Phyllis Tickle, in The Great Emergence, outlines our past, describes our present, and previews our immediate, swirling future into what she calls the Great Emergence. The book is now over three years old, but as astute as ever. In it, she tackles the question of authority as I raised in a previous post about the Anglican Communion. I wrote that the source of our biggest conflicts are around the nature of authority and that, as Tickle suggests, we battle every 500 years or so over the who/where/what/why/how of authority. Specifically, how do we resolve issues in which there is no discernible structure or force that has jurisdictional punishment over bad actors? Or, how do we deal with conflict without either a person or a system that has authority to punish? My response is simple: our punishment simply matches our source of authority. We just have trouble seeing it yet.
The specifics of conflict are actually pretty common: the kid that gets away with bullying because he does it online or because she isn’t physically seen by a teacher; the youth that gets away with stealing from his neighbors because his Dad is a police officer; all the way up to the president who simply ignores the law on torture or war powers. Each is a case of someone who gets away with a crime because there is seemingly no mechanism for curtailing the behavior.
Well, Tickle outlines the last two battles each yielding a new sense of authority that made sense for the age. With the Great Schism in the 11th Century, the answer of who has authority was to put it in the hands (or the seat) of a single person: the pope. Therefore one person can be the final judge on all things Christian. Which was great, until there were more than one person claiming to be the pope. And the pope didn’t seem to have all of the answers. Or he had the answers, they were just inconsistent. So in the 16th Century, through the Great Reformation, authority shifted from a human to a book. Sola Scriptura! they shouted! And suddenly all authority rested in an inanimate object. All of the answers could be found there…until they couldn’t. Until there were too many ways of reading a “plain reading” of the text. The great revolution that put the Bible in the hands of individuals, led to the downfall of Scriptural authority, because individuals came to different conclusions without the structure of the church. The Great Reformation worked almost too well!
How Tickle describes the current age, the beginning of the Great Emergence, is to argue that authority will be found not in a person or in a book, but in the network. That the collection of people, not as a structure, but as a loosely affiliated network, would come to agreement more organically. I loved the idea when I read it three years ago, but I haven’t been able to quite see it until now.
The problem is that we are dependent on those other means of authority, institutional structures, individual decision-makers, irrefutable texts, and we lazily understand our own part as imbibing what the smart people say and following along. But the new sense of authority rests in how we come together and upon that which we can agree. This is to say, not in ignorant cultural beliefs necessarily, but in active attempts to wrestle with questions and problems.
What this means for my specific question is that these individuals get away with criminal behavior because we collectively allow them to. We don’t stand up to it, either as individuals or as a group. We allow others to deal with it (or not). This isn’t a call for vigilantism, far from it, but collective action. It is us who ignore the bully, relying on teachers and principals to act, rather than step in as a class. It is us who allow a youth to be protected by his place in society. It is us who allow a president to carry out heinous acts in our name or perhaps more disgustingly, in the name of freedom. Our action opportunities are plentiful.
It comes down to trust. Our current behavior demonstrates that we don’t trust the system, we simply rely on it and expect it to function. Then when it doesn’t, we condemn it. Sometimes we even argue that the system can’t do it. And even then we still don’t hold the community responsible for cleaning up the mess.
Perhaps this is why there is so much confusion about the Occupy movement, as it is not about political expediency but method and consensus-building. The way it functions isn’t just a political tactic, but a vision of new community. Community without a singular figure-head and decision-maker. No Scripture to hold up as an idol. No specific confession to demand adherence to. No institutional hierarchy that demands allegiance. It is people standing up and taking care of each other.
And that is also a vision of trust.