March 7, 2008
Can the Emerging Movement Move Beyond 'Complexification' to Clarity?
Waiting to see what emerges from the emerging movement.
I don't pick up The Chronicle Review--an insert in The Chronicle of Higher Education--expecting to be spurred to reflection on the emerging movement. And I'm quite sure that was not what author and UCLA history professor Russell Jacoby intended. Nevertheless, his intriguing article, "Not to Complicate Matters, But...," collided with other reading from my week to produce that rare but welcome guest--a helpful insight. In short, Jacoby is frustrated with scholars' growing penchant to "complicate," "problematize," or "complexify" issues and think in so doing that their work is complete. To make his point, Jacoby cites mock and actual examples that will sound familiar to anyone who's laid their hands on a peer-reviewed academic journal in the last decade:
"I hope today to complicate our notion of cahiers - grievances - and the role they played in the States-General of 1789." The professors and graduate students at the symposium nod appreciatively. They have heard or read similar justifications untold times before. The author explains that he or she will "complicate" our understanding of some event or phenomenon. "In this article," writes an ethnic-studies professor, "I seek to complicate scholars' understanding of the 'modular' state by examining four forms of indigenous political space." Everyone seems pleased by this approach. Why? The world is complicated, but how did "complication" turn from an undeniable reality to a desirable goal? Shouldn't scholarship seek to clarify, illuminate, or - egad! - simplify, not complicate? How did the act of complicating become a virtue?
Towards the end of the article, Jacoby approaches territory that sounds more like an apologetics classroom at a Christianity liberal arts college than what one would expect from a professor at a large state university with works such as The Repression of Psychoanalysis: Otto Fenichel and the Political Freudians to his credit (although, to be fair, Jacoby is also Honorary Vice President for Life in the American Pessimist Society, so maybe he's just cranky as a rule):
The new devotion to complexity gives carte blanche to even the most trivial scholarly enterprise. Any factoid can "complicate" our interpretation. The fashion elevates confusion from a transitional stage into an end goal. We celebrate the fact that everything can be "problematized."...We revel in complexity. To be sure, few claim that the truth is simple or singular, but we have moved far from believing that truth can be set out at all with any caution and clarity.
It's Jacoby's claim that current academic devotion to complexity "elevates confusion from a transitional stage into an end goal" that provides the link to the emerging movement. The very fact that this amorphous movement moves under the designation "emerging"--coming into view or existence--suggests a critique parallel to Jacoby's.
In late 2003, Peter Rollins, whose book How (Not) to Speak of God, has been described by Tony Jones as "the best bloody book on the emerging church yet," responded this way to an interviewer's question, "What would your 'emerging church survival kit' contain?"
An empty space? really. I think that if you want to survive Christianity, and I am not sure if its possible yet, you need one of those cartoon tunnels, something that can create a womb-like space in the being of your beliefs and religious services, a virgin space where the word of God can impregnate you...
The problem with using a metaphor of gestation--or even the designation emerging for that matter--to describe a movement is that it necessarily entails a coming birth, a definitive coming into existence. In order for the complicating, complexifying, and problematizing work of the emerging movement to prove fruitful to the Church, it will have to move beyond this transitional stage at some point, and deliver the greater goods of illumination and clarity. Here's hoping for a healthy baby.