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The Great Emergence…

March 10, 2009

This post  on Phyllis Tickle’s book, The Great Emergence, is an assignment for my Eastern Mennonite Seminary course–The Good News, Culture and Anabaptism.  For Steve and those in the class, the first section is a survey of the book.  My own critical engagement comes in the second half.  You can skip to that by going to the continue reading link.  For those of you who haven’t read the book and want a brief overview–read from the beginning.

2625944982_781db56816Phyllis Tickle identifies the current period in the broader culture and the church as The Great Emergence. This book  is an attempt to provide some description of what is going on and what has produced this time of profound change in the broader culture and within Christianity. Tickle begins with the long view of history as seen through a sociology of religion lens. The breadth of this view allows Tickle to identify a consistent pattern which characterizes the development particularly of the Judeo-Christian movement (although she suggests the pattern is consistent in other religious systems). The thesis is essentially that every five hundred years there is a major shift. About every five hundred years the empowered structures of an overly established Christianity must be shattered so that renewal and new growth may occur.

When these hinge moments happen in history, Tickle observes that there are always three consistent results or corollary events.

1. A new, more vital form of Christianity does indeed emerge.

2. The organized expression of Christianity which up until then had been the dominant one is reconstituted into a more pure and less ossified expression of its former self. As a result of this usually energetic but rarely benign process, the Church actually ends up with two new creatures where once there had been only one. That is, in the course of birthing a brand-new expression of its faith and praxis, the Church also gains a grand refurbishment of the older one.

3. Every time the incrustations of an overly established Christianity have been broken open, the faith has spread—and been spread—dramatically into new geographic and demographic areas, thereby increasing exponentially the range and depth of Christianity’s reach as a result of its time of unease and distress.


While Tickle acknowledges the futility of trying to affix to fine a point to an Event or Person that cause the hinge moment to occur (hinge moments are always driven by the convergence of many contributing factors) she identifies the following touchstones:

The Great Reformation: October 31, 1517

Martin Luther allegedly nails his 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg.

The Great Schism: 1054

The Patriarch of Eastern Orthodox Christianity had his anathemas and Leo IX had his bulls of excommunication. Constantinople versus Rome. One had Greek and used leavened bread for the mass and believed the Holy Spirit descended from God the Father. The other called Latin the language of God and God’s uses, used only unleavened bread in the communion meal, and argued that the Holy Spirit descends equally from God the Father and God the Son.

Gregory the Great: Gregory comes to the papacy sometime around 590 CE.

He leads a continent that was in total upheaval into some kind of ecclesio-political coherence and, building on the work of St. Benedict, guides Christianity firmly into the monasticism that would protect, preserve, and characterize it during the next five centuries.

Tickle identifies the 20th century as one of Emergence. She helpfully traces the historical figures whose voices contribute to the context in which539170551_950556c1641 we now find ourselves. It is important to have these developments in view as we seek to understand more fully where we are now and anticipate where things are heading.

  • Einstein (1905) published four papers (theory of relativity) that changed the consensual illusion forever
  • Heisenberg (1927) and Uncertainty
  • Literary deconstruction: there is no absolute truth, only truth relative to the perceiver.
  • The battle over the Bible: erosion of sola scriptura basis of authority. “When it is all resolved…the Reformation’s understanding of Scripture as it had been taught by Protestantism for almost five centuries will be dead.” (101)
  • The Quest for the Historical Jesus: Reimarus, Schweitzer, Heisenberg…Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, Elaine Pagels, and Karen King—Jesus as much a guru as God Incarnate.
  • July 20, 1969: Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the surface of Earth’s moon—“the footstool of God.” Consequently, literalism based on inerrancy could not survive the blow; and without inerrancy-based literalism, the divine authority of Scripture was decentralized, subject to human interpretation, turned into some kind of pick-and-choose bazaar. Where now is our authority?
  • Pentecostalism (1906 Azusa Street—William Seymour) offered the Great Emergence its first, solid, applied answer to the question of where now is our authority—Holy Spirit as authority.

Tickle effectively provides a historical-sociological framework within which we can better understand what we see happening within Christianity at the beginning of the 21st century. Before moving on to explore Tickle’s typology for what is emerging and what might be the gathering center, I want to take a critical look at a core assumption that shapes how Tickle is working with the history of religion. She explicitly states this in chapter two where she presents the central metaphor which will be used throughout the book (the Cable of Meaning: The Loss and Discovery of a Common Story). The core assumption is this: religion is a social construct (as well as an individual or private way of being and understanding). (33)

Some questions I would have for Tickle’s whole work then are based on this foundational assumption. Is God just an idea? I am sympathetic toward the impulse of deconstruction which seeks to name the subjectivity (human-centered) of language as vehicle to communicate the ineffability of the divine. From a faith perspective, the assumption would be that God exists prior to human history. God exists beyond language. God exists outside of time.

It would seem important to identify that Tickle’s methodology is more sociological than theological (or even philosophical). There is a sense for me that while her analysis is perceptive and accurate, it does little in the way of providing a basis for understanding how the “Cable of Meaning” (the consensual illusion or common imagination) represents more than just a human attempt to explain God and societal cohesion. If Christianity is merely a social construct, is not the locus of authority inherently human. If we deconstruct religion so as to expose the inconsistencies and bankruptcies in the consensual illusion, what resources do we have to talk about a God-initiated cosmos (time and matter existence)?

These questions are perhaps beyond the scope of Tickle’s project, but nevertheless I think they are critical as we seek to identify a gathering center. The question would be this. How do finite human beings discern the center when we are intractably situated in particularity? How is the center a mystical reality that is beyond our attempt to name and categorize? Also, I wonder how Tickle’s work does or does not represent a teleology consistent with a Christian worldview. That is, would Tickle say this broader pattern of Formation—Re-formation—Deconstruction—Emergence is one that is headed to a certain God-purposed ending (telos)?

Now to move beyond my critical questions. Tickle presents a model for how we might understand what is happening in the Great Emergence ecclesially. Her model begins with a quadrilateral which includes these four categories: Liturgicals, Social Justice Christians, Renewalists, and Conservatives. Her model suggests that within each quadrant there are other currents which are at work either moving toward a gathering center (the new thing God is doing—Acts 11) or toward a retrenched version of the particular orthodoxy of each quadrant. These other currents are named as the traditionalists, re-traditioning, progressives, and hyphenateds. These are helpful descriptive categories to name various impulses that are expressed within the church as we move through this time of flux and upheaval.

While Tickle’s typology is helpful, I have found the model developed by Wess Daniels to be even more comprehensive as we think about the various expressions of emerging church. His categories (not mutually exclusive) are:

1. Deconstructionist Model

2. Pre-Modern/Augustinian Model

3. Emerging Peace Church Model (or Open Anabaptism)

4. Foundationalist Model

Daniels constructs these categories around a) philosophers and theologians who have influenced these groups, and b) by their stance toward Western culture. I find his approach quite helpful and perhaps a bit closer to the ground (where as Tickle takes more of a birds-eye view). While using slightly different language, there is certainly overlap between these categories and the quadrants (and sub-currents) in Tickle’s typology.

Each quadrant and the sub-currents within the quadrants provide different ways of talking about the center and what it means to live with that perspective in history. This provides for messy church realities, applying conflicted language and assumptions. If the way ahead is to be coherent and constructive rather than fragmenting and violent, it will require a shift toward a centered-set way of thinking as opposed to a bounded-set. Both orthodoxy and orthopraxy will help define the center. Authority will not be used in violent ways or for the purposes of exclusion.

Tickle seems to be hopeful as she looks to the future. While I share her sense of hopefulness, I’m not sure if I would situate it in the same place she does. She looks again through the lens of sociology and human reason—network theory—when she says:

…the Church is a self-organizing system of relations, symmetrical or otherwise, between innumerable member-parts that themselves form subsets of relations within their smaller networks, etc., etc., in interlacing levels of complexity.

The end result of this understanding of dynamic structure is the realization that no one of the member parts or connecting networks has the whole or entire “truth” of anything, either as such and/or when independent of the others. …is sustainable so long as the interconnectivity of the whole remains intact. (152)

My sense of hope for this to happen is based in the need to understand what Tickle is saying here, but also to trust in the providential work of transcendent God who has been revealed in scandalously particular ways in history. Our understanding of anything that is emerging must, I believe, also engage with this God-initiated activity in history with the assumption that we are engaging with something beyond a human construct. It seems critical to identify how our understanding of the Incarnation—Jesus Christ—provides an orientation into the gathering center. Thus, the locus of authority as we discern the gathering center in terms of belief and praxis, must not just be spoken of pneumatically (the Spirit), but also be rooted in the revelation of God in the flesh—Jesus Christ.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. March 10, 2009 9:18 pm

    Thanks Brian,
    I again keep coming back to on question; what earthly good are we doing? I wonder if Tickle is only focused on how a belief system is preserved and recycled but not how “God who has been revealed in scandalously particular ways in history”. What earthly good do we do if we lose this incarnate God and trust in God’s action/leading? Does any author look at these shifts interms of God’s work?

  2. just an apprentice permalink
    March 11, 2009 6:02 am

    Thanks for your questions. I share your questions. I wonder if we might have to look in different places to find the authors looking at these shifts in terms of God’s work. Perhaps it is too early. Perhaps we have not seen these books yet that are able to apply a critical theological lens that moves beyond describing (phenomenological approach) what is Emerging to a more constructivist theology rooted in the trinitarian mystery, rooted in the Incarnation, and propelled outward through Pentecost.

    Perhaps we need to start writing. James McClendon provides some orientation for how we might do so from a third-way perspective. I think Stuart Murray assumes that the post-Christendom shift is not a bad thing, because ultimately God’s redemptive purposes in history are not tied to kingdoms of this world. There is a third way.

  3. Mark Salmon permalink
    March 23, 2009 3:20 am

    Dear Brian
    A great summary, but with reference to the “cable of meaning” just to suggest that it could very well be said that all religion is a social, human construct, but that faith is the human reaction to divine revelation which drives the development of religion, but the social and cultural forces also have a major effect in shaping religion as it is practised.
    thus when the “cable” is compromised it requires some wisdom to extract the human from the divine and provide new framework for faith.

  4. just an apprentice permalink
    March 23, 2009 8:30 am

    Dear Mark,
    Thanks for your very helpful comment. A question: Is faith then primarily an individual or communal response to divine revelation. My contention would be that it is both.

    How then, do we understand the communal dimension of faith–the human reaction to divine revelation?

    How does the “new framework for faith” find its language (narratives of meaning)?

    How do the communities which situate their faith responses to God in new frameworks of faith find continuity and coherence within the broader (across space and time) faith community? In other words, what is the locus of the “gathering center”?

    What is your context? U.K?

    Grace and peace,

  5. Mark Salmon permalink
    March 23, 2009 12:02 pm

    Very much a UK context, although with some experience in Far Eastern and African Church. But as a pastor in the UK I find the way people understand life has a completely mixed up, mix of Christian, folk myth, tv story, and plain romantic imagination as its root. The challenge of doing gospel in that context means that almost every encounter is unique! All exceptions, no rule!
    Which makes the old ways of doing Church and understanding the world sometimes a place of refuge for those who are at sea at present, and a prison for those still caught in them from the past.
    Which means finding a gathering centre difficult. My guess is that our gathering centre will be in enabling community for a rootless generation.

  6. just an apprentice permalink
    March 23, 2009 12:36 pm

    Yes. I think the key becomes how we realize a Christ-centered community.

    I appreciate the work Miroslav Volf has done in helping us think of Church in the image of the Trinity.

    I think a Trinitarian understanding of community is key if we are to express community in a way that uncovers a reality deeper than our contemporary social-historical location.

    I am not that hopeful if the task becomes one of “creating community.” I think we are invited into the divine community of Love. Could this be the gathering center? One that both comes before us, is incarnated, and is to come?

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