Monday, April 7, 2014

In this post I will throw aside epistemic humility and will tell you exactly what the United Methodist Church will look like in 1,000 years.

In class on Wednesday, we were talking about the work of Phyllis Tickle, who is sort of the kindly godmother of emergence Christianity. (She just turned 80, although my professor refuses to believe it).

Tickle has this idea that USAmerican Christianity could historically have been grouped into 4 broad categories--High Liturgy, Social Justice, Evangelical, and Charismatic. But that there is starting to be crossover conversations, with an emerging center, which is in turn leading some people in each of those categories to double down and draw back into their respective corners. this:

Anyway. At the very end of class, one of my classmates raised what I thought was a really interesting point. He said that he felt like Tickle, and many of the other folks we're reading, seem a bit too sure of their theories about where the church is going over the next century. What I thought was really perceptive about his comment was that it wasn't a critique so much as a self-realization: sort of a, "Look, I really want to believe that right now we are deciding the future of Christianity, cuz that seems pretty cool, but what if that's not really what happens at all? What if we're actually sort of a mediocre generation?"

Now, I think that what Tickle and others are trying to do is articulate what a Christianity might look like that can speak into--and be spoken into--by very real cultural shifts that are taking place. But there is a level of confidence to it all that I think should raise some healthy challenge. I happened to glance at the back cover of another book we read for this class, by Pete Rollins. Tickle wrote a blurb for the book (it's a fantastic book, by the way, and worth reading: How (Not) to Speak of God) that reads in part: "Here, in pregnant bud, is third-millennium Christianity."

So, ok. I love Tickle and I love Rollins, so here's hoping she's right. But it's 2014. We're only in the second decade of the third millennium, and Rollins' book was written in 2006. So...isn't there sort of a pretty huge chance she's way wrong?

That third-millennium Christianity will look like something totally completely and utterly unrelated to Rollins or her or me or you?

I mean, 1,000 years is a long time. A little humility about our claims is probably called for. That's actually a really important reminder for me, because I've been spending a lot of time and words recently debating the politics of United Methodism/ordination/church schism/denominationalism/so-on-and-so-forth. I won't rehash all of that conversation here; go check out my friend Jeremy at Hacking Christianity for some good details and links. Jeremy's very anti-schism in the UMC; I'm not sure where I stand but have been feeling sort of pessimistic about it all. One of my classmates noted on Wednesday that he knows a lot of people who seem to be doubling down on denominationalism at the same time as other people are declaring denominations to be dinosaurs, beasts of the past who once ruled but are now destined for extinction.

And maybe we all need a big bucket of ice cold "who the hell knows" water dumped on our heads. Not in the sense of a dismissive shrug and a "who cares," but rather in the sense of: "If we suspect that the Spirit might be up to something, let's all try to be faithful to that, knowing that we know little, knowing that it will look different for all of us, and so trying to be a little bit gentler with the rest of the know-nothings."

Which maybe is a bit dissatisfying but, in the words of a major prophet: "So it goes."

There's a translation of Psalm 16 that I've been mulling over for a class this week that sticks with me.

The psalmist addresses God and says:

"Beautiful things are always in your right hand."

I don't have a clue what the future of the church looks like, to be honest. But that's ok. Beautiful things might just be at hand, anyway.

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