A Walk with William James, Part 4: The Emerging Church is Ripping Off William James

One of the self-proclaimed distinctives of the emerging church conversation is its emphasis on orthopraxy over orthodoxy. That is, living right (orthopraxy) is considered to be more (or equally) important than believing the right things (orthodoxy). In Peter Rollins' phrasing, we move from "right belief" to "believing in the right way." For example, below is a selection of Scot McKnight's article in Christianity Today on the Five Streams of the Emerging Church. One of the Five Streams is that the emerging church is Praxis-Oriented:

The emerging movement's connection to postmodernity may grab attention and garner criticism, but what most characterizes emerging is the stream best called praxis—how the faith is lived out. At its core, the emerging movement is an attempt to fashion a new ecclesiology (doctrine of the church). Its distinctive emphases can be seen in its worship, its concern with orthopraxy, and its missional orientation.

Again, this praxis-orientation elevates orthopraxy to the same level of importance as orthodoxy:

A notable emphasis of the emerging movement is orthopraxy, that is, right living. The contention is that how a person lives is more important than what he or she believes. Many will immediately claim that we need both or that orthopraxy flows from orthodoxy. Most in the emerging movement agree we need both, but they contest the second claim: Experience does not prove that those who believe the right things live the right way. No matter how much sense the traditional connection makes, it does not necessarily work itself out in practice. Public scandals in the church—along with those not made public—prove this point time and again.

Here is an emerging, provocative way of saying it: "By their fruits [not their theology] you will know them." As Jesus' brother James said, "Faith without works is dead." Rhetorical exaggerations aside, I know of no one in the emerging movement who believes that one's relationship with God is established by how one lives. Nor do I know anyone who thinks that it doesn't matter what one believes about Jesus Christ. But the focus is shifted. Gibbs and Bolger define emerging churches as those who practice "the way of Jesus" in the postmodern era.

Jesus declared that we will be judged according to how we treat the least of these (Matt. 25:31-46) and that the wise man is the one who practices the words of Jesus (Matt. 7:24-27). In addition, every judgment scene in the Bible is portrayed as a judgment based on works; no judgment scene looks like a theological articulation test.

Peter Rollins, in his emerging church manifesto, How (Not) to Speak of God, goes a bit further in this direction than McKnight. Specifically, Rollins defines truth as a soteriological event. Commenting on St. John's formulation "Whoever does not love does not know God," Rollins says this:

Here John equates the existence of religious knowledge with the act of love. Knowledge of God (the Truth) as a set of propositions is utterly absent; instead he claims that those who exhibit a genuine love know God, regardless of their religious system, while those who do not love cannot know God, again regardless of their religious system. Truth is thus understood as a soteriological event.

What Rollins is claiming is fairly radical. Loving (orthopraxy) saves us. Belief (orthodoxy) doesn't. Or, rather, believing in Jesus (orthodoxy) is to live like Jesus (orthopraxy). Or in the formulation of St. John: Whoever does not love does not know.

A way to summarize all this is to say that truth and its consequences are impossible to separate. More strongly, in some contexts truth-hood is determined by the consequences.

What I find interesting about all this is that the emerging church is simply ripping off William James and the American pragmatists. Worse, as we see with McKnight, they are giving credit to the post-modernists! This wouldn't bother me so much if it were not for the fact that William James articulated these very same ideas (the relation of truth and action/consequnces) over a 100 years ago.

Just a taste from the good Dr. James:

In 1898, James first articulated the pragmatist's dictum: "The ultimate test for us of what a truth means is the conduct it dictates or inspires."

More from James:

"To develop a thought's meaning , we need only determine what conduct it is fitted to produce; that conduct is for us its sole significance."

"The effective meaning of any philosophical proposition can always be brought down to some particular consequence, in our future practical experience, whether active or passive."

"The can be no difference which doesn't make a difference."

"Perceptions and thinking are only there for behavior's sake."

"Truth in our ideas means their power to work."

"Truth is what acts or enables us to act."

""Pragmatism asks its usual question. "Grant an idea or belief to be true," it says, "what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone's actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth's cash-value?"

Now, compare those statements with some of Rollins' statements framing the emergent position:

"Thus 'right belief' becomes 'believing the right way.' Thus we break down the binary opposition between orthodoxy and heresy by understanding the term 'orthodox' as referring to someone who engages in the world in the right way--that is, in the way of love. Here religious knowledge is not something that it opposed to love, nor secondary to it; rather, the only religious knowledge worth anything is love. By understanding orthodoxy in this manner, it is no longer distanced from what the liberation theologians call 'orthopraxis"...we see that these two terms shed slightly different light on the same fundamental approach. This means that the question, 'What do you believe?' must always be accompanied by the question 'How do you believe?'"

Or, Rollins says more simply: "God is not revealed via our words but rather via the life of the transformed individual."

Compare that statement from Rollins with this from James: "...the very meaning of the conception of God lies in the differences which must be made in our experience..."

Some concluding comments:

1. I agree with all this. When it comes to metaphysics, I'm a pragmatist. I want to know the "cash value" of the "truth" you are offering. If you wish me to believe in the Trinity or the divinity of Jesus or in a six-day Creation I will always respond with James' pragmatist question: What difference will it make for me to believe this? As in: Will it make be a better person? As in, with Rollins here: Will my ability to love increase? But if the "truth" you offer makes no difference, what's the point? We'd be just quibbling over abstractions.

2. The emerging church is ripping off William James! And, for some strange reason, they are embedding much of their conversation in post-modernity. The oddity here is that much of their stuff, actually the best of their stuff, is simply an application of American pragmatism. What I cannot ascertain, as I know none of the emerging church leaders, is if they are aware of this or not. They certainly don't reference James. So, if YOU know any of them, please have them read William James and start giving the man some love.

It's only polite.

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12 thoughts on “A Walk with William James, Part 4: The Emerging Church is Ripping Off William James”

  1. Hey Richard... left a link to this post on Pete Rollins blog so perhaps we can get a conversation going on one of these forums if he takes a look. I think one of the consequences of disciplinary silos is that we often don't know the work of other fields as well. I am not saying thats the case with the emerging folks as I do not know them, but my own work especially. When you begin to seperate out disciplines that have similar topics of study, they begin to address the same issues but with different language. I think that becomes space where the difficulty and reward of cross-disciplinary thought is manifest.

  2. Thanks for passing on the link. Just so everyone is clear, my "ripping off" theme here is intended to be funny. This post is simply to help with the disciplinary cross-polllination you speak to.

  3. Hi Richard,

    I am a new reader and am very much enjoying your blog as whole and your posts on William James in particular. I only recently came to appreciate James' work so your timing is excellent! Many thanks, too, for introducing soteriological into my vocabulary today.

    Peace be with you,

  4. Somethings, as they say, are in the air. So, maybe James is pollinating the ideas of the emergents without them knowing.

    By the way, in your quote from Rollins you substitute libertarian theologian for liberation theologian. I expect that Andrew Sullivan would get a kick out of that! Liberationists were for more government involvement, not less -- I think (being that they like to read Marx -- Karl that is).

  5. Hi Tara,
    Thanks for looking in. Beware, though, I weave an odd theological web:-)

    Ah, the ubiquitous blog drawback: The spelling and grammatical errors for the world to see. Thanks for the pick-up.

    BTW, let me once again say I love the emergent conversation and think Rollins' book is remarkable. I've recommended it to many of my students and we're currently studying it in my class at church. So he can count me as a fan.

  6. Richard,

    A little humor that relates to the concept of lack of transformation of believers.

    Also a comment-- that sometimes people will read things that shape their views but have read so many things that they don't remember that they read it--they think they thought. Michael Card mentioned that happening to him.

    Hymns of the Lukewarm Church, God's Frozen People (Author Unknown)

    The Lukewarm Church anounces the publication of "Church Songs," whose title,according to the editor, was chosen because, "We didn't want to turn anybody off with threatening words that no one understands anymore like 'worship' or 'hymn.' People in today's society get kind of uncomfortable with too much talk about things like commitment and dedication. They'd much rather have a religion that they can turn on or off at will. Our book seeks to meet that need."

    Contents Include:
    * A Comfy Mattress Is Our God
    * Joyful, Joyful, We Kinda Like Thee
    * Above Average is Thy Faithfulness
    * Lord, Keep Us Loosely Connected to Your Word
    * All Hail the Influence of Jesus' Name
    * My Hope is Built on Nothing Much
    * Amazing Grace, How Interesting the Sound
    * My Faith Looks Around for Thee
    * Be Thou My Hobby
    * O God, Our Enabler in Ages Past
    * Blest Be the Tie That Doesn't Cramp My Style
    * Oh, for a Couple of Tongues to Sing
    * He's Quite a Bit to Me
    * Oh, How I Like Jesus
    * I Lay My Inappropriate Behaviors on Jesus
    * I Surrender Some
    * Praise God from Whom All Affirmations Flow
    * I'm Fairly Certain That My Redeemer Lives
    * Self-Esteem to the World! The Lord is Come
    * Sit Up, Sit Up for Jesus
    * Special, Special, Special
    * Spirit of the Living God, Fall Somewhere Near Me
    * Stick Nearby, It's Getting Dark Outside
    * Take My Life and Let Me Be
    * There is Scattered Cloudiness in My Soul Today
    * There Shall be Sprinkles of Blessings
    * What an Acquaintance We Have in Jesus
    * When Peace, Like a Trickle. . .
    * When the Saints Go Sneaking In
    * Where He Leads Me, I Will Consider Following
    * God of Taste, and God of Stories
    * Lift Every Voice and Intellectualize


    David D.

  7. I've enjoyed this series.

    Part of the nature of the emerging conversation is that, the longer it goes on, the more everyone comes to see that most of the central themes have been alive for a long time - they've just been obscured in academia or history.

    The issue seems to be one of timing more than anything else - people are ready to "hear" some things now that they couldn't hear years ago - say - in James' day.

  8. Your blog has left me with a long reading list in which I have only put a small dent. I have, however, read How (Not) to Speak of God. Peter Rollins gives a lot of credit to the Christian mystics (especially Chesterton) through out his book and I am wondering what relationships exist between mystical Christian thought and American pragmatism? Could you recommend any reading you have not already spoken of in your blog. (I am sure I will get to it eventually.)

    I share your pragmatic view of evaluating belief. The number of pointless theological distinctives in Christianity is mind-boggling. My pragmatism has lead me down a disturbing road and, assuming you have traveled this road already, I have a question.

    Does is matter whether the gospel is true?

    From a pragmatic view Christianity could be completely false and still be a wonderful thing if it has the affect of positively molding human behavior. The opposite is also true. So much hate and brutality has been committed in the name of the Christian God a pragmatist could easily say Christianity is a horrible thing even though it is true.

    As a pragmatist does the truth of the Gospel even factor into your decision to be a Christian?

    I often wish I had made this confession at my baptism: “I will live my life as though Jesus were the Son of God” rather than saying “I believe Jesus is the Son of God.” I can wholeheartedly profess the former while I cannot do the same for the latter. Of course from a pragmatic point of view the difference between these two confessions is pointless as I am living my life the same way no matter which confession I choose. Does the fact I wish I had said the former rather than the latter indicate I am less a pragmatist than I thought? Can you ever imagine a C of C being willing to baptize someone making the former confession?

    Sorry for the rambling comment. Anybody else out there feel this way?


  9. Since we are being honest here, I do feel that way. Rambling on and on about such trivial issues and debating over doctrine that has nothing to do with our salvation. I'm tired of giving the world the impression that we are angry hateful people and giving the world the impression that God is this unpersonal being ready to punish anyone who doesn't agree with Him. I really don't know where I stand personally as far a pragmatist, or conservative or liberal, I only know that I love God, and I love Him the best way I know how. I don't know everything about this or that or the other, and I am quite embarrased at times when I want to be engaged in conversation about God and Christianity but the jargon is so far out of my league that I can't be engaged in it. It seems to me that we think too much about things and analyze way too much about truths instead of just practicing and living them out, even if we don't have it exactly right.

    When I was baptized, all that was required is that I believe, then it started to all change, soon I had to believe what they believed other wise I was not included in their classes or fellowship. I was not allowed to question what I was being taught. We claim to be NON denominational yet we will not accept anyone who believes differently...OKAY. So we are not allowed to think for ourselves and let preachers and teachers tell us what the scriptures really say and if anyone teaches contrary to that they are a false teacher, and then scratch our heads and wonder why nobody wants to be a part of our group. We get so busy "defending" the faith we can't go out and actually "live" by faith. Sorry for going off so much but I am angry about what I am witnessing these days. Our focus is so far from God it's no wonder that God is not allowed to work in our lives and in our churches. Sometimes I just get so damned confused I just want to quit it all and go back to the life I lived before coming to this crap, but God just won't let me do that.

  10. New to the blog and I like what I read.

    I recall the day when I learned (discovered) that I could put a lot of things to the pragmatics test and gain relief in not knowing something.

    I was in the middle of a controversy in the C of C I was attending and there was pressure to pick sides. I couldn't prove or disprove one side or the other using scripture or logic. Most people were deeply convinced and had their pet scriptures.

    In the midst of my challenge (I was 21 years old at the time, 37 now) I asked myself, "Does it matter?"

    Will God love me more or less?
    Will I love God more or less?
    Will I love people more or less?
    Will my ministry be better or worse?
    Do nonchristian people even know or care about this controversy?

    All kind of pragmatic questions arose.

    I could not think of one way in which it mattered besides appeasing these people and ticking off those people. So I decided that it was noble of other people to resolve this in their own minds (benefit of the doubt), but that it was poor time stewardship for me to pursue the topic.

    Certainly pragmatism is no panacea, but it sure does assist in reprioritizing things sometimes. AND, as James (of the Bible) points out, it's got some theological teeth as well.

  11. Excellent Post! I am struggling with and sorting though the concept/conversation of emergent. Sometimes I am captivated while other times I am skeptical. I do know this: There is nothing new under the sun. Though I myself have been guilty at times for thinking that I have a new and creative way/thought of being church, I always find that that of which I think has already been thought. Maybe emergent is just a package?

  12. Richard, outstanding.

    I clicked to read this with some varieties of religious fear and trepidation because I suspect that emergents in general would rather be found dead than in the labs of experimentation which the further developed tradition of "modern" pragmatism has spawned.

    James’s religious predisposition, and more so C.S. Peirce’s formal pragmatic theism, have both been eclipsed in post-modern junkets because pragmatism is suspect as one progenitor of the evil demonn of modern experiment. At lease by some post-moderns as the hip heroes of many emergents.

    I questions whether emergents listen at all to the patient and reasonable Everdell who fires back by saying that “modernity” is a gelatinous goo of a definition in the first place.

    It’s not like emergents are trotting off to the Santa Fé Institute to do bench experiments, so much as they rip off snips of methodological naturalism’s primers on complexity.

    Sorry Richard, I think the emergents have ripped off James by ripping out the better parts of his pragmatism, that is, of extremely patient observation and hard testing.

    Missional goo-goo words are not pragmatism. They’re more like pre-pragmatic Kiplinesque “just-so” stories.

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