By Ken Cuthbertson –
I am honored to have been asked to be a part of this blog.
I am a historian of religion, of Christian history in general, and of the history of Protestantism in Britain in the 16-17th centuries CE in particular. I am also a recently retired minister (Presbyterian, USA) who has watched the profound shifts and changes within American Christianity over the last generation. In this first posting, I want to look at how what has been happening in organized religion in recent years can help us wrap our heads around what is happening in politics and governance now.
Much of the current in-house conversation among observers of the religious scene in this country touches on the broad theme characterized by the late Phyllis Tickle and others as “Emergence” or “Emerging” Christianity. (See Tickle, The Great Emergence, etc.) The terms are used to characterize the profound shifts and changes occurring in organized Christianity (and other faiths) as part of a far larger socio-cultural shift occurring world-wide. Philosophically, the shift is associated with “Post-Modernism” and various influential thinkers of the last three-quarters of a century. At the same time, the phenomenon under consideration are not just abstract intellectual notions. The great change we are undergoing is scientific, technological, economic, political, governmental, educational, religious, familial-relational, and…. The thing seems to be, nonetheless, that organized religion has been one of the first significant cultural entities to become aware of the current great shift, and to try to understand what is happening and to explore how to try to deal with it.
Which brings me back to Ms. Tickle…. In The Great Emergence she presents a model of recurring historical cycles in the western world, going back to at least the Axis Age (ca. 500 BCE, the era of the rise of Greek philosopy, the Hebrew prophets, etc.), and taking place approximately every five hundred years ever since. The Axis Age was followed at the dawn of the Common Era (CE) by the rise of the Roman Empire, the decline of ancient Paganism, the rise of Christianity, and the shift from Second Temple Judaism to Rabbinic Judaism. A half-millennium later came the decline and fall of the western Roman Empire, the re-grouping of Western Christianity via monasticism and the rise of the Papacy, the rise of the Byzantine Empire, and the eventual rise of Islam (6th-7th centuries CE). In the west it was the era we know as the Dark Ages, with a long slow rise back to cultural and political cohesion under the Holy Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church. The next milestone comes early in the 2nd millenium CE with the High Middle Ages, the Crusades, the renewal of great cities, the rise of the universities, and so on. Then, the era of Renaissance and Reformation arise with new technologies (printing press, navigation, etc.), new science (Copernicus, Galileo), new explorations and expansion in the Americas and around the world, and the fracturing of Christianity in western and northern Europe, quickly followed by wars of religion.
Although they are somewhat dependent on what Post-Modernist thinkers refer to a “meta-narratives”, these historic shifts and great socio-cultural turnings are helpful to us, I think, in gaining some perspective of what is going on around us now. Over the last five hundred years the Modern World has had its own lively history of imperialism, nation-building, the rise of democracy, “Enlightenment”, increasingly universal literacy, the rise of the middle class in various countries, mercantilism, industrial revolution, scientific and technological progress, and, and, and…. (Counter-balanced, of course, with oppression, racism, genocide, poverty, environmental destruction, etc.) But, now, so much of that is under challenge, and the old institutional systems and cultural assumptions that have guided us are increasingly faltering around us. Over the last half century, and especially over the last two decades, the new era of demographic shifts, environmental challenges, new science and new cyber-technologies, new modes of e-communication, and e-trading in the markets, and so many other pieces, have totally changed our perceived and experienced world. But, we still have old-style institutions (laws, government, political parties, economic systems and institutions, schools, media, etc.), stolidly in place, which are just beginning to realize that they are facing either profound changes, or irrelevance and redundancy.
In my area, the Christian Church, we really started facing up to this… in traditional mainline Protestantism at least… some ten to fifteen years ago. We realized that our institutional structures were no longer working as needed, we were rapidly losing constituency and participation, we were “failing” organizationally, and in danger of disappearing within the course of the next generation. The challenge, we realized, was not just over “social issues” or Liberal versus Conservative divides. It was something even bigger. We did not know what to do, but at least we became aware that we needed to do something, and began to try to figure out what might be possible. Every part of our institutional structures began to be scrutinized, and our leadership models, and our intellectual/theological models, and our ways of being together in worship, and, and, and…. Extensive change has begun to occur in many bodies, and we are still trying to figure many things out, and we still wonder what is to come… but, some of the outlines seem to be beginning to be discerned, and there is increasing hope for a way onward.
The luxury we have in religion, however, is that in American culture we are optional. Government and economics are not nearly as optional. We require some sort of government, some sort of functional economic system, some sort of ways and means to live with one another and with the world around us. But, government, politicians, media, and those in the world of business and finance seem to be just starting to catch on that… whatever the very real and true crisis of this last election, of this new President and his appointees, of this Congress and its leadership… the ultimate challenge before us is institutional and systemic on a far greater scale than we have even begun to imagine.
The paradigm of Climate Change, the emerging great reality of our era, may be instructive here. In certain circles it has been being discussed and investigated since at least the 1960s. Finally, about twenty years ago, it began to be a topic of discussion in wider circles, but proponents like former Vice President Gore and Prince Charles were widely dismissed as crackpots. Over the last two decades the tug of war between those who accept the facts and those who deny them has become increasingly heated… along with the atmosphere. Many actions have occurred, and some progress has been made worldwide. Yet, at the same time, the magnitude of what is happening and the challenge before us continues to grow more daunting. Not just our governments and banks, but the natural world and all its peoples are under threat of faltering and collapse, and that reality is also shaping and re-shaping everything else… or it will be.
So, what does all this have to do with resistance in the current political crisis in the U.S? First and foremost, I think that we have to understand that while resistance to a specific President, his appointees, and to a specific Congress, may be necessary, it is far from sufficient. Our political system is a master-work, of the 18th century. But, how well-fitted is our Constitution, for instance, for working together now to “form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity”? (Preamble to the Constitution) How well-suited are the institutions, policies, and procedures based on that Constitution to our people, and our place in the world, and the challenges we face, in the 21st century? Recent events have not boded well.
The issue is profound. We’ll not answer it quickly or easily. And, in the meantime, we have a President, a Cabinet, and a Congress to deal with, all doing their best to distract us from the substance of what they are trying to do with the accidents of their behavior and blustering.
We are moving through uncharted waters, and the old answers are unlikely to work… at least in the old ways. In a way, I suspect, the biggest ongoing need is to re-evaluate and re-affirm our core beliefs. The “dream” itself wants a reviewing and renewal. Perhaps the most startlingly positive thing in recent weeks has been to seen the numbers turning out for protests and marches, across the lines of usual political alliance. In our neighborhood I have been pleased to observe some beautiful turquoise-blue signs with our state Zia symbol on them, appearing in increasing numbers of yards. The message on the sign is more widely distributed around the country:
In this house we believe…
No human is illegal,
Love is love,
Science is real,
Women’s Rights are Human Rights,
Black lives matter,
Water is life,
And Kindness is Everything.
Therein, I suspect, lies a glimpse of not just resistance, but of systemic change and socio-political emergence in the days ahead. We start from here.