tickleMore than one reviewer called this book “the most important book of the year.” I thought that was overstated. Chuck Warnock and I had roughly the same feeling. He wrote,

“Phyllis Tickle’s newest book, The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why, arrived yesterday. At 172 pages, this small but elegant volume (aren’t all Tickle’s books elegant?) both informs and disappoints. Tickle takes on the daunting task of reviewing the major turning points or “Great” events in the life of the Christian church.  Her contention is that every 500 years or so the church goes through a “great” transformation.

“Counting back from the present, the Great Reformation took place about 500 years ago: 1517 to be exact. Prior to that, The Great Schism occurred when the Eastern and Western churches split over icons and statues. Five hundred years earlier, Gregory the Great blessed and encouraged the monastic orders which would preserve the Christian faith through the Dark Ages.  Of course, 500 years before that, we’re back in the first century and the time of the apostles. Today, Tickle contends, the church is in the throes of The Great Emergence.”

After my first reading in late November I promised myself that if I could find the time I would review the last two chapters again. I felt it would be worth the effort, and yes, it was worth it.

Books grab us for a variety of reasons. Some of the best are those that help us see ourselves, and our location in history and culture, more clearly. When we see ourselves more clearly, we are in a position to be more faithful as disciples in our response to the gospel in our particular setting. And if we are reading the right book, we might have one or two of those “ah-ha!” moments.

Big Questions

Tickle pulls together so much information that one can’t but help come away from the book with a clearer sense of how we got to where we are. Your personal perceptions of “where we are” will then determine to some extent how much you buy into her broader analysis. But some things are hard to dispute. (What follows is sketchy and not intended to substitute for a careful reading of the book. If you don’t have the book, then go read the review by Jonathan Brink.)

For example, about midway along Tickle identifies the big questions that go up for grabs during every serious cultural shift. The primary question is this:  where is the authority? Two related questions then follow: what does it mean to be truly human? What is the relation of all religions to one another? I’ve felt for some time that these latter two questions are being asked in a variety of ways and with varying degrees of clarity in many different places. Relating them in particular to this post-Christendom, post-colonial shift just makes sense.

A few pages later Tickle makes another important connection in relation to the broader landscape when she identifies Heisenberg’s place in this equation. Einstein and Heisenberg came along and suddenly provided a scientific reason for deconstruction. Uncertainty and relativity took on new meaning, at the same time as “objectivity” began to look like a pipe dream.

tickle1There are good and bad results of all this, of course. But what is patently obvious is that this shaking and uncertainty open up space for conversation. Traditional boundaries collapse and traditional securities dissolve, making it possible for us to encounter new perspectives. The rummage sale is on. All we need now is the opportunity and the means, and that has been variously provided by urbanization and new media. The internet, of course, being the great linchpin in this revolution of theological and social democracy, just as the printing press was in the 15th century.

All this brings us to her analysis, in the final chapters, of the gathering center. The quadrilateral is not new, but Tickle’s analysis and modifications in light of the changing landscape are new. We are seeing a convergence of streams in something like a large scale centered set movement based on social networks and an expanding conversation. This particular revolution is unlike anything history has seen before.

Tickle identifies the four broad groupings in the quadrilateral as Liturgicals, Renewalists, Social Justice people, and Conservatives. She then shows us how these groups shade from one emphasis to another. And more importantly, she shows us what these horizontal and vertical divisions symbolize. This is sort of the focal effect, the em PHA sis on a par TIC ular syllable. It isn’t that Liturgicals have no interest in social justice, but if they have to choose between attending the mass or building a habitat for humanity, they will choose the mass, with some regret. The Social Justice Christian would choose the latter, even if they are members in good standing at St. Pauls, also with some regret. So this horizontal line has something to do with a sacramental perspective.

The vertical line, on the other hand, represents something related but different, something more like the distinction between orthodoxy and orthopraxy. The Christians and communions below the line are placed there because for them what one believes is more critical than what one does religiously. This too amounts to something like a sacramental distinction, something rooted in a particular way of seeing the world and the intersection of flesh and spirit.

But all these distinctions are permeable, and increasingly so as we move forward. Yet it is precisely this permeability and sense of motion that generates a feedback loop, and some groups react. Within each quadrant are groups who aggressively dedicate themselves and their resources to reversing every change that enables the emergence to continue. But far from being a negative reality, this resisting force acts as a ballast… a weight that anchors the tether of the new and unstable vessel to history and tradition. Our opponents, if we let them, can be our teachers.

From here Tickle describes the concentric rings that surround the emerging center. These are not themselves emerging per se, but they are learning from emergents. From outward to inward they are: Traditionalists — Re-Traditioning — Progressives — and the Hephenateds (“Presby-mergents, Angli-mergents, etc).

Where now..?

tickle2 So ends chapter 6, and chapter 7 offers some additional nuances as we think about this movement.We come back to that basic question: “Where now is the authority?” According to Tickle, it is the way that this question is approached that determines some of the underlying nuances of the movement itself.

Essentially Tickle argues that the quadrilateral has now disappeared. Orthodoxy still remains a defining feature of those somewhere in the upper half, and orthopraxy a feature of those in the lower half. But their numbers are diminished in favor of a growing center that occupies no quadrant but representing all of them. (Shades of Peter Rollins, I am thinking of his statement that “those involved in the conversation are not explicitly attempting to construct or unearth a different set of beliefs that would somehow be more appropriate in today’s context, but rather, they are looking at the way in which we hold the beliefs that we already have.”)

Nevertheless, the question of authority remains and the conversation is occurring around two approaches. “Orthonomy” describes an approach around beauty and order; “Theonomy” counters this aesthetic response by naming God as the only real source of beauty and perfection. Orthonomy thus is a variant of authority found in tradition, reason and inspiration and Theonomy is a variant of authority located in the Scripture. (150)

If Scripture itself is no longer sole authority (and it never was for charismatic groups).. then where is it? Tickle suggests that the ultimate question will be answered not by one source but by a multiplicity of sources: Scripture, community, Holy Spirit, experience, priesthood — and this will prevent authority from being consolidated in a small sampling of people.

In what seems like an aside she suggests that the Quakers had it right all along. They resisted the worst dynamic of modernity and maintained a balance of Word and Spirit, understanding that there was something of the mystery of the incarnation that could not be reduced to tidy formulae. She then touches on centered sets and bounded sets, narrative theology, and the legacy of Constantine. I wish this section had been expanded slightly, because some of the nuances here are important. Just how important is demonstrated by this pithy comment:

“in pursuing this line of exegesis, the Great Emergence really does what most of its observers think it will, it will rewrite Christian theology – and thereby North American culture – into something far more Jewish, more paradoxical, more narrative, and more mystical that anything the Church has had for the last seventeen or eighteen hundred years.” (162)

That is quite a statement. I think she could be right.


If you have actually read the book you have absorbed a more nuanced discussion. Some of the frameworks dancing in the back of my brain are informed by the work of Scott Peck and James Fowler. If people grow through recognizable phases, is it possible to similarly track the growth of communities over time? Do communities evolve the way people do? Even if we might say “no,” the church is not merely a social network, it is the dwelling place of Spirit. God is at work in history, shifting, shaking and shaping the future.

When we know ourselves more clearly new options open to us. If Tickle helps the western church to know itself better, then the service she has done us is barely estimable. The liminality and insecurity we feel in the face of rapid and confusing change may actually lead us closer to the heart of the gospel and offer new possibilities for faithfulness, instead of mere retrenchment. What a beautiful hope.

It seems to me that one of the best presentations of the emerging center to date is LeRon Shults work. He writes in part,

The goal of welcoming an encounter with a multiplicity of “others” is not to manipulate them into conforming to an idealized sameness, but to find new possibilities for transformation precisely within the generative complexity of differentiating forces .. In other words, the ecumenical efforts of emergents are aimed at both reconstructing the “identity” of the church mediated by encountering “alterity,” and reforming the communal practices within and across de-nominating boundaries.  Ironically, this attitude of ongoing reformational engagement with “others” has opened up interpersonal space and time for deep and authentic dialogue about and within differences, and fostered the practice of collaborative networking, more effectively than many of the efforts of official representatives of various ecclesial hierarchies. (more HERE).

Paradoxically, we get to know ourselves better through “the other.” It’s only in light of difference that we ultimately know ourselves.

If emergence and convergence is largely the result of networked conversations that occur in a creative commons, how can we support the increase of these spaces?

With Tickle’s perspective, can we be more generous with our detractors, and more patient with ourselves? Can we see the benefit of mining ancient tradition, or value diversity more highly?

What new questions, new perspectives, hopes or fears come out of this reading?

A Youtube presentation of The Great Emergence. See also this article on ChristianWeek.

1 Comment on the Great emergence

  1. Len, you said, “Some of the frameworks dancing in the back of my brain are informed by the work of Scott Peck and James Fowler.”

    Can you explain this a little more. I love Peck and Fowler but was wondering what you meant.