This post is dedicated to @EmergentDudeBro.
I have been known to mock the New Atheism, for example by suggesting that reading Marx will “blow their minds.” My reason for saying this, of course, is that Marx responded to his generation’s equivalent to the New Atheists by pointing out that critiquing religion on the level of “false beliefs” is necessary but not sufficient — indeed, it completely neglects the material conditions that lead people to embrace religion. I have taken Marx’s basic idea in a somewhat different direction, insofar as I have long believed that the real problem with the evangelical Christian communities in which I lived for the first two-thirds of my life was not the opinions they held on various metaphysical issues, but the concrete material strategies that they used to maintain people’s group loyalty. Teenagers, for instance, are subject to intensive emotional manipulation at the time of their life when they are most vulnerable to it. On the one hand, they are made to feel ashamed of their spontaneous bodily urges, and then church participation is put forward as the way to unburden themselves. On the other hand, they are provided with a full range of social activities so that the church will become their primary group of friends — a strategy that is strongly reinforced insofar as the church is presented as the one safe space in an implacably hostile world. (I remember being viscerally afraid to start middle school after all the propaganda I’d been subjected to, half-expecting that I would be shot when someone took a break from openly having sex and doing drugs in the hallway between classes, etc.)
Though I am far from an expert in the Emergent Church movement, from my interactions with them, they seem like a kind of variation on the theme. One impulse behind the Emergent Church is to explicitly de-emphasize the importance of orthodox belief, to make doubt an integral part of people’s spiritual life, and so forth. Yet their practices of emotional manipulation seem to be essentially unchanged. The difference from the traditional church is quantitative, not qualitative — they are more opportunistic in providing people with rationales for staying loyal to their Christian identity (doubt is a bonus, not an obstacle! you can drink craft beers! we don’t openly hate homosexuals!), but in the end, the goal is to maintain group identity by any means necessary. As we’ve seen in recent online controversies, one important strategy is to occlude real-life divisions in the hope of including everyone. They embrace diversity, for instance, by being open to the concerns of LGBT people and providing space for those who hate and deride them. They push for group unity by castigating people who introduce division by suggesting that LGBT people might not want to be in community people who hate them — a common strategy for taming the oppressed in the history of Christianity, this time advanced under the cover of “open dialogue.”
In the end, the goal is to get people to embrace Christian identity simply for its own sake — with no regard to whether the community is damaging to them. Emergent types are more slippery than most Christians, essentially going along with anything anyone says so long as it will increase their willingness to maintain some kind of Christian identity. I once had a conversation with a “cool youth pastor,” for instance, who listened to Wilco and drank beer and wasn’t a dick about his beliefs. No matter what I said, he insisted that we fundamentally agreed. Even when I said that his work was actively destructive insofar as he was convincing young people to stay affiliated with an institution that was hurting them and was going to hurt their children as well, he nodded along, sure that our disagreement was more or less semantic. There was room for me and my opinions in the church! Indeed, they would be so much better for having my dissenting voice to keep them honest! I feel similarly whenever I interact with Pete Rollins — it’s frustrating that he always insists that he’s open to every critique and really respects dissenting opinions and is incredibly enriched by them, etc. However distant he gets from the institutional church, he’s still deeply Christian in form, and the opportunistic openness that he has embraced as his way of distancing himself from Christianity is the most Christian thing about him.
When I was in seminary, I was sometimes aggravated by liberal Christians’ discomfort with Christian identity and their unwillingness to actively reclaim Christianity and the Bible over against the fundamentalists. I still think that those types of fights are strategically valuable, but I’ve come to a deeper appreciation of liberal inauthenticity over the years. Every attempt to reclaim Christian identity, even with good reasons and for good ends, always threatens to become an attempt to vindicate the master-signifier of Christianity, to elevate it above all other struggles and forms of identity (which are always produced out of some struggle and are always continually engaged in struggle).
Many people have claimed that the New Atheists are “just as bad” as fundamentalists due to their insistence on their (lack of) beliefs. I think that this discussion allows us to make a similar claim from another direction — they are still “Christian” in form insofar as they elevate atheism as their master-signifier. I had a Twitter argument with one seemingly good-natured New Atheist who was appalled that I painted the whole group with the brush of Dawkins’ racist imperialism. It gradually became clear that he was a kind of “Emergent” New Atheist, trying to leave things open so that everyone had a seat at the table (i.e., everyone could be identified with New Atheism). While it was disturbing to him that New Atheists could hold such reprehensible views, the important thing was to maintain the unity of the group by downplaying any struggle or division that might arise from the slippage between “secular reason” and anti-Islamic sentiment. And in fact, we can often see the same kinds of emotional manipulation at work among New Atheists — while I was mocking the New Atheism on Twitter, dozens of people tried to shame me as a kind of “reverse racist” or for being “just as bad” as people who stereotype Muslims. It’s structurally identical to how Emergents and other Christians weaponize liberal values like open dialogue to shame their critics.
What’s the solution to this? I don’t know for sure, but I can at least describe where I’ve arrived for the moment. More and more, I’ve been drawn to claim that I’m in some way “Christian” (as an adjective, a cultural description) — who could deny it, after all the forces that have shaped me and all the things I’ve actively chosen to study and stake my career on? — but I’m not “a Christian” (as a noun). This could be viewed as a kind of reprise of the strategy of another group of Christians castigated as “inauthentic” by Evangelicals: Catholics who continue to describe themselves as “Catholic” (usually only in adjective form) even though they rarely practice and keep their distance from the official Church organization.
This kind of inauthenticity is an attempt to deactivate Christianity as a master signifier — I do not identify directly with it (as “a Christian”), nor do I define myself over against it. It’s part of the material of my life, which I can put to use as I choose. I make no effort to vindicate the “true” Christianity that finally disproves the slander of the fundamentalists who falsely claim the name. Let them claim the name. The name is not my concern. Other struggles are more important to me than the struggle over that particular name.