Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Great Emergence

Where now is the authority? Who says? Where is the plumb line for sound spiritual teachings and practices? Where if you desire can you be fully your human self and experience a dash of the divine as well?

The authority question is the besetting question of every new era.

I have no answers to these question just more questions. In fact questioning and exploring spiritual questions together in groups may be the authority of today in this age of what some call the Great Emergence.

Phyllis Tickle, founding editor of the Religion Department of Publishers Weekly and a respected authority herself on religions in America today has written a book called The Great Emergence, in which she defines the phenomenon as “monumental.” Her focus is Christianity in America in a time of reconfiguration of tsunami proportions.

Tickle, an active Episcopalian and author of The Divine Hours on prayer, deftly sweeps through church history to give a panoramic view of trends and developments. How did we get here? Only through history can we understand patterns that lead us to where we now are.

Anglican bishop the Right Reverend Mark Dyer famously quipped that every 500 years the Church holds a giant rummage sale—searching attic treasures discarding what is no longer useful and finding some that have been forgotten and need refurbishing and new life.

We can trace such movements back to the arrival of Jesus and the change of the era (BCE/CE) and the challenge to Judaism, to the Decline and Fall of Rome and the challenge to empire, through the Great Schism of East and West, Latin and Greek brands of Christianity, to the Great Reformation of 1517....and 2000. What is emerging now?

No one can articulate it to a tee. I hear a lot of lament: I can't keep up with the changes. I hear fear: I don't want any more change! And I hear: This is a challenging and exciting time to be alive. Go where the love is.

Historically, each “rummage sale” has issued forth in a more vital form of Christianity, a new way to be a Christian; each one was good; in each “winnowing” the Christian religion was reconfigured not destroyed. The key to such a miracle is that the establishment softened to let in the new. The softer, more supple the structure the more durable.

You can read about this process of softening in the biblical book of Acts in which Jerusalem authorities listened to the experience, stories and testimonies of the followers of Jesus struggling to survive and be taken seriously. Room in time was made, though not without much pain and persecution, but Judaism survived and became stronger. (Yes, the Pharisees!)

You can see this happening now as more and more homosexual people tell their truth out loud in churches, join communities of faith, laugh, love, pray, get ordained, married and serve.

And I marvel at how Christianity in the sixth century spread to northern England and the isles, not to take over but to become integrated with the pagan religions without shedding a drop of blood. No martyrs. Look at the chief symbol of celtic spirituality—the circle. Visit Iona, a small isle off northern Scotland, and see the high crosses, many with pagan symbols down one side and biblical symbols down the other. Side by side.

Tickle maintains that the emergent phenomenon, although complex and in process, is across the boards in American culture. Every institution is rummaging and reshaping. All are being called to soften in order to move into the future in peace with weeping and rejoicing side by side.

We are called. Will we respond?

The Episcopal Church according to Tickle is ideally suited to receive and accommodate this new movement with all its changes. Because, as she says, it’s “like mercury on a counter—not definable.” That is its gift and to some its curse. You just can’t grab that mercury and nail it down even if you crucify it.

Tickle’s own prediction along with other writers and thinkers, is that the process called “the Great Emergence will rewrite Christian theology—and thereby North American culture—into something far more Jewish, more paradoxical, more narrative, and more mystical than anything the Church has had for the last seventeen or eighteen hundred years.”

I am keeping watch on a spider as she spins her web. Of course I have named her Charlotte and hear her speaking in the voice of Julia Roberts as she works. I watch. I look for the web each day. In the sun’s light, or the light of our outdoor lamp, the threads shimmer and glimmer, precariously spread across the window pane on the side of our front door. The wind blows fiercely this wintry night. In the morning the web is still sturdy. I clap. I stare at the web’s shape— circular; some strands go up and down, some go across; every one is connected—intimately separate and dependent. In its vulnerability is its strength. I am transfixed by its fragile grandeur.

Some day it will blow away completely. And Charlotte? She or her look-alike will make a new pattern in a new place.