Thursday, October 08, 2009

Reading the Great Emergence, Emergence Flux, and continuity

Been meaning for awhile to read Phyllis Tickle's book The Great Emergence: How Christianty Is Changing and Why. Although I have been meaning too read the book I have also put it off: I feared my historiographical training (that instilled a respect and healthy skepticism of periodization in the discipline of history: bothnecesary but problematic for understanding much historical processes. Dividing up history into periods hides as least as much as it reveals. we'll get back to this in a moment.) But also I have am sceptical about all this talk about "emergence" specifically that this particular period of time is particularly significant in terms of emergence. Now to be clear this scepticism is from perhaps the opposite side of what one would expect. I am not denying that things have changed, nor am I of the opinion that some static immovable notion of Christianity and church needs to be preserved (though as we may get to I am do feel the need for a greater concern for the continuities and for what is passed on and being passed on.) I am a product of what was being called post-modern and what seems to be especially with Tickle being called the Great Emergence.

As one who is a product of what ever we want to and will call this shift I am uncertain that focusing almost exclusively on change or "emergence" is the best way for Christians to keep their bearings. On some level my scepticism is that apart from the rapidity of technological change, what we are talking about doesn't simply happen at discreet moments even discreet extended moments and then stop. If one leaves aside the desire to compartmentalize time one simply has flux of a continual emergence. Things morph slowly or quickly from one thing to another, one can choose to attempt to stabilize this flux long enough to make generalizations over extend periods of time but then one is also simultaneously to admit that at the beginning of period x one still has the traits of the preceding period y to a large degree and only modified slightly and by the time one can talk about period x having a full blown and distinguishable traits from period y, one is already finding traits that come in the proceeding period Z. And so forth ad infinitum.

One can perhaps then get a sense of my initial difficulty with The Great Emergence, she offers her own histiographic periodization dividing up the last 2 mellenia into 500 year periods with about 100 years in each that is bound up in an "emergence" that changes everything. This periodization is so far as I read both accross global history and specific to Christianity and the west: that is the process of this 500 year increment isn't simply Tickles construct to get at something but a real happening within the flow of time and human culture, or at least what we now Call "Western" culture.

One of the things that is enjoyable in reading Tickle as well as listening to hear speak is the poetry of her thought. She uses the image (that she borrowed from a Bishop) of that emergence every 500 years is when the Church has a "rummage sale", things get shaken up, excess is redistributed and one feels lighter. While the image of rummage sale seems apt for our time especially for those who are attaching themselves to Emergent or the emergent church. Things some thought long gone are dug up and polished off and used again and things once thought essential are tossed out, and its pretty much up to the individual or particular group exactly what is tossed and what is polished up and used again.

The Reformation (Or "Great Reformation" according to Tickle) is perhaps also aptly so described, though it seems to be a very Protestant Characterization of what happened. I have difficulty seeing Roman Catholics or the Orthodox using that characterization. However, there was enough it seems intentional on part of the reforms digging around in the attic and a good bit of jettisoning of what was thought to be of utmost importance by the reformers that I can accept the metaphor. But the two preceeding periods and their respective emergence, seems problematic. The Great Schism is a bit more complex and difficult to truly make a clear before and after. The differences between east and West in Christianity preceeded even Constantine, the roots for the final split ran deep. And many would claim that language and not any real change or even actual difference between "East" and "West" contributed to the schism. Greeks stopped knowing Latin, Latins stopped knowing Greek. Bad translations of each other's ideas Their were certainly differences but those differences weren't knew, what was new was a breakdown in communication. This is at least one theory of what happened. We know the anathema's were thrown about, but exactly why they happened at that time beyond noting the personalities involved is uncertain. It did create a new sitation that we still live with, and which Tickles analysis of emergence is based on being on the Western side of the schism, (we should not forget that if we sought to do this examination from the Christian "Greek" Eastern perspective there the Reformation wouldn't be a local phenomenon, not a pan-ecclesial phenomenon. The Schism with what are not called the Oriental Orthodox Churches, is also difficult to account in the terms of emergence that Tickle is using. Again much current interpretation of this schism is that it was all mostly a misunderstanding steming in part from culture and also from language. Those who rejected Chalcedon weren't keen to Greek philosophy and thus did not appreciate the use of the technical use of philosophy for defining dogma. Yet this doesn't explain why it happened then, for all creedal formulations fo the ecumenical council including Nicea were using technical Greek philosophical terms, that are and were accepted by the oriental Orthodox. Also, in terms of rite organization the use of a type of iconography etc. the Oriental Orthodox are more a variation on a theme than clearly distinct from either Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholicism. Then we come to the Christ event, but can we as Christians merely list that event as a simple point in a emergent pattern of history. Sure it was the right time so there was something about the time that allowed for God to act or precipitated God acting or however one wants to say this, but surely the Christ event and its tumult has less to do with patterns in history and more to do with that something beyond the merely historical took place, and that the renewal of the entire cosmos and the meaning and end of history entered the cosmos and history. Surely the Christ event cannot either be the beginning point of a particular historical pattern nor simply part of the pattern but inaugurates something beyond our histiogrpahic propensity to periodization.

So far I think there is enough problems with Tickle's approach for all of us to take a step back and be a little more cautious about coming to firm conclusions about where we are and what is happening.