Archives For Phyllis Tickle

LUXEMBOURG ? Boy Scouts from Troop 69 Kaiserslautern, Germany, salute as the Star-Spangled Banner is played during a Veterans Da

In 2005, Matthew Fox, a disaffected Dominican, posted his own, new 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenburg, Germany- the same door Martin Luther famously nailed 95 Theses of his own, an act of defiance against Mother Church which supposedly ignited the Protestant Reformation.

Casting himself in Luther’s role (talk about self-important ego), Fox declared that it was time for ‘a New Reformation.’

And then with his theses in the church door and the media’s eye upon him…

Nothing happened. 

In fact, unless you have a remarkable memory for minor, two-bit media stories, the only Matthew Fox you’ve ever heard of is the dude who played Jack, the hero in Lost.

This is my point. Christians, Protestants at least, imagine the Protestant Reformation happened in a vacuum. We have an Idealist assumption that Great Men and/or Great Ideas change the tide of history. And so, Luther, armed with hammer, nail and his individual conscience made the world something it would not have been without him.

But, as anyone who didn’t sleep through every minute of AP European History in high school knows, that just isn’t the case. The Protestant story was but one component of a much larger cultural shift.

The Reformation wasn’t sparked by Luther’s 95 Theses; Luther’s Theses were a product of the cultural phenomenon of reformation.

During this same period, Western Europe experienced massive political change as it transitioned from feudalism to nation-states. That shift was occasioned by the rise of a new economic system, mercantilism, which was made possible by vastly more efficient means of travel. The period we call ‘the Reformation’ with our in-house church lingo was actually the first Information Age, sparked by the advent of the printing press. What was happening in the church was only a small part of what was happening culturally.

Rather than Luther changing the tide of history, as Protestants like to imagine, Luther was swept up by the tide of history, taking the shifts and discoveries of the culture and applying them to his religious context. 

What’s this have to do with Emergence Christianity? Or the Boys Scouts’ policy on homosexuality?

Last week, in response to a post I wrote about the Boy Scouts’ possible change in policy, in which I noted that the culture is rapidly moving away from the Church and BSA on this issue, a friend pushed back that perhaps the Church should be wary of accommodating to the culture.

I understand that caution. As a post-liberal, I have an affinity for the argument that the Church should be a distinct, alternative to the culture. And yet, I think that profoundly misunderstands (or at least misstates) how culture functions.

Culture isn’t an ‘other’ to which the Church or Christians can determine to be set apart from or independent of. It doesn’t work that way, even if we wish it did. As James Davidson Hunter puts it, culture is a thick web of structures and networks that shape all of us. It’s unavoidable. You can’t retreat from culture or out of culture; you can only contribute more culture.

So, when it comes to issues like the BSA’s looming decision, we can talk about how the Church should be an alternative to the culture and not accommodate changing trends but to do so is to live in a fantasy world. ‘Church’ isn’t an institution. It’s a movement of people and, like it or not, those people have been shaped as much- if not more- by the culture of Will and Grace as they have been by the culture of traditional (whatever that really is in the end) Christianity.

We can’t pretend to be independent of and an alternative to culture. We can only contribute more culture (Christian culture) and choose the spots, topics, issues and idols from which we call people to repentance. And, as I mentioned in a previous post, I personally don’t see homosexuality as the most urgent Kingdom witness Christians can offer our culture.

And that brings me to Emergence Christianity.

In case you’ve been living in a cave (or just aren’t a pastor or youth director) Emergence Christianity names a movement/trend/shift in the traditional Church as it reacts to postmodernity. As with the seismic cultural shift that marked the Reformation, Emergence Christians see postmodernity as an analogous paradigm shift that’s only just begun and will be long-lasting.

In mainline seminaries all across the country, in typical late-to-the-party fashion professors are breathlessly trying to inculcate future pastors in the “techniques” and “aesthetic sensibilities” of Emergence. But rendering Emergence Christianity into a technique that can be taught, I think is a mistake akin to crediting Luther the author of what we call the Reformation.

The real offering Emergence Christianity has made the larger Church isn’t in techniques, aesthetics, fads or rebellious counter-theology.

It’s in their recognition that the Church finds herself in a new cultural situation. As was so with Luther, our challenge is to determine how best to incarnate the Gospel in our time and place.

imagesWord to remember for later: filioque.

Someone the other day emailed me a question asking why we never talk about the Holy Spirit in a way that doesn’t make the Spirit seem like- and I quote- “unnecessary leftovers.”

Bam. Gotcha.

And it’s true. For the most part, in Western Christianity (Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, Pentecostalism) the Holy Spirit is the vaguest, least defined and, due to the two former, the most abused Person of the Trinity.

Catholics and Protestants speak alternately of the Holy Spirit as the ‘bond of fellowship between the Father and the Son’ and the Spirit being the ‘Spirit of Christ.’

Speaking of the Spirit in this way has the effect of making the Spirit seem less God than the Son and the Father. Moreover, speaking of the Spirit has the ‘fellowship between the Father and the Son’ makes the Spirit not a full person of the Trinity but a function of the Father and the Son.

This creates an intratrinitarian problem because, as Eugene Rogers puts it- and think on this because it’s an insightful statement, “the Spirit has no gift to give the creature (us), which is not Christ, because the Spirit has no gift to give Christ.’

So for Catholics and Protestants the Spirit is often vague and nonsensical. We speak of the Spirit in such a way its not really distinguishable from what non-Christians might call the individual conscience.

Pentecostals meanwhile rediscovered the role and vitality of the Holy Spirit, but (probably because their Protestant forebears were so vague on the Spirit) often make the Spirit the projection of their own wants and needs.

The result is that, on the one hand, Catholics and Protestants make the Spirit so irrelevant it allows us to be our own gods while, on the other hand, Pentecostals often use the Spirit to create God in their own image.

Now, back to that word at the top: filioque. It’s Latin for ‘and from the Son’ and it’s served as a bone of contention between Eastern and Western Christianity for over 1,000 years.

Western Christianity, wanting to avoid confusion that Christians worshipped three deities, changed the creedal statement to what we know today: ‘We believe in the Holy Spirit, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.”

That was a change from ancient Christianity.

Prior to that, the Christian confession was always that the Holy Spirit was a full, distinct person of the Trinity, as much God as the Son, with its own role and relationship within the Trinity. Originally, the church confessed what the Orthodox Church does today:

“We believe in the Holy Spirit, uncreated and perfect, who spoke in the Law, and in the prophets, and in the Gospels, who came down upon the Jordan, proclaimed the One sent, and dwelt in the saints.”

I think the Orthodox get it right and did from the get-go.

After all, the Spirit has to be more than the Spirit of Christ or the bond between Father and Spirit. Scripture speaks of the Spirit in such ways all over the place.

At the annunciation, the Spirit overshadows Mary.

At Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit descends on Jesus.

At the Transfiguration, the Spirit overshadows Jesus.

Paul credits the Spirit with raising Jesus from the dead (Rom 8).

The Spirit descends upon the disciples and creates Church and all through Acts is moving in the world out in front of the Church (For example: Philip and the Eunuch, Peter and Cornelius).

And this bit from Acts is what I think is so important. The Holy Spirit is God. Plain and simple. As much God as the Father or the Son. The Holy Spirit is God alive and at work in the world. Today.

Where we tend to speak of the Holy Spirit being ‘within us’ or ‘anointing us’ as individuals, the Orthodox view recognizes that God the Holy Spirit isn’t satisfied to work only in us or on us. God the Spirit is at work in the world with or without us.

This has two important implications:

  1. If God the Spirit is at work in the world, then the work of the Kingdom isn’t past-tense in the pages of scripture. It’s ongoing. Our now is as important as Paul’s present was.
  2. If God the Spirit is at work in the world, then it’s not so much about listening to God as the conscience within us. It’s about looking for where and what God is doing and joining. If the Holy Spirit is God fully and without subordination, there’s no way for us to avoid being missional.