Jones’ Response to Jason Clark

I am appreciative of Jason’s generous and generative review of my book, The Church Is Flat. While Jason and I have fallen out of touch in recent years, we spent much time together in the early days of the emerging church movement (ECM). By reading Jason’s work in Church in the Present Tense, I suspect that he and I have moved in different directions ecclesiologically.

Before delving into his review proper, allow me a brief moment of psychoanalysis of each of us. Jason comes from a low church tradition—the Vineyard, among the “lowest” of low church—and he is migrating toward more established, conventional ecclesial structures and liturgies. I, on the other hand, was reared in a church with a high liturgy, traditional hymns, and Reformed vestments; I see most of those accouterments and the structures that birthed them as archaic.

Maybe, just maybe, Jason and I are each overreacting to our pasts.

Now, onto his review. Jason’s recap of my project in The Church Is Flat is largely accurate. In fact, he understands my aims better than any reviewer I’ve yet read. As a practical theologian, I sought to understand the burgeoning ecclesiology of the ECM by looking at the practices of the movement—this is a common move for a practical theologian. While none of the practices I found was unique to the ECM, the corpus of practices and the way that they’d been renegotiated in these congregations were innovative, and possibly even unique. And, indeed, I concluded, as Jason rightly notes, that “it is ‘relationally’ that is the logic that operationalises these clustering of practices.”

Practical theology is distinct from systematic theology in that it is grounded theology—grounded in the lives of real human beings. As a practical theologian, I attempt to get at the lives of those human beings through social scientific research, both my own and research borrowed from social scientists. I turned to New Social Movement theory for two reasons: 1) to establish that, while the ECM may not be large in scale, it is worthy of study for what it says about American Protestantism; and 2) for the ways that New Social Movement theory could help interpret the early days of the ECM.

Thus, as Jason notes, I make no apologies for the fact that the ECM is primarily a phenomenon among middle-class whites. So is Facebook, but that doesn’t mute Facebook’s impact on our culture. However, neither do I apologize for the America-centrism of my book, an aspect of which Jason seems critical. Any study necessarily has to be limited in scope. If I would have attempted to speak authoritatively about the ECM in other parts of the world, I would have quickly been criticized by Jason’s compatriots for overreaching.

Further, I think that Jason overstates my reliance on New Social Movement theory. Beyond the two aspects noted above, it does not play a significant role in my book. It allows me to interpret the ECM through a social scientific lens, but it does not play a normative role in my proposed ecclesiology.

Which leads me to Jason’s primary criticism. Jason accuses me of being a correlationist—that is, that I allow contemporary social patterns to dictate my ecclesiology. An extended appendix in the book makes clear that I am not a correlationist; my chosen theological pattern in this regard is the “transversal rationality” of J. Wentzel Van Huyssteen and Wolfgang Welch. Nevertheless, this may be an even worse sin against Jason’s way of thinking. (It is no surprise that Jason invokes John Milbank in his criticism of me; I’d be hard pressed to name a contemporary theologian with whom I disagree more than Milbank.)

If I may put a finer point on it, the question is this: Is there a normative (biblical?) ecclesiology that is timeless, to which every congregation must aspire? Or is ecclesiology necessarily shaped by the culture that inevitably envelops every congregation?

I unequivocally say no to the former and yes the latter.

I am most interested, as I wrote above, in theologies that are grounded. My criticism of Jürgen Moltmann is that he is too idealistic, too naïve—and he’s exponentially more grounded than Milbank, Hauerwas, and the other ecclesiologists on the scene today. To develop an ideal ecclesiology—an image of the perfect, eschatological church—doesn’t do anybody any good because it’s pure hypothesis. It merely establishes a aspiration of which every congregation in the real world will fall short.

Every congregation is dripping with culture. It comes into the sanctuary in the clothes that congregants wear, in the music they were listening to in their cars on the way to church, and on their phones as they check Facebook during the introit. A realistic ecclesiology will acknowledge culture; it will recognize that parishioners talk about their experience of the numinous using cultural idioms, not second-order theological discourse.

To drill down further into these issues would likely reveal other differences between Jason and me. Panentheism and theosis, for instance, are two theological doctrines that guide my ecclesiology.

Suffice it to say that I, too, hope that Jason avoids a “complete re-Catholisation.” For that ecclesial system more than any other has lost touch its contemporary setting, as the headlines remind us daily.


Tony Jones is theologian-in-residence at Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis and an adjunct professor at Fuller Theological Seminary and at Andover Newton Theological School. Tony serves as a senior acquisitions editor at sparkhouse. Tony is the author of many books on Christian ministry and spirituality and is a sought after speaker and consultant in the areas of emerging church, postmodernism, and Christian spirituality. You can find out more about Tony and how to contact him here.

  • Jason Clark

    Tony: Tnx for your response, it helps me understand your work better and my own project.

    Panentheism (in an Edwarsean sense) and Theosis are two doctrines I would personally own along with you :-) And an ecclesiology that is shaped by culture is something I am convinced of.

    I’m sure we are both reacting to our past experiences, but I hope my reaching for liturgical anthropologies is not just about me making a turn to some form of liturgy as a re-catholisation.

    I’m less interested in forms of liturgies, than the nature of how we are liturgical beings. In Church in the Present Tense I was not arguing for a form of liturgy from any particular ecclesiology, rather the need to understand how all ecclesiologies, all socialites are encoded liturgies. Within that my church community from a low church background might have embraced some forms of liturgy, but it’s because they are encoded with Christians beliefs and practices, or at least allow us to apply them within our own relational logics to work within culture and to resist it simultaneously.

    For me the strongest part of your book/thesis was the mapping of practices of the E/Cs that you surveyed. What I was trying to suggest (I’m sure rather ineptly), is that those practices, are liturgical practices, already loaded and encoded with social imaginaries that take place as performed stories.

    Whilst ‘relationally’ is your suggested key to those, I think that underneath that logic is some encoding and stories that could be theologically excavated. At least I’d like to see that more. My invoking Milbank wasn’t to accuse you of correlationism per se, but to take his claim seriously, which I think we need to. If nothing else I think Milbank would be right in asserting that the practices you map, have many things underneath that relational logic. I highlighted were Milbank goes to far, with notions of out narrating social theory. So my suggestion was that I think far more can be made from your use of NSM, not less.

    As a good friend said to me the other day, what is at stake is the making of, ‘theology and ecclesiology in a descriptive key, that oscillates between describing ideal aims and confessing ambivalent successes — all the while being “in for a penny, in for a pound”‘.

    Thanks again, Jason

  • bjoernwagner

    Thanks to both of you for bringing an important issue to the front – to many theologians today utilize the Social Sciences without placing them in the “right” relation first – relating them to theology. The social aspect of the trinity and it’s impact on ecclesiology as (systematically) formulated by Volf in “After our likeness” could be a new ground for interdisciplinary engaging between the social sciences and theology that might develop into something Post-Milbank, but not against-Milbank. But the central question is raised – how are sciences and – after them – how are we relating in a new and meaningful way with each other and the data we “produce”. Currently I am writing on the subject of Bourdieu’s Habitus as advancement of Hieberts Worldview in Mission Anthropology and therefore I am in the middle and (to refer to a cherished, old english word) “midden” of relating the social sciences of Bourdieu to Missiological Theology ala Hiebert. There is much to learn from Bourdieu if we can get the relations functional and clearly communicated. You guys have boosted my motivation to write about these issues quite substantially – I owe both of you a beer! Cheers Björn Wagner, Germany

    • Tony Jones

      Bourdieu figures heavily in my own work. He seems uniquely to cut a middle path.

    • Jason Clark

      Hi Bjoern. For any understanding of practices and the habituation of them, Bourdieu is essential reading. Also look out for Jamie Smith’s forthcoming book, “imaging the kingdom: how worship works”. Jamie does a lot of work with Bourdieu that I think you will find helpful for your own project.

  • JBR

    I am a bit disappointed that some proponents of the ECM are moving away from orthodox Trinitarian theology and into panentheism. I do not claim to understand why this is, only that maybe it echoes more of a Celtic spirituality that seem to be attractive to many in the ECM. I think that as Christians engage in dialogue concerning new ecclesiological movements that they should take a note from church history and look back to the days of Chalcedon. It is here at this council where the members told those form Alexandria and those from Antioch that as they seek to develop and understand the two natures in Christology that they still maintain that Jesus is 100% God and a 100% man. In a similar vein the ECM should look to hold to those “vetted” Christian doctrine from ancient times and say, “if you are to do ecclesiology this is the parameters in which to do it”. The Nicene Creed, I believe, can be of use in this discussion. But it is quite possible that a person like Tony Jones would not consider such a suggestion since he states above that he finds the older traditions of ecclesiology “archaic” in nature. Would this also include the Nicene Creed? I am fearful of Tony’s comment because in some respects it seems to promote an “a-historical” attitude. Even the new forms of ecclesiology are dependent upon those so called “archaic” forms.