I don’t recall ever being so enthralled and irritated reading a book as last week when I read The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why by Phyllis Tickle [(Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2008) ISBN 978-0-8010-1313-3]. Once I started I couldn't put it down. This book offers an explanation of the current great transformation taking place in Christianity, what Tickle calls the Great Emergence. Her thesis is that Christianity (probably all religions and civilizations) undergoes massive reorientation every five hundred years or so. Those transformations are preceded by a period of unrest; they result in new forms of the faith, a revitalization of the older dominant form, and a rapid expansion of the faith. The Christian transformations are labeled as the ones identified with Gregory the Great, the Great Schism, the Great Reformation, and the current Great Emergence.
The beauty and power of this book is Tickle’s ability to weave a majestic tapestry of the diverse cords that flow through Christian history, multiply in the twentieth century and converge into what is most often called postmodernity. Tickle virtually ignores this slightly older term (postmodern) and opts for the more narrowly focused term emergence. Her great gift is the ability to use real life metaphors to encapsulate complex scientific/cultural/religious developments so that the average reader can grasp the big picture. She is a gifted writer, using prose that is clear and enticing.
Tickle traces the influences on twenty-first century Christianity along the same lines I have traced them for the past twenty-plus years teaching on the historical foundations for Christian formation. She and I factor in the importance of the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, Marx, Darwin, Einstein, liberalism, fundamentalism, the Great Depression, the twentieth century wars, the explosion of technology, etc. She does it all with much greater skill than I ever will.
She paints an enticing portrait, first of the factors influencing North American Christianity, and second of a speculative future with emergents forming the integrative center of Christianity. But she fails to effectively defend her broad generalizations about the role of the emergent movement in the future of Christianity. The text is full of assertions without evidence of fact (i.e., 85% of Christianity will be emergent). Documentation (if available) would have been helpful. In all of this she truncates the future of Christianity into the United States as if Christianity will be defined by what is happening in an increasingly irrelevant sector of the church. In short, she has a good grasp of the great influences on our present situation but grossly overstates the influence of the emergents and misdiagnoses the current condition because she chooses to ignore the greater influences on the present. Her work is less than convincing on several fronts.
First, she is overly committed to a paradigm of periodic transformations of Christianity. She fails to recognize that that very paradigm is a product of a progressive view of history birthed in the nineteenth century. It is the paradigm that gave us Marx’s view of inevitable social evolution, Dewey’s pragmatism and progressive education, and Whitehead’s process theology. A closer look at her model (see page 17) reveals it just doesn’t fit the facts associated with either the period of Gregory the Great or the Great Schism.
Second, she fails to explore the underlying philosophic shifts associated with periodic changes in Western worldviews. The major shifts in church history are the results of changing appropriations of ancient Greek philosophies: Plato’s Idealism and Aristotle’s realism in particular. The Dark Ages were inaugurated by Augustine’s introduction of Platonic thought into the mainstream of Christian theology. The Renaissance flows out of Aquinas’s introduction of Aristotle into mainstream theology. Modernity is the product of the ongoing struggle between Christian Platonism and Christian Realism. Postmodernity is the product of the secularization of the guiding beliefs of the Western world resulting in the marginalization of Christianity. Tickle seems to assume Christianity is still at the center of Western societies and thereby fails to recognize the issue is no longer can the church be reformed; the question is will it survive.
Third, as stated above, while she is careful to state in the text that she is only addressing Christianity in North America, she writes as if what is happening here will determine what happens in the rest of the world. The emergent movement that she focuses on is a fringe (if well publicized) expression of Christianity with limited presence outside of England, New Zealand, Australia, and North America. Perhaps it should be called the emerging Anglo Christianity (dare I say “Anglican”), but that would over state the evidence as well. Christianity has been rapidly expanding in Latin America, Africa, and Asia throughout the past fifty years, where the expansion is predominantly a Pentecostal/Charismatic movement. (Here her paradigm breaks down; the rapid expansion of the church is preceding the rise of the emergent movement.) Recent scholarship makes it clear the current transformation of Christianity began a century ago and is now centered in the so-called two-thirds world. [See especially, Pentecostalism and the Future of the Christian Churches: Promises, Limitations, Challenges by Richard Shaull and Waldo A. Cesar (2000), but also look at Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the 21st Century by Harvey Cox (2001) and The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity by Philip Jenkins.]
Fourth, Tickle’s “cable of meaning” metaphor for explaining the processes of periodic transformations of the church, while enticing, is fraught with difficulties. For example, the tri-partition of meaning into spirituality, morality, and corporality (pages 36-37) fails to recognize the essential unity of truth. She defines spirituality and morality as internal and externalized values. Corporality refers to the “evidences” that something (religion) exists. Thus, the three strands are actually two: values (internal and external) are one strand and evidences are a second. The metaphor builds off of a philosophic dualism. This allows her to address homosexuality as being a corporal rather than a moral issue (see footnote 1, page 39, page 101), and thereby imply it is inevitable the church will eventually recognize the acceptability of homosexuality.
Fifth, her generalizations of sola scriptura are misleading. Protestants never placed all authority in Scripture and seldom excluded some form of a magisterium beyond the individual. Certainly the authority of Scripture is being challenged and adjusted in this era, but the Bible will remain the authoritative voice of God in authentic Christianity.
Finally, speaking as a Pentecostal, it would be helpful if Tickle did not misrepresent the character of the movement. Pentecostals have not replaced Scripture as authority with experience of the Spirit as authority (page 85). Pentecostals are people of the Book. They understand their experience of the Spirit and their experience of the Bible as a unified whole. For them the Bible is not a dead book, it is Word of God, always breathed and carried by the Spirit. The authority of Scripture is never in doubt; the issue is the authority to interpret Scripture. Pentecostals are transrational; the hermeneutic endeavor requires humans to bring the best of their reason to the interpretive task but to reject reason as the sole arbiter of truth. Bible study is turned on its head; the objective is not to properly interpret the Bible, but to allow the Bible to interpret us. All authority resides in the Word and the Spirit.
In conclusion, near the end of the text (p. 161) she makes a most significant observation about the transformation of Christianity during the time of Constantine, “More consequential even than doctrine per se was Christianity’s shift, under Constantine’s protective aegis, from Judaism’s holistic theology and holistic conceptualization of human life and structure to the dualism of Greek philosophy and of Greco-Roman culture.” Here she raises the question of whether the emergents with their emphasis on church tradition will appropriate the pre-Constantinian, Judaic worldview. In this she stops just short of what is for me the central question facing Christianity as we move further into postmodernity: should the church seek not just to learn from but to see restored the essential realities of primitive Christianity and if so what would that look like? [This was in truth the question raised by the pre-reformers, the reformers, John Wesley, the nineteenth century restorationists, and the early Pentecostals.] My own suspicion is that the emerging Christianity of the South and East has already begun to resolve that question and that the Euro/American emergents have not yet fully faced it.