I heard Phyllis Tickle speak this weekend. It was quite a fascinating talk and it gave me a lot to think about. What I’ll be offering here and now is a condensation of a much larger post that I have neither the time nor the brain cycles to write right now. And, part of me wonders if it would be a post per se or a manifesto.
Essentially, she was arguing that every five hundred years or so the Church goes through a reformation or reinvigoration—and that we’re in the middle of one now. She talked about them primarily in terms of the organization of the church writ large. Thus at around 500 we had the Great Transition; the key point was the Council of Chalcedon and the splitting off of the Oriental Orthodox Churches. Next came the Great Schism around 1000 and the break between the Eastern and Western Churches. Then came the Reformation at about 1500 which split the Protestants from the Roman Catholics. She terms what we’re in now as the Great Emergence and points to the Network & Co. as just one of the splits that will occur as this shift gets underway.
So–what rude beast is slouching its way towards Bethlehem to be born? She cited Pannenberg and others as grouping Western Christianity into four major buckets: liturgical, social justice, conservative evangelical, and charismatic and pentecostal. Her understand of the emergence is that it is a remixing of the buckets that takes place in small group gatherings, local non-church contexts and preeminently on and around the Internet. Her description of what she considers Emerging sounded to me like an ecclesial flash mob—a church or body of believers that gathers on no real schedule, tied to no brick ‘n’ mortar institution but gathering by communication and consensus.
When it came right down to it, she was speaking to most of the people in the hall from an apologetic stance. She was speaking to them as outsiders—those who were not and most likely would not be part of this reality. Rather, she was educating them about what she saw coming and was encouraging them to support it and not push out those in the younger generations who would be pioneering it.
In a sense, therefore, I didn’t belong there. Some of what she said at various points rang very true with my experience and I could easily identify myself with just the movement she was talking about. However, other points I’m not so sure about… For me there was one great gaping hole. I have a feeling—given her other works—that she knows what it is and that it will figure in a book she’s working on now. (She didn’t mention one, but I got the strong sense that this lecture was the working out of ideas for a book…)
She’s right about the times of change, but she only alluded once to one major element about why they’re important. Your average Western church-goer in 500 or in 1000 didn’t give two hoots about Oriental Orthodoxy or a split with the Eastern Church. Instead, I see these points involving critical revolutions in a corporate understanding of what it means to live a truly intentional, truly Christian life.
- 500 begins the real growth of monasticism in the West.
- 1000 represents the reform and restoration of the primitive ideal among the new monastic movements–the Carthusians and Cistercians and others like them.
- 1500 in England takes the hours out of the monasteries and cathedrals and restores them to the people in their own tongue.
Monasticism is important because (in my grand over-simplification) it gives us two things. First, it gives us a framework for an intentional, balanced, Christian life centered around the ultimate human purpose or telos—the praise and worship of God. Second, it relentlessly demands that the Christian life is lived in community. Even when you don’t want it to be. Especially when you don’t want it to be. (Re-read the Golden Epistle and consider how the discussion of private possessions works. Possessions aren’t bad because they’re *stuff*—possessions are bad because they give the monk the illusion that if things get too hard/bad he can just pick up and leave…)
And now? Yes, Phyllis Tickle is right about the blending of the buckets. Yes, she’s right about the power of the Internet—but she didn’t express the challenge inherent in it. Like all tools, like all people, the strengths of the Internet are simultaneously its greatest weakness. A society formed by the Internet will likewise participate in its strengths and failings. The Internet offers whole new realms of instant gratification.
- You don’t like what you know? Learn something new—anything—now.
- You don’t like what you have? Buy something new—anything—now.
- You don’t like who you are? Be someone new—anyone—now.
A Christian culture shaped by the Internet will be a perversion of the Gospel unless it is grounded in balance and in simple rhythms. Stability. Obedience. Conversion of life.
The stabilizing element of this emerging thing she describes is a rediscovery of monastic principles. And, like that of the Reformation, it won’t take place behind cloistered walls. Don’t get me wrong—cloisters will and must remain for this to work imho. We in the world will always need a model to point to we just won’t all live there. Rather, it will occur in the midst of normal domestic lives but will give them a shape, a character, a rule, to enable simple intentional Christian life in an increasing driven and frenetic age.
Not everyone, not all Christians will engage in this—and that’s all right. The monastic way has always served as leaven in the lump. Not all are or need be monks or oblates, but those who are still leaven and invigorate the rest of the church. To put a finer point on it, not all need observe a rule or pray the Offices or some similar discipline, but it’s crucial that some do and will. I think that’s where we’re headed and what we’re up to.
There’s so much more I can and want to say about this—but that will have to come later.