Sunday, April 4, 2010

Emergence at the Edge

Emergence (n.), emerge (v.)
from the Latin ex, meaning “out of” and mergere, “to dip, to plunge”; emergence is the counterpart to immersion.

definition: the act of arising, of coming forth from concealment, of unpredicted appearing
“The ‘true’ is always marked and informed by the ambivalence of the process of emergence itself, the productivity of meanings that construct counter-knowledges in medias res, in the very act of agonism, within the terms of a negotiation (rather than a negation) of oppositional and antagonistic elements.”
-- Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture

“The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.”
-- Walter Benjamin

Homi K. Bhaba is right, even if he is hard at times to understand. The ‘true’ is always something that is in the process of emerging, always something that is arising in the middle of things, and always something around which controversy or conflict swirls. The true is always emerging from the midst of knowledge and counter-knowledge, from what currently counts as settled belief and what is discounted as new opinion or perception. Walter Benjamin, no apostle of clarity in his own right, adds the point that the state of emergence is also always a state of emergency, and that those who are on the underside of power, ‘the oppressed’ as he calls them, know this to be not the exception but the rule.

My institution, New York Theological Seminary (NYTS), is an emerging institution. It has been for more than a century. Those of us who have had any contact with the school know that as a community we are quite familiar with negotiating oppositional and even antagonistic elements, finding ways to make connections where others cannot see them, seeking always the true as it lives emergent. NYTS is immersed in the life of the City, meaning New York City in the first instance, but other cities around the globe as well. Immersed in the City, we emerge from the city, not unlike the way a candidate emerges from the baptismal waters in Christian tradition, and not unlike the manner in which Jesus emerged in Resurrection so long ago.

This spring we are launching a new effort to allow some of these emergent perspectives to be heard, debated and encountered. The conversation will be taking the form of a blog, this one first and others expected to follow. My intention in these pages is to foster the kind of conversation I think a school of theological education located at the intersection of global processes (in medias res) ought to be fostering. I and others in these pages will be taking a fresh look at emerging issues in the life of the churches and other communities of faith throughout the city, across the nation, and around the world. You can expect to read about topics that emerge from the middle of things, but consistently point toward the edge of things.

Defining “emergence”

In philosophy and science, “emergence” names the phenomenon in which complex systems arise out of the interaction of simpler forms or agents. None of the simpler forms or agents contains in themselves the patterns that define or determine the more complex systems that arise. No one agent or part holds a blueprint of the whole. The blueprint or pattern is emergent. It is the process by which bees form a hive, ants form a colony, or human beings form a city.

Key to the phenomenon of emergence is the process or practice of interconnectivity, a form of association (often non-hierarchical in nature) in which all parts of a complex system interact with all others. The term that best names interconnectivity in Christian theology is the Greek word koinonia that is found in the pages of the New Testament. it is often translated as “fellowship” or “communion” but literally means “sharedness” or “commonality.” The term that the ancient theological tradition offered to describe the manner of movement associated with interconnectivity is perichoresis, which describes in particular the Trinitarian movement of the divine life, of one living with and in another, or of the dance that God is. In the Trinitarian life, God can be said to be eternally emergent.

Referring to the church, “emergent” or “emerging” names a recent conversation taking place especially within (post)evangelical circles and seeking to rebirth the community of faith in a postmodern context. Emerging churches are strongly missional in identity. They often take the form of a house church or a cell church in structure, and they usually embrace the notion of interconnectivity with a passion, as Eddie Gibbs and Ryan K. Bolger point out in their recent book, Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures.

Finally, emergence at the edge often becomes an emergency, which is emergence with urgency attached. An emergency is a situation or occurrence of a sudden and serious nature, usually demanding immediate attention. Should not a church or seminary that seeks to be emergent not in some sense also be capable of addressing emergencies? And should not a church or seminary that is mindful of the oppressed, whom Jesus called “the least of these” (Matthew 25) take the “state of emergency” to be its norm?

Listen in with me this week after Easter to hear where the new is emerging in our midst. Listen in on the conversations taking place around the efforts to eradicate poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, heath care, multifaith community, environmental degradation, and more. “Emergence” names the creative edge. Its horizons are the ends of the earth, which is where the disciples soon found themselves being sent by the Risen Lord.

Dale T. Irvin is the eleventh President of New York Theological Seminary and Professor of World Christianity. He is the co-author with Scott W. Sunquist of History of the World Christian Movement. Dr. Irvin is also the author of Christian Histories, Christian Traditioning: Rendering Accounts (Orbis Books, 1998), and The Agitated Mind of God: The Theology of Kosuke Koyama (Orbis Books, 1996), which he edited with Akintunde E. Akinade.

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