The Great Emergence

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.

16 Replies to “The Great Emergence”

  1. Interesting thoughts, Derek. I’m always a little skeptical of claims like Tickle’s that we’re int he middle of some once-in-an-aeon paradigm shift — I figure it’s really up to historians in the distant future to figure that out — but whatever’s going on right now, you’re right that monasticism and monastic practices are wrapped up with it. Just looking at the bona-fide Emergent folks, intentional life in community — whether it’s urban “new monasticism” monasteries or other venues — is a really big theme.

    Anyhow, I suppose we’ll see just how big a shift this turns out to be.

  2. “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.”

    This task is rather important. Older Broad Churchmen may be confused by this movement. I recently received an e-mail from my father talking about some speaker on intentional community coming to his parish who apparently only comes to speak somewhere if a discernment committee approves it. My father thereby concluded this man was involved in some sort of “evangelical fundamentalist” movement. I had to assure him otherwise.

  3. I’m pretty suspicious of the every 500 years theory myself. history is far messier than all that. I realize nobody likes a pedant but it’s all a little convenient.

    i like your thoughts about monasticism.

  4. When you’re trying to get big picture stuff over to a crowd without much knowledge in Church History I think the way she deployed the idea of 500 year cycles made sense rhetorically; it gave a structure and a context that she needed to move her conversation forward.

    Historically, I agree: it’s an oversimplification.

  5. I think any paradigm shift that is happening is affecting all parts of society and is not specifically related to the Church. In other words, I think that we’re caught up in what is affecting the rest of the globe (internet, rise of fundamentalism, end of post-modernism, etc). I don’t know anything about the Emergent Churches, except that in some ways they seem similar to Anglicanism in that they are more about community, relationships, and worship as opposed to clearly defined doctrine and dogma.

    The internet has done a wonderful thing in bringing people from all across the globe and all walks of life together. However, so many people are so plugged in and connected to each other at all times that they have forgotten to how to “unplug” and get back in tune with their own body rhythms and the rhythms of the day. For myself, making a point to stop by a parish which says Morning Prayer every morning on the way to work is an invaluable tool for being centered.

  6. Perhaps we’re moving into a period where it will be more important than ever to ground Christian identity in a set of intentional, communal practices. Given the apparently increasing pluralism, fragmention etc. of “postmodern” society that seems likely.

    However, I wonder how this idea relates to that other fruit of the Reformation – the idea of vocation? The Reformation wasn’t just monasticism for the masses, but a radical re-thinking of what Christian vocation in the world meant. It seems to me we still haven’t come to terms with that challenge, especially in societies lacking a public commitment to Christian truth where our daily lives and tasks aren’t readily understood as expressions of a divine calling.

    Oh, and great point about the Internet, Derek. I think in many ways it creates ersatz, or at best partial, community.

  7. Rev. Boy, that was one of Tickle’s points–we are in a the midst of a cultural paradigm shift and this is one of the ways it’s working itself out.

    Lee, What I see our generation hungering for is integrity and authenticity in response to the glamours of the world that we are offered. I would argue that part of how the Anglican tradition does understand Christian vocation in terms of monasticism for the masses–at least in part. There certainly is more work to do here, however.

    The more digital we get, the more important incarnation needs to become…

  8. Derek, I guess what I was getting at (perhaps cryptically) was holding that in balance (or tension) with what I see as a more “Lutheran” idea of vocation – that we are called to be “in the world” and that “religious” activities aren’t automatically privileged over “secular” ones. But I definitely don’t see this as an either/or thing.

  9. Is the gyrovague the worst sort of blogger?

    It has always seemed to me that monasticism has been holding something particularly Christian in trust for the rest of the church. The move at the Reformation to give office and regula back to the people was largely met with a “Thanks, but no thanks.”

    The church at 2000 seems to need a peculiar discipline. Christendom may not be as dead as some claim, but it is certainly weird, and a little “ground(ing) in balance and in simple rhythms” may be a good corrective to Xty’s current Dionysian excesses.

    I was at Gethsemani Abbey (OCSO) in the 80’s when they were doing a major remodeling. I watched a bulldozer take out the old guesthouse and a good bit of the enclosure wall in front of the Abbey. I had one of those fantasy/visions that crop up occasionally and imagined bits and pieces of the monastic “thing” leaking out into the world….

  10. Lee, No, I got what you were referring to—I just think you’re misreading Luther. Religious vocations are not inherently better or more pleasing to God than other ones, but this does not mean that here is no place in the lay life for religious devotions. Rather, I see these as important touchstones to cultivate the religious consciousness with which we should attend to the rest of our daily life. So I’d agree—I’m not trying to construct an either or but a new way of doing both/and that proclaims the Gospel to this generation.

    Richard, Yes! ;-)

    I love Gethsemani! M and I did a memorable retreat there several years ago and can’t wait until we can go again. I pray we can be vehicles for the monastic thing that leaks into the world…

  11. Derek – defintitely agree. I didn’t mean to imply that Luther was against religious devotion. Just that we work out our salvation (as it were) in our secular callings as well. And I think this is neglected in contemporary discussions, esp. insofar as our church life and our secular life tend to be bifurcated.

    Maybe I’ll write some more about this at my blog instead of clogging up your comments…:)

  12. Richard notes:
    “It has always seemed to me that monasticism has been holding something particularly Christian in trust for the rest of the church. The move at the Reformation to give office and regula back to the people was largely met with a “Thanks, but no thanks.” “

    One of the points that Massey Shepherd (may his name be blessed!) made very strongly back
    in the 1950’s is that at the Reformation both Protestant and Tridentine Catholicism thought that
    the Eucharist with lay communicants should be the Sunday worship of the People of God.
    But the people did not accept that idea, and so those of the Roman persuasion had non-communicating Masses, and the Protestants had the Ministry of the Word (with preaching!!!), and quarterly Table Fellowship. (Illustration: My father’s parents grew up in Newfoundland with Morning Prayer, Ante-Communion and Litany–and quarterly Communion. Massey said that around 1900 (give or take a quarter century) the Spirit moved the People (Roman Catholic, Protestant and Anglican) to begin receiving the Sacrament with greater frequency (with a note that the Disciples of Christ anticipated this movement!!). Massey’s point was that liturgical reformers and pastors can make all the right changes, but until the Spirit moves, they won’t
    ‘take’.

    Perhaps the Spirit is moving the people to say, “Hey, thanks!”

  13. This medium is an example of this and is a good thing, bringing together people as diverse as you, me, Fr Chris and Jorge.

    More thoughts are here in one of your other com-boxes.

    Another thought: I’ve long said only two good things came out of the English ‘Reformation’, services in English and the office for everyman but regarding your point on the 1500s literate Catholics already had the offices so in a sense they’d already spread outside the cathedral and monastery. And didn’t parishes have regular Sunday Vespers as indeed they did until the cinema and radio killed off Sunday-night religion nearly everywhere?

    Oh, and thanks for this post, Derek.

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