After a long break from blogging…which included a camping trip and a mom-visit…I’m retaking up the issue of secularization. Because I’m out of scholar mode, though, I’d like to take a more interesting and creative stance toward the phenomenon today, one that will probably be near and dear to the hearts of those who attend to this website. In other words, I want to look, in a two-part series, at how secularizing processes may have contributed to the possibility of the rise of the Emergent Church.
I will not get into the messy process of trying to define the Emergent Church from a theological standpoint, which may or may not be possible. But I will try to trace some out of its sociological conditions, namely, what has allowed the Emergent Church to emerge at all. At a sociological level, I believe it is connected to the demise of denominationalism (a point that few will argue with in the Emergent circles), whose possibilities have been turned on their head through secularizing processes.
One of the main points for expressing this process is to trace out how and why denominationalism arose in the first place. To some degree, I’ve already told this story. As such, it can be said that a nascent version of denominationalism arose when the sacred/secular divide no longer functioned as the ordering point of western societies (see my second blog). In the society ordered by the sacred/secular split, the Church was the pinnacle institution of human existence, claiming ultimate “rights” to the spiritual and temporal swords. This no doubt meant that the church claimed ultimate religious and political power. With the fall of this sacred/secular divide and the confluence of these two realms into one sphere (I will eventually have to tell this story, namely, that Luther envisioned a world where the mundane and secular activities of everyday life could be a hymn of praise to God, and therefore sacred), the Church steadily lost its political sword to that of the newly arising absolutist states. With a loss of the political sword came a loss of direct legal power and the ordering of laws in such a way that they upheld the sacred/secular distinction. And it is this loss of legal power that first gives rise, if not directly to denominationalism, then at least to its seeds.
The loss of legal power in the Church (now divided between Protestants and Catholics, and Protestants and Protestants) meant that the Church, which could not conceive of itself at this point as non-political, had to find another avenue into politics and the social ordering of nations. From this emerged the state-church, which is what I believe to be the first form of a denomination. As state-churches, these various institutions were thought to be the glue that held together the social order; the spiritual practices of the people in these state-churches were ordered toward a mix of establishing whatever form of Protestant Orthodoxy the government thought true, and a link between this governing body(which was mostly monarchy in these early stages) and divinity. God, it was claimed, imbued this government with power over the people (“God save the Queen”) through the orthodoxy of the creeds held true; the state-churches ensured that this orthodoxy and subsequent loyalty was taught.
As such, churches came to be understood by means of what one of the earliest sociologists of religion, Emile Durkheim, called functionalism: that churches are not legal entities but nonetheless necessary for establishing social cohesion. And it is this notion of functionalism, in all of its different forms, that has grounded denominationalism.
With this basic interrelationship between denominationalism and functionalism laid out, in the next blog, I will argue that when a functionalist understanding of the church breaks-down, so too does the denominational understanding. In turn, this allows for more de-centered expressions of the Christian faith, one of which might be called the Emergent Church.