Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Great Emergence

July 27, 2014

Good morning, Friends,

Thinking today—again—yet?—about change.

Arguably, change is the only thing that does not change. But the shape and impact of change—that is a quite different matter. 

For example, this turn-of-the-century is frequently described as a time of cataclysmic change by wordsmiths fond of the word. (Try saying cataclysmic aloud. You’ll like it too. It has a fine sound.)

This semantic antic points, however, to a present change process that is marked by a scope and impact that makes it more than the change-as-usual that shapes today differently from yesterday. 

Even so, there have been comparable times of upheaval in human history. Despite the apparent randomness that change produces, these times of major upheaval have appeared before in the history of the Western World with such distinctness that historians have given them names. 

For example, most of us can readily think back to the Great Reformation, that massive time of change that, five-hundred years ago, altered forever the way in which people in the Western Christianized world understood and ordered life.

Perhaps—even in the matter of change itself—there is nothing new under the sun. But, paradoxically, what challenges us in this new experience of the old pattern of upheaval are the specific points around which the force of change appears to be focused. 

In a visual sense, observing events that are shaping the world around us is something like emptying a packet of iron shavings on a magnetized surface then watching the shavings form patterns that cluster around the positive and negative poles. In this instance, however, we are both an observer of the experiment and a participant—we are (in a metaphorical sense) the iron shavings that are reorienting ourselves in relationship to force fields that are not readily observable, nor easy to measure. 

Remembering how iron shavings respond to a magnetized surface can be helpful in thinking about patterns of change in random events.  This experiment is quite misleading, however, if we fail to recognize its limitations.  People are not iron filings, passive objects shaped by an impersonal force field.  Despite the tsunami of change in which we find ourselves, we remain participant architects. The power (and responsibility) of human choice has not been altered although the options for choice are not the same as they once were in the world we have left behind. 

The name that historians are presently attaching to this time of change is “The Great Emergence.” 

The first time I encountered this term, I experienced considerable annoyance. Whatever emergence may mean to an historian, I thought irritably, for ordinary readers like myself the word sounds pretentious, and carries more ambiguity than definition. However (full disclosure), I think my initial response to emergence was too hasty. What better word for a time in which what we know and believe about ourselves and our universe is engaged in a “. . . wrenching, deconstructing, liberating, anxiety-producing world-rending change,” as Phyllis Tickle has described it?**

What is yet to be reconfigured from this collapse of old structures is not fully apparent, nor, importantly, not yet fully determined.  But it is a time of “The Great Emergence.”  Like the phrase or not, I must concede that it actually catches the essence of the time in which we live. It is a time of great emergence, although there may be great disagreement about the nature of that which is emerging, and heated dispute about its value.

As you all know, I think a good bit about the way in which my understanding of macro-cosmic things plays out in the ordinariness of my daily life. And I wonder about that for you too.

What is emerging in your life—in yourself—these days?

I will see you again in two weeks, the blog for August 23. 

I am attending a wedding out of state next weekend, and teaching a woman’s group the following weekend, so happy vacation.  

See you August 23.


Tickle, Phyllis. 2012. Emergence Christianity: What It Is, Where It is Going, and Why It Matters. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books. P. 17.

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