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Barton GingerichMay 23, 2012
An Episcopal priest and former Duke Divinity School theologian, recently speaking to "emergent" Christians in Washington, D.C., controversially de-literalized the Virgin Birth. “If you show me it was Joseph’s sperm, it doesn’t matter,” Dr. John Westerhoff revealed, “That’s not the point. If you find meaning in a literal understanding, that’s fine. Just don’t force it on someone else.” Westerhoff preferred to describe faith as “perception” rather than “believing” or “propositional truths to be accepted.”
Westerhoff was speaking to the "Children, Youth, and a New Kind of Christianity" conference (CYNKC) in Washington, D.C., where the old guard of the Religious Left met with the younger Evangelical Left at Calvary Baptist Church. The audience not only learned how-to tips from various youth workers, but also witnessed some heavy postmodern emergent theology from ivory-towered intellectuals.
Samir Selmanovic of Faith House Manhattan joined Westerhooff in offering academic insights as applied to children and youth ministry. While mostly avoiding some of the gross excesses of modernist theology, the two theologians nevertheless avoided a strong commitment to traditionally orthodox Christian doctrine.
Westerhoff's classic work is Will Our Children Have Faith? He explored the desperate need for an intergenerational approach to ministry, garnering him the nickname “enemy of the Sunday School.” Himself a former United Church of Christ minister who also taught at Harvard, he warned: “In order to envision the future, we must remember the past—at least as how we had experienced it.” And he noted. “The church never lives in a vacuum," asserting that deep truths such as the Trinity and Incarnation are often “two counter opposites in a position of tension.”
The former Duke and Harvard theologian tried to outline a helpful intellectual history from which to understand the present. He saw a pattern of ages and transition periods, describing 1950-2050 as a transition from the Enlightenment to another relatively stable age. He observed that modernity (the Age of Reason) rejects intuition for intellect. Unfortunately, the church tended to respond with anti-intellectualism and biblical over-literalism.
“We have kicked arts out of the church and schools,” Westerhoff complained. He also showed that technological achievement has incrementally progressed in the modern age, which is “a great good and the greatest evil you could ever create.” In response to a Promethean insistence on technology, he retorted, “Sometimes the church does the best job when it’s counter-cultural.” Westerhoff also mourned modernism’s over-specialization and functionalism, where “the world is seen as objects.”
Westerhoff castigated some tendencies of the Religious Left. With regard to the Kingdom of God, he proclaimed, “We’re already in it—we abide in it…I hear people say we’re going to build God’s reign. We don’t do that. God will build it. It’s already here.” He also questioned popular sociology: “Have you ever pondered that adolescence doesn’t exist?” He rebuked viewing the Bible “not as a book that questions us, but a book we question.” He further contested, “You can’t have spirituality without the church.” He even confessed, “You’re not a victim to your genes…or your environment.” Westerhoff went on to ask, “How do you build communities of faith, not religious institutions?...You can’t build a community. Community is a gift.” He endorsed having a “common authority,” since “if you have a common authority, you can have tolerance for a lot of difference of opinion.”
More abstract was interfaith guru Samir Selmanovic, who addressed CYNKC via video. After bashing the idea of hierarchy, he inquired, “How can Christians live in a horizontal world?” He noted that the Magi and Melchizidek—outside the Jewish nation—offered key insights into the divine, assuring that theological truth is “not as exclusive as we think.” He encouraged his listeners to “find others and thank them for what they’ve done for Christianity.” He mistily added: “We need the stranger to teach us about ourselves.” And he surmised: “Through the human other, we experience the divine other.” Semanovic also taught, “Christianity is so important, God doesn’t leave it to Christians.” The Christian church needs to “be a part of the whole instead of in charge of things.”
After critiquing the Emperor Constantine for creating a political Christendom, Selmanovic insisted, “The kingdom of God that Jesus was talking about isn’t made up of Christians, but of human beings.” He advised, “There is a false tension between humility and identity.” Selmanovic also ruminated, “We haven’t learned how to receive, where we realize the good in people.” He similarly concluded that Christians are “not in charge of life and not in charge of God.” In closing, he proclaimed, “Theology does not pronounce limits of life and death, but birth and death pronounce limits on theology.”
The more intellectual presentations at CYNKC ranged from fairly conventional insight to outright relativism. Westerhoff showed a readiness to reject utopian societies created through technology and human artifice. On the other hand, he chafed at ANY kind of literal understanding of Christian teaching—likely to the disapproval of church fathers and martyrs alike. Regardless, Selmanovic stood out as the most strident polemicist against “Christian exclusivism,” granting a wide berth for citizenship in the City of God. Some may wonder if this “New Kind of Christianity” will be much of a Christianity at all.
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