The Great Emergence -- Review

THE GREAT EMERGENCE: How Christianity and Why. By Phyllis Tickle. Grand Rapids: BakerBooks, 2008. 172 pp.

It should come as no surprise to anyone paying attention to the world, or the church that inhabits that world, that things are changing. Indeed, things in both the world and the church are changing at an astonishing speed. Though, one must issue a caveat – the world is changing a lot faster than the church can adapt.

The words emergent and emerging sit on the tongues of many involved in the church today. Those terms are important, because it would appear that a new way of being Christian is emerging. The question is: what will that form look like, and who will be involved? Anytime there is change, there will be resistance. Indeed, the experts say that there are always about 15% strongly in support of any venture, while an equal number will be steadfastly opposed to any change. The remaining 70% is available to be persuaded.

Phyllis Tickle has authored a much discussed book that is part of a series of books designed to speak to and for those communities of faith related to Emergent Village. The editor of this series, published by evangelical publisher Baker Books, is Doug Pagitt, who writes in the “Editor’s Preface” that the author “inspires the reader to become a participant in the Great Emergence of our Day” (p. 7).

The Great Emergence is none other than one of those historic pivot points, when the world and indeed the church moves in a new direction. Although the book is brief, the ideas presented are big ones. With this in mind, Tickle asks three questions: What is Emergence? How did it come into being? And finally, where is it going? The assumption here is that every 500 years or so the church goes through a grand “rummage sale,” or a “re-formation.” During these rummage sales, the church goes through the attic and rids itself of those elements that hold it back. From there, a new church emerges. This new movement doesn’t happen in a vacuum. There are numerous collateral events occurring in the broader culture.

The last big rummage sale occurred in the 16th century when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg Door. That event, of course, didn’t happen in a vacuum. There were numerous events that preceded it, including a lengthy schism within the Roman church, the Renaissance, and Gutenberg’s invention of movable type. Indeed, media plays a significant role in this historic pivot point, just as it would in the one that’s occurring now. Earlier events include the Great Schism of 1054, when Eastern and Western Christianity divided and went their own ways. Before that, in the 6th and 7th centuries, when Gregory the Great was Pope, monasticism was born and the resources of the Western Church and Society were preserved as the old order of Rome finally collapsed, and with it Apostolic Christianity.

Rummage sales are usually held when the church is in turmoil, but as noted above, it’s not just the church that’s in turmoil. Because religion is, according to the author, a social construct, it reflects what is going on in the broader culture/society. Religion is, she suggests, a “cable of meaning that keeps the human social unit connected to some purpose and/or power greater than itself” (p. 34). This cable, which is encased in the community’s story, along with the common imagination, is composed of three strands – spirituality, corporeality, and morality. Spirituality is, she suggests, individual internal experiences, while morality is the “externalization and/or objective enactment and application of the values and experiences” of these individuals. Corporeality is simply, the community embodiment of these experiences and values – that is, the institutional form that religion takes in society. That cable, during these periods of stress become damaged and require mending.

Tickle’s primary interest is in the re-formation occurring at this moment. To give context to what is happening now, in the American Church, she first sets the stage by looking into the “Great Reformation” of the 16th century. Although marked by Luther’s 95 Theses, this event in time has precursors that go back well into the previous century, and extend well into the centuries that follow. The primary issue inherent in this period is authority, and in the course of the debates the Protestants fell upon sola scriptura as their mantra. Only Scripture could serve as the church’s authority. This principle was, Tickle reminds us, was coupled with the principle of the priesthood of all believers. These principles, required, of course universal literacy – so literacy was pursued in ways it hadn’t before. The Protestant Reformation, of course, led to re-formation in the regnant Catholic Church. In reality the 16th century was a time when reform in the church broke into two directions, one looking inward and the other moving outward. The Great Reformation was marked not by cooperation, but by competition, with each side seeking hegemony.

In time the world would change again, and new challenges would emerge – especially in the form of Sigmund Freud and Charles Darwin. For the past two centuries discoveries in the areas of biology, physics, geology, and psychology, have called into question the authority of Scripture and of the church. These challenges were coupled with technological advancement, especially in the area of radio and television, which allowed for information to be broadcast broadly and quickly. In time the church would take advantage of these new technologies, but they wouldn’t dominate them. As in each “re-formation” the question of authority was once again raised.

In the Great Emergence, Tickle suggests, two overarching questions emerge. One has to do with the nature of human consciousness, or what makes a human a human. The other question has to do with the relationship of the different religions to each other; “put another way, how can we live responsibly as devout and faithful adherents of one religion in a world of many religions?” (p. 73). Modern Christians constantly struggle with these questions, and as they do they reformulate the faith.

Albert Einstein figures into this story in an important way. Emerging Christianity is part of the Post-Modern revolution. Einstein is famous for his theory of relativity, and post-modernism is a challenge to established authority. Indeed, Einstein raised the question of absolutes, and post-modern theory states that there is no absolute truth. That includes, of course, the Bible, meaning that the principle of sola scriptura must be questioned. The 20th century was marked not only by advancements in science, but numerous advancements in biblical and theological studies. Indeed, the 19th and 20th centuries were populated by numerous quests for the historical Jesus, from Reimarus to Crossan. In the course of these studies the person of Jesus and his authority came into question.

If the historical critical method is linked to more liberal strands of Christianity, the 20th century saw another important movement – that of Pentecostalism. Pentecostalism and its children (the Charismatic Movement and the Third Wave movement) have impacted the church in numerous ways. It brought into the equation another source of authority – spiritual experience – and while Pentecostals were by and large people of the book, they also listened to the Spirit. Their movement was much more egalitarian and less hierarchical. With that in mind it’s surprising that Tickle makes no mention of Aimee Semple McPherson.

The Great Emergence occurs as traditional forms of society – the nuclear family, one-wage earner families, rural/small town living – is giving way to new dimensions of society. Rosie the Riveter was and is a symbol of this change. Things may have gone back to “normal” in 1946, but the age of June Cleaver didn’t last very long.

The church has not fared well, and people have begun looking elsewhere for spiritual sustenance. Indeed, the “spiritual but not religious” movement may be linked to the emergence of groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, a group that lifts up the divine, but doesn’t specify who that divine entity is. Each of us determines that for ourselves as we find our way in the world. Added to this new sense of spirituality was the introduction of eastern religions, especially after 1965 and the loosening of immigration laws that had excluded Asians from entering the country. Buddhism would make a major inroad into America’s religious life. Added to that was the advent of the drug age, which introduced many to new spiritual experiences. All of this helped erode the authority of the church and of scripture.

The role of women in church and society has been defined in many ways by how we read and apply Scripture. Other areas that have been formed by Scripture is family life, especially our understanding of divorce. Finally, there is the issue of homosexuality, which again challenges the way read and apply Scripture. Tickle suggests that when this debate is settled, “the Reformation’s understanding of Scripture as it had been taught by Protestantism for almost five hundred years will be dead” (p. 101). She notes that there will long be resistance, but it will be futile. But, because of its finality, it will be a long and could we say “bloody fight?”

“Of all the fights, the gay one must be – has to be – the bitterest, because once it is lost, there is no more fights to be had. It is finished. Where now is the authority?” (p. 101).

This debate over authority is not, in the end, either a spiritual or a moral one, it is a corporeal one. It is a debate about structure, order, and existence. Protestantism is firmly rooted in what it believes – and when that disappears, what was Protestantism disappears as well.

Part 3 of the book focuses on where the Great Emergence is going. I must say that I found this section disappointing. The first two parts of the book introduce us to big issues and invite us to look broadly at the world and how it impacts the church and Christian faith. Although I’m not convinced that the world turns over a new leaf every 500 years, I do believe that the world changes and the church either changes with it or it dies. In times past, it has adapted – even if it took time and conflict to do so.

Part 3 is too narrow. For one thing, it’s too focused on America. For another, it is too focused on Evangelicalism, especially that part known as Emergent/Emerging Christianity. She speaks of a “Gathering Center,” but that center – which she says involves or will involve 60% of Christians – is narrowly defined. In laying out her definition she suggests the use of a “Quadrilateral” – which immediately led me to think of Wesley’s quadrilateral, but she says nothing of it. This “quadrilateral” is fur ways of being church – liturgicals, social justice Christians (mainline Protestantism), Renewalists, and Conservatives. These are laid out in four boxes, the ones on top being more focused on doing and the bottom two on believing. But in the end there is overlap, and the future belongs to the center, where the four converge. In this new centering, authority lies not sola scriptura, but more likely in scripture and community. Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy are replaced by Orthonomy and Theonomy. The one focused on “correct harmoniousness” or beauty and the other God as authority – something a bit broader than Scripture alone. This discussion is a bit unclear and needs further refinement, but Tickle suggests that Emergent Christianity is dividing between these two different visions of reality. If Scripture is no longer the primary authority, then how does church/Christianity exist? How does it decide? Here is where community comes in. Instead of denominations being the focus, it is networks.

All of this is fine and helpful, but the circle is drawn too tightly. She speaks of bounded and centered sets, terms she suggests derive from John Wimber, but which I’ve always understood come from anthropology. Indeed, if Fuller Seminary is a center for this new thinking, it is Paul Hiebert and the anthropologists at Fuller, rather than Wimber and the Church Growth people that are the source of this idea. If we follow a centered set principle, then the question is where does the boundary lie? That question is never fully answered.

Tickle has in a very brief way introduced us to the reigning questions of the day. Those questions center around authority and how it is understood and utilized. It is definitely true that something new is emerging, but I’m not sure we know exactly what that will be. It may be led by Doug Pagitt, Tony Jones, and the gang. But could it not be led by Marcus Borg? Indeed, while Brian McLaren figures into this story, Borg really doesn’t, but McLaren is hanging out more with Borg than with Pagitt (or so it seems). I would have liked to have seen how the Emergent Village type of Emerging Christianity is related to the Borgian understanding. That would have been, in my mind, a more fruitful ending. But of course, we’re right in the middle of the movement, so we can’t know the ending.

My advice, read the book, but stay tuned for the next, yet to be written, chapter.


Anonymous said…
I think that's true - that some basis for authority "broader than Scripture alone" needs to emerge.

Because even if our doctrine is proven "right" and the doctrines of non Christians and all Christians who don't think like we do are proven "wrong" at the end-time, we need more and more urgently to be able to cooperate with others in the between-time for the sake of the world as a whole.

Religion as a force for division and disunity looks to me like a dead end.
Mike L. said…

I think Phyllis Tickle's book accurately portrays one of the problems I see in emergence. You picked right up on it. Emergence has not particularly been interested in Borg or many of the mainline thinkers even though they are drawing from them without realizing it. Look closely in the footnotes of emergent books and you'll find references to Borg, Crossan, and Brueggemann, but those names are not mentioned much in the large print.

First, this emergence is a two-fold change. It is a theological shift (here Borgian thought is right on target), but it's also a cultural/structural shift. Mainliners are just as tied to cultural and structural dogma as Evangelicals are tied to theological dogma.

Second, by clearly articulating his thoughts and working out a "answer" to most questions, Borg comes across to these people as too "certain". There are too many answers and not enough mystery. He's willing to say things like "If I had to bet a dollar or my life, I'd say the tomb was not empty or there was no tomb". That willingness to come down on an issue (even tentatively with a dose of caveats) is not well accepted. The notion of voting red or black on scripture is a problem. They see it as too final, even if the answer is gray or pink.

I understand the first issue. The mainline culture and structure troubles me too. But I don't understand the second issue. Personally, I dig the answers and I dig Borg.
John said…
What a fertile source of discussion!

While I am fascinated by the 500 year Christian revolutionary cycle I am always leery of over simplification. It seems that issues and shortcomings in the Church reach a critical mass, explode and then, after a period of chaos, the Church is re-newed, and re-formed. I would think that the first big explosion took place in the Fifth Century with the development of the dogmatic creeds, establishment of a unified doctrine resolving major questions of doctrinal dispute.

Moving to the current seismic event you suggest that Trickle seeks to locate the epicenter in the question of Scriptural authority.

At the same time you said that Trickle points to one of the two overarching issues of the day: "how can we live responsibly as devout and faithful adherents of one religion in a world of many religions?" I think instead the epicenter is better located here, which then draws everything else into question.

We are commanded: "I am the LORD your God ... you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 9 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God...."

In light of this commandment how do we live with our neighbors who are as devout and g(G)od-fearing as we, even if we see God differently, and name God differently?

In a world growing smaller and more diverse, (as noted, major cultural changes precede major religious changes) we cannot no longer ignore or compete with our neighbors in faith. We must find a way of living in religious peace with them, respecting their faith while at the same time integrating the commands of our religion into a faithful way of life.

I wonder too if the decline of Christianity in Europe does not hold telling clues to the problem?

John said…
Mike L.

I too enjoy Borg while at the same time shying being disturbed by his minimization of mystery and need for certainty.

I find claims of certainty in this world to be generally untenable when examined closely. And I find mystery both appealing, and unavoidable given my own very human limitations.

Faith is premised on acceptance of mystery, not on the grasping of certainty. The question is what is truly mysterious as opposed to just not yet fully comprehended.

Unknown said…
Bob, first, I say that you are "right on" with your summary and your comments regarding Tickle's book. Thanks for your thoughtful review. Second, after spending a morning with Tickle last October along with 5 other Disciples from Omaha, I was struck by Phyllis' graciousness as well as her grasp of the different strands of the movement. I sensed that she knew well that the "ground had moved" in the movement and had a few revisions she would like to make to her book.

What struck me or interested me at the time was the answer to the question, "Who is involved at the grass roots?" Our answer (she was very collaborative--an emergent trait) was many people. And, they have been for years. She noted emergent trends in the 1910's and 1920's. She noted young adults (of course) but also disaffected baby boomers and older adults. She also noted that the 2 groups in the church that tended to get it was forward-looking people in the grass roots as well as the leaders in the national and international aspects of the church. The last people to "get it" tended to be regional or middle judicatory people. Emergent leaders just tend to ignore these folk.

Thanks, Bob, for highlighting this important book and giving us good food for thought and action.

Peace, Doug Pfeiffer

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