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Tree of Faith Needs Both Roots and Branches to Grow

A recent review of “emerging Christianity” with the help of Phyllis Tickle’s overview and analysis in her book, “Emergence Christianity,” offered a helpful reminder of both the constant ferment and growing edge of a religious tradition.
Using the term “emergence Christianity” as a broad umbrella to include the wide range of perspectives and movements that are stretching the edges and moving beyond the traditional frameworks of “church,” Tickle offers both an informative review of the major players and helpful insights about what this has meant and will mean to the Christian family.

One insight, in particular, that I found helpful is a suggestion that between the pioneers who “boldly go where no one has gone before”—or so it might seem with a shorter range view of history—and those guardians who defend the traditional frameworks are the “hypenated” perspectives, such as mainline-emergent, Episco-mergent, Presb-emergent, Bapt-emergent.

These “Hyphenateds” seek to maintain a clear connection with the roots of a tradition while at the same time seeking to be open to the fresh and creative expressions of faith one finds in emergent contexts.

Their theological tree has both roots and branches.

In Tickle’s words, “It is … defensible to contend, as many observers do, that it is the Hyphenateds who ultimately may prove to be the unique group. They move with no animosity toward either what has been or what is becoming. The result is an impunity that grants them effectual credence in both camps. Nothing could be more singular than that or more laden with possibilities.”

It struck me, as a participant in the life and work of a rather traditional mainline congregation, that this describes a number of people within our family of faith whose journey has brought them to a place where they see beyond some of the traditional horizons, and they spend their time and effort building platforms and vantage points from which others might see them.

They do not leave the often cumbersome tasks of maintaining an institution for the freedom of “going whither the Spirit leads,” nor do they criticize those who do.

Neither do they fall into the subtle idolatry of making the maintenance of tradition an ultimate concern.

To use Paul’s image, they understand that we “have this treasure in earthen vessels” (2 Corinthians 4:7) without identifying the treasure with the vessel.

They also can appreciate and affirm the value of what the various expressions of “emergence Christianity” offer and find ways of bringing that fresh and creative value to the lives and ministries of their fellow pilgrims in the larger family of faith.

Is not this the way it has always been?

The tree of faith bears its best fruit when it continues to sink its roots deeply into the soil that gave it birth while at the same time spreading its branches to receive the new daily sunlight that brings forth bud, blossom and fruit.

To use another image, the wagon train and the scout have different functions.

The wagons are cumbersome because they are carrying the means of support for those who are on a journey through uncharted territory.

The scout is nimble, out front exploring the best route of passage as well as the challenges and dangers along the way.

They both need each other for the journey to be successful.

Perhaps the “emergent” voices are the “scouts” for our ecclesiastical journey, while the traditional frameworks and institutions bear the support systems for the larger family of faith.

And perhaps the “Hyphenateds” are the ones who embody this relationship between the two in ways that will maintain the delicate balance between what has been and what is becoming.

Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.