Thursday, April 19, 2007

Wheaton Theology Conference: Tony Jones, the strike zone and the emergent conversation

At the Wheaton Theology Conference, Emergent Village's Tony Jones gave an evening plenary presentation about hermeneutics and orthodoxy. His main premise was that "orthodoxy is an event," not something that can be distilled into a creedal formulation or a statement of faith. Jones argued against the workability of the Vincentian canon of believing "that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all," saying that virtually nothing meets that standard. He used the analogy of baseball's strike zone to argue that in praxis, the de facto strike zone is never what baseball's official rules say that it should be - instead, it tends to float low and outside. Jones argued that despite the dissonance between theory and practice, the community of baseball players, umpires and fans create a strike zone that is workable in day-to-day play.

During Q&A, however, several questioners pressed Jones to answer, "How can I know if something is in the strike zone or not?" And Jones was rather evasive on this point. He wouldn't commit himself to saying what determines the strike zone. (I thought this would have been a nice place to suggest the Wesleyan quadrilateral of Scripture, tradition, reason and experience.) So even as Jones refuted charges of relativism, he still left the audience wondering what would actually qualify as orthodoxy, whether the Nicene creed or the Trinity or the canon of Scripture.

Now, I'm certainly not a rabid anti-Emergent type. And Jones's talk was helpful in understanding why Emergent has been notoriously difficult to pin down on certain things - they have resisted writing their own "statement of faith" because they say that all such statements are imperfect, imprecise (and even misleading) documents. But while I appreciate Jones's observation about the flexibility of praxis, I think his overall model for understanding orthodoxy is ultimately self-defeating. Even if we concede the metaphor of a flexible strike zone that is regulated by the community, a baseball game can't be played unless certain norms are defined. A pop fly lands either fair or foul. A runner is safe or out. So, yes, there is a certain degree of flexibility and ambiguity in Christian life, doctrine and praxis. But some things simply must be defined as orthodox or unorthodox, whether bodily resurrection or trinitarian Godhead or whatnot.

Instead of deconstructing the Vincentian formula, I think it would have been more constructive to explore the variously attributed phrase, "In essentials unity, in nonessentials liberty, in all things, charity." I think this accounts for a flexible strike zone of nonessentials that Christians continue to disagree over (predestination vs. free will, church polity, millennial positions, etc.) and baseline essentials that constitute orthodoxy ("We believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth . . ."). The challenge, of course, is that what one group holds as essential is deemed nonessential by others. Even so, having these categories feels more helpful to me than a claim that lack of consensus on some things means no consensus on anything.

What was interesting was that the audience's response to Jones's presentation was either love it or hate it. Many folks were nodding along in affirmation, while others were shaking their heads and groaning aloud. I chatted with several theologians afterward who felt that the talk had been a disaster, that Jones shouldn't even have been invited. (Jones himself admitted his ambivalence about presenting there.) But my own take is that I'm glad Jones presented, because the professional theologians need to hear firsthand the kinds of issues that are being discussed in the emergent conversation. If folks don't like what Jones is saying, then it's not enough to critique him or dismiss him out of hand - they need to engage the conversation and contribute to the dialogue in ways that are both faithful to the tradition but also can be received by the various communities. All hermeneutics are local, says Jones - and so is all theological discussion and dialogue. So let the conversation continue.

5 comments:

tony said...

Thanks for the thoughts, Al. It was great to meet you. I've done some thinking about the questions and responses in the past week, and I hope to post about them soon.

As for the theologians who don't think I should have been invited, you can probably guess what I think of them.

Al Hsu said...

Thanks for dropping by, Tony. I hope I have characterized your talk fairly, and I look forward to seeing your further thoughts on all this!

At earlier Wheaton Theology Conferences, there was often a final wrap-up panel discussion where the various presenters could interact with each other to make clarifications and whatnot. I wish there had been something of that nature this time, as a savvy moderator could have identified things that theologians need to hear from emergent folks and things emergent folks need to hear from theologians.

At any rate, thanks again for your contributions to much-needed discussions in the church and the academy.

CraigA said...

All said, "If folks don't like what Jones is saying, then it's not enough to critique him or dismiss him out of hand - they need to engage the conversation and contribute to the dialogue in ways that are both faithful to the tradition but also can be received by the various communities. All hermeneutics are local, says Jones - and so is all theological discussion and dialogue. So let the conversation continue." I attended the conference and my impression was that it was actually Tony who ended up stifling the conversation. The questions about the strike zone/orthodoxy (esp. the first one) were offered to allow Tony to clarify a rather sticky point in his presentation. But Tony appeared evasive and somewhat unprepared for them. This surprised me.

CraigA said...

oops, for phrase in my first post should read "Al said..." sorry.

jonathan said...

I'd like to know what Tony thinks of the theologians.

Al, that was a great blog. The strikezone may be flexible, but it's still generally a square box to be thrown through. Aslo, baseball isn't just about a stikezone, it's about tag's and fouls and a whole bunch of other guidelines...the church is much bigger than a squarebox, but the guidelines (creeds, NT, tradition) need to be in place to play the game.

Jonathan