Every 500 year or so, Western Christianity convulses and radically reorganizes itself — the Fall of the Roman Empire (~500), the Great Schism (~1000), the Great Reformation (~1500), and then the tumultuous time we’re going through right now. Historian Phyllis Tickle, who has documented this in some detail, names our current era “The Great Emergence.”
So just what is it that’s emerging? My friend Suzanne Ross at the Raven Foundation suggests that the central issue is VIOLENCE. Just as the Great Reformation reacted against the oppressive bishops and kings of the medieval era, the Great Emergence is in part a reaction against the horrific violence of the modern era.
At the center of what is emerging, Ross sees the practice and theology of non-violence. I think Ross is onto something, and I’d like to expand on it.
The venerable Richard Foster observes that each permutation of Christianity develops a distinctive response to the three great powers of human life — Money, Sex, and Power. The monastic movement responded with vows of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience. The Puritan movement latched onto the virtues of Industry, Fidelity, and Order. I believe Emergence Christianity is starting to settle on its own distinctive approaches:
1. In response to Power, Emergence Christianity practices PEACE. Since Constantine, Christianity has been a religion of empire, an enabler and promoter of violence. Our theology has been about God the indignant monarch who must use violence to control the sinful masses. What’s emerging now is a vision of a non-violent God who rules through non-violent solidarity with the outsider. Here, a central guide for many is Rene Girard’s interpretation of the Cross. This vision is already spawning innovative ways of relating to politics, church governance, and non-Christian religions.
2. In response to Sex, Emergence Christianity practices AFFIRMATION. The religion of empire needs scapegoats to keep the masses at peace (This is largely what Suzanne Ross’s piece is about), and sexual minorities have always been a convenient target. In part as a reaction against this, the sexual revolution of Emergence Christianity makes a point of recognizing the full equality of men and women, and affirming the diverse sexualities of our brothers and sisters who are lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, queer, and intersex. Emergents still value sexuality in the context of long-term exclusive relationships and will probably appropriate the sacrament of marriage toward that end.
3. In response to Money, Emergence Christianity practices… well, uh, we’re still working on that… Seven years ago, emergents were not yet settled on how to think/feel about gay people. That is where we are now in regard to money. It will be settled, but we are not there yet. Whatever it ends up being, the emergent response will need to be robust enough to challenge our culture’s unsustainable over-consumption and indifference to the third world. So far, emergents have addressed economics with little more than tired leftisms, but I suspect our distinctive approach to money will be more revolutionary than that. In my view, the most promising experiments lie among the neo-monastics, with their practices of radical hospitality and their economic self-limitation based on a “theology of enough.”
So that’s my unscientific subjective take on what I see going on — Emergence Christianity has more-or-less settled on two distinctive features: non-violent forms of power and solidarity with scapegoated sexual minorities. I expect our eventual approach to money will involve good old-fashioned neighborliness, along with a deep recognition of the violence inherent in over-consumption. That’s what I see.
What do you think?