Bishop John Spong entitled one of his recent books "Why Christianity Must Change or Die." Many people say the death of Christianity is inevitable. Debate between "believers" and "unbelievers" is noisy but today's most significant battle over religion is occurring within the religions themselves. It is, as Luke Timothy Johnson writes, "between the exoteric and esoteric versions of each." I agree. But I disagree with Johnson's conclusion that the result is a virtual win for the exoteric versions.
Esoteric and Exoteric Religion and Emerging Churches
Exoteric religion, the outer expression, is concerned with such things as public observance of rules, performance of rituals, maintenance of institutional structure, and all the political involvement that goes with that effort. The esoteric, on the other hand, concentrates on the individual's personal devotion to the divine. Esoteric practitioners may operate within the institution but tend to shy away from its exoteric activity.
What is often called the "decline" of religion in the world is the apparent trend to abandon its institutions, the exoteric form. Because religious authorities failed to cultivate the spirituality of the people the "living waters" of the religion dwindled. People see nothing left but structures and strictures, the mere bones of former glory. Many now try to grow spiritually without associating with a religious institution.
But a powerful counter-trend is occurring. While I suspect it is in all the major religions of the world, here I confine my observations to Christianity, which I know best. Within Christianity "emerging churches" are rapidly multiplying to foster a regeneration of the human spirit. They eschew literal reading of scripture and engage in radical critique of traditional belief, doctrine and practice. There seem to be four core features of emerging churches.
Mysticism: the heart of religion
In the late eighteenth century William Blake wrote in his "A Memorable Fancy": "If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern." We have crippled ourselves by subservience to empiricism – that reliance on the five senses and the measuring of the information they provide – as the only way to know reality.
All religions originate from at least one seminal esoteric experience of an especially intense type, usually called mysticism. Mystical events are understood essentially as communion with what may be given such names as Ultimate Reality, the Divine, or God. Forget mind-blowing events like levitation and visions perceived by rare, extraordinary individuals. Today we see mystical experience as available to all. It can happen in prayer and the celebration of the Eucharist. But it also happens in contexts like walking through a virgin forest, listening to great music, sharing in the birth of a child, or making love.
To traditional church authorities it was self-indulgent egotism to attach much importance to these personal experiences: "myst-i-cism begins with mist, puts the I in the centre, and ends in schism." One should simply attend to the scriptures, prescribed practices and doctrines of the Church.
Yet communities both inside and outside the traditional churches are now rediscovering mysticism. They draw inspiration from the writings and practices of such Christians as Meister Eckhardt, Hildegarde of Bingen, and Julian of Norwich. They look to ancient Celtic Christianity, with its close attention to the natural environment and everyday life. They explore their spirituality through artistic creativity and through their dreams, using the methods of analytical psychology.
The attitudes of institutional authorities towards these trends vary across the traditional churches, but there is increasing tolerance and often encouragement. Some mainstream church authorities even agree to experiment with liturgy in order to foster deeper spiritual experience during worship.
Bishop John Spong, possibly the most prominent of the leaders of emerging Christianity, has spent decades urging the destruction of outworn dogma, doctrine and concepts that stifle spiritual growth in the church. When asked how, with all this gone, he hopes to come closer to God and discern God's will, he readily replies that he is a mystic.
Meditation: Avoiding language
While words used artistically, as in poetry, can open the doors of perception and facilitate spiritual awareness, language of the more usual type tends to be a barrier. Acutely aware of this, people in emerging churches are retrieving ways of worship and prayer that minimise or avoid language. Of these, meditation is probably the most widely used, drawing on a very old tradition that the Church hid for many centuries.
Some meditation groups adopt a sitting position, using a word or phrase as an unspoken mantra, while others use no words at all. There are other forms of meditation based on bodily movement, which some people find more conducive to spiritual exploration. Combining this with a complex spatial arrangement, many now regularly walk the labyrinth. Perhaps the best known labyrinths are found at the Cathedral in Chartres (France) and Grace Cathedral (California).
Meditation while listening to music is widespread. Wordless music, both vocal and non-vocal, is a further means of deepening spiritual experience outside of language. Unfortunately, in church communities it is used almost always for listening only. While that can be very beneficial, there is a largely overlooked spiritual potential awaiting development in active congregational music-making without words.
Panentheism: God in all, all in God
Emerging churches are developing a new theology. They tend to reject theism, the notion of God as an external entity. They also reject pantheism, which deems everything to be God. Instead they tend towards panentheism, the idea that God is in all and that all is in God. From this viewpoint the world is a sacrament. Matthew Fox, one of the prime movers of emergent Christianity, writes: "The sacramental consciousness of panentheism develops into a transparent and diaphanous consciousness wherein we can see events and beings as divine." (Original Blessing, p90) As well as urging us to seek God in everyday life, panentheism leads to a passionate concern for our ecosystem in the widest sense. If God is in all and all is in God, we cannot take an anthropocentric attitude towards the natural environment of which we are one part without pitting ourselves against God. God is both circumference and centre.
Inclusion: Love rather than moralism
Rather than try to read the bible literally and use it as a book of rules, emerging churches try to reflect on the scriptures in the light of today's understanding of science, history, language, metaphor and narrative. This practice soon eliminates any foundation for shunning homosexuality or refusing to admit females to the priesthood. Such a reading of the Bible also undermines any claim that evolutionary theory is contrary to the Word of God.
The emerging churches affirm that love is Lord and so people of all types, regardless of colour and sexuality, are equally embraced by this love. These communities also often reach out to people of different faiths and find commonalities to celebrate with them. Differences in worldviews of various faiths do not indicate that non-Christians are unable to make sound ethical judgements or to be friendly citizens contributing to the general community.
The same applies to those of no religion. Indeed, as the Anglican Archbishop of Perth stated to the news media in 2010: "Christians need to remind themselves that those who do not profess the Christian faith are still capable of adopting an ethical and moral framework which assists in public policy decision making for the common good. Any statement which portrays the Christian faith has having some type of exclusivity to be the sole arbiters on matters of moral integrity and just policy making, is unhelpful and untrue. The mission for Christ's church in humility is to embrace believers and non-believers alike."
Emerging churches generally do not fear those within their ranks who argue for different directions in theology. For most, if not all, heresy is an outmoded concept. For example, the Dean of St George's Cathedral in Perth (Western Australia) conducts a regular seminar called "Heretics Anonymous" for all those thus inclined, giving a context for open discussion of diverse viewpoints.
The Future of Christianity
Luke Timothy Johnson suggests that esoteric religious life that does not find a home within an exoteric structure becomes trivial and transient. I am inclined to concur, but believe Johnson is mistaken when he concludes that exoteric religion has virtually extinguished the vitality generated by the esoteric within its institutions, and that the secular tide will now bury the religious institutions themselves.
Instead I see emerging churches growing roots within their host institutions for the spiritual nourishment of their people. The other side of the coin is that, although the slow pace may try the patience of the faithful, exoteric religion is responding: it is changing and will increasingly nurture their spirituality.
There is ample ground for hope that the Church will adapt, grow and endure within the secular world. We will have what John Spong advocates: A New Christianity for a New World.