Some religious writers tackle modest questions about current issues with simple answers. Phyllis Tickle is not one of them. Tickle possesses the unique ability to move back a step or two (or a hundred) and help us to process how our current arguments and uncertainties fit into a bigger picture.
And in The Age of the Spirit, which Tickle coauthors with Jon Sweeney, the picture doesn’t get any bigger. The question which Tickle/Sweeney pose is this: are we on the cusp of a new age in Christianity, in which the Holy Spirit will now become a more significant factor in our relationship with and understanding of God?
Their answer is “yes.” And they make their case by undertaking a brief survey of Christian history throughout the centuries, placing an emphasis on difficulties that our forebearers in the Church experienced when trying to talk about and agree on the nature of the Holy Spirit. The survey – as I said – is short. But I was surprised at how much acrimony – even bloodshed – has taken place over issues that, for many of us today, are not all that significant, or even comprehensible.
Much of their argument – as well as the title of their book – goes back to a twelfth century Italian monastic named Joachim of Fiore. Like Gregory of Nazianus, Joachim believed that the nature of God is only slowly being understood by humanity throughout the millennia. At first, God-as-Father was clearly known through Judaism, with only small glimpses of God-as-Son being revealed. Then, God-as-Son was revealed in Jesus, with some glimpses of God-as-Spirit. In the age of the spirit, which was yet to come, Joachim believed that humanity would “relate primarily to the third member of the Trinity.”
Which brings the writers to the 500-year cycle that the Judeo-Christian tradition seems to follow, and about which Tickle has written much more extensively in The Great Emergence and Emergence Christianity. In those books, Tickle pointed toward a theory of church history which holds that Christianity tends to experience great upheavals every 500 years or so. The last upheaval – the Great Reformation – saw millions of Christians cast off the concept of Papal authority in favor of a belief that authority can be found within the pages of scripture. Tickle has argued, and continues to assert in The Age of the Spirit, that one of the defining characteristics of our current upheaval – the Great Emergence – is the questioning/abandonment of scripture-as-authority. The critical issue then becomes – where, then, do we find Divine authority?
The authors suggest that Joachim has provided us the answer – in the Age of the Spirit, believers come into a more immediate relationship with God, making them less reliant on Church structures and interpretations of scripture. I do not think they are arguing that those will become irrelevant, but that they will no longer be viewed as sources of authority and power in the way that they have been viewed in the past.
There is evidence that the Age of the Spirit has already begun to take off. Tickle and Sweeney point to the Charismatic movement that arguably began with John Wesley, and that traces its roots from there up toward the remarkable renewal that took place on Azusa Street in Los Angeles, at the turn of the twentieth century. It was there that hundreds, even thousands of people packed into and around an old building made into a church and experienced, for the first time, the modern manifestation of spiritual gifts. The result was an explosion of enthusiasm that resulted in a global Charismatic movement. Azusa Street, they point out, took place outside of any formal church structures or social conventions.
Regardless of one’s opinion of the Charismatic movement, it has undeniably exercised tremendous influence, even among those who do not identify with it. The now well-recognized trend of those who call themselves “spiritual, but not religious,” for example, is clear evidence that the notion that one can relate to God through the spirit of God, rather than institutional church structures, has become embedded in our consciousness.
The Age of the Spirit has left me with a lot to reflect on. Among other things, I have been convinced by the authors that I would benefit from a closer examination of the Charismatic movement. I have some reservations about it (at the top of the list would be the prosperity gospel, which seems to be one of its step-children), but it definitely deserves more attention.
Finally, by way of some preliminary observations, I think there are three ways that we can help to mitigate some of the negative effects of the Charismatic movement as take the first baby-steps into this new era:
- First, I think we can blend contemplative spirituality into the mix. Unlike the Charismatic movement, the concept of knowing God through contemplation has been around for centuries. There is much wisdom to be recovered from this tradition, and if a typical Charismatic relies too heavily on the experience of the extraordinary to “find God,” the contemplatives can help us to also find God in the ordinary.
- Second, I think there is much to be said about how the revelation of God ordinarily takes place within community, rather than as a result of individual experience. Thus, if Churches are no longer to be seen as places of structured authority, then they probably need to be places where people can safely talk about and experience God in a variety of ways. That is how it worked at the Counsel of Jerusalem in Acts. That is how it has worked in scores of other great counsels over the years. And I think we may need to rescue the Charismatic concept of revelation from the individualistic Western world in which it seems to be trapped.
- Finally – and I realize this is a little more of my own personality coming out here – I think we need to explore alternatives to the deterministic/Calvinist-like worldview that (so it seems to me, at least) dominates the Charismatic movement. I think that if you introduce something more like open theism, or the Orthodox notion of perichoresis (think of it as dancing with God) into the mix, we get a much healthier framework within which discernment can take place.
I am thinking I might unpack some of this a little more in a later post.