The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why by Phyllis Tickle

(Baker: Grand Rapids, 2008)

If you were taking ‘Emerging Church’ as a formal study unit, The Great Emergence by Phylis Tickle would be a textbook. She argues that the Judeo-Christian tradition has a habit of renewing itself every 500 years or so and the experimentation we are currently seeing in the emerging church movement is part of this process and the Church will look very different by the middle of the 21st century. Key to this process is an integration of the different expressions of church from the previous epoch but not as a homogenous, simple entity. Rather, as a network of religious belief, belonging and behaving recognisable to each other by the orientation it’s centering principle: Jesus Christ. I think others write better speculating about the future, but as I continue to read in this university session, I see the acute scholarship in her analysis of the past.

I’ve just re-read Phylis Tickle having read Schleiermacher’s Second Speech: On The Essence of Religion. Schleirermacher is a 19th century theologian who is often quoted as the Father of Twentieth Century Liberal theology. I found it fascinating mapping his influence and was drawn back into Phylis Tickle’s argument about the present emergence of the Christian church into something new. In a lecture to a group of atheists, Schleiermacher presented an apologetics argument that religion should not be seen as a logical set of rationalities nor a particular set of moral behaviours, rules and actions. “The essence of religion consists in the feeling of an absolute dependence.” In other words, religion is best defined as that intuition or feeling that all human beings have: that there is something mysterious, something divine, something beyond ourselves. I am interested that this is how most people would define spirituality these days. (See the post on spirituality and theology, including the comments where I explain to Marcus why I favour a human-centric definition of spirituality.)

Phylis Tickle refers to both sociological and philosophical shifts that are shuffling the church into a new era. The postmodern cultural pressures on the church are now well known and their effects relatively obvious (eg. No-one walks to church anymore). What is less often discussed is the philosophical shifts underlying the beliefs of everyday Christians. For me, Schleiermacher represents the first shots fired in the ‘Spirituality Revolution’ which has birthed a variety of pyscho-spiritual expressions. This includes such a diverse range of movements in both religious and non-religious human experience as the whole psycho-dynamic psycho-therapy movement, charismatic renewal in the Church, the embracing of Eastern spiritualities, and, as Phylis Tickle points out, eventually forged into emerging forms of church ecclesiology and worship.

There are 2 themes introduced by Schleiermacher which have influenced Christian theology. The first is this recovery of the psycho-spiritual. The second is a theology of universalism: that all religions are basically variant expressions of one, unified divine mystery. The two are connected for him because religion is the experience of the divine within a tradition, not the doctrine or moral code of that religion (which clearly differ between religions). However, the postmodern subjectivity ‘turn’ a century after Schleirermacher developed intellectual tools to offer a more sophisticated explanation of universal human experience. (See the post on David Tracey’s limit situations for an example of how Schleiermacher’s concerns have been evolved.) Post-liberal theorists have found a way to let multiple experiences and explanations sit side by side without having to dissolve them, because we understand ultimate truth and transcendent being (in whatever form) necessarily exists beyond our definitive knowing. So post-post liberal theorists (or whatever we are up to now!) have continued to move away further from a need for the doctrine of universalism. I love the way Rowan Williams explains the importance of rejecting universalism: the Jesus story (or the Hebrew story, Buddha’s story etc) gets distorted if we do not allow it’s uniqueness to stand (See the post on Rowan Williams and Pluralism for an example.)  Tickle gets onto this in her final chapter describing the kind of distinctive expressions of the Great Emergence.

The other day a new friend called me ‘liberal.’ My response was, “Yes, postmodern Christianity can look a lot like liberalism.” But if liberal refers to an embracing of humanistic enlightenment theology, I am definitely not a liberal! Recovering the experiential – the psycho-spiritual aspect of human consciousness – is a critical element to postmodern theologies. Also, I still hold to the exclusivist claims of Christ as the unique divine embodiment of the God Who Is the source of all existence. However, that does not mean that I am then logically obliged to reject the aspects of truth, beauty and goodness in other religious discourses. Indeed, paradox is paramount to postmodern epistemology. In fact, if I sense myself bumping up against two understandings that both seem to be true but don’t immediately fit logically together, I intuitively feel like I might be really onto something!

Living in the creative space between ‘boxes’ of established theological and ecclesiological traditions is not easy. Phylis Tickle doesn’t really discuss the birthpangs in her book, but anyone who understands her thesis will know them. They are also evident in the questions that she says are critical in every great transition. I love these questions, they are my questions and the questions that I see in the Church as I know it today:

  • how do we know stuff? (what are our sources of authority, what happens to sola scriptura, and what is the nature of the term ‘truth’?)
  • who are we? (what is it to be a human being?)

and to a lesser extent she says this question which preoccupies me personally:

  • How is our community structured (eg. Nuclear family of Reformation Era is being deconstructed and a new basic building block of society relationships is yet to functionally replace it.)