Phyllis Tickle is one of the featured speakers at the Belfast Re-Emergence Conference on March 16-18, 2010. Her book, The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why (Baker Books, 2008) sets contemporary controversies, upheavals, and developments within Christianity in a sweeping historical context, proclaiming that we are at one of the ‘hinges’ of a great 500-year cycle. She argues that Christianity is being changed into something new and dynamic, and responding – as it has done in epochs past – to the probing questions of the present age.
Lest post-moderns begin to worry that Tickle has constructed a grand, overarching narrative that explains everything: rest assured. That is not the project with which this book is concerned. Rather, Tickle provides us with a concise, elegantly written interpretation of the 2000-year Christian story that allows us to gain some perspective on what may seem, to us, a tumultuous time in which Western Christian faith has been battered almost beyond recognition.
In fact, one of the book’s enduring lessons is that in the battering of faith almost beyond recognition, there is nothing new under the sun. This process has happened time and time again, from the Great Reformation to the Great Schism.
The bogeyman of secularisation, which some social scientists once confidently proclaimed would lead to the elimination of faith altogether, hardly gets a curtain call in Tickle’s account our times, which has been termed ‘the Great Emergence.’
Yes, Tickle acknowledges that church attendance in the West has declined, and that many in the West no longer have a working knowledge of the Bible. But Tickle suggests that such trends are symptomatic of the ‘one question’ that is always present during periods when Christianity re-forms (p. 45):
‘Where now is the authority?’
Tickle argues that the last time that this question was asked – and eventually answered – was during the Great Reformation (the adjective ‘Great’ has been recently added by some scholars). The answer then was that authority is in the Bible: sola scriptura.
That answer, of course, was never definitively accepted by everyone. And Tickle claims that answer is increasingly inadequate, because the authority of scripture has been eroded by developments both within and outside the churches. Such influences range from Biblical criticism to the rise in popularity of the motor car, to changes in family structures, to the ‘marginalisation of Grandma’ as a transmitter of Biblical knowledge and values.
The question of authority is one looming large for Christians almost everywhere they are found. On our island, we need look no further than the Catholics who are now questioning the authority of their church, which they believe has betrayed and abused them.
Tickle writes from a North American context and many of her examples of this questioning of authority come from the ‘emerging’ and ‘emergent’ movements within Protestantism (particularly Protestant evangelicalism) in the United States. Here in Belfast, the Ikon community has been considered part of these wider, international movements.
Tickle also acknowledges that a defining feature of Pentecostalism, now the second largest type of Christianity in the world after Roman Catholicism, is the way in which it questions previously received forms of authority.
Many Pentecostals and charismatics, from Africa to Latin America to Belfast, have answered that question this way: Authority lies in experience.
The ‘experience’ answer is hardly a settled one, however, and the African Pentecostal who experiences a Holy Spirit miracle is vastly different from someone in Ikon who experiences an acute absence of God.
Where now is the authority, indeed.
Tickle’s account of the cultural developments that constitute the Great Emergence is a tour-de-force, examining the contributions of Darwin, Freud, and Einstein. From these swirling intellectual currents Tickle extracts three further questions which have haunted our time (p. 73; 112),
- What is human consciousness and/or the humanness of the human?
- What is the relation of all religions to one another – or, put another way, how can we live responsibly as devout and faithful adherents of one religion in a world of many religions?
- What now is society’s basic or foundational unit?
Tickle argues that the Great Emergence will not achieve any sort of equilibrium until those questions are thoroughly dissected, debated, accommodated – and perhaps even answered!
One of her talks at the Re-Emergence conference is titled ‘Emergence Christianity in Historical Context,’ so there should be plenty of opportunities to push the discussion further.
Possible directions include a deeper and broader discussion of where Catholicism fits into the ‘emergence’ picture. Although Tickle mentions the seminal importance of Vatican II, the book does not really engage with Catholicism as deeply as it does various forms of Protestantism. The book also is quite firmly rooted in North America. It would be helpful to push beyond North America not just to this island, but to non-Western contexts.