I have a certain fondness for cyclical history, or at least the notion that there are some structural patterns that seem to recur in predictable waves throughout history – including ones that could explain our current period of upheaval.
Several observers of history have theorized broad 60-100 year secular “cycles” of historical disorder and reorder, such as William Strauss and Neil Howe’s generational theory and Peter Turchin’s “cliodynamic” forecast of an “age of discord” – both of which predicted a period of extended crisis around 2020 and now seem to pretty much be playing out exactly as prophesized.
Apparently the latest entrant to the fan club is Chinese President Xi Jinping, who since 2020 has taken to describing the world as experiencing “changes unseen in a century.” This seems like a plausible description of our present situation, or a big exaggeration, depending on how pessimistic you are. After all, 100 years ago the world had just emerged from the shattering experience of the Great War and its economic aftermath, Russia had been wracked by revolution, in China the once-mighty Qing Empire had collapsed, the USA had just eclipsed Britain and Germany as the world’s largest economy, and a wave of war-induced technological change was in the process of transforming the planet. This period of global chaos arguably only came to an end with the new world order that emerged after the Second World War. Xi just hopes that China’s opportunity to rise to the top again has arrived amid another shakeup of that geopolitical order.
This stuff is worth exploring more, and I aim to do so in the future. But first, I think it might be worth it for us to start by actually thinking bigger – much bigger. As in: what if we aren’t witnessing a period of change “unseen in a century,” but unseen in five centuries? And, what if we are engulfed not in a secular cycle, but in one more fundamentally religious in nature? That’s an important question to analyze, even if you aren’t religious.
In the last decade we’ve seen the emergence in the West of a strident new ideology of “Social Justice” which, despite its self-conceived secularism, many observers have now convincingly argued bears all the hallmarks of a new religious cult, complete with a new metaphysics of truth and reality, a concept of original sin, a new hierarchy of moral virtues, a self-constructed canonical liturgy and a strict orthodoxy, a de-facto priesthood, sacred spaces, self-abasing rituals, a community of believers, linguistic shibboleths, blasphemy laws, and excommunication – among other giveaways.
But, quite notably, this “New Faith” seems to have, consciously or unconsciously, modeled most of its belief system and ritual practices straight out of the Christian tradition, from an overarching preoccupation with the weak and the victimized, along with an emphasis on atonement (though any conception of grace, forgiveness, or redemption is notably absent), right down to specific forms of ritual, like the washing of feet or the symbolic reenactment of martyrdom.
This raises an interesting question: is what we are witnessing now less an entirely new faith than what in the past would have instead been immediately recognized and categorized as part of the long list of Christian heresies, large and small, which challenged the established church throughout history? Could we be living through, as I posited briefly in my introductory essay to The Upheaval, a religious revolution similar to the Reformation that wracked Europe beginning around 500 years ago?
A 500 Year Cycle
Enter the late Phyllis Tickle, an American academic and journalist following religious trends, and her 2008 book The Great Emergence, which essentially argued precisely that. Tickle’s book is frankly what I would have described as a work of pure kookery as recently as five years ago, but, well, times have changed.
The Great Emergence posits that Christianity has throughout its history been shaped by a recurring 500 year-long cycle of structural and spiritual dissolution, turmoil, and re-formation. Each time, the Church has seemingly been seized by a collective desire to cast off established institutional structures and beliefs. She identifies four past rotations of this cycle, coincidentally describing a “mighty upheaval” that has inevitably consumed the Christian world at every climax of this cycle before order was eventually restored.
The first cycle naturally began with the life and death of Jesus Christ and then consumed the first century AD. This was a truly chaotic period for the whole of the Mediterranean world, in which the early Christian church emerged haphazardly amid the violent regional aftermath of the fall of the Roman Republic. And it turned out to be a catastrophic period for the religion from which the new faith of Christianity emerged as a self-identified “successor,” with the Second Temple destroyed in 70 AD and the Jews scattered.
By the sixth century, Christianity had reached a second period of crisis. It was now the official religion of the Roman Empire, but that empire had reached the terminus of a long decline (the Roman Senate formally disbanding in 480). The civil order and relatively widespread literacy that had helped spread Christianity across the empire were gone. Illiterate barbarians, having grown weary of pillaging the Eternal City and deciding to move in instead, had settled en masse in the former territory of western Rome. Meanwhile, the institutional Church was weakened and in serious danger of being split apart by the Nestorian heresy, in what was essentially an argument about the divinity of Christ. Thus, amid the ongoing plague, war, political fracturing, and general lawlessness, a cultural revolution was, as Tickle puts it, “at work peeling the Christianity of the Early Church away from the laity and inserting into the resulting vacuum a kind of animistic, half-magical form of a bastardized Christianity that would characterize the laity and much of the minor clergy over the next few centuries” of what we now think of as the Dark Ages. Fortunately for the faith, St. Gregory the Great (Pope Gregory I from 590-604) managed to lead “a continent that was in total upheaval into some kind of ecclesio-political coherence” by “building on the work of St. Benedict” (480-547) to guide Christianity “firmly into the monasticism that would protect, preserve, and characterize it during the next five centuries.”
About 500 years later, the Church had had time to regroup, restore itself, decay, and degenerate back into crisis. The apex of this extended crisis can be dated to 1054, when the Patriarch of Constantinople and Rome’s Pope Leo IX excommunicated each other in what became known as the Great Schism, permanently splitting Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy from one another. The schism was the culmination of intense argument between Rome and Constantinople over theological, cultural, and political authority. But, crucially, it also occurred at the height of Christendom’s encounter with emergent Islam, with much of the Iberian Peninsula then still under Muslim control and the First Crusade soon to be called in 1096.
When Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg in 1517, he was, in Tickle’s telling, “responding to pressures that had been building around his natal from of Christianity and culture for over a century.” Amid the decadence, corruption, and political capture of the church, any strong consensus on the source of theological, institutional, or political authority had essentially collapsed. Between 1378 and 1418 there was not one, but two (and briefly three) rival popes claiming divine authority and competing for legitimacy. By 1453 the Ottoman Turks had captured Constantinople and began pushing their way into Europe. Thousands of Greek Orthodox refugees had fled across the Mediterranean, bringing new knowledge and ideas and helping to spark the Renaissance. Meanwhile new technologies, economic models, and sociopolitical arrangements were beginning to transform European life. The result was that Luther’s attempt at reforming the Church unwittingly sparked a firestorm on a continent primed for radicalization and revolution, deeply fracturing Christianity, shattering the Holy Roman Empire, and inspiring more than 130 years of violent insurrection, civil conflict, and interstate warfare.
Add another 500 years after Luther, and that brings us relatively precisely to today. So, does the book foresee another moment of crisis emerging within Christianity now? Of course it does. But before we get to that, we’d be remiss not to first step back and ask what is driving this cycle, and how that is manifested in these common patterns.
Breaking the Cable
Tickle describes an established religion as a sort of cable – not just a metaphorical “cable of meaning that keeps the human social unit connected to some purpose and/or power greater than itself,” but with the analogy of an actual cable.
Inside a steel cable are three interwoven strands, in this case representing spirituality (interior religious experience and belief), corporeality (the physical embodiment/evidence of a religious practice’s existence and practice, such as books, liturgy, or a priest’s robes), and morality (essentially applied spirituality, filtered through corporeality). On the outside of the cable is a waterproof casing that protects the interior. In our analogy, this is the religion’s story (the mythic and actual shared history that unites members). Finally, in between the casing and the strands is a pliable mesh sleeve that makes the cable more flexible and less brittle, and helps to absorb shocks. This is the common imagination or illusion of the religion’s believers about “how the world works” and is “to be imaged and thereby understood.” It serves as a general operating system for the group.
So constructed, said religious cable can rest underwater on the seabed of history for quite a long time unperturbed in its function. However, eventually the outer casing (the story) will become corroded, and the interior mesh (collective imagination) disrupted by events. At first this is fine, and the cable continues to hold, or is even repaired. That is until “that fateful time, about once every five hundred years, when the outer casing of the story and inner sleeve of the shared illusion take a blow simultaneously. When that happens, a hole is opened straight through to the braid. The water rushes in; and human nature being what human nature is, we reach our collective hand in through the hole and pull out the three strands one at a time. Spirituality first, corporeality second, and morality last. We pull each up, consider it from every possible angle, and at times finger it beyond all imagining.” (If you’re now thinking of the rapid growth of people in the 21st century that began claiming they’re “spiritual but not religious,” you are connecting the dots here).
Once this occurs, “always without fail, the thing that gets lost early in the process of [such] a reconfiguration is any clear and general understanding of who or what is to be used as the arbitrator of correct belief, action, and control.” Soon a period of crisis emerges as a maelstrom rages around one central question: “where now is the authority?”
This question, says Tickle, is “the fundamental or foundational question of all human existence and/or endeavor, be it individual or that of a larger, social unit. Without an answer to it, the individual personality or the personality of the group at large alike fall into disarray and ultimately chaos. It is Hell where there is no answer to that question.”
Chaos will prevail until the question of authority is resolved, one way or another. During the Reformation, for example, that question was sparked by the degeneration of the perceived authority of the Roman Catholic Church, and eventually resolved (in part, for some) by the answer sola scriptura, scriptura sola (“only the Scripture and the Scriptures only”), giving birth to Protestantism.
Which brings us to a final interesting pattern that Tickle identifies in every cycle: the emergence of at least one “new form” of Christianity, but also simultaneously a process of “re-traditioning” by the original faith that has “occurred with each turn of the eras and is a substantial dynamic in the progression from upheaval to renewed stability.” In the case of the Reformation, the Church was “freed” to tackle errors and corruptions, and to make significant institutional reforms (in the Fifth Lateran Council, the Councils of Trent, etc.) during a period of counter-reformation that would eventually produce a less decadent and more unified, clarified, and vibrant Catholic Church.
This re-formation only resolves things for a while, however. The process (patching up the cable) takes about 250 years, at which point it immediately begins to decay again for about another 250 years and enter into a new crisis.
The Great Emergence
So, what does Tickle see happening to Christianity today? Her story of what has beset the religion in the centuries since its post-Reformation high and led to a crisis of today is largely well-trod ground, although with some interesting additions.
The Enlightenment took hold in the West and its emphasis on reason began to undermine religious certainties. Then science, from Darwin to Faraday to Einstein to NASA, began to systematically destroy traditional collective story and imagination about how the universe functioned. It was in particular “biology and physics [that] were to split the cable open, tear the story, snag the sleeve, and lay out to public view the braided strand.” Next came the psychoanalysts and psychologists, the Freuds, Jungs, and Campbells, whose popular exploration of human consciousness and the unconscious mind, and of common mythical/archetypical religious experiences, served to both open a new frontier for “rational” exploration (“what really makes us tick?”) and break down, in the public imagination, the separation of the Christian from the generically “spiritual.” This merged with a growing philosophical obsession, dating back to Descartes, questioning the nature of the “self” and its relationship with reality. These questions would only be further inflamed by the impact of Buddhist ideas that captured the counter-cultural imagination during the 1960s – along with the influence of psychoactive drugs.
Meanwhile a revolution in communications technology, from radio and television to eventually the internet, served to democratize religious messaging and break down hierarchies of informational authority (much like Gutenberg’s printing press did for the Reformation). The invention of the automobile also played a fundamental role, by beginning the process of splitting apart extended nuclear families. Families were soon no longer gathering at Grandma’s for post-Sunday service collective meals every week. This was more important than anyone realized, because it was Grandma who was usually the authority figure willing to state in no uncertain terms that the new preacher with “his tendency toward fancy or newfangled sermons and imported theories” was spouting nonsense. “Grandma was, in essence a brake – a formidable one, in fact – on social/cultural/theological change.” But she got left behind.
Then came the culture wars, including the sexual revolution, women’s liberation, gay rights, and so on, which finished off the process.
What happened in sum, in Tickle’s telling, is that “sola scriptura, scriptura sola,” which “had answered the authority question in the sixteenth century and, more or less, had sustained the centuries between the Great Reformation” and the modern day, was mortally wounded. In largely Protestant America, this had big consequences (and meanwhile the Catholic Church was facing similar pressures). Any agreement on the three strands of the cable – what it means to be “spiritual”; what the corporeality of the church should looks like, or if it should even exist; and eventually what it means to be a moral person – was now gone.
The result, she says, has been the emergence of a new faith structure.
The very first manifestation of this, Tickle argues, dates back to the birth and explosive growth in America of Pentecostalism, a form of “charismatic” Protestantism that emphasizes a radically egalitarian, direct and personal relationship with God sufficient to produce the famed “speaking in tongues” common in Pentecostal worship. Pentecostalism “by definition assumes direct contact of the believer with God and, by extension, the direct agency of the Holy Spirit as instructor and counselor and commander as well as comforter.” As such, “Pentecostalism assumes that ultimate authority is experiential rather than canonical… Pentecostalism, in other words offered the Great Emergence its first, solid, applied answer to the question of where now is our authority.”
Today, however, even Pentecostalism is beginning to break down – along with evangelicalism and pretty much every other denomination – and see its followers assimilated into something new: the “Emergent Church.” But what exactly is that?
Tickle tries to explain by first drawing a box with four quadrants for four main types of American Christians: “Conservatives,” “Renewalists,” “Liturgicals,” and “Social Justice Christians.” I won’t get into detailed explanations of all this, because Tickle’s increasingly jumbled sketches are something of a mess, and will instead simplify her take a bit. Her prediction breaks down, essentially, into an argument that young people are fleeing established churches of all kinds and being sucked into a vortex of the “gathering center” that cherry picks tenants from each of the four corners and is coalescing into the Emergent Church.
But again, what exactly is that? Tickles spends many chapters of her book dancing around an answer, but eventually reveals a few core principles.
First, the Emergent Church has – enabled by technology – essentially dedicated itself to taking Luther’s proto-democratic dream of a “priesthood of all believers” to its maximum extent. Like Pentecostalism, the Emergent Church believes everyone has a direct connection with God, or whatever they like to think of as God-like, and no one gets to tell them to believe differently.
This priesthood of all believers “is certainly and most notably global, recognizing none of the old, former barriers of nationality, race, social class, or economic status. It is also radical… [a] relational, nonhierarchical, a-democratized form of Christianity entering into its hegemony.”
And the “Emergents,” it turns out, “are postmodern.” Despite all that rationalist science from earlier, the takeaway from the collapse of authority has been “that logic is not worth nearly so much as the last five hundred years would have had us believe. It is, therefore, not to be trusted as an absolute, nor are its conclusions to be taken as truth just because they depend from logical thinking.”
“Narrative, on the other hand,” is for Emergents “the song of the vibrating network… Narrative circumvents logic, speaking truth of the people who have been and of whom we are. Narrative speaks to the heart in order that the heart, so tutored, may direct and inform the mind.”
But who ultimately determines the narrative in this ultra-democratic faith? Tickle taps into network theory to answer: crowd sourcing. The group will manifest its own values and own authority. This “differs [from the past] in that it employs total egalitarianism, a respect for worth of the hoi polloi that even pure democracy never had, and a complete indifference to capitalism as a virtue or to individualism as a godly circumstance.”
Is any of this beginning to sound somewhat worrying to you? Well don’t worry, says Tickle – and it is worth pausing here to note that Tickle is an enthusiastic self-described Emergent who thinks this is all great news – the coalescing Emergent Church will settle on new answers to authority, spirituality, morality, and practice, and find its footing as the new dominant Christianity. Meanwhile the reactionaries left in the corners will undergo a process of re-traditioning and come out the better for it in the end. And they can take heart that “every time the incrustations of an overly established Christianity have been broken open, the faith has spread – and been spread – dramatically into new geographic and demographic areas, thereby increasing exponentially the range and depth of Christianity’s reach as a result of its time of unease and distress.”
And with the new egalitarian faith tradition so deeply in touch with our common humanity, all the bloodshed and general unpleasantness experienced during every past historical case of “emergence” will presumably be avoided (Tickle seems to forget about that part in her excitement). Then everyone will live happily ever after – or at least for another 500 years.
That was Tickle’s conclusion anyway. But she published The Great Emergence in 2008 and died in 2015, so she didn’t live to see what’s actually happened.
The Actual Great Emergence
Tickle wrote her book too soon. Liberal, vibrating, Eastern-inspired hippies no longer, her “Emergent Church” seems to have taken a turn in the last decade that she didn’t see coming, transforming into a rather different beast.
Here’s what I think may have happened. Tickle got a lot of things very right: the cable of institutional Christianity was corroded by science and cultural entropy; sola scriptura, scriptura sola did break down, and the faith did enter a crisis centered on the question “where now is authority?” A new Christianity did began to emerge, just as she described.
In fact the trends toward the collapse of establishment Christianity were perhaps even more powerful than she may have predicted. A recent Gallup poll found that less than 50% of American’s are now official members of a church or other religious organization, down from over 60% in 2008.
Moreover, when you dig into the data, nearly all of this decline is coming from mainline Protestant and Catholic churches. But there is no reason to think that most of these people losing their religion were becoming atheists, or even necessarily “secular” – they are just identifying as “religiously unaffiliated,” or “none of the above,” so it’s hard to know exactly what they believe.
It seems plausible that many of them could actually have become part of the “Emergent Church” Tickle described.
But – and this is my theory – in the end Tickle’s version of Emergent Christianity proved a weak social construct. It existed to gratify its adherents with the belief that they were still morally good members of a religious tradition, whose primary goal was to provide for their happiness, while liberating them from any higher authority beyond themselves and freeing them from any of the responsibilities or strictures that had once characterized that religion.
In other words, Emergent Christianity was mostly Moralistic Therapeutic Deism all along.
Ultimately, this fragile early-stage Emergent Church didn’t resolve the crisis because it didn’t have any real authority, meaningful substance, or unifying purpose.
Meanwhile, many of the seeds planted within Emergent Christianity that Tickle mentioned were still finishing germinating, namely: post-modernism, narrative-driven reality, direct personal relationship with and self-interpretation of divinity, opposition to hierarchy, and crowd-sourced authority.
But, most important of all was I think something Tickle doesn’t really touch on too much: the modernity-driven suspicion, deep within the hearts even of many Christians, that in fact, as Nietzsche infamously put it, “God is dead.” Increasingly skeptical about the existence of any kingdom of God in heaven, they were primed for a logical alternative: building the kingdom of heaven on earth instead.
The stage was thus set for The Great Merger.
At some point the Emergent Church came face-to-face with secular, identity-based “Social Justice” activism – likely in the 2010s, when core theoretical ideas behind that movement, based on post-modern Critical Theory and neo-Marxist frameworks of identitarian struggle, first really began to seep out of the academy and crystalize into effective activist movements, such as Black Lives Matter or the trans rights movement, in a big way.
Both sides liked what they saw, but for the Emergent Church in particular this was a match made in narrative heaven. Secular Social Justice activism dovetailed perfectly with both the strong historical emphasis on social justice work within many Christian denominations (including the Social Gospel movement) and the post-modern seeds already present in Emergent Christianity (such as the primacy of self-interpreted identity). But more importantly it offered Emergents nearly everything they had been missing and longing for. Suddenly they had a new source of authority (the doctrines of Critical Theory and the hierarchy of intersectional identity), a clear metaphysics of good and evil (the oppressed and their oppressors), an ultimate objective (to perfect the world by the elimination of evil), and a grand narrative of how to live in the world.
George Orwell famously wrote in his 1940 review of Mein Kampf that: “Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people ‘I offer you a good time,’ Hitler has said to them ‘I offer you struggle, danger and death,’ and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet.” Well, the Emergent Church offered its restless followers comfort and a good time on earth; neo-Marxist Social Justice offered them revolutionary struggle, and so they prostrated themselves immediately.
Soon the Emergent Church was absorbed and fully fused with the Social Justice movement. The Woke Church was born. The New Faith then began rapidly splitting apart and consuming both the established churches and many of the secular “Nones” who never thought of themselves as part of a church at all.
That’s not the end of the story though, as I think Emergent Christianity may have had more influence on the secular activist movement than the latter tends to consider. In fact I think it might have been quite important to the rapid emergence and spread of the New Faith.
To start with, it provided the concept of sin. This helped grow and empower the activist movement tremendously. Why? One might not think of free-wheeling secular culture embracing the idea of sin so easily, even joyfully, but it was a simple matter. As an example, picture a hypothetical middle-class suburban white lady, enjoying a relatively comfortable material life but wracked by a vague but unshakable sense of guilt about her existence – for being white in a country with a history often unkind to non-whites; for her consumption habits contributing to environmental pollution and climate change; for being the citizen of a rich country while elsewhere in the world children starve, and so on. Liberalism has never addressed this feeling in a satisfactory way. Suddenly, along comes the New Faith, and tells her that it’s all true: she is indeed a sinner, and she’s not alone! In fact the whole country and her whole race is corrupted by the original sins of colonialism, slavery, and genocide. What a relief! Even better, it has a comprehensive plan of action for how to address this sin.
This helped reorient Social Justice from the purely systemic to the personal. Neo-Marxist roots mean that the modern Social Justice movement tends to think primarily in terms of systems, and aims to drive systemic change to address systemic problems, like “systemic racism.” Broadly speaking, this is still the case, but the problem is that this is both a hard goal and a cold, impersonal one. It’s not very inspiring to tell people their individual agency is of little import to the machine and that the only way to affect progress is to change the whole machine. Activism seems like pretty desperate business in that case. The concept of sin, however, provides a short circuit to this problem: it implies that progress can be made through a sort of personal moral transformation (say by acknowledging one’s privilege and “unconscious bias” and moving from “racist” to “anti-racist”) which anyone can achieve if they “educate” themselves and “do the work.” Liberalism has studiously avoided telling our secular white lady how she should live in the world, so this kind of moral direction provides the relief of having a distinct path. Moreover, if everyone was to accept this path all the problems of the world would be immediately be solved, so convincing (or forcing) more people to accept the Good News and begin their personal transformation becomes an imperative mission.
This lent the movement a millenarian aspect. Someday, if all sin can be confessed and confronted by collective moral transformation, then a much-heralded day of “reckoning” will arrive in which said sin is cleansed from the body-politic, the unrepentant sinners are done away with, and, with no remaining opposition, the kingdom of heaven is therefore achieved on earth. You know how I think that kind of utopianism usually tends to play out, but I assume in this case it will be a very diverse, equitable, and inclusive place, ad majorem DEI gloriam.
Until that day arrives, though, the religious infusion helps allow members of the New Faith to taste that sweetest of nectars: being both intellectually and morally superior to other people. The very fact of their awakened ability to see revealed truths of systemic injustice (having “woke”) and begun their journey of moral transformation is proof of that. The result is a sort of new Calvinism, in which, as John McWhorter describes it, the faithful are the new “Elect” who get to look down on all the ignorant sinners. Suffice to say, our once-guilty feeling and confused secular suburban white lady has likely never felt this level of moral righteousness and fanatical zealousness before, and the result is intoxicating.
Finally, it provides an even greater sense of community to the faithful, helping to overcome the atomizing isolation and loneliness of liquid modernity. This is a somewhat odd community though. Just as Tickle predicted, communications technology has made it simultaneously vast and hyper-democratic. You might question whether the strict orthodoxy and blasphemy codes of the New Faith, to which one must submit or be canceled, are democratic, but that is only because you have forgotten your Plato and Aristotle, either of whom could have warned you what tends to happen to pure democracies. As Aristotle put it in his Politics:
[T]here demagogues spring up. For the people becomes a monarch, and is many in one; and there many have the power in their hand, not as individuals, but collectively… At all events this sort of democracy, which is now a monarchy, and no longer under the control of law, seeks to exercise monarchical sway, and grows into a despot.
If you ever wonder why something you said that was fine 72 hours ago is now an unredeemably racist, sexist, excommunicable offense, it’s because the disembodied Swarm Pope, who leads the People’s Democratic Priesthood of All Believers, crowd-sourced it from the swirling Id of the mob on Twitter while you weren’t looking.
In any case, in the end, do I think The Great Emergence explains the Upheaval? Not really, though in my view it does provide some important insights.
Overall, I think the religious elements of the ideologies we see gaining in power today are exceptionally important to understand, and I found much of Tickle’s exploration of the “Emergent Church” to have been quite valuable in helping me do so. And I think that ultimately Tickle was correct that in predicting that a new form of Christianity would emerge and is now in the process of battling it out with established forms for supremacy moving forward. Whether traditional forms Christianity will survive by undergoing some form of “re-traditioning” as Tickle predicts is an interesting question and remains to be seen.
The problem is that, even if the 500 year cycle that Tickle describes is genuine, it isn’t clear in each case what is cause and what is effect. As Tickle acknowledges at one point in her book, “over and over again,” the “religious enthusiasms” of each period of cyclical emergence “are unfailingly symptomatic or expressive of concomitant political, economic, and social upheavals.” So was the Reformation the cause of Europe’s 16th century turmoil, or just one important manifestation of a broader secular dynamic driving general upheaval? If the “great emergence” was not the cause, then what was? Tickle doesn’t attempt an answer to that, so our inquiry is back near square one.
However, I do have a suspicion that the question Tickle identifies as at the core of recurring crises in established Christianity – “where now is authority?” – is key. It may be that the seeming collapse of any firm locus of authority in almost every aspect of life today – politics, geopolitics, elites in general, religion, morality in general, asset pricing, economics in general, media, information in general, etc. – is central to our whole broader upheaval in the world today.
That is the kind of question I intend to keep exploring here, so if you’re interested in joining me please let me know your thoughts in the comments below and make sure you:
This is a remarkably insightful article. I did have one thought I wanted to share concerning the final question posed, 'where now is authority?'. With each successive 'emergence' as it were, the source of the authority in Christianity moved ever more gradually away from God and towards man. With the first emergence, that of Christ, the question was answered obviously 'with Christ' as He was the clear authority and His teachings carried the full weight of what was believed.
With the second emergence in the 6th century and the Arian heresy, the answer to the question was 'with the Pope', since Christ's divinity was now suspect, the ultimate authority had to rest in the human hands of the leader of the Christian Church.
In the 11th century, the answer was 'with the local bishop' as that solidified the split between the eastern and western churches and now the authority rested with the local bishop, leading to the doctrinal differences that became permanent between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.
In the 16th century, the answer was 'scripture alone' which made every individual pastor or priest his own magesterium and arbiter of what was to be believed. Which lead naturally to the conclusion and answer to this currently cycle, which is apparently 'with the individual', thus completing the serpents temptation in the garden that 'You will be like unto God' and we are now seen as the arbitors of what is good and what is evil, even if that moves as a sort of weird collective hive mind.
I immediately thought of three of the smartest and most thoughtful people I know who need to read this. One is a priest, another a retired physician, and another an atheist-libertarian-transhumanist lawyer. I look forward to talking this over with them and others.