Looking Back on Cornerstone: Phyllis Tickle's Emergence

Cornerstone.pngMy primary role at Cornerstone was co-presenting a three-part seminar with Phyllis Tickle, long-time friend and author of many books.

We did a dog-and-pony show on the emergent/-ing/-ence movement that we’ve done before. IMHO, we work pretty well together, due to the fact that we’re pretty much in accord, but we do disagree on enough things to make it interesting to those gathered.


One of the first issues that PT addressed was the terminology that has been so bandied about in this conversation. I, as usual, took issue with it, saying that the conversation about Phyllis Tickle and Tony Jones.jpgemergent vs. emerging vs. emergence vs. missional is an internecine debate, and that it will be historians a century hence who will 1) decide if we’re worthy of a name, and 2) decide what that name is.  But I will say that after spending the week talking about such things with Phyllis, and her erstwhile daughter-in-law, Mary, I’ve had a bit of a change of heart.

My usual struggle with the term “emerging” (think Scot McKnight and Dan Kimball) is not that it’s associated with a more traditional, evangelical theology. My problem is that it’s not a term associated with the very metaphors that have been so resonant to those of us in the movement, viz., emergence theories in science.

Emergence science (think Phillip Clayton), lends us words in the family of emergence and emergent. While this may seem a silly semantic difference, it actually changes the nature of the conversation significantly. Whereas “emerging” implies something coming into view and becoming prominent (a relatively simple process), “emergent” is something (or a group of somethings) arising and existing only as a phenomenon of independent parts working together, and not predictable on the basis of their properties (an impossibly complex process).

So, what I’m saying is that maybe, just maybe, the idea of “emerging” does better fit those persons and groups who feel more comfortable with conventional evangelical theologies, and “emergent” is more appropriate for those of us more interested in following the various theological and philosophical rabbit holes that present themselves to us.

This is where Phyllis comes in. She claims that all such movements are a part of “Emergence Christianity,” which itself is subsumed by the broader global emergence — the massive, overarching cultural shift, often called globalization — taking place everywhere, right now.  It is, she claims, inevitable that Christianity would be swept up in the changes that are shaking economics, politics, science, education, and every other sphere of human endeavor.

So, all this to say that I’m coming around to Phyllis’s POV. Emergence Christianity may be the best term for those of us interested in talking about the meta-religious shifts taking place right now, rather than the more parochial concerns of the “next evangelicalism” or the “rebirth of the mainline” or something like that.

Photo courtesy of Jonathan Stegall

If you’re interested in the emergerce of Christianity, be sure to attend Christianity21.

  • http://paladie.wordpress.com Florin Paladie

    Semantics is the ever growing tension between etymology and future direction dictated by current usage. With this in mind it cannot be contested that Tony is right in pointing the way the terms emergent and emerging have been used. That’s fine, as we need tags to identify ourselves.
    What I find interesting is that those that have tagged themselves as being ‘emergents’ are the ones really interesting in emerging (ever evolving), whereas those that have hijacked for themselves the tag ‘emerging’ are not really interested (as their actions and statements make it quite clear) in a deep constant emergence, but more of a surface, cosmetic emerging. They don’t, however, want to be tagged as traditional, they want to be in sync with culture (relevant) and not perceived as static. Again that’s all fine, we should be true to our leanings, to our hearts and thus find our identity.
    What I never quite understood is why these “emerging” people want to be seen as part of the “emergent movement” if there is no true change of heart (they don’t really get along with the essential ideals of the “emergents”).

  • Kenton

    Florin-
    Here’s 2 possibilities I’ve come up with:
    1. It’s a way to test the waters. Throw out the word “emerging” and see if you get the “You did say emergING not emergENT, I hope” response. That keeps the communication channel open with someone diametrically opposed. If, OTOH, you get the “Yeah, I’m full blown emergent” response, it opens up a new channel of communication with someone who’s on board.
    2. It’s something more sinister. If they can co-opt and redefine the term(s), they can neutralize the movement – or at least set it back a few years without ever having to engage it (for the most part).

  • http://www.comingtolife.blogspot.com Mike Stavlund

    This is a really helpful and clear distinction, Tony. I agree: ‘emerging’ is not particular, but general (something is always ‘emerging’ at all times throughout history). Whereas ‘emergence’ is a particular description of a much wider cultural phenomenon, of which the shifts in Christianity are a part (I like to reference the wikipedia entry on ‘emergence’ to provide a better understanding of the whole).
    But I think the bigger story here is the ascendancy of Mary Tickle. For all of her persuasive powers, and over all of these years, Phyllis was unable to sway you to her thinking. But after only a few days with Mary, you were ready to repent. ;-)


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