I know that several readers have made a point of picking up Phyllis Tickle’s excellent book, The Great Emergence. If you haven’t, check out this video to get an idea of what it is about.
Tickle’s premise is that every five-hundred years, “the empowered structures of institutionalized Christianity, whatever they may be at that time, become an intolerable carapace that must be shattered in order that renewal and new growth may happen.” (p. 16) In other words, about every 500 years, Christianity experiences a paradigm shift, and according to Tickle, we are on the verge of experiencing one of these shifts today. She calls it The Great Emergence.
[On a side note, those of you who immediately bristle at the words “emerging” or “emergent” need not be put off. I think that what Tickle describes in this book represents a much broader phenomenon than that which characterizes the current “emerging conversation” in the U.S., although it is admittedly a big part.]
Based on the lessons of history, Tickle expects that the following will happen as a result of this paradigm shift:
1. A new, more vital form of Christianity will emerge.
2. The form of Christianity that used to be dominant is reconstituted into a purer form of its former self. (Think the Catholic Reformation.)
3. The Christian faith will spread into new geographic and demographic areas.
Of course, today Christianity exists in various incarnations. In the book, Tickle describes four groups—liturgicals, social justice Christians, renewalists, and conservatives. Her assessment is that as a result of globalization, the information age, urbanization, postmodernism, and a host of other factors, these sectors are beginning to swirl into a great confluence at the center, and that this new, emerging form of Christianity will embrace elements of each. (We’ll talk more about this later.) Our resident science nerds will perhaps find it interesting that Tickle thinks this new Christianity will reflect elements of Emergence theory.
Reverend Mark Dyer describes these paradigm shifts, or “semi-millennial eruptions” as great rummage sales. It’s as if the Church cleans out its attack, gets rid of a few things, dusts off and polishes some others, and becomes something new, but not entirely different.
So how does a “rummage sale” of Christian ideals sound to you? Exciting? Dangerous? Heretical?
I used to think that change within the Church was a bad thing. I didn’t mind the idea of superficial changes, like in music style or worship services, but the idea of theological change seemed dangerous to me.
I attribute this attitude to a somewhat distorted view of Christian history. Once upon a time, I thought that the Christian faith, or at least the purest version of it, had started with Jesus and his disciples, taken a hiatus for about a thousand years during the reign of Roman Catholicism, returned with Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation, and gotten properly explained again by the 1895 Bible Conference of Conservative Protestants. The most important elements of the faith, I believed, had not changed over the years, only gotten lost and rediscovered again. They were right there in the Bible, as simple and clear as could be, and it was our job as Christians to defend them and protect them from change.
But the real story of Christianity is a lot less streamlined. The real story of Christianity involves centuries of upheaval, uncertainty, disagreement, and change. From the decision at the Jerusalem Council to free new converts from Jewish Law, to the debates of the third of fourth century that led to the biblical cannon the Apostle’s Creed, to the Protestant Reformation which resulted in increased availability of Scripture, to the Galilean controversy which opened and changed minds, the story of the Church is a story of constant adaptation and change.
Whether we like to admit it or not, whenever the world changes, Christians instinctively change with it, and I have this theory that God actually created us that way. It seems to me that whenever followers of Christ begin to inadvertently fundamentalize things that are not, in fact, fundamental to the faith (like geocentricism, the church’s authority to sell indulgences, the separation of the races, etc.), God allows our environment to challenge us. He might use a telescope, 95-theses nailed to a door, or a march on Washington, but the result is always a re-thinking and reassessing of what it really means to know and follow God.
That’s why I’m not as afraid of change as I used to be, and that’s why I am excited by the possibility that we might get to live through one of these paradigm shifts ourselves.
What do you think? Do you think Tickle’s premise is too far-fetched? Do you think that the Church is poised for a dramatic change? How does the possibility of change make you feel? What sort of "false fundamentals" might get thrown out in a rummage sale?
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