Its great when a weblog post on software design helps me understand religious movements. Even though I had peripheral knowledge of Emergence, I hadn’t made the connection between it and the “Emerging Church” movement, but coming across the term in an article that asks us to consider that formal methods of software design just don’t cut it. Back in my senior year of college I did a course on Chaos Theory.  I didn’t get as much out of it as I should have, but the one thing that stood out to me was how the Mandelbrot Set came from such a simple equation.  Who could predict that Z = Z2 + C could produce such complex, unending beauty? Often, when I read about the emerging church, I think “You guys are trying to do what the Orthodox have already accomplished” and now I know why. “In philosophy, systems theory and the sciences, emergence refers to the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions” (to quote Wikipedia).  This is why the formal specification of software is so hard.  Formal systems have a nice tidy set of rules and, from those, try to build complex systems.  But simple rules, applied in just a slightly different way lead to dramatically different results.  The simple rules deceive us into thinking that we have a controllable output, that we have something predictable. My experience in the Protestant church came to a head when I couldn’t reconcile all the positive statements about God (“God never breaks his promises”, “God’s justice must be satisfied”).  That, and all the little “facts” about God seemed like so much hubris. Orthodoxy’s negative theology was really attractive.  Instead of making definitive statements about who God is, we only say what we know God is not. I’m guessing the Emerging Church people see the same thing.  They see rationalists creating a bunch of rules for God and say “Hey, the church is Emergent!  All those little facts and figures help build a big Emergent Church!” So now I understand.  The emergent church isn’t “emerging” in the sense that it is “coming out”.  The Emergent Church is just saying “All those little simple little things you know about God and the Church don’t mean that they’re simple.”

God isn’t Just

At least not the way most people think of it.  “That rapist deserves to rot in Hell.  I’m sure God will see to it.” The Holy Trinity wills only the good of the sinner, even at the cost of justice. (From The Injustice of GraceBut does not the Scripture speak of God’s anger and wrath against sin? These texts, says St Isaac, must be interpreted figuratively, not literally. God does not act out of anger or wrath. He never acts to harm his creatures. He never acts out of vengeance. This is a long way from the god who reacts to our actions with anger and condemnation.  Read the whole post.  It’s worth it. By contrast, check out how some Protestants deal with sin (the instances mentioned in the WSJ article seem to be primarily focused on challenges to the power of the Pastor).  And I’ll come right out and say I’ve seen similar abuses in Orthodoxy, but even when the priest is abusive, his power isn’t ultimate.  So many of these people obviously lack the humility and grace that should be the identifying characteristics of Christian leaders.

Church Growth

Fr Stephen has written out some thoughts on American Christianity and I found this bit especially apropos after reading this post from Bruce Reyes-Chow:

The problem with this marketing approach [using different sorts of music to attract different groups to your church] is only beginning to reveal its flaws (apart from the theology behind it): America is becoming increasingly fragmented in its music styles. Thus Churches, or at least services, are having to be multiplied to meet the growing diversity of the market. … Someone asked me once (actually more than once) what St. Anne (my parish) does to grow. I answered simply: “We answer the phone.” I cannot explain where the converts come from, though there is a slow but steady stream… The faith remains the same whether the “market” is a village in Africa or a suburb of Los Angeles. It is thus truly “inclusive” and “universal” in the extreme.

The comments become pretty interesting. Especially since my church has Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, Stewardship drives, study groups, etc — all things that converts poo-poo in the comments as “too American.”

The Failing Church

Father Stephen writes:

When we look across the Christian scene, however, we should be accurate in what we see: failure. Not by counting numbers (they may tell us very little), but by how well Christians in fact show forth the faith that is within them. That the Church is a mess is a good description of history. The Catholic Church says one thing, but has a hard time finding a parish that actually believes and practices the magisterium of the faith. Protestants have launched into a sea of splintering that can only be justified by positing a deficient ecclesiology. The Orthodox, despite the accuracy of their historical claims, remain in the backwash of collapsing empires (both the Byzantine and the Russian). … The failure of the Church, to put it clearly, is a result of works – a triumph of flesh over Grace.

Read the whole thing (plus the comments, which include how the Orthodox fail the poor) and then read Why I am not Concerned.

Two Religions

(via Jim’s shared items feed)

It has long seemed to me that there are really just two religions in the world, and they show up in each tradition: one runs on risk/ welcome/ abandon/ grace/ transformation/ forgiveness/ creativity/ multiple-possibilities; and the other, on security/ control/ rules/ order/ stability/ only-one-possibility. – Two Religions

This does seem to be a theme that shows up a lot. But I would argue that it is possible to fuse the two strains of thinking. It is hard. It is very difficult to be at once about rules and grace; transformation and order do not easily co-exist, but it is possible to have both. The Orthodox are obviously all about order and stability. There are also, if you can handle them, a lot of rules. But I’ve only seen “control” and “only-one-possibility” from one very bad priest. He was young and a convert, though, so it is easy (for me) to forgive him. Instead, I’ve seen an abundance of grace and forgiveness within the Church. And not just at the parish level. It seems to be throughout the fathers. I won’t go so far as to say that welcome, creativity, or multiple-possibilities is widespread in the Church, but then, I don’t see a lot of emphasis on security and control.

Funny Finney

Reading up on Jim’s weblog, I came across a quiz: “Which theologian are you?” It seems heavily weighted towards those theologians that would be interesting to those in Reformed circles (Karl Barth is like a Reformed demigod; Charles Finney started out Presbyterian; Calvin was a huge reformer; Augustine is their most ancient saint; etc.) but I suppose that since Jim is the one that pointed to the quiz, I shouldn’t be too surprised. According to the quiz, I’m most similar to the anti-hero Charles Finney. I can say that I’ve heard Orthodox theology mistaken for the Pelagian Heresy — something Finney gets accused of here — but I suspect that is because people don’t understand the original heresy nor Orthodox theology. You scored as Charles Finney. You’re passionate about God and love to preach the Gospel. Your theology borders on pelagianism and it is said that if God were taken out of your theology, it would look exactly the same.

Charles Finney


John Calvin


Friedrich Schleiermacher


Karl Barth




J½rgen Moltmann


Martin Luther




Paul Tillich


Jonathan Edwards