It’s been a hectic three days in Belfast with the Re-Emergence conference. I’m exhausted but left with a singular thought: the future of Christianity is ours for the making.
When many people think about Christianity, I suspect they reduce it to the institutions of the church or the doctrines that have been handed down to them from previous generations. When those institutions and doctrines seem to fail so spectacularly – just look at the institutional Catholic Church here in Ireland, or consider the ‘doctrines’ associated with dispensationalist theology in the United States – it may seem like Christianity itself cannot survive.
On the one hand, this is right. The Christianity we have in all its present forms will not survive. I’m a social scientist so I tend to see change and flux as the normal state of affairs. I understand that while people operate within institutional and cultural restraints, people are also the very creators of those institutions and structures. The church is no exception.
One of the keynote speakers was Phyllis Tickle, whose book The Great Emergence has named the historical epoch in which we are living. The old stories we told ourselves about the modern world, and what it meant to be a good Christian in that world, no longer make sense.
What people involved with emergence Christianity are doing is asking the awkward questions about what it means to live as Christians in our brave, new post-modern world.
Tickle says that the most important questions emergence Christians are asking are:
- Where now is the authority? (She says that sola scriptura has taken too much of a beating to provide the answer).
- What does it mean to be human? (The way that chemicals can alter our personalities, the way in which we can so easily take on virtual identities, etc, have raised a host of questions around this larger one).
If I learned one thing at the conference, it is that we don’t have all the answers (or any of the answers?) yet. And this conference raised an almost inexhaustible list of questions. I plan to blog more about them in the coming days.
Tickle is 76-years-old, and one of the most energetic and compelling speakers I have seen. On several occasions she said to those of us present that she wished she would be around longer to see how the Great Emergence works out for Christians.
Tickle said we better get busy tackling those hard questions, but doing so in a way that would bring love and justice. Not always easy, as previous periods of history have shown.
But Tickle seemed excited by the possibilities, by the ideas and practices that are cropping up in emergence Christianity: commitment to community, a focus on Jesus’ incarnation, priority given to experience and the role of the Holy Spirit. In her soft southern drawl, she concluded her final talk with the words:
‘Y’all have fun.’