The Holy Spirit in the Spotlight: Sweeney and Tickle’s “The Age of the Spirit”

Subtitled “How the Ghost of an Ancient Controversy Is Shaping the Church”, Phyllis Tickle’s latest book in her “Great Emergence” series presents an engaging historical and cultural look at the theologies of God The Holy Spirit that have emerged over the centuries. That The Age of the Spirit, co-authored with scholar Jon M Sweeney, is a must-read, is reflected in its encouragingly fresh historical perspectives and the hope it generates for emerging 21st century Christianity.

Tickle and Sweeney open the book with a useful summary of a now familiar analysis of the great upheavals that take place in the Christian world about every 500 years: The Great Transformation (the beginning of the Christian Era), The Great Decline and Fall around 500 AD, the Great Schism (1000 AD), the Great Reformation (1500 AD) and  The Great Emergence which we are now witnessing as we debate questions surrounding “authority” in the midst of cultural upheaval. “Welcome to our tumultuous times” (p. 14).

Sweeney and Ticke clearly lay out the ingredients of ‘our tumultuous times’ and go on to explore them specifically throughout the book:

1. We live in an era when people in vast numbers are “more spiritual than religious” and the Church generally has not learned how to deal with that;

2. What role does the mystery of the Trinity play, and how can we make that mystery relevant to our emerging cultural milieu?

3. What is the significance of Pentecostalism being the fastest growing expression of Christianity?

4. How do we determine the role of the Holy Spirit in determining Christian authority and authenticity?

5. Why is the Holy Spirit as an integral manifestation of the Trinitarian revelation of God so significant in our current period of upheaval?

In this context, Sweeney and Tickle remind us that “what matters is not whether, as individual believers, we are Emergence Christians or traditional Christians. What matters is that we have arrived at the point in our conversation where we are to begin tracing the strange story of how, as a people of faith, we Christians have envisioned, engaged, and all too often even tried to engineer the Holy Spirit over the millennia.” And that’s what they set out to do with much success.

Challenging us to re-think such diverse Christian phenomena and personalities as the rise of Islam, Joachim of Fiore (12th century CE), Methodism and the Holiness Movement, Charles Parnham, William Seymour and the Azuza Street Revival (1906) down to Brian McLaren and Harvey Cox, The Age of the Spirit challenges us to think in new ways about what’s going on around us as Christian faith heads into a new era of realignment and diverse expression that can stand as a Gospel challenge and witness to our “spiritual, but not religious” societal reality.

At 80 years of Age, Phyllis Tickle stated at the Christianity 21 Conference in Denver in January that she still has at least a couple of books in her. God grant that it be so. As an Anglican Christian and lay theologian, she is, thankfully, not afraid of offending our inherited theology. As she stated in her Denver talk, which can only be described as spell-binding, God’s presentation of God’s self to us can only match our developed ability to receive it. We’re ready for the next iteration, she states. God the Spirit is coming in power to fulfil our knowledge of the Father and the Son. Needless to say, she received a prolonged standing ovation. It was one of those great moments that gives us hope as Christians, that God is yet moving among us to do new things.

Phyllis Tickle with Jon M Sweeney, The Age of the Spirit” How the Ghost of an Ancient Controversy is Shaping the Church. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2014. ISBN: 978-0-8010-1480-2

Steve Bailey is a deacon at St. Laurence, Coquitlam and a blogmaster at NW Anglican Blog. He is currently writing a series reporting on the Christianity 21 gathering held in Denver in January.


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