Aengus Anderson: So Neil, you’re back. We excluded you from the interstitial while you were in your hour of desperate sickness. And now Micah’s gone. And here we are again.
Neil Prendergast: Yeah, that’s right. Well, I did get a chance to listen to the interstitial, which by the way I have to say I love the name interstitial. I think it’s great.
Anderson: It makes us feel really intellectual, which is important. Because we’re always talking to smart people and then doubting our own abilities. So we’re like, “If we use a word like ‘interstitial’ we’ll seem a lot smarter than we are.”
Prendergast: There’s nothing like a big word. But actually, I really actually enjoyed what you and Micah talked about. In particular how to make connections out to some bigger things that haven’t been there. You guys talked about some I think interesting things.
Anderson: And we were talking about the invisible connections. And I got an email from a listener this very morning that said, “How about religion? You guys didn’t talk about religion much and it hasn’t been a big theme in the project.” And I thought that’s a perfect segue into who we’re talking about today, which is Phyllis A. Tickle. She was the founding editor of the religion department Publisher’s Weekly. She did that back in ’91. But she’s also written and is continuing to write an enormous number of books, including several about Emergence Christianity. But she’s written a lot of other things about— She’s written prayer manuals and journal articles.
But we’re really going to be talking about Emergence Christianity today. Which is a subject that I didn’t even know existed until last November when I was in the midst of working on this project and was at dinner with an old friend, and was asking her, “What are some themes you think I should address?”
And she said, “Well, have you thought about emergence religions or emergent faiths.
And I said, “You’re going to have to just point me to someone and I’ll start to learn.”
So she pointed me to Phyllis, and luckily I was able to contact her and not long after that drove to Memphis and interviewed her there. So that’s a little of the background, and we’ll get into a lot more of what emergence is here.
Prendergast: Yeah, and I think one thing probably to note up front is that I think like you Aengus, a lot of people probably haven’t of emergence. And there’s also a lot of new terms that are used in the conversation. And so we’ll sort of do our best job in the outro to define a lot of this stuff and sort of move into more of our sort of conversation‑y style after we kind of digest some of these newer terms. So you’ll have to bear with us a bit.
Anderson: Yeah, and as we launch into this, the front end of this conversation lays out a lot of stuff, and then Phyllis and I have more of a back and forth that picks up later in the episode. It’s a pattern you’ve probably heard before but there’s a lot more to lay out in this. And this was another one of these very long conversations. This was over two hours. There were lots of components that sort of built on top of each other and I’ve had to edit a lot of it out for clarity and just for time. So as always, just be aware that when you listen to an episode this is a very polished, edited product.
Phyllis Tickle: The Emergence—it’s been called The Great Emergence, and I think that’s the most unfortunate term we could ever give to anything. I mean, what does that mean? But about every 500 years, that part of the world that was subjected to Latinized Christianity or that was susceptible to the Latin language, if you will, are colonized or colonialized by those who were so receptive. Goes through some kind of giant whoopie or change or reformation—you can give it all kinds of funny names. We have a bishop in the Episcopal Church who says it’s just a giant rummage sale, get used to it. You know, every 500 years we have one.
And historians get really nervous about patterns. That’s changing a bit now. And the truth of it is there’s not much way to avoid the 500-year cycle. You almost have to work too hard to unsay it, it’s so obviously there in every way. And if you say every 500 years we go through one, then you immediately say we’re in the 21st century and baby are we going through one.
And you go back 500 years, it was the 16th century, in the Reformation, right? Which clearly was a bit of a brouhaha or a rummage sale or whatever.
And if you go back 500 years from that you hit the 11th century. And what you had at that point of course is The Great Schism, when East and West fell apart and everybody was chewing everybody’s cousins up to death.
And 500 before that it’s the 6th century and it gives you the great decline and fall of Rome.
And 500 before that gives you the 1st century and the changing of the era, in which everything is so dramatically changed that we even shift how we date things.
And if you go back 500 years from the 1st century, you hit the Babylonian Captivity. The end of First Temple Judaism and the beginning of Second Temple.
So they would argue that it’s a Judeo-Christian phenomenon we’re talking about. And in that part of the world that is subject to Judeo-Christianization, a good imam— And I’ve had three or four of them—in a very nice way, I don’t mean aggressively—stand up in a public gathering and say, “You can’t call it Judeo-Christian. It’s a phenomenon of the Abrahamic faiths.” And and they will argue, again fairly persuasively, that what we’re going through right now in the Islamic world, in Arab Spring, now in it’s what? second or third year depending on how you count it, is very analogous to what happened to Christianity in the early 16th century. And that they are in reformation and they are speaking in those terms, that they’re just 500 years after.
All of which says that we do something every 500 years. That doesn’t mean that we have to keep doing it for 500 years. We’re not talking about historic determinism, which is what makes historians really nervous. We’re not talking about historic determinism.
We’re also saying that it’s a fool who doesn’t look when the patterns are there. And at least interpret his own times—he doesn’t have to project future. This is not about religion. This is about something that happens in the culture in which every dadgum thing shifts. Everything. Politics, economics, sociology, aesthetics, philosophy, everything shifts, including religion.
And most people know enough about the Reformation from high school if nothing else. So that when you say to them, “Remember in high school when they told you about the Reformation? And they said it was the birth of individualism? It’s the beginning of the second Renaissance. It’s the beginning of the nation-state. It’s the coming of capitalism. It’s the rise of the middle class. And oh by the way, it gave us Protestantism. Yaddidy yaddidy yaddidy.”
Which is maybe a secular way of looking at it, but it’s a much more accurate way. That is to say that religion is contextualized. I don’t care whose religion it is, it’s contextualized. And when the context shifts, it shifts, too. But rarely does it shift outside a context. And one of these 500-year things, whatever they are, are a shift in every single thing, in every way. And in 1900 the average Caucasian male lived to be 47 years old. We have five times more words in the English language right now than William Shakespeare had when he wrote the plays. Two thirds of the human genome is owned and patented by commercial firms, not by us—that ought to to scare somebody to death, you know. Information doubles in less than every ten months now. Almost 80% of us live at least forty miles away from where we were born. Which means that there’s a total severance with the geodomestic situation. The conservatory effect of the village is gone.
So it’s got its humor. But it’s also got its serious side, which is that every single thing changes. We live in a glocalized world. The nation-state is no longer the powerful image. The individual no longer counts. There’s no longer such a thing as hierarchy—there can’t be hierarchy because none of us is bright enough to tell the rest of us what to do. We’ve moved to a communal way of doing business. We are deeply distrustful of those things that are not capable of being felt physically to some extent. There’s thing after thing after thing. Those are huge changes. Huge changes.
Certainly if you look at the futurist—and you do. If you look at Nick Bostrom at Oxford. If you look at Ray Kurzweil, right? I mean, the Singularity, transhumanism. These are serious people. They’re not idiots. They’re associated with major institutions of learning. And as we move toward transhumanism, the nature of the human animal is going to change.
I said that every time we go through one of these whoopies, the same question is “where now is our authority?” and then there two or three concomitant ones. One of the huge ones for The Great Emergence is we don’t know what a human being is for the first time. Are we just consciousness? You know, are we a bunch of neurons with chemicals flowing over us? And if we are more than that, where is that? Where is Imago Dei? We just absolutely don’t know who and what we are. It’s just the whole thing is up for grabs.
And it’s both unsettling to many people— It excites me to death but I’m almost 80 and I’m going to get out of Dodge before it matters, so I can afford to be fascinated and excited. If I were 25 and rearing my first child, I might not be so excited. And there’s a zillion things that have made the Emergence. But a big part of the burden of it is we just don’t know who we are. So yes, largely due to technology, technological, as was the Reformation. On the other hand, the technology was born out of a certain social discontent or push forward.
Aengus Anderson: Based on some of those things. Causality. We talked about the big cycle. And the changes. And there’s a sense people are collectively making those changes. But there’s also a bigger sense of like… I mean, you say it’s not historically determinist but I think it’s hard to get into anything cyclical without making it sound like this is something that…[crosstalk]…maybe it’s in our code, um…
Tickle: That’s right. You tip your hat at the academics and go right on doing it.
Anderson: Right. And so I’m wondering, if we’re talking about emergence, is emergence something… Is it coming from us?
Tickle: Oh boy! Do you really want to hear that? Now I will give you a religionist’s answer, okay?
Tickle: And to give you a whole answer, let me go back to Charles Darwin, and 1859 when he began to publish evolutionary theory. Almost everybody in the sciences, so far as we know, concurred. There were a number of scientists who said, “That’s interesting but it doesn’t explain everything.” The most prominent of them was a man named Lewes, arguing that evolutionary theory could not explain human consciousness. He said we have known since Aristotle that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. What we have to acknowledge is that every once in a while, and certainly in the case of human consciousness, the whole is greater than any very careful analysis of the parts could have ever predicted.
And he postulated that at some point, sometimes, there is something that comes in laterally—it does not come from the bottom up or the top down—comes in to the organism and changes it in such a way that it then the affects the environment. And that consciousness was such a phenomenon. What Lewes called this was “emergence,” and the discipline of it emergence theory—looking for what it was that comes in laterally and make something emerge that could not possibly have been predicted. Why would a flock of birds— This was the great one from about 1903 or 1904 I think. Why a flock of birds when it’s migrating will have a leader and then apropos of nothing, from around in back here’ll come a new one and take over the lead, and in a little while here’ll come another one from the other side and take over the lead. It’s emergence theory, because they’re moving as a flock, not an entity, and something emerges and it goes on.
Then you begin to get the realization that Lewes was right. That there is something out there that they didn’t have a name for until Norbert Wiener at Harvard came along in the 40s. And he said “information theory.” He’s the first to name it.
When you get to Norbert Wiener, you’re aware that there are three components to the universe. And probably this is it, it probably really is it. There is mass, no question about it. There’s energy—obviously, any fool knows that. There’s also information. And the three determine what is. And all that is is composed of the three of them.
The most fascina— The. most. fascinating thing to me right now, doing what I do, is that for the first time ever, I think, certainly for the first time in 4,000 years that we know of, we have the rapprochement of physical science and philosophy and theology. All of them coming together around the fact that information is indeed there. And the physicists, particularly, but the philosophers—I’m generalizing—are turning and saying to the theologians, “You had it right in the first place, didn’t you?” And they quote, [recites the following quote in Greek]. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God.”
Which is fascinating. If it makes you happier to call it “ho Lógos,” the Word, great. If you want to call it “information,” great. So the the Great Emergence obviously got named originally by a scientist, by a sociologist and biologist, who said that whatever is happening this time is analogous. It it really is something coming in from the side. It’s not coming top-down, it’s not coming bottom-up. And the society that’s resulting from it follows that model.
Anderson: Well, I’m wondering about the role of agency. Because once you point to emergence, how does that not encourage people to check out, right? Because well, you know, it’s going to happen, right. I mean, you can get into this sort of like…when you get the big cycles, you get the sense that well, I’m this little part and I’m moving through the samsara wheel or whatever it is. And that’s that, you know. And the best thing you can do is acquiesce. And maybe that’s right, and maybe that’s fine. But at that point does conversation even matter, right? Something I’ve been trying to get at here in terms of this, like, is there any agency? Because if there’s no agency it almost feels purposeless to ask about the status quo, right. If there is agency then the status quo matters, because then we are in some way capable of responding to it.
Tickle: Okay, tell me what you mean by agency. I’m not putting you on, but I mean if it—
Anderson: Yeah, no. I’m think about um…personal free will.
Tickle: Yeah, okay. Leadership or somebody marshalling the troops—
Anderson: Yeah, not that kind of agent.
Tickle: —is not going to happen. That would be antithetical, almost, to emergence in any way. However, having said that yes, there is agency and it’s called Facebook, or it’s called Google, or it’s called Twitter, or it’s any of those things in which the conversation, the melding of ideas, it is the thing that’s driving it. If there’s an agency in all of this, it’s the ability to have instant exchange about the things that don’t make sense, the minute they begin to not make sense.
In addition… And now you have to be Christian or a religionist. There are men and women who have become very clear spokespersons of what’s wrong with the status quo and what the hope is beyond it, and what emergence has to say about it. Now, you can call them leaders as long as you don’t think they’re out there being paid to take a position and lead the band. They’re not. Clergy and leaders are no longer privileged in emergence. But there are folk out there who are articulating what’s wrong with what is, and where it looks like the future’s going.
Now, from the point of view of a practicing or devout Christian, I would say that is indeed the leadership the Holy Spirit. I think Harvey Cox would say that’s what I’m trying to tell you, is this one is different from any other except 2,000 years ago because we now have a direct agency coming in (your word) and telling us what to do. But our agency isn’t going to be in human flesh. Or it’s going to be human flesh that is inspired by this thing.
Now, scientists might say that’s information. A philosopher might say that’s ho Lógos and let’s don’t try to— But there’s your agency as long as we both know what we’re talking about when we use that word.
Anderson: Right. And I’m interested more in the Christian community’s… And so in that setting, then, what is the status quo that people are pushing off against?
Tickle: The status quo that people are pushing off against is Protestant in errancy. It is Biblical in errancy. It is the notion of hierarchy. The sphere of operation has moved from out there to here, from later to right now. Spirituality has shifted. It used to be the spirituality for the individual. It used to be a thing where I retreated into myself. Now there’s an understanding that spirituality is a thing out. It is a thing joining the spirit that is all over the world. It’s that kind of thing. It is the assumption that we can perceive and understand completely, everything—
Anderson: So there’s a certain hubris, yeah.
Tickle: That there’s a huge hubris, as a matter fact. Not a certain, a huge hubris. One of the parts that draws me if you will, persuades me, is the passion for the scripture with the understanding that it’s actual instead of factual. Whereas the Protestant has contended and built a worldview on the factuality of the scripture.
Anderson: What does that mean?
Tickle: Which is to say their theologians will look you dead in the face and say, “To understand the amount of human arrogance inherent in being able to think you can reduce God almighty to an outlinable a position…” [laughs] And if you put it that way, it’s funny, right? I mean, excuse me? You’re right!
Or they will say, “You know, Jesus Christ would have failed systematic theology in any seminary going.” To which my response is and Saint Paul sure would’ve, “He was a contextual theologian.” But there is an arrogance in thinking you can outline God. What they mean by “actual” is that it’s absolutely the truth. In every way, it speaks truth. And it’s our limitations that make it appear not to. I need to make it logical. And so where we don’t understand we follow in spirit and with trepidation, realizing our own limitations prayerfully. And it’s that approach to the scripture that gives them real passion for the scripture. But most Protestants wouldn’t recognize it. Because by the same token, same-sex marriages absolutely ought to happen—what ever is your problem? You know, gender inclusivity, absolutely. Yeah.
I mean, it’s a fool, for instance, who says that the Bible doesn’t admit of slavery. It does. Excuse me? Jesus tells a couple of stories in which slaves play a part and he never one time says that’s a no-no. But comes a time when it doesn’t make any sense, so we get rid of it, right? And an emergence would say that’s Micah 6:8 theology. And they’re big on Micah 6:8. “What does the lord thy God require of thee?” That they love, [have] mercy, act justly, and walk humbly with your God. And it trumps everything else that we’ll say.
But there’s a huge tension between Emergence Christians and Protestants. Especially the evangelical division of Protestantism. Which is where we’re getting a lot of our abrasion right now.
Anderson: So what happens if the status quo doesn’t change?
Tickle: If emergence were going to cease to be suddenly, it was just going to stop dead in its tracks where it is, and there are about a third of Americans, we now know, who are practicing a variant of emergence worship— Doesn’t have to be Christian. Can be Jewish, can be Wiccan. And that’s a lot of us who’re doing it. But if that were to really stop dead, this thing would crumble. This thing that has been cannot support the weight of what we now know and can do.
Anderson: Hm. I mean, that sounds like without this—
Tickle: That’s right.
Anderson: Like, without Emergence Christianity, or Emergence- any kind of theology, you have an enormous existential crisis?
Tickle: Yeah! Among other things. I mean—
Anderson: And that that leads to other problems.
Tickle: Yeah. It filters out then into everything. I mean, go back to the Reformation, because again it’s comfortable. If somehow we had not been able to develop, if you will, a Christianity that was not Pope-down like this, enforced by the state, enforced by kings, would we ever have had nation-states? We wouldn’t’ve.
On the other hand, nation-states looked as if they were going to come, they just couldn’t be supported by the old paradigm. And so we would have had a disaster. Nothing in inherited church, nothing in inherited religion, is going to be able to support information theory. It’s not going to be able to support the Internet. It’s not going to be able to support glocalization. It’s not going to be…it can’t.
But having said that, let me also say that one of the first things you say, to audiences anyway, is that every time we go through one of these things, whatever holds hegemony, whatever holds pride of place, doesn’t cease to exist. It’ll continue. It just has to reconfigure to fit the new paradigm.
I mean, Roman Catholicism didn’t cease to exist, right? If Protestantism hadn’t been unanchored, or untroubled, by Roman Catholicism, God knows where it would’ve gone. They would’ve shipwrecked us. In the same way, emergence can’t afford to not have Protestantism and Roman Catholicism and to some extent orthodoxy and Anglicanism holding onto its tail.
So the tension and the balance, unhappy as it may be, is still apparently necessary to keep the thing from wrecking. And at some point this thing’s got to find some sort of corpus, if you will, or… Maybe not corpus. Has to find some sort of cohesion or commonality.
Anderson: And that’s kind of what I was wondering, because—
Tickle: I think that’s where you were going, yeah.
Anderson: Yeah. Well I mean, I was trying to get a sense of where are we pushing off, and then a sense of where are we going to. Most examples of things that we can say “this is an ontological thing,” right. There’s stuff, there are parameters…you’ve got a sense of solidity to it, like—
Anderson: —this is the church, this is the hierarchy… And this is like, “Oh, there’s this giant conversation happening on the Internet and there’s a new moral order emerging out of it,” you know. That’s like, hard to grab onto.
Tickle: That right, it’s like mercury on a counter. And I’ve used that metaphor many times. It’s like chasing a bead mercury on a chemistry lab counter. You ain’t going to grab it. Nonetheless, it’s there and infusing the conver— And yeah, okay. Protestantism is a term we understand, right? We can sit here and say, “We know what Protestantism is.” But we also recognize it as a rubric? or an umbrella or something?, under which you can get Presbyterians and Methodists and Baptists and Lutherans yaddidy yaddidy yaddidy yaddidy. And we know that those are distinct things, even though they share this umbrella.
Emergence Christianity is to the Conversation as Protestantism is to that conversation. I could sit here and I could make you a list of I don’t know, ten or twelve major characteristics that inform Emergence Christians that all of them are going to have to some greater or lesser degree. But I can also sit here and make you—again, according to whom you quote—six to twelve different and distinct divisions within Emergence Christianity. They’re not denominations—don’t call them that. God help you if you do, you’ll be [spished?]. Within each of those, you have something close to a structure. God forbid you should say so, but I mean there’s a center, if you will.
Anderson: Yeah, I was curious about that. Because it seems like the granularity is a lot finer here—
Tickle: That’s right, but it’s—
Anderson: —between that and like, Protestant denominations.
Anderson: Because this way it can almost break down to the individual. You could say well, they belong to this sort of group that thinks in a common way, but because it’s not codified…
Tickle: Yeah. And it’s never going to codify.
Anderson: And if it doesn’t codify, then how is it not totally individual again?
Tickle: Yeah, well, it’s never going to codify. But it’s going to be hell to get— See, we’re back to the spirit. It’s going to be held together by the common exercise of prayer. Which is not easy to get at, I mean, it’s a nebulous thing.
Anderson: What does that actually look like? Where are the actual changes in day-to-day life? Like, what does it mean socially? How do people live differently?
Tickle: How people live differently. I think it’s going to be— First of all you’re not going to see the huge churches. Secondly, you’re going to see a much greater emphasis on merging, if you will, of aesthetics with religion.
Anderson: What do you mean by aesthetics there?
Tickle: Painting. Much more interest in dance. Certainly the merging of the expression of religious fervor and worship in a place that is aesthetically there. Incarnational, much more incarnational. Give me music I can dance to, don’t give me performance music I have to sit down and listen to. Allow me to give expression to my faith with my body in the middle of a gathering, be it with song if I just break into song. Or if I move around. Or if I go over and paint a picture.
Jesus Christ didn’t live in a gated community and he doesn’t much want us to, either. So you’re going to get the removal of the ghetto by just sheer infiltration. But you’re going to see the eradication of the—or the gentrification, if you will, or the merging of the ghetto and the leveling of class.
I think what you may also see—and this does not please me and I don’t think it’s a fault of emergence. I think what we may be seeing is the eradication of the so-called middle class that the Reformation gave us, and the return to the intelligentsia and lower class and serf all living together in perhaps harmony—I don’t know—and the emergence of an upper class based on almost ruthless economics, not on blood. I don’t know. I think that’s one of the— When you talk about the dangers— And I don’t see anything in emergence that’s going to put a break on that.
Anderson: That’s kind of what I was wondering. Because when you were talking about—
Tickle: It’s not going to.
Anderson: You know, if there’s a new or a stronger or a different moral emphasis on helping people, that has enormous economic implications, right. Because that’s coming from— That’s like a moral imperative that is different than the imperative that motivates you in the economic system.
Tickle: But I will help you with what I have. Don’t ask me to fool with all these organizations and these eleemosynary things and all that junk. I have two loaves of bread, it’s all I’ve got, I’ll give you one. That’s emergence. But I’m not going to go out there and fill out 200 pages of paperwork to get GE’s foundation to give us a bakery. Which is a whole different thing. It’s a whole different way, an experiential, if you will, giving. And I don’t know if it’s good or bad, I just know it’s there.
Anderson: So if you have some doubt over your own ability to access or understand truth fully, but you know you have to make a pragmatic difference; you’re trying to improve or redeem the world, isn’t kind of the vehicle of that politics and isn’t making choices—
Tickle: Not if you’re doing it to your next-door neighbor.
Anderson: Okay. But you still have to have a sense of enough certainty to act, right?
Tickle: Absolute certainty the spirit is with us constantly and we are in communion through prayer. These here are deeply prayerful, deeply devout— These folk are devout in a way… Oh God, this is…
Okay, I might as well say it. The average Emergence Christian is going to be passionately devout in a way that the average Protestant no longer is. Which is to say that there’s going to be daily engagement not only individually but communally—two or three, maybe—with the spirit and with what we’re being told. And how to do it. And you do it because you’re led in prayer to do it.
Anderson: How is that different than any other theological tradition, which presumably… I mean, they would say, “We have the same access. This is divinely inspired—”
Tickle: That’s right. How long have you employed it? How recently have you employed it? Where was the passion? But what really happens I think every 500 years, when you get right down to it, is the passion dries. It becomes institutionalized. It you know, becomes formalized, formulaic, whatever you want to call it. And it just loses itself umpumpump, and becomes humanized, probably.
And then we go through one of these things where we suddenly realize we’ve lost it. And then we find it. And we’re so overjoyed. And we enjoy it and practice it. I think that might be a simplistic thing, but it looks to me like… There was nothing wrong, if you will, about the Judaism into which Jesus was born, right? Other than it had what? stultified. Right? I mean…
Anderson: That’s a very different sort of cycle to think of it on, as passion versus something ossification.
Tickle: Yeah. I think it’s passion. I think it’s ossification. I do. I mean, I think that’s what…you know.
Anderson: So if let’s say we’re talking in that case and the old Judaism wasn’t worse, is this not a progressive thing going somewhere? Is it just change?
Tickle: Oh, don’t go to progressivism.
Anderson: I think we have to, though, because you can’t talk about these big cyclical historic changes, right, without addressing that.
Tickle: No. I’m not persuaded that everything is getting better but I just think it’s going round and round. And you know, when I simplistically say passion then solidification and then passion again, I also have to admit that technology has come in—every single time, it’s been a technological thing, right, as well. I mean, even 2,000 years ago we got common coinage, we got for the first time real easy navigation and all of those things. So technology happens. Maybe it’s that technology rattles us so that we realize our stultified belief system can no longer keep up with the technology, and we go off on a different passionate [crosstalk] pursuit of a different spirituality. I mean, you know.
Anderson: That’s interesting. Probably the place I want to go from there, then, would be conversation, with other people. We’ve talked a lot about emergence. We’ve talked about the idea of this 500-year cycle. This project is of course talking to a lot of other people with a lot of different backgrounds, right.
Tickle: Of course, of course.
Anderson: So, many of whom would patently disagree with everything we’ve talked about.
Tickle: Of course, of course.
Anderson: And yet here we are all living together, and the question we all have is well, how do we have a better future? And some people I’ve talked to have talked about, “Well, we’re really on the brink for these environmental and economic and various things.” Other people have said, “Well, we are on a ramp to a better world.” So I’m curious how our conversation about emergence connects to other conversations. Especially ones about value, which is kinda the lowest level that I’ve been talking about on this project, is kind of the irrational assumption of what’s good. In this it seems like there’s a very…there’s an emerging idea of what’s good. There are a lot of other people that have other ideas. Does conversation with them matter?
Tickle: Do I say anything to you when I say Gabe Lyons and Q? No. I can tell. He said well, you should be asking that question to the Q. It meets every year, and it’s the coming together of futurists and emergence. And they talk about that very thing. And it’s fascinating. It’s fascinating to bring all those disciplines together. And Gabe has been the one who has sort of led the band, thinking that that conversation had to happen.
Now, however, the question you’re basically asking—from my point of view dealing with emergence. The question you’re basically asking is “where now is our authority?” Which happens every. single. time. we go through one of these. What we lose is authority. What we lost 500 years ago was the Pope, the magisterium, and the curia. And what we lost a thousand years ago was concilia—you know, whatever. What we’ve lost this time is obviously a certain moral code and a codification of values and all that kind of thing—Constantinian Christianity. We’ve lost it.
The truth of it is right now nobody knows an answer to your question. Whether we’re speaking religiously, whether we’re speaking politically, whether we’re speaking sociologically. Nobody knows where the authority is. It’s free-floating like an anxiety. Which is probably why you’re chasing the answer to some extent, too. It’s the discovery that you’ve got an unanswerable question.
Anderson: Yeah! And as I think looking historically I mean, has it ever really been answered, you know? Societies may answer it within themselves, right?
Tickle: A society— Again, by pattern, a society will come up with a set of answers it will agree to. Don’t have to like it. But we will accept the fact. That’s the code. “How now shall we live?” is a much better way to put it. And we will arrive, sometime by the end of this century I suspect, in an answer to that question “how now shall we live?” And we’ll do it for a couple of hundred years. And then we won’t like it anymore and we’ll begin to tear it down. If we do the same thing that we’ve always done. But there is no answer to your question right now.
Anderson: Oh, yeah.
Tickle: And I would argue to the death with anybody who gave you an answer. I don’t care whether it’s the entrepreneur or an economist or something. Bull!
Now, I do think I laughed a minute ago about progressivism, just got to be like historical determinism. You just didn’t go there. If you were a self-respecting academic, you didn’t go there saying we’re getting better and better, or that we’re moving forward to some higher think.
Anderson: Right. I think it is very common like, outside of academia.
Tickle: That’s right.
Anderson: Really common.
Tickle: To believe that we are going so— And let’s be honest. I think we’re farther along than 2,000 years ago, right? I mean, I would much rather be alive right now than in the year of our Lord 850 or 1430 or something, you know. I mean, dying of all that stuff and living to be 47, good heavens. I don’t know about that. And I think we obviously are going farther in some ways.
And I absolutely agree with Ray Kurzweil. I never thought I’d say that, but I truly agree with Ray Kurzweil that we I think are about to make a major lurch forward. I mean, people laugh about him, but I’m sure he doesn’t care one way or the other. Just like I’m pretty sure he doesn’t care whether I agree with or not. And nonetheless, I think we’re probably about to make a lurch forward. I think we’re about to change, probably, a good deal of what it is to be human. I think that’s where it’s going to go. And I think that probably is “progress,” if by progress you mean a more complete life. A more productive life. A more effectual life. A more joyful life. For the individual as well as for his or her tribe. I think it’s definitely going to happen.
But how now should we live? Who’s calling the shots? What is ultimately good? What’s going to be called the summum bonum? Um, we don’t know, I don’t think. And I suspect by 2030 (and that’s Kurzweil’s date) we may have reconfigured the human condition enough, we may move to near enough to transhumanism or to artificial general intelligence, so that the definition of good would not be one that you and I would necessarily recognize. In terms not of ultimate good, which is a God thing for me, but in terms of how that ultimately good is applied in physical living. And that’s way out there. And I’ve never said that before and I’m not sure I should be saying it now.
But, I think… I would lay a good deal… Well, I guess I have laid a good deal of money on it because all I’ve got is my reputation, right? And if I’m too far out there that suffers. But I think that’s where it’s going.
Anderson: Does that leave you optimistic or pessimistic?
Tickle: Of course, of course it’s optimistic. Or, my optimism— Again, you’re talking to a practicing Christian. And my optimism… I guess optimism is not a thing I normally think of myself as having or not having. I believe that God is redeeming. And that is what’s happening. And as long as we stay tuned and continue to do what we’re being told and prayerfully seek it, and seek it in community— See, now I’m talking like emergence. Seek it in community and discern in community with each other, then and I think we’re doing what we’re suppose to be doing. And that ultimately that will result in the redemption of creation. Which I suppose is a form of optimism, but it’s certainly tempered by a religious overlay. It’s not optimism in the sense that we’ll be better humans. It’s optimism in the sense that creation will be finally redeemed.
Neil Prendergast: Okay so I think one thing we ought to do here, Aengus, is actually maybe offer a little bit of what we thought the outline of the discussion that you two had would be. Just to kind of create a little commonality here.
Aengus Anderson: At this point I think we all have a better sense of what these emergence things are. But they’re still pretty nebulous. I mean, that’s something that Phyllis talks about specifically. But we can certainly point at what it’s pushing against, right. I mean, what makes it so perfect for this project is that we spend all of our time talking about these enormous changes, and we’re playing with this hypothesis about, is this sort of a unique historical moment. And of course, you know how many caveats that comes with—we won’t get into that. But like, that is what’s motivating, I think, Phyllis’ curiosity and it seems like the emergence movement more generally. The sense that everything’s changing, why isn’t Christianity? The main thrust of North American Christianity is going in the opposite direction as all of these other social changes. Something’s gotta give.
Prendergast: Right, yeah. I think that the terminology seems to be so different to me between this Emergence Christianity and the Evangelical Christianity, where in the latter you have terms like “tradition” come up very frequently. And she’s not really talking about tradition with Emergence Christianity. She’s using history, and I think in a far different way, than the way maybe Evangelicals would use some moments in history as models for the future should be. She doesn’t really seem to be longing after a particular past.
Anderson: Right. And what’s interesting is—I mean, you just mentioned her use of history and we both studied history. You’re like, a legitimate historian. I’m a really third-rate guy with a Master’s degree. But I think for both of us the role of history in this is fascinating, right. She’s getting into cyclical history, which she doesn’t see as being determinist… And I want to get into the progressive question later, but let’s just start with talking about cyclical history. That was something I had a lot of trouble with.
Prendergast: Let’s just start with the fact that you’re the first person to call me a legitimate historian.
Anderson: And probably the last. What are friends for?
Prendergast: Yeah. So her use of history, right, and what she’s doing with it. And what I found to be really interesting is that you know, we—everybody has a sense of history. And you don’t need to be a historian to have a sense of history. What I liked about it is that she has a sense that things can change. I really liked, actually, the thing that she mentioned about slavery. It was that yeah, you know it’s in the Bible and yeah, there’s historical evidence of slavery, but guess what. It doesn’t work anymore. And so there’s no reason to sort of go back and try to repeat that. You can actually have big change and that’s okay.
Anderson: But that seemed like a theological thing to me rather than a historical one. That seemed like interpreting the Bible contextually, whereas her use of history seems much more… I going to say it’s…pretty structured. I mean, she’s talking about 500-year cycles and these kind of lead-ins to them of a period of time, and then a decay at the end of it.
And there’s no way to get into it without talking about Thomas Kuhn and the structure of scientific revolutions and him laying down the whole idea of the paradigm shift, which I feel like is really what we’re dealing with here. It’s this paradigm shift in Abrahamic faiths. I think she’s pretty good about delineating it there. She’s not trying to apply this to India or China or Southeast Asia. But it feels too structured for me.
Prendergast: Yeah. I think that… [inaudible] the same as you on this, but for me I think that part of this notion that maybe there’s a little bit too much structure there comes from… There’s all these sort of cultural borders, right, between Europeans and the rest of the world, in particular through colonialism. And in a 500-cycle, somebody might view one moment as a peak and somebody else might view that very same moment has a valley. And I think that’s kind of the problem with the structure here.
Anderson: I mean, I think she’s pretty good at that saying these aren’t necessarily peaks and valleys. I like that she— This is our connection to “is history progressive?” here. Not progressive in the political sense but in the sense that it’s going somewhere. And she definitely says, “No, it’s not, and this isn’t deterministic,” and I like that. But it’s something about the notion of these time periods where I feel like there’s so much lead-in and so much lead-out that it feels like the categories are so wide and flexible that anything can be put into them.
Prendergast: Right. It seems to explain maybe so much that I wonder if really the 500-year cycle is is actually there. If say the Age of Revolutions, the French Revolution, the American Revolution, the Haitian Revolution… What are they? Are they outcomes of 1500? Or are they predating 2000? And if that’s all they do and then they matter so much, I don’t know. I’m not sure if I’m really buying the 500-year stuff.
Anderson: I don’t really understand that either, and it seems… It’s really fascinating to talk about the idea of cycles, because clearly there are these big changes, right? And yet I don’t even know if that historical stuff matters for her argument about emergence.
Prendergast: Well, I think she did such a nice job of indicating all the ways in which the world is changing in big ways, you know. And yeah, I think we can kind of put our historical quibbles aside. Clearly what she’s doing here is pointing to some massive changes. I mean, she talks with human genome and how not only do we know so much of it, so much of it is patented. Migration away from places where you grew up is so common now. Life expectancy is so much longer. I mean, she points at some stuff that’s changing the world.
Anderson: Yeah. Yeah, and I think that’s for me, you don’t need any of the 500-year cycle, you just did that stuff in front of us now and you can say, “Okay, compare that to the rest of history and look at the different rates of change. Look at the scales.” And it feels like you’ve got a pretty solid argument that there are big social changes afoot.
And I really like how she situates religion within this broader social context of things that change, and causality is obviously really difficult to get into and we should talk more about emergence in a moment. But the idea that there may be enough evidence now where we’re confronting significant questions. And it feels like, I mean again, Emergence Christianity is the reaction to that.
For me that explains the either need for a new type of faith to deal with that? Or the pressure to create a new type of faith? Or the existential crisis people would have that would leave them searching for one.
Prendergast: Yeah, or just the natural inclination that you know, if you’re sort of a religious person that you’d view these changes as being related to religion, you know.
Anderson: Absolutely. And I think that kind of leads us into what she sees as the biggest question that we face now, which is where is the authority.
Prendergast: Right, I thought that was real interesting, you know. I was listening to that and I actually wrote down the quote you know, “Nobody knows where authority is.” And I thought gosh, really? Is that true? And I realized you know, I was listening to her and I wasn’t listening close enough. And when I heard “authority” I think I was thinking power. And to me power is so concentrated in the world today. I would argue that it’s concentrated primarily with corporations.
And I thought well you know what? That’s different than authority, though, after I kinda thought about it a little bit longer. And I think when she was saying that nobody knows where the authority is, I think she was actually talking about something regarding authority to lead people toward meaning, perhaps. Not quite the same thing as power. But I think that leads her actually in the place she thinks We should be going, towards more of a face-to-face notion of authority. Was that your read?
Anderson: Break that down a little bit more. So, why do we need it face-to-face?
Prendergast: Well, she uses this example of the bread. And I guess any good Christian’s going to use an example of bread.
Anderson: We never know, is it ciabatta? Is it like seven-grain?
n Right. And this notion that what we sort of ought to be doing is face-to-face at a local level, it seemed to be she was saying. You know, “share that bread.” And she seemed to be not really wanting to challenge sort of larger structures of power and authority, but really just sort of saying, “Look, the way to kind of maybe go forward is to think of the power you have to change the lives of the people who are right around you.” And I think that that’s what she’s getting with the sharing of the bread example. Which is I think a very sort of [bracketed?] way of defining where authority can be.
Anderson: You know, she mentions at a point like, talking about Emergence Christianity in a very clinical and distant way. And in other moments it’s very clear that she believes much of it and agrees with a lot of it? And so, when she’s talking about the example of how does Emergence Christianity deal with the authority question… You know, I mean she mentions like that we may see this class stratification. And she sees that emergence may not push back against that. It just may not be interested in that question. It may not have the tools to do that. I don’t know if she agrees with that outcome, though.
Prendergast: Right. And that’s actually I think a big difference between Tickle’s description of Emergence Christianity and some of the ideas we’ve seen sort of elsewhere in the Conversation. And when I think about class, know, I often think about Douglas Rushkoff in this project.
Anderson: Oh okay, interesting.
Prendergast: Yeah, because he was very active with Occupy and also somebody who’s very interesting in having Americans question the sort of strong role that corporations have in maintaining sort of a class-based structure in the United States. And that strikes me as just very different than the concerns brought forth in the current interview.
Anderson: Yeah. I mean, I was thinking—actually I was… When I think class now, I really think of Chuck Collins—
Prendergast: Oh, absolutely.
Anderson: —talking about the need for the upper classes to pay back into the thing for greater social harmony. I wonder, actually, you know— If we were to look at today’s episode through the lens of Chuck Collins, would he said that like, if emergence was a really widespread paradigm, and if Phyllis is right that it’s not concerned with large-scale wealth redistribution, can it last? Because for Collins it seems like you actually need to have a lot of wealth spread around to have a stable society at all. Like, this isn’t a theistic question, this is just like a human nature and structure of society question, you know. The more of an income disparity you have, the more likely you are to fall apart.
Prendergast: Right. So if I could get back to bread again, it’s almost as if—
Anderson: Let’s go back to bread!
Prendergast: Yeah. You know, you need bread and circuses, right? And the bread—
Anderson: Oh, you’re going— Now we’re getting into historical stuff again like Rome.
Prendergast: Well, what I meant by that was simply you know, that the bread and circuses, right, is a gift from one class to another.
Anderson: Mm hm.
Prendergast: And not between two individuals in a society that sort of doesn’t think of class.
Anderson: Do you think that the kind of peer-to-peer model of just giving whatever you have and not participating in the things that seem like more corrupt, filthy social structures, can you ever really scale that kind of peer-to-peer health model? Or do you always need people who are going to like, go up the ladder and fight on your behalf?
Prendergast: I mean, I just think that the answer is so clear to me. I mean, I think you absolutely have to have people who question the structure of power, who I guess climb up that ladder to do a bit of fighting. Simply because that hierarchy is already in place, right. There are people who are simply better-positioned to do that fight because they have a vision but also because they have resources to fight the fight with. And people who I think very often need to benefit from a restructuring of power are people who don’t necessarily have the resources to do the fight.
Anderson: You know, we could almost think about emergence as a pendulum swing, at the moment. Where it feels like maybe part of it is pushing off against the idea that too much of our energies have gone centralized and more of them need to be local, more of them need to be peer-to-peer. And maybe the question is, when is it time for that pendulum to swing back?
Prendergast: Oh, right. Yeah. Interesting.
Anderson: Well that’s a lot of talk and speculation. And this is a really interesting episode because we’ve made a couple connections here, and yet it’s charting a lot of new ground, you know. It’s kind of our first big, solid conversation about religion. I mean, we spent most of this conclusion talking about Christianity.
Prendergast: And really what we tried to do with it, I think to be honest about our little outro here, is try to map it onto a bunch of secular concerns that we have.
Anderson: Yeah. You know, when I first recorded this I thought, “Oh man, I wish there were more connections I’d been able to make in the conversation.” But it’s sort of like unleashing an entire new vocabulary. This is in a way kind of a first episode. And I see this as one that we’re going to refer back to more as we talk about religion more on the project. And fingers crossed, this project goes on long enough for us to have more of those conversations.
Prendergast: Well, I think it’s a great turn for the Conversation. And I think it’s just going to really prove to be fruitful.
Anderson: That was such a polite academic way to end things. I knew I could count on you.
Prendergast: Hey, I’m a legitimate historian.
Anderson: That was Phyllis Tickle, recorded in Lucy, Tennessee on December 3rd, 2012.
Micah Saul: And you are of course listening to The Conversation. Find us on the web at findtheconversation.com.
Neil Prendergast: You can follow us on Twitter at @aengusanderson.
Saul: I’m Micah Saul.
Prendergast: I’m Neil Prendergast.
Anderson: And I’m Aengus Anderson. Thanks for listening.
This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.