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Phyllis Tickle

[This is Part 1 of a two-part examination of Phyllis Tickle’s theory of history. For the follow-up post, go here.]

Phyllis Tickle has injected an idea into contemporary conversations about the church that has gained an enormous amount of traction. It’s the idea that once every 500 years some revolutionary thing happens in the Judeo-Christian tradition that “changes everything.”

Tickle uses this idea to fuel her thesis about “emergence Christianity.” It is a movement or conversation that has gone by a number of related terms in recent years. Emergent, emerging, or emergence: all these terms refer to the loose religious coalition that refers to an attempt to refashion traditional forms of church and is led by people like Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt, and Tickle herself.

It is remarkable to me how widespread the idea of the 500-year cycles has gotten, and the credence that is automatically given to it as an authoritative interpretation of Christian history. I’ve heard Tickle talk about the idea herself in a recent graduation address. It came up not long ago in a conversation with a General Board of Discipleship executive. I’ve heard it in an extended cabinet meeting in my annual conference. And I encounter it not infrequently in online contexts.

As an example, check out the comment at right from a recent post on Rachel Held Evans’ blog.

Screen shot 2013-05-23 at 9.32.28 PMThe commenter on Evans’ blog says that Tickle’s proposal is “very compelling.” But is it? That’s what I’d like to explore in the paragraphs below.

I’ve not read the book where Tickle apparently develops her 500-year concept in the most detail. But I have read an interview by her where she references it and viewed this lecture where she argues for it. And as I said, I’ve heard her describe it in person in a graduation address. The idea goes like this:

Once every 500 years, Christianity experiences a huge upheaval where old ideas are rejected and new ones emerge to take their place. It can be an unsettling experience for those who witness it, but the result is always a fresh and revitalized expression of the faith. Tickle mentions a number of these, including the Great Transformation (Jesus), the Great Decline & Fall (Rome), the Great Schism (i.e., of 1054 that split the eastern and western churches), the Great Reformation (of 16th century Protestantism), and now the Great Emergence.

On the surface, the 500-year cycle idea can be captivating. It certainly was when I heard her describe it. She is a winsome speaker, with a great deal of energy and rhetorical flourish. It is interesting to me that when I’ve talked to people in person about Tickle’s idea, they act as if they have received some hidden wisdom or been let in on a great secret that helps them make sense of their world. And that’s the allure of the Tickle Thesis: it claims to have great explanatory power to interpret both church history and the present situation in church & society.

And now, here’s the “but.”

But as a historian, I’ve got to point out some things that are real problems with what Tickle is suggesting. The sum total of these suggests a very bad “historiography” on her part—that is, the method whereby she is reaching her conclusions and her historical claims. I’ll enumerate these for the sake of clarity as what I see as the the major problems with the Tickle Thesis:

1) Numerology: People have been fascinated by the power of numbers for the entirety of recorded history. Hence, the notion that there is something magical about a 500 year period that produces a crisis (with an inevitable outcome, no less). But here’s a historiographical rule that any serious historian would have no problem agreeing to: Numbers are not magical. In that sense, numerology is to history as astrology is to astronomy. Thus from the standpoint of real historical analysis, Tickle’s take on history and its inevitable 500 year cycles is about as compelling as Dan Brown’s retelling of church history in The Da Vinci Code. But remember, Dan Brown was writing fiction. Tickle is claiming to offer fact.

2) A “Whiggish” interpretation of history: The idea that history is an inevitable story of progress from primitive states to the advanced and sophisticated present has been rejected by all serious historians. Yet it is at the heart of Tickle’s idea, where—surprise!—we today are the advanced and sophisticated inheritors of all that came before us. It is also characteristic of the Tickle Thesis that the real providential movement in history has happened in a Western, Eurocentric direction; in fact, it has moved toward people like Phyllis Tickle.

Think about this last point carefully in regards to Tickle’s proposed revolutionary events since the advent of Christianity. And note the way in which history is moving, according to the Tickle Thesis:

  • First, we have the birth of Jesus and establishment of the church, which takes all Christians into account.
  • Next, there’s the “fall of the Roman Empire,” which led to a different future for the church in the West. Now, take note: Tickle doesn’t account for the fact that half the Roman Empire did not in fact fall, and that the Empire in the East continued another 1000 years. (Generally, historians today are very reticent to speak about a specific “fall” of anything in 476 A.D. because the idea of a cataclysmic ending of the Roman state doesn’t fit neatly into the actual political and social developments that occurred in different places and at different rates.) But at any rate, this leads to an emphasis in Tickle’s thesis on the Christian West rather than the Christian East.
  • Third, we have the Great Schism of 1054. This decisively separates West from East not only politically but ecclesiastically as well, with an attention on Western Christianity. It also cuts out the Christianity of non-European areas, since the church in Asia Minor, the Middle East, and northeast Africa was divided from Western Catholicism.
  • The Protestant Reformation. This separates the Catholic powers in Southern Europe from the Protestant areas in Northern Europe—parts of Germany and the Low Countries, parts of Switzerland, Scandinavia, and Britain. In other words, the real way in which God is moving is toward people that are ethnically and religiously like Phyllis Tickle. And now, here at the Great Emergence, we have Phyllis Tickle herself to interpret it all for us!

3) The Arbitrary Factor: Something “revolutionary” happens in practically every century of Christianity. For instance, if we’re talking about the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century, why wouldn’t we instead use the conversion of Constantine and the progressive Christianization of the Empire in the fourth century? Or the rise of Benedictine monasticism in the sixth century? The reason Tickle doesn’t do that, I assume, is because it doesn’t fit her thesis. But, then, determining a thesis and then selecting events that fit into it is simply arbitrary. It’s just bad history. It isn’t clear at all to me that selecting events roughly 500 years apart has any significance at all, exactly because highly significant events have occurred in practically every century.

For what it’s worth, I’m also not at all convinced that the various events Tickle attributes to the magical 500 year Big Events are positive for the church. And I’m not convinced they admit of like (i.e., apples to apples) comparisons. How was the Great Schism of 1054 anything but an ecclesiastical and theological failure of the church catholic? And the same thing for the Reformation? Also, in what way is the fall of the Western Roman Empire comparable to the Great Schism, other than the fact that they are “things that happened that affected the church.” These are the kinds of questions we need to ask if we want to move beyond catchy rhetoric and into real historical analysis.

My Conclusion: If the unsettled present leaves you, well, a little unsettled, and if you really need a “magic key” kind of explanation to put your mind at rest, then feel free to buy into Tickle’s 500 year cycle thesis. It’s the kind of idea that sells books. But it isn’t serious history. And it tells us nothing about the kind of future that events in our own present are going to lead us into.

[Update: I have followed up this post with a further reflection on Phyllis’ Tickle’s theory of history which can be accessed at this link.]