About every 500 years the empowered structures of institutionalized Christianity, whatever they may be at that time, become an intolerable carapace, or hard shell, that must be shattered in order that renewal and new growth may occur. When that mighty upheaval happens, history shows us, there are always at least three consistent results or corollary events.
First, a new, more vital form of Christianity does indeed emerge. Second, the organized expression of Christianity that up until then had been the dominant one is reconstituted into a more pure and less ossified expression of its former self. As a result of this usually energetic but rarely benign process, the church actually ends up with two new creatures where once there had been only one. That is, in the course of birthing a brand-new expression of its faith and praxis, the church also gains a grand refurbishment of the older one.The third result is of equal, if not greater, significance. 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.Thus, for example, the birth of Protestantism not only established a new, powerful way of being Christian, but it also forced Roman Catholicism to make changes in its own structures and praxis. As a result of both those changes, Christianity was spread over far more of the earth’s territories than had ever been true in the past.
Over the course of previous hinge times, the church has always been sucked along in the same ideational currents as has the culture in general, especially in matters of governance. The result has been that, at any given time, the political structure of one has always been reflected in and/or exercised influence upon the organizational structures of the other.
Tickle suggests that we are in one of these periods of upheaval again, what she calls the Great Emergence, which includes but is not limited to the emerging church movement. This is in itself an interesting and controversial idea (and one which I personally think is fundamentally correct, though what shape this change will ultimately take remains to be seen), however, as a history buff, I am also very interested in the historical pattern of past upheavals. While any categorization and division of history into eras and epochs is on some level artificial and a matter of selection and interpretation, on the other hand, we human beings tend to think in terms of categories and discernible patterns, and the fact that we can pick out certain patterns like this one is significant in itself, as much in what it reveals about us today as it does about the past.
If we look 500 years in past the most recent shift that we encounter is of course the Great Reformation which officially began in 1517 with Martin Luther, when the Protestant Reformers broke through the crust of the Roman Catholic establishment and instituted a new form of Christianity that fit the changing social and political structures of Western civilization (e.g. less authoritarian, more democratic). 500 years before that we come to the Great Schism in AD 1054 which separated the authoritarian Roman Catholic Church, whose model of Papal authority was the mirror image of Western Europe's absolute monarchies, from the Eastern Orthodox Church which continued the previous paradigm of ecumenical councils and shared authority among numerous co-equal patriarchs and bishops. As Tickle describes, 500 years before that we have the collapse of the Roman Empire and the rise of monasticism as the predominant organizing principle of the Western church. And of course 500 years before that we have Jesus himself and what Tickle calls "the Great Transformation" when, at the same time that countless ethnic identities were being subsumed into the "global" identity of the Roman Empire, Judaism transformed from an ethnically based religion into the global religion known as Christianity.
To me one of the most fascinating things about this pattern is that it continues back past Jesus as well. Tickle describes it as an inherent feature of Abrahamic faiths (noting that a similar pattern therefore exists within Islam), and traces it back into Old Testament history. 500 years before Jesus we come to the Babylonian Captivity, which transformed Judaism from a localized, Temple-based religion, into a scattered, text-based one. And 500 years before that we come to the rise of Israel's monarchy, when their faith and governance became centralized and focused on Jerusalem, as opposed the loose tribal confederation and diverse worship practices of the period of the Judges. And of course 500 years before that you have Moses, the Exodus into the Promised Land, and the giving of the Torah (depending on which scholars you follow, though I tend to support the Hyksos hypothesis and a date of roughly 1500 BC for the Exodus). Another 500 years then takes us right back to Abraham himself, who, depending on which scholar you read and how you calculate the dates, probably lived sometime around 2000 BC.
And of course Abraham is where the whole Judeo-Christian story begins (the first 11 chapters of Genesis being prologue according to Tickle). 4000 years of religious history. It's fascinating to see these patterns and wonder what it is about the nature of our faith, or perhaps simply our nature of human beings that leads to these cycles. And it makes one start to wonder what is coming next, what might be, in fact, just over the horizon.
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