” if you will; it is the self-conscious attempt by religious traditions to be most faithful to their own identities.
For Presbyterians, then, this means nothing less than thoroughly training our adherents—that is, our non-communicant and communicant church members—in the beliefs, practices, and stories that form and reform our identity. This Presbyterian identity will, of course, place us within the larger family of evangelical Protestants with whom we have so much in common; but it will also recognize that we approach the great Gospel truths that we have in common with other Protestant traditions with a particular accent or dialect.
In doing this, I think we will have a better opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue with other religious traditions—Christian and non-Christian—because we will be speaking out of our deep understanding of who we are, what we believe, what we do, and where we have been. It may not be the newest thing to emerge from within evangelicalism, but it might actually be the best way to preserve and promote that once and the same time ancient-future faith.