Last month I posted about Phyllis Tickle and her theory about 500-year cycles of history. The result was one of my most visited blog posts in a long time, along with copious amounts of feedback both on this website and via Facebook.
The responses I got generally fell into a number of categories:
1) Those who felt similarly about Tickle’s interpretation of history and offered their own insights.
2) Those who believed I had missed the point–either that Tickle’s interpretation of history is not deterministic, or else that her theory is simply window dressing for her cultural interpretation and therefore not a proper subject for critique.
3) Those who seemed put off that I would critique Tickle’s work at all.
For those who fell into category #1, I thank you and I appreciate some of the additional thoughts you shared in your comments. For those in category #2, I am going to try in this post and explain more about why I am critiquing Tickle’s interpretation of history (as I did in my previous post), and why I think that critique bears on her analysis of culture. And to those in category #3–I’m not sure what to say. I’m pretty sure there is no eleventh commandment that says, “Thou shalt not criticize Phyllis Tickle.” But if I’m wrong on that one, let me know. (As I pointed out in the comments section of the last post, Tickle is a public intellectual who serves up her work for popular consumption; I take it as a given that any such figure opens herself up for engagement by others.)
To jump back into this, let me review what I was (and was not) criticizing Tickle about. I was not making any judgments about the content of her cultural analysis as it relates to what is going on right now in the history of Western culture or (more specifically) the history of the church. I used to do cultural analysis myself, through my old Gen-X Rising column in the United Methodist Reporter and on my website by the same name. My own interest then was in generational theory, and it played into a book I edited in 2011 with Abingdon Press. Cultural interpretation is done in the present-tense. By its nature it is something different from historical study, and it is not subject to the same canons of historical inquiry. Cultural interpretation tries to “read” the situation we are all living in today; it can be helpful for a number of reasons. At its heart it is a form of social commentary, which draws on an eclectic number of sources for its statements–sociology, demographics, politics, history, etc. In the case of Tickle, I find a lot of her own interpretation to be very interesting. How accurate it proves to be will only be told over time.
History is something different. It is an academic discipline beholden to certain standards of academic inquiry, and it is based in the study of texts, historical figures, movements, institutions, etc. Anyone can make claims of an historical nature, but they are open to analysis and critique by others. The point is: Tickle is doing both. She’s doing both cultural analysis and historical interpretation. Moreover, she presents her interpretation of history both as true and as something that supports her cultural interpretation. In fact, her cultural interpretation is dependent on her analysis of history insofar as she claims that the justification for her claims about the present are grounded in her reading of history as it has progressed in discrete 500-year cycles. That’s where I’ve got a big problem with what she’s doing, and so that’s where I’ll try to elaborate upon what I wrote back in June. (It is also, of course, why her theory of history is not just window dressing and absolutely must be engaged on its merits.)
There were a number of respondents who insisted that Tickle’s published books contain a depth of explanation about her theory of history that her lectures and interviews do not. I was not presuming to do a book review in my first post–a point I believe I made clear, although that didn’t stop a few people from expressing condemnation that I was criticizing Tickle “without having read the book.” As I explained both in my post and in follow-up comments, Tickle gets to choose where and how she promotes her ideas. So far as I can tell, she utilizes a variety of media: public lecture, short-form essays and interviews, and long-form monographs. Once chosen, though, she does not get a ‘pass’ on any one form of her work. It’s all fair game. I was engaging her lecture and interview material, and I only engaged her ideas as they were present in the examples I cited.
With that little bit of explanation in place, I’ll admit that I was intrigued by the vocal protests that Tickle’s book-length treatments of the “Great Emergence” contain a depth and complexity that her other work does not. So I’ve gone back and read what I take to be her two most substantive works that lay out her views on “Emergence Christianity.” They are The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why (Baker, 2008) and Emergence Christianity: What It Is, Where It Is Going, and Why It Matters (Baker, 2012).
What I discovered from reading these two monographs is that Tickle doesn’t say anything substantially different in her books than what she says in her lectures and short-form pieces. She says more of it, of course. That’s the nature of books. But the thesis is the same. And in fact, I think that the way in which she goes to greater length in the books only makes her historical theory on cycles of history more problematic. Let me explain. In the following paragraphs, I’ll abbreviate The Great Emergence as “TGE” and Emergence Christianity as “EC.”
Tickle describes the 500-year cycles of upheaval in Western culture and church history using “patterning” language. This is present in both books. In TGE she refers to the Great Emergence itself as “first and foremost the product of a recurrent pattern in Christian affairs” (41). And in EC, she suggests that the church is “susceptible to … [a] pattern of five-hundred year upheavals” (21n.1). Some have suggested that this isn’t a claim for determinism by Tickle but is rather simply an historical or sociological observation. The problem is that the language she uses to describe the cycles is, in fact, deterministic. This isn’t a pattern that, lo and behold, just happens to have repeated a number of times over the past few millennia. It is instead something that has a kind of force behind it. For Tickle, the present Great Emergence is following “the historic pattern that we are once more reenacting” (TGE, 72), as if we have no control over the matter. Elsewhere, she is even bolder. She employs phrases like “the fated number of five hundred years” (EC, 18) and “semi-millennial tsunamis” (EC, 20).
If this kind of thing happened only once or twice in her historical analysis, we might chalk it up to Tickle’s flair for rhetoric–something that anyone who has heard her in person can attest to her having in spades. The problem is that she uses this type of language repeatedly. She can refer to the “tsunami-like transition” that occurs each 500 years, and the “kind of pattern that always reasserts itself,” with such frequency that it simply becomes a part of the rhythm of her prose (EC, 181).
I submit that a theory of history that appeals to a tsunami metaphor to describe historical change, and that boxes periods of change into neat 500-year cycles, is an appeal to determinism. That deterministic approach in Tickle’s case contains elements of all three of my critiques from the first post: numerology, a “Whiggish” interpretation of history, and an arbitrariness that chooses the “great” historical moments simply because they fit (more or less) into her 500-year schema. (Much more could be said about each of these with reference to both TGE and EC; I’m going to refrain at present because of the length of this post.)
Now, simply because one’s theory of history is deterministic does not mean it is a false theory. But it does cry out for greater support. Is this determinism a providential thing effected by the God of Christianity, some form of nouveau dispensationalism that Tickle intends to advance? Or is it rather a particular manifestation of Hegel’s Weltgeist expressed in concrete historical phenomena? What is the causality behind the 500-year cycles? She refers vaguely at points to philosophies of history she is drawing upon. But given the chance to explain herself, she essentially punts by stating that her claim about cyclical history itself draws on “so complex an academic and scholarly history as to almost defy imagination” (EC, 22n.2). So complex as to defy imagination?? So are we to believe that Tickle has done the painstaking academic work to formulate a thorough philosophy of history but that she simply doesn’t want to bother us with the details? Or is it just another rhetorical move?
I began by stating that I didn’t intend to criticize Tickle’s read on the current culture. She may be right–maybe we are going through a “Great Emergence” that is seeing a change in everything and can be compared to the birth of Jesus (a point she makes explicitly in EC, 209). Time will tell. I will reveal my suspicions here, though. I think the technological and democratic movements in society have changed an awful lot even in the past few decades. But to combine the political, social, and spiritual in the ways that Tickle wants to do requires you to look at historical change from a bird’s eye perspective. She’s suggesting that there is a kind of progressive unity to what we see around us, and that the religious practice of a small handful of mostly white, middle to upper-class Westerners is on the vanguard of all of this. The problem is that history reads much differently when the bird comes down to earth, or when you slow down and start sifting through the past (even the recent past!) more carefully. Picking and choosing what you emphasize can always lend a semblance of unity to events over time. But it is a false unity that is proven to be false when you do something other than a speed-read through historical events of one period or another.
Tickle works best in her lectures, because her personal charisma and the force of her rhetoric have the ability to dazzle. Her books can convey some of that, but if you slow down and really look at what she’s saying and how she’s saying it, it all starts to come apart at the seams. That’s particularly the case with her read on history, which is bunk. (And no, that is not too strong a word.) Insofar as she’s using her theory of history to fund her cultural interpretation, it does call her unitary vision of what we’re seeing right now into question as well. Generations from now, perhaps history will look back on Tickle as the great prophet of the 21st century. But if it does, then history will have been kinder to her than she’s been to history.