Speculating on emergence

In her 2009 book, The Great Emergence, Phyllis Tickle posits the thesis that every 500 years, the Church goes through a rummage sale, and cleans out the old forms of spirituality and replaces them with new ones. This does not mean that previous forms become obsolete or invalid. It simply means they lose pride of place as the dominant form of Christianity. Constantine in the late 4th and early 5th century, the Great Schism in the 11th century, the Reformation in the 16th century, are all cited as examples. And, by her theory, postmodernism in the 21st century represents the next major emergence in the history of Christianity.

I’m not completely swayed by her argument, but she does make a compelling case from a historical perspective and there are grains in truth in her observations. The problem for a contemporary thinker is that the age in which we live is ongoing and the transformations in culture and in religion are unfinished and their impact is yet to be revealed. I’m not sure that those living in the time of the Reformation were fully aware of its impact an culture and the practice of religion. It sometimes takes time to understand the flow of history.

What she does have right is her claim that the world is undergoing some major changes.

I’ve been thinking of those changes, not so much in terms of their impact on religion, but in terms of wider social impacts. My place in the religious community is fairly set and as I near the time of retirement from this particular phase of my ministry, I am content with the knowledge that in times of great emergence old practices are not rendered obsolete or invalid. Just because I belong to what will become the past doesn’t mean that I have lost a meaningful place in the practice of religion. I’m comfortable with allowing others to lead the transformations while I assume the role of a faithful follower.

More interesting to me is my amateur observance of the wider social order.

The great emergence of a little more than 500 years ago was the impact of the invention of moveable type printing on social life. The invention of the printing press meant that multiple copies of the same document could be provided. Mass printing and distribution of pamphlets, circulars, articles and books allowed people living in different places to share similar ideas. Shortly after the invention of modern printing, ideas fomenting in one part of the world could be picket up in another. As this process continued, people made a rather dramatic and sudden shift from relying on oral transmission as the beacon of truth to the printed word as the standard. No one in the 14th century would have declared, “Put it in writing!” as the way to cement a contract. Writing was subject to many errors and considered to be unreliable. Only a face-to-face spoken encounter could be fully trusted. Within a few centuries, however, writing was considered to be the most suitable vehicle for transmitting the truth.

Printing transformed university education. Publishing became the mark of a scholar.

It also allowed for the rise of modern democracies. Printing allowed for the mass distribution of concepts and ideas in a way not previously practical. The rapid spread of ideas allowed for those who previously had been silent and unheard to participate in governance. Printing, combined with the rise in literacy allowed for truths to be shared across distance. By the time of the writing of the Declaration of Independence of the United States, people had come to believe in the concept of truth: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Such an assertion of an absolute truth was not possible in a pre-printing world.

It is important to note that the printing press played a major role in the Reformation as well as the rise of democracy, but that is the topic for another day.

But the years have passed since those heady days of political revolution and the emergence of modern democracies and we are now in the middle of a technological revolution that is at least as striking as the invention of the printing press. The emergence of the Internet is combining with the rapid decline in printing to produce what some have dubbed a “post truth” society. Instead of arguing for universal truth, contemporary pundits and writers posit a view that truth is flexible and what makes something true is not some independent verification, but rather the telling of the story. A completely fictional and false “news” story carries the weight of “truth” simply by being repeated over and over again. A candidate can argue that the economy is weak and that unemployment is the issue despite all kinds of positive economic indicators and the presence of millions of new jobs and the statistical decrease in unemployment. The alternate reality is put forth through a myriad of social media channels and becomes its own kind of “truth.”

A Stanford University study published a week ago concluded that many students, from middle school through college, cannot discern what is legitimate reporting and what is not. 82 percent of middle-schoolers couldn’t distinguish between an ad labeled “sponsored content” and a real news story on a web site. 40% of high school students believed, based on a headline, that a photo of deformed daisies on a photo-sharing site provided “strong evidence” of toxic conditions near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant even though no source or location was given for the photo.

Fake news has been repeated by media figures such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and even president-elect Donald Trump. You might argue that they are just as gullible and naive as middle-schoolers, or that they are malicious and are willfully spreading lies. However you see it, the result is that misinformation has become the stock and trade of political discourse.

The fear, of course, is that the demise of trust in the printed word as a source of truth and research as the mode of sifting fact from fiction might correspond with a decline in democracy as the mode of government. As I said at the beginning of this blog, we are in the midst of a transformation and do not have the perspective to understand fully what is happening. Nevertheless some of the prospects of this new age are truly frightening.

Copyright (c) 2016 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!