I have recently read Phyllis Tickle's "The Great Emergence," which of course brought a flood of thoughts into my head. First, let me talk about the book a little and then about the thoughts which is sparked.
The book is... well, light in some areas and thought-provoking in others. The book attempts to cover the last two thousand years in history, western history that is. Western history with an eye towards trends in religious thought and development. The book itself is an easy read, although her sentence structure and thought processes are a bit muddled at times. Towards the end of the book it begins to play out and the themes she creates earlier on in the book finally emerge. I am not sure if it is the best book on the subject but it is an adequate introduction. Because church history is my area of study, I felt it was lacking in some areas. I don't think she misrepresented church history, but she does not give a detailed account. OK, now to the subject of the book.
The book looks back at the last two thousand years of history and brings out a trend or cycle. Every 500 years, roughly speaking, there is an event that radically changes the face of the western world, and specifically the church. Of course we are coming up or in the midst of the next five hundred year mark and so the book attempts to flesh out current trends of the course of the next five hundred years. So here is a break down of the last four cycles:
1.0-500 Christ: the birth of Christianity which ushered in a new religion that over the next five hundred years became the dominant religion.
2. 500-1000 Holy Roman Church: with the fall of the Roman Empire and Rome itself, there was an economic, political and religious vacuum which the church was able to step in and take control of. With the birth of monasteries, western thought and culture was preserved and carried forward.
3. 1000-1500 The Great Schism: The eastern church and the western church split over theological and ideological themes. This is the when the west flourished in thought and development, especially as the crusades brought back knowledge from the east.
4. 1500- 2000: The Great Reformation: The church had become authoritarian and oppressive. Scholarship had moved beyond the church as a final authority. People, Martin Luther in particular, stood against the church, calling for reform. What happened was the creation of Protestantism and its thousands of denominations where the Bible became the final authority, not church dogma.
And now, 2000- present: What is being called The Great Emergence. What it is and who is involved, or what effects it will have over time is still unknown.
This book fails to take into account the other forces that were at work in each of the epochs. Martin Luther was a success not because of his ideas alone, but because he had the backing of German princes who tired of the Church tithing them to death and the Holy Roman Empire taxing them to death. The advent of western science and shifts in technology combined with the emergence of a middle class which could rival the Nobility in wealth and power all called for a shift to occur. Martin Luther has just become the rally cry of the religious historians. But the history of that time period is much more complex.
The book does give credit to modern shifts in science, technology and world views. But when we stand so close in history to the events, it is hard to tell which events will be the hallmarks of the age and which will pass quietly into the past. Certainly tomorrow a greater event can occur that overshadows anything over the last hundred years. Or perhaps Christ will return and the whole question will be mute.
It appears that things happen every five hundred years to shake up the world and what settles out is different than what was before. That which shakes the world is hard to define. Science, technology and culture are all shifting. In the west, eastern ideas about religion, life, and death are forcing people to think differently. In the east, Christianity and western economic and political thought are forcing people to change their worldviews. And the realization that we are one people all inhabiting the same planet is having a major impact on the world. As the west moves towards post-Christian thoughts and practices, it is incorporating ideas from the east but also from science. And what is emerging is spreading that new gospel in new ways through technology. It is there in the blending that I think the next flower will blossom. I think this new epoch will emerge out of a blending of east/west, science/religion and the break down of dualism. Philosophy, theology and politics will all have to be rethought in light of new technology and new responsibility towards the whole. It is not us/them, or you/me... but rather we. This new thought will include the greater environment as part of the human being.
Another theme which is overlooked in the book is that each epoch is also ushered in with violence. That which was before does not want to change into that which is coming and so lashes out violently to stop the change. The usual response is to lash back with self defense and often violence, as well to bring in the radical change. History settles out and forgets the names and faces of the dead on both sides. Today war still rages. But how does that warfare fit into changing times and thoughts? And who is waging the war: the old stalwarts refusing to change, or the revolutionaries helping to emerge a new worldview? This is one of those moments when we stand too close in time to know what history will say in the future about today.
What will emerge will blend the threads of the current trends into a new fabric of reality that will greatly challenge and frustrate that which was. It cannot be just the continuation of what was, but must be an internal change with external consequences. And again, beccause we stand so close, it is hard to say what or who will force that change; but change is occurring.