At a national gathering on emergence Christianity (their term, not ours), noted writer Phyllis Tickle compared Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy to Luther’s 95 Theses and St. Anselm of Canterbury to an Islamist imam. The grandmotherly guru of post-evangelical Christianity was the star of the conference, sharing her characteristically saucy humor at her home parish of St. Mary’s in Memphis. She joined nearly four hundred attendees, including such luminaries as Tony Jones, Brian McLaren, Nadia Bolz-Weber, Lauren Winner, and Doug Pagitt. A keen observer and chronicler of what she calls “the Great Emergence,” Tickle identified possible obstacles for the emergent movement to tackle in the coming years.
The founding editor of the Religion Department of Publisher’s Weekly explained, “What began as a conversation has become a movement…It won’t stay that way…What we’re talking about is a new tributary of Christianity.” Tickle instructed that, every five hundred years, Western civilization (especially members of Latinized Christianity) “goes through a rummage sale” and experiences significant paradigm shifts in all of life. “In the last forty years, things are starting to come apart,” she observed. She spent hours narrating an intellectual history of science, mathematics, politics, philosophy, and theology. She highlighted the breakdown of certainty, the erosion of authority to individualism, and especially the apparent downfall of Protestant biblical inerrancy. While the nimble and progressive emergence movement is perfectly situated to ride the relevance wave in the coming decades, more reactionary elements will experience a “realignment”—she mentioned that John Piper and Tim Keller are among the leaders of this countermovement. Ultimately, she foretold a “coming age of the Spirit,” in which dogmatic orthodoxy and claims to absolute truth (outdated artifacts from the ages of the Father and the Son) would melt before a loving communion of uncertainty.
Tickle offered important recommendations for emergent Christians. First, she intoned, “We need to address the authority issue, and we don’t know have that answer yet.” Using literary theory, emergents have excelled in tearing down claims of authority over their lives. They consider the Magisterium, confessions, creeds, and inerrancy as inadequate—they believe one can live life in contradiction with most or all of these foundations. “Scripture will play a part. The Holy Spirit will have a role in establishing authority in emergence Christianity.” Earlier, she claimed, “Emergents…believe the Scripture is actually true. Most people in the pews want it to be factually true.” Tickle commended the group for avoiding the “arrogance…that God can be trapped in our understanding.” The emergent thinker labeled the Bible as “patriarchal” (“only a fool” would think otherwise), condemned the concept of a closed canon of Scripture, and still supports homosexuality even though “the Bible is not in favor of homosexuality—it just isn’t. The approval is not there.”
Second, she advised, “You and I and our children and grandchildren are going to have to form a theology of religion.” Like many Christians, emergents struggle to be committed believers living alongside other people of earnest faith—all without falling into civil unrest. Nevertheless, the Episcopal lay woman criticized former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey for calling on European courts to address English courts who are attacking the religious liberty of Christians and caving in to Sharia law. Tickle preferred the opportunity to lump Islam into the Judeo-Christian stream, creating the category of “Abrahamics.” “Can we do that without universalism?” she inquired, “Christian universalism is an oxymoron looking for a place to park…We need something more than the elephant getting feeled up by the five blind Hindus [sic].”
The noted speaker also contended, “We need to devise a new doctrine of the atonement.” Informing the audience that there are at least six kinds of atonement theory, she excoriated the penal substitutionary view of redemption. This “bloody sacrifice” approach is the evangelical staple, teaching that Christ took upon God’s wrath against Law-breaking sinners upon himself as a substitute, thus purchasing grace and mercy for believers. “It won’t play anymore,” Tickle stated. She traced this view back to the broader satisfaction theory of St. Anselm of Canterbury. According to her revision, after failing to stave off the First Crusade, Anselm decided to write his Cur Deos Homo to comfort soldiers doomed to die in the Holy Land. She audaciously analogized, “It was like the way some radical imams tell suicide bombers that, if they strap twenty grenades on and blow themselves up, they’ll get twenty virgins in paradise.” However, emergents have so deconstructed this view of redemption and its offshoots that they have lost a coherent explanation for the Incarnation and crucifixion.
Finally, Tickle warned her peers, “For the first time in history, we don’t know what a man is.” Setting him apart for thinking, memory, emotional affiliation with a tribe, and language have all fallen away to scientific research. Moreover, drugs can change someone into a completely different person. She rhetorically pondered, “Maybe I’m just a wash of chemical over neurons in my head.” In short, Tickle outlined that contemporary men do not know what a soul is. She concluded that end of life issues, abortion, capital punishment, robotics, transhumanism, and other questions of personhood cannot be addressed until this question of the soul finds an answer.
Regardless, Phyllis Tickle has high hopes for the emergent movement. She deemed that Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy functions like the Martin Luther’s nailing of the 95 Theses (albeit without the ensuing papal bulls and peasant revolts). If McLaren truly is of similar stature to Martin Luther (a doubtful point), then perhaps Tickle is most like Martin Bucer: granting identity, unity, and self-awareness to a disruptive movement. However, instead of a reform for the entire Western Church, Tickle generally addresses dysfunctional Protestants who have read too much Derrida. Whereas Bucer strove to tie together Lutheranism, Anglicanism, and Calvinism; Tickle attempts to unite such disparate chords as the neo-monastics, oldline “hyphenateds,” and the non-denominational “emerging.” Even if emergent Christianity’s presence is so far relegated to the bywaters of Anglo-America, the emergents themselves think highly of their matron.
Bart Gingerich is a research assistant with the Institute on Religion and Democracy. You can follow him on Twitter at @bjgingerich.