Phyllis Tickle explores the Great Emergence, highlights shifts in Christianity

Mar 16, 2014

Christianity is in the midst of a major shift, according the scholar and author Phyllis Tickle. And that shift could involve making more room for the Holy Spirit.

Tickle, respected internationally as an authority on religion, is the founding editor of the religion department at “Publishers Weekly.” She is the author of more than two dozen books, and has received awards for her accomplishments, along with two honorary doctorate degrees.

She spoke at an event on Friday and Saturday in Columbia focused on one question: “What is the future of faith?”

Several groups collaborated to bring her to town, including some local churches, MU departments and MU Extension. She was part of a panel discussion with MU faculty on Friday, and on Saturday, she lectured to a crowd of at least 150 people in the auditorium of Tate Hall.

Tickle said that no one knows for sure what the future of Christianity will look like. But she used history to demonstrate how it has been re-shaped through the years, and explained how the past and present can give some ideas of what the future might hold.

She said religion has an obligation to the culture to answer the question, “How now shall we live?” Or, put another way, Where is the authority?” or “Who is calling the shots?”

A historical pattern

Every 500 years or so, Christianity has gone through “an upheaval,” she said, because the old answer no longer holds true for a large number of people, and the church at large has to accommodate.

Five hundred years ago, the upheaval was the Reformation, when Protestantism was born. There are now more than 37,000 different denominations worldwide.

Five hundred years before the Reformation, in the eleventh century, the church went through the Great Schism – the church split into Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.

Five hundred years before that was the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, and 500 before that was a time scholars call the Great Transition, or Great Transformation.

Today’s shift, Tickle said, is something scholars call the Great Emergence.

She said it’s important to understand that core beliefs don’t change, but the way they are presented and practiced does; the old version of Christianity doesn’t die, but is reconfigured.

The Roman Catholic Church, for example, has survived long past the Reformation – but it went through its own counter-reformation.

Faith and society

Tickle highlighted the strong connection religion has to all aspects of culture. She said that typically, the roughly 150 years before these major religious shifts are full of sociological changes, in which the old ideas are broken down, piece by piece.

One of the hallmarks of the Reformation was the notion of “Sola Scriptura,” or “Scripture alone,” which means that the Bible is the ultimate authority.

But as Tickle sees it, although many people still cling to that notion, a number of societal changes have also challenged it.

In the 1840s, Michael Faraday, an English scientist, helped the world better understand energy and electricity – as physical phenomena. This and other scientific advances, Tickle said, pushed forward the idea that people could understand the world in a purely logical, physical way.

But the real blow, she said, came in the 1850s. Denominations were splitting over slavery, and some groups used the fact that slavery is mentioned and accepted in the Bible to justify it. Others acknowledged that while slavery did occupy a place in the Bible, it was still wrong.

Around the time of World War I, women were buying property and opening bank accounts without a man’s signature. That, too, she said, went against some Biblical principles. “Is the Bible for gender equality?” she asked her audience. “No, she continued.”

The next several decades brought large changes that were less about the authority of Scripture, and more about the passing on of faith. Most of these changes hinged on family dynamics.

During World War II, women went to work, and the little girls raised with working mothers grew up and followed suit.

But naturally, these working women still faced challenges – every month, they experienced a time when they felt the “social awkwardness” of mood changes and physical pain associated with menstruation, or “Mrs. Murphy,” as Tickle euphemized.

But in the 1960s, the birth control pill was widely released, and it changed that. Tickle said that according to scholar Martin Marty, the birth control pill’s release 50 years ago is among the developments that has influenced the Great Emergence most.

By the 1970s, there were more homes with both parents working, and the children in day care. And that, Tickle said, meant a change in the way faith was passed on.

The transmission of the Abrahamic faiths has traditionally started in the home, with the parents passing the faith on to their children, Tickle said. And often times, it was the mothers who would tell their children the stories of the faith regularly in day-to-day life.

But when family dynamics changed, that tradition started slipping away.

“The nature of the home changed, and the church slept through it,” Tickle said.

If the main means of transmitting the faith is gone, what is the church to do?

“You’re not gonna get Momma back in the kitchen,” Tickle said – that’s not necessary, nor would it be right. But what the church does need to do, she advised, is find people who know the stories, and have them pass them on.

She referenced the book of 2 Timothy, in the Bible, in which the apostle Paul writes to a young man. But in 2 Timothy 1:5, he writes, “I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also.”

Too many churches, she said, are seeking out the “Timothys,” when the should be looking for Lois and Eunice.

The “Loises” and “Eunices,” the older members of congregations, need to be reaching out to the young and sharing those stories – and not just in Sunday school, Tickle said. She criticized the notion of going away to a condo to retire at age 65, saying that instead, people needed be around to ensure the continuation of faith.

She gave a simple example of one way this could be done – a grandmother, either biological or simply a grandma-type-figure, could give a pack of purple napkins to a family for the season of Advent. This would be a way to opening the door to a conversation about the liturgical season of Advent, which precedes Christmas, and why it is important.

Hallmarks of Emergence Christians

An emphasis on the stories of the faith is one hallmark of Emergence Christians, Tickle said. They are “deeply narrative, and refuse to bite down on doctrine.”

Emergence Christians also tend to be deeply communal, and they often distinguish “actual versus factual” – the idea that human factuality can’t be imposed on God.

Another hallmark Tickle listed is a sense of spirituality based on Micah 6:8, which asks, “What does the Lord require of you?” The verse continues, “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”  

Come, Holy Spirit

It’s hard to say for sure, but Tickle expects there to be a greater emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit in Christianity moving forward.

She spoke about the growing Pentecostal movement, which sprung up in the early 1900s. A central aspect of the Pentecostal church is the gifts of the spirit, such as speaking in tongues – speaking in words and syllables that aren’t understandable, but that people believe come spiritually.

Tickle anticipates seeing more emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit not just with individuals, but corporately, in church bodies as a whole – and not just in the Pentecostal tradition.

The proportion of Christian writing on the Holy Spirit has “increased exponentially” over the past 100 years, she said.

She referenced a theory of Joachim of Fiore, and eleventh-century mystic. His theory focused on the role of the different persons of the Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – through time. As he saw it, the first 2000 years, from the Garden of Eden to Christ’s coming, were focused on God the Father. From the time of Christ onward, he said, there would be 2,000 years focused on God the Son. And after that – which would mean about where we are now – the focus would be more on the Holy Spirit.

His theory has been refuted, and is not always looked kindly on, but Tickle said it does appear that we are in “the age of the Spirit.”

Getting back to the question Tickle said is at the heart of every upheaval – where is the authority? – it appears that this time, more will be with the Holy Spirit.

“The future of faith lies in the investigation and the intimacy and the welcoming of the Holy Spirit,” she said.

This story was published in partnership with Columbia Faith & Values (ColumbiaFAVS.com), mid-Missouri's source for religion news.