I’ve been wondering about the emerging conversation over the past few weeks. What happened, should we still use the language? And then someone contacted me on an old blog, asking about the emerging conversation in South Africa. The emergingafrica site is currently dead, but Roger helped me to get into some of the archives, so I’m just reposting something I wrote about a year ago on the emergingafrica blog.

Maybe just a short note before I start. I don’t think the emerging conversation is dead, I think the name became problematic and people moved. I still connect with the same people who was part of the emerging conversation 3 or 4 years ago when I go the ANiSA events, Amahoro gatherings, some academic conferences. I still see them on facebook, we are still talking about many of the same issues: justice, reconciliation, the future of the church, postmodernism, postcolonialism. Yes, the emphasis has changed, but that was inevitable, some of us might still like to connect to what is called emerging, others may not want to. But this is where I think we went:

where did emerging go – a response to Steve

Our friend and fellow blogger Steve Hays has been pushing hard on the question: “Where has the emerging conversation gone?” or “Why is the emerging conversation so quite/dead?”. That was the theme of the past three posts on this blog, so I thought a response might be a good idea. Steve’s questions seem to refer both to the broad conversation on the blogosphere concerning Missional/Emerging, as well as this specific website, and the lack of conversation going on here. I’ll try and quickly make a few comments on both. Some of this will be quite personal, and others attempts at taking a few steps back and analyzing what’s happening.

I found Emerging Africa in 2006 (then still called Emergent Africa). It was a place to connect to a group of people asking certain questions, and more specifically, a group of diverse people blogging and asking certain questions that I could connect with. However, I was never a very active Emerging Africa user. I only posted 5 posts since 2006, only 2 of which was actual posts with content I myself generated and thoughts which I wanted to engage others in. Two others was just responses on emerging that was doing the round in South Africa that I posted here, and 1 was an add on a conference.

About 70-75% of the content on this site was created by 5 people over the past 5 years1. A lot of people came in, dropped a comment at some point, but we need to take note that this site was never a large community of bloggers, but rather a small group of people connecting, and a lot sometimes visiting and making a comment or two. Steve himself were one of the 5, and he doesn’t consider himself to be emerging. Of the most active 10 people on the site, all those I’ve ever met also keep there own blogs, and are more active on their own blogs than on this one.

Those I’ve met: Maybe that need to be mentioned as well. Back when I first joined Emerging Africa, I knew none of the people on this list, now I find much more joy in visiting them in person (when I have the chance – for those in Cape Town) than.

In short: We shouldn’t expect too much from this site. For most of the active contributors over the years, this wasn’t the blogging place they put most energy into, and thus can’t be a measure of the depth of a conversation. Maybe the resource point made earlier should be considered more strongly. EmergingAfrica is a place pointing people to others. And I guess it’s also an important archive of what happened in the SA blogosphere regarding emerging.

But, then I’ll have to respond to questions concerning the broader conversation, and why most of us isn’t running blogs connected to strict emerging inner-politics and dialogue. This has been discussed a lot, as the different death of emerging conversations ran over the years. I listed some posts on this earlier this year, and others from 2008.

Let me take this earlier writings further with a few comments:

The diversity within emerging was unbearable to say the least. Dan Kimball (author of [2003]) expressed this when he refused to use emerging anymore. His choice to rather use missional should make us wary of continuing the “missional/emerging” way of making the two the same as well. I sometimes wondered about the diverse theology within the emerging scene myself, and even today it remains a struggle, because we seem to dump a number of people together under a “missional/emerging” category whom who has distinctly different approaches to theology.

Maybe this is where the waters get fuzzy. Because where does emerging start and where does it end? When I engage liberation theology, I would describe it as a form of what should go under the broad term emerging2, but others who traditionally participated in the emerging conversation would be strongly apposed to this. Furthermore, when I engage liberation theology, I find better dialogue partners than my emerging friends, these are theologians who are working on issues of justice in different ways, but wouldn’t connect themselves to what I’d call emerging. So suddenly emerging takes me to places which are not predominantly emerging, and where the typical emerging bunch (white, male, western, rich) doesn’t have the dominant voice anymore.

So, we get this weird place where we are no longer busy with the emerging conversation proper. To link onto Brian Mclaren (The Justice Project, p268 endnote 10), maybe we’ve discovered that the emerging conversation led us to places where others have been for some time. Maybe it was only our best theologians, and not on a congregational level3, maybe it was in a somewhat different way, maybe we contribute something unique because we were influenced by the emerging conversation, but we nevertheless find ourselves on territory which is shared by others.

So, maybe Andrew Jones was right when he said the emerging conversation was mainstreamed, as much as we might hate to hear this, and maybe this is true in South Africa as well – missional/emerging was the theme of the South African Missiological Society, not the type of place you’d have expected to find us 5 years ago. But maybe those who talked the emerging lingo was forced into other conversations exactly by there being emerging (and now I’m following the “Brian Mclaren” thread of emerging talk). We started out rediscovering the “Kingdom of God”. This forced us both into conversation with high profile theologians who have been trying to point the way for generations, but have been ignored by the Christian populace, as well as into conversation with those who are busy actually engaging injustice in the world (feminists, liberation theologians, postcolonial thinkers, economists, politicians, philosophers, activists).

So where did the conversation go? My guess is it went a hundred places. Most of these places won’t go by the name “emerging”. The more important question which should be asked if we wonder whether the conversation is dead is whether those who connected to it when emerging lingo 3/4 years ago consider there time of participation in this lingo as worthwhile seen from where they are now (I for one definitely do).

More could be said, but hopefully this take us a step further into understanding what is happening, and thinking about the place of Emerging Africa.

1) A note, the statistics mentioned reflects the real statistics of EmergingAfrica at the time, it’s not guesswork

2) This point I will definitely change when writing today. I would rather define Emerging as an approach drawing from the well of liberation theology, working towards becoming a form of liberation theology.

3) Maybe it is those in oppressed communities and groups. Women, black people, the poor, who we’ve been led to.

I spent the weekend down in Pietermaritzburg with the steering committee of ANiSA, visioning what the role of ANiSA might be in South Africa today. Coming from the Afrikaans Dutch Reformed church environment (a context to which I declared my love in one of the sessions, admittedly in similar fashion to which Ani Difranco declare love to her country), I found the conversations source of hope. The crowd was diverse in race, language, church background (gender however is a question which I would hope to see more diversity in future). We came with very different theological backgrounds, but with a willingness to consider radical possibilities, and a strong commitment to justice and peace.

The day was spent drafting a kind of vision statement, through discussion of one-word concepts which might be used to tell something of the values of this network. The discussions opened up an amazing richness which I hope can continue to flow into the broader theological discussion in South Africa. The best meetings I’ve had in the church all contained two aspects, both which I found at ANiSA as well: deep theological debate, and lots of laughter. With out the deep debate, we end up simply stating some kind of common denominator, which contributes nothing, and changes no one. Without laughter we take ourselves too seriously, and we are no longer able to change. We had the intense debate, but with a lightness which opened up everyone (that’s how it felt at least) to the possibility that I may be changed through these discussions.

Probably the concept which stimulated the most conversation was “simplicity”. Our various reactions convinced us that this concept, contested as it is, is of the utmost importance to our context today, although we acknowledge the complexity with the term.

For myself, I think the double-bind we experience is that the fact that we find ourselves in South Africa, with its poverty and economic inequality, vast riches and extreme poverty, calls us to seriously discuss what the simple lifestyle would mean. However, exactly because this is the context we find ourselves in, we acknowledge that it is almost impossible to state with clarity what simplicity and simple living would look like. When we call for simplicity, for simple living, it is not yet a call which is defined in the detail of what the exact implication would be, but a very strong value, calling us to take this conversation very seriously, and work through the questions which the South African context births.

The call towards simplicity may never be just another way of romanticizing poverty in some spiritual way. The poor is not those who are living lives of simplicity. Simplicity require that we have access to that which we need to simply live, it is not a blind call to “simply own less and less, simply have access to less and less”. I’d describe the call to simplicity as a deeply prophetic call. Prophetic in the old-school sense of pointing out that: “this way of inequality and over-consumption for a few is not just, not sustainable. If we continue down this road it will lead to our death! It will create violence! Therefore we need to turn from our greedy ways”. It is a critical voice to those of us in positions of power and privilege to rethink our participation in the global economic and ecological systems, as well as in the local relations with those whom we should call neighbours. As such simplicity must be more than just an individual private choice, but must be a public outcry, a systemic suggestion for a better world.

In a way I’d therefore say that simplicity is a choice. It is a choice which some do not have, and others choose not to make. It is the choice which those who have it should make, so that those who do not have access to the choice of living in simplicity can be made room for. Still, we don’t have an answer to what this life would look like in hard financial terms. However, this acknowledgement of the complexity of the question may never become just another way of postponing the critical question facing us.