Just finished reading Hope for the Thoughtful Christian, by Stephen Reese (see my earlier blog post, “The Scary Life of a Thinking Christian”). I was disappointed by much of the book, which consists of the random musings of a middle-aged Christian. I have plenty of those myself, and didn’t find much new insight by reading Reese’s.

But Chapter 1 makes a brilliant case for greater tolerance in faith dialogue, and the Afterword and Epilogue further articulate his point. I’d recommend these 3 sections to anyone who’s trying to understand what’s happening in American Christianity today.

Reese identifies  “something radically new in the world of faith,” which he describes as “the biggest shakeup since the Protestant Reformation” (139). This is commonly called the Emergent Church movement (which is not synonymous with the more conservative Emerging Church). Reese has a more intriguing name for it:

Beyond the polarizations that have divided these [Christian] groups from each other and society, Emergent Christians find themselves in a “gathering center,” looking for a new way to “do church” that resides in a conversation taking place within and across these traditions (139).

…Emergent theology swaps an exclusionary in-or-out mentality for a conversation about the Truth (140).

I don’t know whether Reese originated this phrase (Can someone tell me?), but it well describes the migration of many “thinking Christians” out of the institutional church. They no longer trust pat answers about God or simple “in-or-out” tests of doctrinal purity. They are eager to participate in open-minded conversations with other people of faith–not just the Christian faith–in order to better understand God, themselves, and their purpose in life.

Traditional Christians may dismiss this as nothing more than the latest form of Gnosticism. By labeling it, they hope to avoid any serious engagement with it.

But Reese speaks authentically for many, many American Christians today. Their disgust with the  institutional church is changing our religious landscape in reaction to the overweening intellectualism of 20th-century evangelicalism. But what’s to follow? That’s not yet clear.