27 October 2014

The Age of the Spirit

A review of The Age of the Spirit: How the Ghost of an Ancient Controversy Is Shaping the Church by Phyllis Tickle with Jon M. Sweeney, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2014.

The purpose of this book is to tell the story of what the (Western) Church thinks it has learned about the Holy Spirit and what this divine agency of change is doing in the lives of the churches today.

The story as told by Tickle and Sweeney is in two parts. Part I comprises a brief history of the development of the doctrine of the Trinity focusing particularly on the nature and role of the Holy Spirit. The authors breeze their way through to the Cappadocian formulation, which seems to represent the high watermark of Christian orthodoxy (and Orthodoxy) by way of such heresies as Arianism and Montanism. En route they also express serious doubts about orthodoxy with a small ‘o’ (a concern for doctrinal correctness). The section concludes with two chapters that summarize the Filioque controversy and take a clear stance against this Western creedal innovation.

Part II attempts to continue that historical journey through the second Christian millennium to the present day while at the same time moving forward our thinking about the Holy Spirit and the Trinity. They begin in chapters 9–11 by effectively revisiting topics dealt with in Part I, warning again about orthodoxy’s pathological (p. 90) concern for doctrinal correctness and reiterating their earlier critique of the addition of the Filioque clause to the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. However, they also suggest that, although arising out of Western Christianity, the contemporary Emergent Church Movement aligns more easily with Eastern Orthodoxy and Judaism.

Chapter 12 is a popular exposition of Joachim of Fiore’s doctrine of three ages, which concludes by hinting that Emergent Church may be a sign that his hoped for Age of the Spirit has finally arrived. Chapter 13 proposes that we think of the Spirit as the divine agency of change, asserts that Emergent Church is the authentic form of Church for today, and tacitly assumes that the Age of the Spirit has arrived.

The final three chapters begin by stepping back to the birth of Islam (Chapter 14), which is presented very much as a monotheistic reform movement inspired in part by Muhammad’s disquiet over the Filioque controversy (which, one suspects, grossly overestimates his familiarity with Christianity). One outcome of that foray into Islam is the proposal that we need to rethink Trinitarianism in ‘less biological’ terms. We then return in chapters 15 and 16 to the roughly historical approach of Part I and fast forward from the Middle Ages to the present day via medieval mysticism, the Reformation, and Pentecostalism.

This story is framed by two chapters. In an introductory ‘Back Story’ Tickle and Sweeney explain their fundamental assumption about the way the history of Western Christianity has been shaped. They see it as having been formed by a regular series of revolutions (or paradigm shifts): the Great Transformation (around ad 1), the Great Decline and Fall (ad 500), the Great Schism (ad 1000), and the Great Reformation (ad 1500). On this basis, they predict another significant paradigm shift occurring at the present (the Great Emergence).

Now I have no problem with the idea that Christian belief and practice have over the centuries been dramatically reshaped by a number of paradigm shifts (cf. David Bosch’s magisterial treatment of missiology). However, the near mechanical regularity of the shifts discerned by Tickle and Sweeney makes me uneasy. And I am more than a little sceptical about what they have identified as the key revolutions in this history. Take, for example, the Great Decline and Fall, which they date to about ad 500 (close to the high water mark of Byzantine culture in the reign of Justinian). If I were looking for critical dates around then to symbolize the decline of Rome (Western or Eastern), I would probably opt for the fall of Rome to Alaric (410) and its impact on Augustine’s thought (with all sorts of implications for the subsequent history of Western theology and philosophy) or the sieges of Jerusalem (637) and Constantinople (674–8), which symbolize the emergence of the Sunni Caliphate as a power to rival the Byzantine Empire. Again, while it is true that the formal date of the Great Schism was 1054, this was merely the final act in a drama that had played out over the preceding four centuries. But even if we accept their assertion that Western Christianity has been marked by a series of revolutionary changes spaced at roughly 500-year intervals, the attempt to use this ‘fact’ to predict a fourth happening now strikes me as an unwarranted generalization.

Based on that underlying assumption and the story they have told in the 16 intervening chapters, they conclude with a ‘Front Story’ in which they propose the Emergent Church Movement as a qualitatively new kind of Christianity. However, given that the authors are closely associated with this movement, which they have been at pains to identify with their putative Great Emergence, one can’t help feeling that the thesis is to some extent self-serving. Certainly, Emergent Church is cast in a very positive light and presented as the way forward, while one of its leading spokespersons, Brian McLaren, is likened to Martin Luther (p. 114).

They clearly hope that the Emergence perspective will bring with it an openness to new metaphors (such as fire), which may move us beyond the use of biological language in Trinitarian theology (by which they mean talk of ‘Persons’) towards a more theological account of the Trinity (e.g. p. 152). However, their repeated criticism of the language of ‘Persons’ as biological and their insistence that we need to move beyond such language if we are to achieve a properly theological account of the Trinity makes me profoundly uneasy. How are the three aspects of the Trinity to be understood if not as ‘Persons’? (NB the initial capital and scare quotes: theologians have always understood this language to be metaphorical, speaking of relationships of an ‘I–Thou’ rather ‘I–It’ kind, rather than literally biological.) Surely they don’t want us to see the different manifestations of God merely as the elements of a threefold impersonal force?

In conclusion, this book is interesting and well written. However, I can’t recommend it as a reliable guide to either the doctrine of the Trinity or the history of the Spirit’s dealings with the churches.

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