The late Phyllis Tickle had a broad historical theory that assumed that every 500 years the Church went through an epoch-changing transformation, a crossing-over from one way of life into another.
Christianity began as a minority movement of dissidents who claimed that Jesus, not Caesar, was Lord and demonstrated their allegiance to Jesus through lifestyles of compassion, generosity, nonviolence and deep bonds of solidarity with each other. But after 500 years this movement had grown so rapidly that it had transformed into the very Empire that had arrested, tortured and killed their Lord. Christianity went from an outside minority, to a culture shaping dominant majority. And with that, its virtues of compassion became political calculation, generosity became institutional tithing, and solidarity shifted from the least of these into a common good defined by an authoritarian Church. Christianity had crossed over from clarity into complexity.
500 years later Christianity rid itself of its nonviolent lifestyle and became the sword of an aggressive, conquering Empire that seized and ruled all of Europe. In the name of Christ, Christians imposed religious doctrinal beliefs on all citizens, made alliances with the uber-wealthy, and instituted itself, with military force, as God’s kingdom on earth as in Heaven. Obedience to the Church rather than the following of Jesus’ ethics and teachings became the norm. Christianity left its simplicity of solidarity and entered the complexity of enforcing conformity and obedience upon all.
Around the year 1500 Christianity again morphed with the “protesting Re-formation” that essentially proclaimed that every person was their own Pope. In other words, the conscience of the individual became the throne of authority and guidance. The notion that Europe was God’s kingdom on earth was not disputed. Rather, God’s kingdom became a far more complex negotiation between God’s kingdoms and the citizens of those kingdoms who increasingly needed no king.
Each of these revolutions were a “crossing over” from one way of life into another. Indeed, each was a transformation in how God was understood, and how Christians were to relate to culture. Each crossing over was from a tradition that had worn itself out requiring increased novelty and imaginative innovation so that the power of the new might be given birth. In other words, just as each of us must evolve through toddlerhood into teenagers into adulthood into maturity and elderhood, so too Christianity as the good news of God’s love and liberation must evolve up the ladder of complexity and responsibility.
Today we are in the midst of another epoch changing cycle of complexity. On the one hand Christianities have so mutated that our central message of Jesus has become incoherent. Which Jesus are we talking about? The Jesus of Franklin Graham, of Joel Osteen, of Martin Luther King, Jr.? Each Jesus has a different version of God with a vastly different governance of ethical guidance. Which God are we talking about? The God who stands outside of history, intervening every now and then. Or, a God who is inside of history as the unfolding power of evolution itself?
On the other hand, a new cultural god has emerged that increasingly displaces the role of religion itself. This power is the rapidly changing scientific-technological milieu that uses technology to redesign what it means to be a human being. Indeed, we can now see the inevitability of the creation of a silicon-carbon based form of life. What is the image of God in such hybrid forms of humanity? What is the need of God when humans can control evolution’s future? And what is the Gospel good news in an age of technological control, political centralization and authoritarianism?
We are always crossing over from what is to what is coming. The question that faces us as a Church is Bonhoeffer’s question: are we still of any use?
O God our help in ages past, our Hope for years to come,
Return us to the wisdom of Jesus and restore within us the fullness of Human Being.
Make us to be the Body and Blood of Christ, so that this world might have new life.
Bread for the hungry and a cup of everlasting joy.
Rev. Rich Lang serves as SeaTac Missional District Superintendent in the Pacific Northwest Conference of The United Methodist Church.