(Last week I attended “The Emerging Church: Conversations, Convergence and Action” sponsored by the Center of Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, N.M. More than 900 people representing different Christian denominations from the United States and around the world gathered to consider what is emerging in/for/to/through the Church. My best guess pegs the average age of the conference attender to be upper 50’s – early 60’s. This series provides reflections on my notes taken during the sessions.)
Sometimes inspiration comes from the oddest sources. A group of us were hanging out together and considered the artwork for the event. We noticed the sea shell and wondered the implications. Gareth or target=”_blank”>Clint held his hand to his ear and made the noise we associate with the ocean. Then one or the otherÂ commented, “We listen to the wind of our own making and call it the ocean.” Laughter ensued.
C.S. Lewis contended for the necessity of a moral framework. Interestingly enough in The Abolition of Man he used as his illustration the Tao – a non-religious moral framework. Lewis, using the Tao, argued for a universal impulse and need for a moral posture necessary to civility and civilization.
In one of his most striking chapters, “Men Without Chests,” Lewis argued that to strip away a moral framework was akin to castrating the animal (humans) and bid the gelding to reproduce. Attack the Tao, discredit it or dismiss it to our own peril. Lewis was not defending the Tao but using it as an expression of a non-religious external moral authority. (In other words, Christian readers, do not get bogged down in Lewis’ use of the Tao. In fact, if you can find the little book it would be worth your time.) Lewis’ exploration of an external moral authority and its necessity resonated with what I heard Tickle describing.
Phyllis Tickle suggests, in The Great Emergence and in her presentation in Albuquerque, periods of transition in the Church raise important questions to be answered. She traces something of a formula apparently present in Church history, a move that takes place every 500 years. Many quibble over her contention of 500 year epochs in Christian history. Tickle notes the humorous quip describing this era by the Reverend Mark Dyer, an Anglican bishop,
… [Dyer] famously observes from time to time that the only way to understand what is currently happening to us as twenty-first century Christians in North America is first to understand that about every five hundred years the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale. (Tickle, The Great Emergence,p.16)
Dismiss her use of this description if you must. But to ignore the reality that something is going on in the Church simply reflects an aptness to ignore the obvious. Gigantic garage sales often help us get rid of things we don’t need and rediscover things we “lost.” Tickle contends for an “Emergence Christianity” – a period of new discovery and recovery.
The most important question in need of an answer according to Phyllis, who also included some clarifying sub-questions too, is not too unfamiliar to this Southern Baptist- “Where now is our authority?” Her clarifying questions – “What does it mean to be human today?” “How can I live with others?” (A question of a theology of religion.) “What does the Atonement mean today?” (A question not of its necessity but of its Good News meaning for our current context. If you must seize on this one, consider reading Scot McKnight’s, A Community Called Atonement.)
Whether the Tao, the Decalogue, the Individual or a Magisterium, at some point the who or what of authority crystallizes. Some of the discussion I participated in pointed toward an “inner” authority. Shunning a magisterium (for many with a Church polity of Bishops, Cardinals and the like), the Bible (for those finding the manner in which the Bible has been exploited for oppression and ill), or the Tao or Decalogue (for those who prefer a code of their own making) does not diminish the question of authority which haunts this period of transition just as it did in prior iterations of dramatic change. (You will need to get the book.)
Choosing an “inner” authority creates just as much possibility for the extremes one hopes to avoid, resist or outright reproach when framing morality in one of the “rejected” formulas. The move to a self-referential morality could only lead to anarchy without some external, transcendent (outside of “me”) framework. Community is such a buzzword, but it may provide the only grid through which to evaluate the choice of my “inner” self for those willing to jettison a moral authority of the past.
As an historical observer of religion, Tickle no doubt understands and exposes the various places people have gone in their quest to answer the authority question. Despite my own personal contention as to how that question may be answered, what Phyllis notes it that it is once again up for grabs and the way we have answered the question in the past does not seem to hold sway. Too many in my tribe will default to a “tried and true” euphemism for leftward drift, liberalism and other trends. The matter may not be so much the conclusion but how the question is answered – at least for me.
If we are not careful even the most alleged conservative response may simply be the wind of our own making as we claim to describe the ocean.
More to come …