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Friday, January 31, 2014

"The Age of the Spirit" (Phyllis Tickle)

TITLE: Age of the Spirit, The: How the Ghost of an Ancient Controversy Is Shaping the Church
AUTHOR: Phyllis Tickle
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2014, (192 pages).

This is the third book in the series of new shifts in the Christian Church arena. The first book, The Great Emergence looks at Christianity with the thesis that every 500 years, the Church at large will go through a great change or significant transition from one form to another. A religious trends enthusiast as well as Professor of religion, Phyllis Tickle reviews Christianity's shape and its impact on culture every 500 years. The second book, Emergence Christianity, continues where the first book left off, focusing on the concerns, organizational changes, and forms of the church for the next 500 years. My conclusion for that book was Tickle's prediction tends to be more "bird's eye rather than bull's eye," and how her book is high on demonstrating how the changes are happening and low on what exactly is the Church going to look like. This third book shifts gear a little bit. Instead of focusing on how the church is going to look like in the future, Tickle prefers to go back to the Holy Spirit, believing that once we understand the Age of the Spirit, we will get a better handle on how change is going to be happening for the foreseeable future. Simply put, Tickle believes that there is a sense that history is going to repeat itself. The question is, which part of history and when will that happen? It is the Holy Spirit that spurs all these great emergence or transformations.

Tickle begins with an investigation into Jewish perspectives of the Spirit according to the Scriptures and laid down four key guides.

  1. Judaism is deeply monotheistic
  2. Judaism uses many different ways to name the Spirit
  3. Some of these uses are connected to how Christians use it
  4. The Spirit as the Third Person in the Trinity.

Tickle asserts that interpretations of the Holy Spirit is the single biggest determinant in making people edgy. For the great enigma happens when in our enthusiasm to get behind the Three Members of the Trinity, humans unwittingly turns the Godhead into a "fourth divine being." This fourth being is in terms of what we perceive about who God is. Such human perceptions lead to the grand heresy in which God becomes the result of people trying to "get it right." Tickle then argues that once councils get into the fray, the result was creeds which drew the line to stem the tide of variants and heresies. These creeds shaped the Churches then and those to come. An example is the Filioque controversy which is a dispute over how the Spirit had been sent: from the Son or from the Father? Tickle argues that the same controversy that had plagued the forefathers of the Filioque, is also entangling modern movements like Pentecostalism, Charismatic movements, and characteristics of an Emerging Christianity. She calls it the "Age of the Spirit."

Tickle says that modern Christianity is no longer like that of Eastern versus Western forms of Christianity. One reason is because modern theologians do not command the same respect as the forefathers then. The other is that the landscape has changed. More importantly, she feels that if there are any big influence of change, it will probably come from outside Europe or North America. For instance, the ordinary believers then had terms like "filioque" imposed on them. Modern believers who are more educated and informed will be more critical about any impositions of terms or theology. Tickle goes on the offensive, calling "credos" a most dangerous word because it forces people to choose sides. Instead, Tickle calls for churches to adopt "credemus" which is a verb of flexibility rather than a static noun. Tickle's work also has an eschatological dimension, using the Joachim of Fiore's three ages: of the Father, the Son, and now the Holy Spirit; as a way to assert that we are now in the third Age: The Holy Spirit.

In such an age, there are several new challenges. Let me just name five of them. First of all is the growing loss of absolutes which according to Tickle, "would make" atheists and agnostics of many of us. This is a real threat but I question on how that would pan out. Perhaps, the danger is there but the scope is disputable. Second, change is expected simply because nothing stands still. In that sense, what Tickle is suggesting is not exactly new discoveries. That is why I feel that the historian work of Tickle is more solid than her predictions, which I have consistently said before, that Tickle's previous book is more "bird's eye than bulls eye." Third, I find it quite disconcerting that Tickle seems to be dismissive of the nature of the controversies in the past. While she does a good job in describing the background, there is a sense of her being critical of it all, asking whether it is all necessary in the first place. Without the benefit of living in the early centuries, it is really hard for any modern theologian to appreciate the immense challenges then. After all, I can even add that without the controversies in the first place, we would not be where we are today. We may even be in a more serious state of flux where there are no creeds or doctrines that have agreed. Who knows, our churches will be splintered into a thousand pieces where everyone has a right to their own versions of church. Fourth, Tickle makes a good point in cautioning us not to be move away from "biological thinking" about the Trinity. Such people who did so are increasingly seeing God as an "activity" rather than an "entity."  I would add that such a shift is a result of the effects of the age of relativism. When everything goes, anything goes. Finally, Tickle does not quite resolve the nature and understanding of the Person of the Holy Spirit. Instead, she reveals even more ignorance herself about the Holy Spirit. While she is quite good at dismantling the interpretations and analysis at the historical developments of the doctrines surrounding the Spirit, her findings remain very open, and claims that the Spirit now wants to be known "as It was known in the days of our beginning." I have a problem with that. Why is Tickle calling the Holy Spirit an "It?" What makes her think that the Holy Spirit only wants to be known for Who He is only now? Have not the Spirit been working through the ages?  Ok. Maybe I need to give her the benefit of the doubt that she is not depersonalizing the Spirit, but is an accidental use of pronouns. However, she needs to give more credit where credit is due, as far as the Early Church Fathers and the predecessors of creeds and doctrines are concerned. For without them and the development in the first place, we would not be where we are today.

Rating: 3.75 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Baker Books and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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