This post was originally written for abpnews at the invitation to offer a Baptist, even Southern Baptist reflection, on the recent Emergence Christianity Event in Memphis, TN.
Friendships transcend labels. More than ten years ago I ventured with a friend to a conference not organized and characterized by my denomination, Southern Baptists. The event was the National Pastors Convention hosted by Leadership Journal, Zondervan, and Youth Specialties, among others. During pre-session music the video screens were filled with information and an occasional stab at humor.
We Southern Baptists often share jokes where other denominations or groups serve as the butt. I was unprepared when Baptists served as the prod for levity. We are often told it is good to laugh at ourselves. This is fine when we initiate said joviality. But, when others take aim at our idiosyncrasies that is another matter.
Southern Baptists are a serious lot. And, we are serious about our criticisms. We make resolutions, or attempt them, to express our concern if not disdain for, say, Mark Driscoll and the Emerging Church. Mark Driscoll used expletives and alcohol. The Emerging/Emergent Church dabbled with theology not content to re-arrange the chairs of ecclesial methodology. When Southern Baptist become wary, we make our opinions public. Our judgments are final.
Ed Stetzer presented on the Emerging/Emergent Church at New Orleans Seminary and concluded with his concerns. He and other religion observers have contended the Emerging/Emergent Church is in its death throes. Not according to Phyllis Tickle.
At the recent Emergence Christianity event in Memphis, TN, Tickle offered a historiography that promises the future of a movement subsuming labels like emergent, emerging, missional, hyphenateds, fresh expressions, neo-monastic as detailed in her new book of the same title. Folks quibbled with her first book, The Great Emergence. Maybe it was the reference to the Church having something like a garage sale every 500 years that just did not sit well. There is a difference between an historian and a religion observer. Tickle is the latter not the former, a difference she acknowledges.
Tickle tends to see Christianity in its sweep rather than its detail. She tracks streams, be they cultural, theological, or intellectual, and looks for the interrelationship that mark shifts in religious practices and sensibilities. For instance, Tickle references the issue of slavery as an illustration of challenges to inerrancy. If the Bible is factually true then it ought actually be practiced. When Christians supported slavery, and later segregation, with Scripture, what was claimed to be factual was not actual. For Tickle this illustrates inerrancy as an ideology. Her conclusion is not unlike David Fitch’s in The End of Evangelicalism, even if derived from different illustrations.
Today Tickle is ready to name a variety of new expressions fomenting in traditional denominations as well as non-traditional forms, from East and West including both hemispheres as, Emergence Christianity. She sees a number of tributaries giving rise to this sea change. Here in the United States, many Southern Baptists would be surprised that Tickle includes John Piper and Tim Keller as those positively spurring something new. Her analysis is not intended to suggest some will be left behind, or left out. Instead, it seems, she sees some segments of Christianity moving faster than others, some preferring one label to another, while still comprising Emergence Christianity.
What marks this new era? Tickle points to it as the Age of the Spirit. In an interesting move Phyllis refers to the sequences of the Charistmatic movement as the indication we will finally see a shift in the reference point for authority. She refuses to relegate the Scriptures as passé. But, she does push against the notion that they form the final authority. We must trust, and follow, the Spirit. Jesus would likely be her final authority.
I left most interested in Phyllis’ final questions. First, Tickle believes we need a Theology of Religion. How do we hold the Christian faith amidst others who hold an equally strong position in other faiths? Her question is not one of arguing the rightness or wrongness of a given Tradition. Instead, the question is what sort of people will we be in the world where we encounter others who possess different yet passionate faith.
Second, Tickle believes there is a need for a new doctrine of the atonement. She points to Church history where at least six visions/theories of the atonement have been held. Curiously she notes that the Church settled questions about the nature of Jesus and the Spirit in relationship to the Father, but never took up the matter of which vision of the atonement is the vision. Her brief explanation noted that context tended to shape the vision for a given theory of the atonement. If we are entering a new era, as she proposes, then we may need a new doctrine to add to our existing visions/theories. I wonder what Scot McKnight would say.
Third, Tickle believes we still face the question, “What is a human being?” She walked quickly through the different distinctions that have been proposed for what sets a human apart from other creatures, animals. The more we learn from other fields, the more we realize the question is still up in the air. She points to the issues of personhood and how we have historically talked about consciousness. Neuroscience continues to make contributions to what we know that will inevitably, if not already, require us to consider afresh references to the Imago Dei.
Tickle ended her session suggesting the most important matter for the future of Christianity is transmission. How will we continue to tell the story of Jesus to our children, their children, and beyond? Phyllis either used her own experience as a means to illustrate how transmission works or she cited her own habits with her children as the means for transmitting the faith. Interpretations vary. I suspect she was getting at what Lamin Saneh considers distinct about Christianity. It may be transmitted across cultures, and here I believe Tickle would say, across time.
Rather than make final judgments, I prefer to inhabit the edge listening. Gamaliel wisely noted that to work against movements in which God might be working to be foolish.