A South African Emergent Conversation

A group of friends met on the 4th and 5th December 2009 in Cape Town, around growing these friendships and working towards a common vision for emergence Christianity in South Africa. These included Jackson Khosa, Muzi Cindi, Marius Brand, Cobus van Wyngaard, Theresa and Andrew Hendrikse, Ann and Nic Paton, and Amahoro Africa’s Claude Nikondeha. In addition to socialising and relaxing, we shared meals, drummed, and talked.

One focus was the book by Muzi Cindi, whose unorthodox journey has sparked both indignation and amazement especially in his own African community, dividing established patterns of church authority with a host of radical questions about God and Atheism.

Cobus, Andy, Jackson, Muzi, at Little Stream

It was regrettable that for the “talking” and more theological part (held on Saturday), we had not managed to organise any South African women to take part – everyone shared this misgiving – but significant progress was made.

But we provided a means to be equally heard by way of each participant posing one question, which was then answered by all. This was constructive, and we came away with a broad flavour of what we might pursue going forward. These then are the questions:

  • Jackson – How big is our conversational space?
  • Muzi – How do we create space for those who do not understand us?
  • Marius – How do we make this space sustainable?
  • Andy – What holds us together?
  • Nic – How do we avoid chasing our own tail?
  • Cobus – what is the local agenda?

We realised at once that the key word for us was “space”, and had a go at exploring what it meant for us.

  • I am comfortable. I do not fear inquisition.
  • I am relaxed in the suspension of judgement.
  • The underlying reality, full of potential.
  • Grace, the holding environment.
  • A home for spirituality and community.
  • A set of connections.
  • The space is not defined by an essence, but by the fact of questioning.

Here are some comments on the Q + R:

While we want to engage all people in our conversation, we are called first and foremost to our “own tribe”. By this, many of us mean evangelicals. Rather than point out the sins and deficiencies of other tribes, we need to concentrate on those which are ours. For example, it is not really our business what “demons” haunted Hinduism; we need to deal with those inside the Christian fold.

So for us as Christians, even though we see ourselves as post-modern, the bible with all its difficulty and its glory remains a necessary discussion. We acknowledge that many people do not know how to navigate it. We need to share in the burden of interpreting the text. We neither cop out nor declare the bible irrelevant, nor do we simply conform to what is passed down to us.

As for how do we create space for those who do not understand us, we need to realise that if we strike out in a new direction, those who we “leave behind” are lightly to become our biggest opponents and critics. Misunderstanding is not primarily an intellectual issue – it has more to do with emotion – specifically feeling judged – than differing ideas.

A broad understanding of sustainability was explored. Specifically this had to do with sustainable models of ministry. For example, in ministry family is often the first victim. This occurs when we place the “vocation” above relationships, and do not see the relational as core to the calling. Romantic ideas, which are bound to arise in an ethos of newness such as we are all experiencing, will also become unsustainable if they are not tethered to relationship and sound theology. In all events, in our lack of sustainability, we must be honest.

Unity was talked of not as an excluding force, but as an including one. The question is not what “defines” our belonging, but rather “What holds us together?” We spoke of the fact that in modern church practice, the progression is generally “Believe – Behave – Belong”. In emergent circles, this emphasis has been reversed to “Belong – Behave – Believe”: here we first of all host, include, and love. This creates relationship, and our behaviour changes as trust grows.

However, we want to go beyond the mere reversal of these elements, and view them as three interrelated dimensions, dynamically influencing each other. It was agreed that the reason this is being so hotly debated is precisely because of the static idea (emphasised in modern thought but certainly going back to the early years of the Roman Church) that belief was the primary determinant for belonging. In this day and age, belief has become idolatrous in its elevation.

Nic and Jackson

We spoke of Ubuntu, the African understanding that I am who I am through other people, and that this laid the foundations for a new spirituality of connectedness. For many Africans, it was simply lifestyle, but may not be overt philosophy. African emergent thinkers must integrate Ubuntu into their theologies.

One thing the group had shared in common were long journeys in around and out of the church. How we dealt with these journeys was important. For some, trust had been radically broken; their weaknesses were used against them, destroying relationship. But for others, solace had been found in relationships where failings had been held, and love was found despite those weaknesses.

The social dynamics of the New South Africa were expressed in the question “How do we avoid chasing our own tail?” By this we mean that postmodern white people tended to be leaving the dream of material prosperity behind, and perusing community, while many blacks were doing the opposite; leaving community and Ubuntu behind as they reached for material prosperity. Somehow we needed to avoid merely going around in circles, and as Emergents we must pull one another towards our centre.

This means that we should limit our “evacuation plans”; for whites we must not be overly judgemental of those blacks who are emerging from poverty and doing what our forebears have already done – bought in to the dream of prosperity. For the blacks, we need to not to too quick to abandon our Ubuntu; for it is in this that our common salvation might be found. As we whorl about this pool, we must keep communicating, keep a healthy conversation going, and hold one another close against the centrifugal forces pulling us outwards and ultimately, apart.

The closing question remains open ended, and it concerns the local agenda. What are we going to do, how are we going to sustain these friendships, what mission might emerge? How are we to own our South African situation, not being overly influenced from abroad? What is the balance between thinking and actually doing?

It seems fitting to leave this post right there …

Other syncrobloggers

7 Comments »

  1. Don Rogers said

    Sounds like a wonderful learning experience.

  2. […] Paton has given an excellent summary of the conversation, so I will not repeat with an overview, but will rather add some comments and […]

  3. Steve said

    It seems to me that ubuntu is primarily a premodern value, and that it is lost as we enter modernity. Postmodernity enters when we realise that loss, and mourn for it, and begin to wonder how we can recover it.

  4. I must say I’m jealous – probably wouldn’t have been able to be there though. Thanks for the post Nic, it helps to keep us who weren’t there in the loop . We need more of these face-to-face conversations.

  5. Steven said

    wish i had been there

  6. JamesDX said

    Anyone know how to do things like this?

  7. Meladi Mathunyane said

    Hi Nic,

    its meladi from about 20yrs ago, i stayed with your family i think in 1989, would mean a lot to me to see you all again, how are your parents, much much love to them and to you all.

    my number 083 867 2128

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