Friday, August 01, 2008
500-Year Cycles
Julie recently wrote about Phyllis Tickle's recent articles and podcasts relating to her new book about The Great Emergence. While I haven't read the book yet (it's not yet been released), I am assuming that the book at least partially presents the idea that Phyllis brings up in these articles and talks (and which I've heard her address before), which is that Judeo-Christian history tends to move in 500-year cycles. She posits (citing Anglican bishop Mark Dyer) that "about every 500 years the church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale" during which there is major social, political, and spiritual upheaval. As she explains in the Sojourners article:

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.
posted by Mike Clawson at 11:02 AM | Permalink |


At 8/01/2008 02:17:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous

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.

With the amount of data available, it's more likely from a mathematical perspective that it's a combination of coincidence and our intrinsic ability to find patterns whether they exist or not.

If it is a real phenomenon, it's probably based in economics (as in Karen Armstrong's "Axial Age" theory), since that's one of the few human activities which can hypothetically have such long cycles. Unfortunately, I don't know enough history to say whether that's a viable idea here.


At 8/01/2008 04:17:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

The pattern clearly exists, though of course it's not the only discernible pattern one could pick out. Just because patterns in history are a matter of interpretation doesn't mean they're not "real".

Though truthfully, these 500-year events do seem to be the "biggies". It'd be hard to pick out any more transformative events in the history of Judaism and Christianity. (The one exception I can think of would be the Edict of Milan and then the institution of Christianity as the official Roman religion later in the 4th century - though that could be seen as simply part of the run-up to the collapse of Rome and rise of monasticism.)

As for whether it's tied to economics, perhaps in part, though I tend to reject those reductionistic approaches that try to base the whole of human activity in one academic discipline (e.g. economics, psychology, sociology, religion, politics, genetics, biology, etc.). Human existence and human history is far more complex and intricate than that.


At 8/09/2008 08:42:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous

I notice that following the Great Schism, no mention is made of the Eastern church -- the Great Reformation 500 years later does not apply in any way to the East, so perhaps this 500-year pattern is better applied to the churches of the West? Almost all of the Christian world in the East remains Orthodox to this day.


At 8/09/2008 11:29:00 AM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Tickle points out that with each transformation the previous form of Christianity doesn't cease to exist but reforms itself and continues on, however it will have lost its primacy. The Reformation then doesn't apply to the Eastern Church because it was a reaction to the dominant form of Christianity at the time, which during the Middle Ages was the Roman Church, not the Eastern Church.


At 8/18/2008 09:04:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous

Again, it seems you're speaking only for the West. The Eastern churches thrived during the Middle Ages in many places, despite the expansion of Islam.


At 8/19/2008 05:30:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Thrived? Yes. Dominant? I wouldn't say so. For most of the Middle Ages the Eastern Church struggled with continual political/cultural upheaval as it's homelands were overrun by Muslims, Mongols, and Western Crusaders, culminating in the fall of Constantinople in the 15th century. I'm not saying Eastern Christianity wasn't still vital and significant (and is still today), but I don't see how one could claim that they were the driving and dominant form of Christianity in the period between the Schism and the Reformation.


At 8/21/2008 10:37:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous

If you're talking about driving and dominant forms of Christianity, don't the exploding numbers of theologically conservative, frequently charismatic Christians in Africa, Asia, Central and South America dwarf what is going on in the emerging church movement in the West?

Taking the Anglican communion as just one example for instance, there are more Anglicans in Nigeria alone than there are in the UK, the US and Canada combined. And Nigerian Anglicanism is generally speaking charismatic, theologically conservative and largely uninfluenced by trends over the last few decades in western European and American philosophy.

If the emerging church movement is really going to be a driving and dominant force in worldwide Christianity (like the post-schism western church centered in Rome, or the post-reformation protestant church) rather than just causing a few waves in the western pool, it has quite a ways to go. There are a lot of shifts going on, but I don't think the forecast for the future is very clear yet, nor is the certainty of being on the brink of some new turn in a 500 year cycle.


At 8/21/2008 10:19:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

I think I already mentioned this in my post, but by the "Great Emergence" Tickle is referring to far more than just the emerging church movement. In fact, I think she'd most likely include what you are describing as part of the "Great Emergence". One of the key characteristics of this transition (as I've heard her describe it before) is a convergence of many different traditions and forms of faith. For instance Tickle mentions an increasingly common "meeting in the middle" and "blending together" of what she identifies as the four major streams of Christianity, i.e. Liturgical, Evangelical, Charismatic, and Social Justice. So when you describe conservative (i.e. evangelical), charismatic, Anglicans (i.e. liturgical) in the developing world (meaning they likely have an immediate connection to social justice issues), that is exactly the kind of "emergence" that Tickle is talking about.