National Catholic Reporter (http://ncronline.org) 9/1/09
How you get there
Franciscan Fr. Richard Rohr (NCR photo/Tom Roberts)
THE EMERGING CHURCH
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- If the notion of an emerging church first took root among Protestant thinkers who began asking questions that arched over denominational boundaries and old enmities, it is now being nourished here in part by the peculiarly Catholic tradition of contemplation.
“I am invited to teach contemplation more to ecumenical settings, evangelical churches and Protestant churches than any Catholic churches because they [Protestants] know they don’t know,” said Franciscan Fr. Richard Rohr, founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation and Action in Albuquerque.
Rohr, a kind of one-man ideas industry, is a prolific author and much-sought-after speaker around the globe. He has often mined the insights and wisdom of a range of academic disciplines as well as other religious traditions to advance new understandings of Christian faith and spirituality.
In a recent interview at his center he described himself as a “popularizer,” but that minimizes the breadth of his work. His questions regarding the future of religious institutions, including the Catholic church, as well as his extensive work with men’s spirituality, are often on the forward edge of what eventually become broad discussions.
One of the more ambitious undertakings of the center was a conference last March titled “The Emerging Church: Christians Creating a New World Together,” a meeting of a thousand people, about half of them Catholics, by Rohr’s estimation, the rest mainline and evangelical Protestants and other Christians. The point of view of the conference might well have been summarized in the title of a talk by Brian McClaren, a Protestant pastor, thinker and lecturer recognized as the leader of the emerging church movement: “The Historical Jesus: What You Focus on Determines What You Miss.”
Indeed, Rohr believes that the contemplative tradition, the third of what he describes as four pillars of the emergent church, and his point of entry into the discussion, is precisely the sort of tradition that allows one to see “with a different set of eyes” and perhaps shift the focus a bit.
The great mystics such as Teresa of Avila or John of the Cross, he said, “in their own way are saying that the lowest level of consciousness is ‘either-or, us or them.’ As you advance, you become more ‘us and them,’ not ‘us or them.’ You see things non-dualistically. That’s going to be the more important thing that I would like to communicate: That really another word for contemplation is non-dualistic thinking.
“That’s what makes people able to be merciful and forgiving. You can’t love your enemies with a low-level dualistic mind. It’s impossible,” Rohr said. “You don’t have the software to know how to do it. So we tell people to love your enemies. A normal Catholic can’t do that with the software that he’s got.”
Catholics, he said, were never taught they need “a different consciousness to understand the Gospel. That’s my grand assumption in everything I’m doing anymore, which has become the teaching of contemplation.”
Contemplation may be a new undertaking for Protestants, but the first pillar supporting the emerging church, according to Rohr, is “honest Jesus scholarship. Not a seminary-trained Jesus scholarship, where you begin with your conclusions -- Lutheran conclusions or Catholic conclusions or whatever they are -- and then you just learn an understanding of Jesus that’s going to keep the Methodist church going.”
The movement, he said, pulls on the recent “wonderful outpouring of honest Jesus scholarship from feminists, from black people, from poor people, from just honest even white, male scholars.”
The second pillar is a rather broad recognition across denominational lines of the centrality of peace and justice issues to the ministry of Jesus. “They are much more front and center for Jesus than the issues that most churches make central, most of which he never talks about. For example, why did we make abortion and gay marriage the litmus test of whether or not you were Christian? Those were not the litmus tests for 1,900 years. How come they are now? Where did this come from?
“I don’t want to just make those two the issue, but it seems to me a classic example of smoke and mirrors,” he said, “that we don’t want to look at the issues that tell us to change our lives, our consumer culture, our greedy culture, our prideful culture, our wealthy culture, from the papacy to the episcopacy to the priesthood and all the way down. We’re such a part of the system we can’t critique the system.”
This sense of the central place given to peace and justice issues is so pervasive, he said, that there is a quiet consensus he perceives globally on the matter. “There’s no central office anywhere teaching the emerging church doctrine. That’s what tells me this is from the Holy Spirit.”
The fourth pillar is the one still most in process: “finding the vehicles for this kind of vision.”
What kind of community structure, he wonders, will allow this to happen yet not be in competition with organized religion but instead be “complementary and happily on the side? This is what’s happened to groups like us,” he said, referring to the center. “Our conferences are bigger than ever in the last years. Why? I think people want to retain their Catholic identity” while pursuing a view and spirituality that encourages “integrative” rather than “oppositional” thinking.
A second conference on emerging church will be held here in April 2010, and the name of the movement is undergoing a shift to “Emerging Christianity.” The title of the spring conference -- and here Rohr can’t stifle a small chuckle -- is “How You Get There Is Where You Will Arrive.”