A seismic shift in the bedrock of religion in this country is occurring, and we are living in a time of significant change and realignment in Christianity driven by what’s called the Great Emergence.
Providing a chart to understand how this change has come about and where it might lead is author Phyllis Tickle, founding editor of the Religion Department of Publishers Weekly, author of more than two dozen books on religion and spirituality and well-known authority on religion in America.
This recent paperback edition of her book provides a fascinating overview of the historical, political and cultural factors that have led to an explosion of change in our understanding of the universe, the structures of human relationships, and the beliefs we have – all told in 165 pages. An addendum, “A Guide for Reading and Discussing,” helps individuals and groups break down the components of her book.
To understand what the Great Emergence is for Christianity, writes Tickle, requires first a familiarity with several major historical markers that set the stage for what is happening to and within the world’s largest religion.
She lists three major events – three “Greats,” as she calls them – in her overview of historical changes in the past 1,500 years: the papacy of Gregory I (540 to 604 A.D.), popularly known as Gregory the Great; the Great Schism of 1054, in which Western and Eastern traditions of the Church broke apart; and the Great Reformation of 1517, commonly dated to Martin Luther’s nailing of the 95 theses to the Castle Church of Wittenberg, Germany.
Though the starting dates are more fluid than precise, each encapsulates a dynamic shift in history, both secular and religious. And in her schematic, each occurs at the start of a 500-year interval.
During these half-century milestones, shifts in religion occurred that led to new ways of thinking and believing. For example, Pope Gregory I helped stabilize a continent in turmoil and, with the rise of monasticism, preserved and shaped the Christian faith for the next five centuries. The Great Reformation, with its stress on Scripture rather than the pope as the source of spiritual authority, required a literate populace. As a result, literacy increased thereby quickening the birth of rationalism and the Enlightenment.
Following the Great Reformation, and with an increasingly conflicted interplay between the secular and sacred, the list of changes becomes more familiar to readers and ever more mind-boggling.
Tickle highlights a host of signal events, including the Gutenberg press, the exploration of the New World, and the Copernican principle . With the 20th century comes radio, television, the automobile, computer science and the Internet. Each reshaped not only the world and how we experience it, but religion and the way we understand and express it.
The ideas of Darwin, Faraday, Freud, Jung and Marx, among others, inexorably led to the undermining of traditional authorities that religion had esteemed. By the 20th century, the overarching question of “what is now our authority?” no longer was capable of achieving consensus. Authority was in the eye of the believer and non-believer.
For religion, particularly Christianity in this country, new interpretations of old authorities and a new freedom to pick and choose from a host of spiritual practices and beliefs – or to choose none at all – became the prevailing norm.
If the past informs the present, can it also give clues to what lies ahead for religion in America? Tickle contends the emergence of a new center to Christianity is happening in this country that is no longer defined as separate mainline, Pentecostal, liturgical, social justice or conservative segments.
It can be seen in such current-day Christian movements as the Vineyard, Calvary Chapel and Hope Chapel. Each allows a certain freedom of belief rather than requiring adherence to rules of belief and conduct. Each is developing a center in which followers from various segments can find a home.
“In center-set Christianity,” explains Tickle, “one simply belongs to a gathering of Christians by virtue of a shared humanity and an affinity with the individuals involved in whatever the group as a whole is doing.”
Tickle maintains that no faith group is immune to what is happening in this new center-set era in history. As Tickle views the Christian faith in the Great Emergence, “… both the Roman and Protestant communions in North America will have to readjust themselves to accommodate the stresses of such massive changes in the culture and in the Church.”
Are her interpretation of events and her conjecture about the future of Christianity credible? She clearly has a grasp of how past events have influenced present realities within American religion. But the winds of change often surprise us.
For example, Arianism, denounced by orthodox tradition, continued to have a following in the fourth century and influenced believers into the sixth century. The Cathars or Albigenses, members of an anti-materialist movement who practiced an ascetic lifestyle, held sway in parts of France and Italy in the 12th and 13th centuries until their demise during the Inquisition. As history shows, movements can rise and fall, and predictions of the future can be quickly blown off course.
Nonetheless, for anyone who cares about the future of the Christian faith in America, Tickle’s book is an important resource for personal consideration and reflection and for thoughtful discussion with others.