Monday, March 09, 2009

The Great Emergence - Another Perspective

Rev. Richard Wollan, a friend and colleague, has read Tickle's work and has offered this thoughtful review.

Rich's assessment that Tickle does not sufficiently address the contributions of Orthodoxy I found helpful.

Before I comment on The Great Emergence, by Phyllis Tickle, it is necessary to make my bias known. Until I had read this book I viewed the whole “emergent” movement as just another churchy fad. I knew that some emergents were making use of ancient practices and traditions, but I believed even that to be part of the fad—it would not last. More to the point, I viewed much of the emergent leaders and their thinking as so much 1960’s rehash. Liberalism, socialism, environmentalism, antinomianism, anti-clericalism—so much of the emergent movement seemed like very old news, and very boring. Been there, done that, sick of that! True, helpful criticisms of churches stuck in modernity were being leveled, but usually at the expense of the historic, apostolic, catholic faith. If not for my deep respect of the author and Rev. Duke’s strong recommendation, I would never have cracked the cover of this book.

The strength of Tickle’s brief sketch is her ability to paint convincing murals with broad strokes. Despite the inherent weaknesses of speaking in sweeping generalizations, she has done a convincing job of giving the reader a solid look at the past and the present. For a culture that cannot remember the significance of what took place mere months ago (eg. The current financial crisis, or the just completed election cycle!) Tickle’s historical reminders are a big, big help. I found her insight into the 500 year cycle of momentous cultural upheaval to be quite brilliant. And she is undoubtedly right. We are living in the middle of another bi-millennial earthquake where everything (social, political, scientific, ecclesiological, etc), and I mean everything is being shaken down. And her assurance that this has happened before and we are not to blame is wonderfully liberating!

I am not sure, however, that I buy into her interpretation of the massive changes taking place within North American Christianity. This may be because I do not seem to fit into any of her categories (Traditionalists, Re-traditionalists, Progressives, Hyphenateds), at least as she defines them in the book (pg. 140ff). (Although, I do use lots of hyphens to describe myself: Anglo – Catholic – Orthodox – Wesleyan – Arminian – Ancient/Future – Semi-Charismatic). At any rate, here are my points of contention:

1) Abortion. Tickle seems to give this huge topic short shrift (pg. 103). She argues that the definition of what it means to be human is currently up for grabs, but does not connect this to the issue of abortion. To put it in academic terms: HELLO!! In chapter 4 she expresses grave concern that the current fight for hegemony (who or what will be the seat of authority) not become a blood bath like the 30 & 80 years’ wars of the Middle Ages. What is abortion if not a blood bath? And what of Nazi concentration camps, and Stalin’s gulags? Countless millions are already very dead in the fight for hegemony. Now I grant that her primary focus is on North America, but abortion remains a, if not the defining battle in church and society in this current upheaval. Even in a short book, it needed more comment.

2) Canterbury, Rome, Constantinople. The number of Protestants and Evangelicals who have followed the road to one of these cities is, while not constituting the majority, quite significant. Robert Webber, Richard John Neuhaus, Jarislov Pelikan, each made the journey into the Anglican, Catholic, and Orthodox communions. As have many others in the last half century. Tickle does not address this either, but it must surely be a significant part of the “emergence” that is currently taking place. Yes, a number of Catholics and Anglicans have joined the ranks of Evangelicals and Pentecostals, but that only proves my point of its significance. Additionally, it seems the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches are composed of individuals who represent the four quadrants (Liturgicals, Social Justice, Renewalists, Conservatives) in a very balanced and full way. At least, I would contend, in a way that most Protestant, Evangelical, and Pentecostal churches do not. It only makes sense. The historic Church has always possessed within it a healthy and vigorous debate between individuals who could be placed firmly in a particular quadrant. Again, Tickle does not address this aspect of the historic churches.

3) The Great Center of the Great Emergence. When I closed the book after reading it from cover to cover, I still had a very fuzzy notion of who or what the “center swirl” of the Great Emergence is actually composed of? I suppose this is intentional on Tickle’s part, since everything is now in flux and awaits full bodied definition. She offers the Vineyard movement as an example of the Emergence, emphasizing that they are resisting any sort of centralization in church governance or even in theology. We can all rest assured this will not last. History teaches us that free and loose movements begin by eschewing “organization” and “the institutional church” and always, without fail, end up with ever sharper lines of organization and ever more clearly defined structures of an institution. Many may now say they are “spiritual” folk who stay away from “organized religion”, but it will not last. They will either come into the Church, form their own “church”, or cease being spiritual altogether (except when the pollster inquires). It is the natural (whether God given or Fallen I cannot say) inclination of human beings to band together, make rules, set up boundary lines, appoint authoritative leaders, and compose dogmatic documents. Such has happened with every previous bi-millennial “rummage sale”, and so it will be with this one. Already, emergent leaders are writing books (and many of them!) to offer contours and parameters for the movement. Now, what about THE issue of authority?

4) Authority. The bottom line is that I fail to see how this perennial conundrum will be resolved in a new way in the Great Emergence. It seems all has been tried before: authoritative leaders (bishops, popes, and patriarchs), authoritative bodies (Ecumenial councils, partisan councils, synods, conferences, etc.), authoritative documents (Bible, creeds, bulls, encyclicals, books of discipline, etc.), authoritative experiences (outpouring of the Holy Spirit, tongues, healings, revivals, charismatic preachers, etc.). Tickle talks about authority arising within the conversation of a community that shares a common story and life. This is not predictive but merely descriptive of the beginning stages of how the issue of authority is always resolved. You see it most clearly, perhaps, in the first 500 years of church history. As the community of Jesus grows numerically and geographically, all of the methods of setting proper authority (as listed above) are employed and with good and positive effect. The fact that all of these methods are abused and eventually fall out of favor is no argument for selling them off at the bi-millennial rummage sale. And Tickle does do a good job of showing how Christianity always grows exponentially as sincere believers argue, reject, renew and reform what has been. My point is that as the 21st century progresses “emergents” will invariably turn to and more fully develop the various means of determining authority that history and the Holy Spirit has given us. The problem is that it feels like an all-you-can-eat buffet free-for-all until certain lines can be more solidly established.

5) Orthodoxy. Tickle briefly mentions the importance of Eastern and Oriental Christian exposure in the West. I wish she would have said more, for I believe Eastern Christianity holds a model of authority that the West has ignored since the centuries leading up to the Great Schism. The West consistently has an either/or approach to authority. Uncomfortable with the Bishops of the great sees being relatively equal, the Bishop of Rome becomes the first among equals. Between the Pope and church councils, the Pope must have final say. Between tradition and the Bible, one must be chosen to the diminution of the other. The East, it seems, long resisted this apparent need to locate authority in primarily one vehicle. Orthodox often describe themselves as “conciliar Christians”. They refer specifically to the first seven ecumenical councils. (Certain items from these councils cause a good deal of squirming for Evangelicals, like calling Mary “Mother of God” and the use of icons in worship). Orthodox tend to refer to the consensus that exists over the centuries and over the continents of the earth. Yes, to rest authority in a mushy concept like consensus is messy—indeed, church history is very messy when it comes to the issue of authority. But for Orthodox, the “mess” comes together in the Liturgy to create a vivid and striking mosaic of apostolic, historic, biblical, and catholic Faith. Of course Orthodoxy has experienced huge changes over the centuries, even in the Liturgy. They would argue, however, that the changes largely bring the Gospel into great clarity and fullness. The bottom line is that it is in the corporate worship of the Church, expressed and transmitted in the Divine Liturgy, where authority is most accessible for the Orthodox Christian. Yes, they have priests, Bishops and Patriarchs (and the first among the equal Patriarchates is in Constantinople!), Councils, the Bible, and essential beliefs one must possess to be called Orthodox; but it is in and through worship, liturgy, and the sacraments that the Christian comes to understand and live the truth of the Gospel.

And certainly this is true not only in emergent churches, but also in Evangelical and Protestant churches. Why is Joe Christian such a vociferous proponent of social justice? He grew up in a church where the worship and teaching centered around social justice issues. Why does Sue Christian believe the Word of God, the Bible, to be inerrant and the only authority for the believer? It is her inheritance from the particular people of God she has been in community with. And on it goes. Phyllis Tickle is certainly right about authority flowing out of community. It has always been so. Perhaps the difficulty now is that with technology our “community” has become global in scale!

My concern for emergent churches (and even for my own Wesleyan church) is the kind of formation that is taking place in our corporate worships services. Believers and non-believers ARE being formed and shaped through the songs, preaching, teaching, prayers, drama, cafĂ© seating and technology that are employed there. I believe that the Great Emergence now happening is forming around the deep roots of the historic Christian faith. If there is a rummage sale happening, what is being sold at discount prices are the now old and out-dated items of the Enlightenment and Modernity. Meanwhile the very old and ancient is being restored and polished and being put in increasingly prominent places in our worship and community life. Will the pop-emergents (those merely seeking the latest do-dad or fad to add to their eclectic faith) and Wesleyans, 50 years from now, find themselves somewhere in or around that ancient center; or instead in the trash bins and refuse piles that much of Protestantism now finds itself in? I think I know the answer and that’s what greatly bothers me.


Anonymous said...

I want to offer some evidence that the "emergence" taking place in the church is indeed forming around the deep and ancient roots of Chrisianity. On the Ancient Faith Radio home page right now, ( if you scroll down, is a dialogue between an Evangelical (Dr. George Kalantzis, orgininall from Greece, now teaching at Wheaton) and an Orthodox (Dr. Bradly Nassif, professor at North Park Univ.). If you listen you will hear a lot that Evangelicals and Orthodox hold in common, AND, more significantly, you will hear how our inheritance from the Enlightenment (individualism, autonomous reason, etc.) is being rejected and being replaced with a more ancient, apostolic and Eastern way of thinking and being.
--Rich Wollan

M. Swaim said...

Welcome to the topic of my future thesis.

I'm one of those "unaddressed" ones you mention above who moved from a stint in the "Emergent" movement (which I still believe to be far too abstract of a term to even be useful in most cases) to Rome, as it were. And when it dawned on me why I did, it dawned on me why the Emergents are a valiant effort that can't last.

I remember sitting through a talk by Brian McLaren, and thinking to myself, "Amen! Quote more Dorothy Day! Quote more Augustine! More Chesterton, more Aquinas!" I myself was quoting the same bodies of work.

However, I came to a realization that knocked the wind out of me- when I was quoting these theological giants, I was quoting them to prove myself right about a particular point. Imagine my humiliation when I suddenly discovered the reason I was drawn to them was not because they helped me prove my points, but because they were right about the nature of reality, and I was looting their graves for money quotes.

In essence, the Emergent movement is doomed as long as it continues to loot graves. It has a hunger for history, but it also has a desire to dissociate itself from the very history which gave even it its birth.

I wonder if in twenty years we will even hear people using the word "Emergent" to describe themselves. Something else will undoubtedly "emerge" to supplant it.