A priest friend on social media sent me a fascinating article at a new Substack called The Upheaval. What is “The Upheaval,” you ask? Well, it’s something you see happening all around you, and it’s unnerving to say the least:
We are living through an era of epochal change. At few times in history have so many currents of civilizational transformation coalesced and crashed into us at once, and at such speed. To say that we are being unmoored by massive technological, economic, environmental, geopolitical, and socio-cultural shifts would be to insufficiently limit our description of what is occurring. Vast new ideational, epistemological, and arguably even theological frameworks for how to understand and interact with reality have emerged and are now spreading across the world.
Overwhelmed, and with no contemporary experience with which to easily contextualize and comprehend what is happening, our natural tendency is to ignore it, to dismiss, excuse, and normalize. Today is much like yesterday, this week much like last week. The economy continues to grow. Besides, we think, change is normal; political games and cultural fads come and go, life will remain much the same. But in our bones many of us can feel the rumbling of the earthquake, and intuit the terrible truth: we are experiencing a tectonic upheaval, a rending, uprooting, cataclysmic shift from one era of history to another. And in such times there will, inevitably, be blood.
The world is being forcibly reconfigured by at least three concurrent revolutions: a geopolitical revolution driven by the rise of China; an ideological revolution consuming the Western world; and a technological revolution exacerbating both of the former.
There’s a lot to unpack in pillars one and three of that unholy trinity, but the ideological revolution consuming the West is most pertinent to my purpose here, so that’s going to be my focus. Here’s a bit more on that:
A new belief system, characterizing all of existence as divisible into a Manichean struggle for power between the oppressed and their oppressors, has emerged and turned itself into a mass movement that is scrambling every aspect of traditional American political, cultural, religious, and even corporate life.
But this ideology seemed to emerge so suddenly, and is in its stark irrationality so alien to the modern liberal mind, that surprised observers and hapless opponents so far struggle even to settle on a name for it. “Cancel Culture,” “Identity Politics,” “Social Justice,” “Wokeness,” “Postmodernism,” “Reified Postmodernism,” “Neo-Marxism,” “Cultural Marxism,” just plain old Marxism in a new guise, the “Successor Ideology,” the cult of “The Elect,” or simply the “New Faith” – whatever its name, what’s clear by this point is that this all-consuming new belief system is exceptionally zealous, insatiably revolutionary, self-righteously brutal, and going ideologically viral with breathtaking speed and essentially no opposition.
The result is that the New Faith, which rejects nearly every fundamental principle of liberal modernity – the existence of an objective and immutable reality that can be discovered by reason; the scientific method; an enduring human nature; the primacy of the sovereign individual over the collective; impartial equality before the law; secular pluralism and the value of freedom of speech; the separation of the private and political spheres – is enthusiastically taking an axe to the decaying pillars holding up liberal democratic civilization just as it enters a potentially existential struggle with a rising authoritarian challenger.
The author of The Upheaval, N.S. Lyons, doesn’t provide much information about himself. His profile only describes him as “an analyst and writer living and working in Washington, D.C.” I assume the name “N.S. Lyons” is a pseudonym, though I haven’t decrypted it yet if it is. His profile picture is perhaps a hopeful metaphor; it’s taken from a mosaic in the Church of San Vitale, Ravenna; it is believed to be an image of the 6th century military commander Flavius Belisarius, who is known for “the reconquest of much of the Mediterranean territory belonging to the former Western Roman Empire, which had been lost less than a century prior.”
To return to the topic of revolution within religion — within Christianity in particular — we need to look at the most recent essay published at The Upheaval, dated May 3rd, 2021. Lyons begins by examining the question of history repeating itself in certain intervals:
I have a certain fondness for cyclical history, or at least the notion that there are some structural patterns that seem to recur in predictable waves throughout history – including ones that could explain our current period of upheaval.
Several observers of history have theorized broad 60-100 year secular “cycles” of historical disorder and reorder, such as William Strauss and Neil Howe’s generational theory and Peter Turchin’s “cliodynamic” forecast of an “age of discord” – both of which predicted a period of extended crisis around 2020 and now seem to pretty much be playing out exactly as prophesized.
[W]hat if we aren’t witnessing a period of change “unseen in a century,” but unseen in five centuries? And, what if we are engulfed not in a secular cycle, but in one more fundamentally religious in nature? That’s an important question to analyze, even if you aren’t religious.
Here, Lyons returns to the idea of what he labels as “the New Faith” or “the Emergent Church.” And it’s one that should be quite familiar to most of us by now:
In the last decade we’ve seen the emergence in the West of a strident new ideology of “Social Justice” which, despite its self-conceived secularism, many observers have now convincingly argued bears all the hallmarks of a new religious cult, complete with a new metaphysics of truth and reality, a concept of original sin, a new hierarchy of moral virtues, a self-constructed canonical liturgy and a strict orthodoxy, a de-facto priesthood, sacred spaces, self-abasing rituals, a community of believers, linguistic shibboleths, blasphemy laws, and excommunication – among other giveaways.
But, quite notably, this “New Faith” seems to have, consciously or unconsciously, modeled most of its belief system and ritual practices straight out of the Christian tradition, from an overarching preoccupation with the weak and the victimized, along with an emphasis on atonement (though any conception of grace, forgiveness, or redemption is notably absent), right down to specific forms of ritual, like the washing of feet or the symbolic reenactment of martyrdom.
This raises an interesting question: is what we are witnessing now less an entirely new faith than what in the past would have instead been immediately recognized and categorized as part of the long list of Christian heresies, large and small, which challenged the established church throughout history? Could we be living through, as I posited briefly in my introductory essay to The Upheaval, a religious revolution similar to the Reformation that wracked Europe beginning around 500 years ago?
Lyons takes a good bit of time using the book The Great Emergence by the late Phyllis Tickle as a lens for interpreting this phenomenon:
The Great Emergence posits that Christianity has throughout its history been shaped by a recurring 500 year-long cycle of structural and spiritual dissolution, turmoil, and re-formation. Each time, the Church has seemingly been seized by a collective desire to cast off established institutional structures and beliefs. She identifies four past rotations of this cycle, coincidentally describing a “mighty upheaval” that has inevitably consumed the Christian world at every climax of this cycle before order was eventually restored.
There’s a lot of text to work through in Lyons’ essay — and the whole thing is very much worth reading — so I’m going to strip these four down to bare description. Tickle’s four 500-year cycles (as Lyons summarizes them) are as follows:
- The life and death of Jesus Christ.
- Christianity as the official religion of an empire (Rome) that was falling apart & facing Christological heresies like Nestorianism. (Arianism isn’t mentioned, but should have been.)
- The Great Schism in 1054.
- Martin Luther and the “Reformation”
Tickle saw established religion as being a sort of cable that has three interwoven strands — spirituality, corporeality, and morality — which are ensconced within a “waterproof casing” — “the common imagination or illusion of the religion’s believers about ‘how the world works’ and is ‘to be imaged and thereby understood'” — that allows the cable to “rest underwater on the seabed of history for quite a long time unperturbed in its function.”
“However,” Lyons continues…
…eventually the outer casing (the story) will become corroded, and the interior mesh (collective imagination) disrupted by events. At first this is fine, and the cable continues to hold, or is even repaired. That is until “that fateful time, about once every five hundred years, when the outer casing of the story and inner sleeve of the shared illusion take a blow simultaneously. When that happens, a hole is opened straight through to the braid. The water rushes in; and human nature being what human nature is, we reach our collective hand in through the hole and pull out the three strands one at a time. Spirituality first, corporeality second, and morality last. We pull each up, consider it from every possible angle, and at times finger it beyond all imagining.” (If you’re now thinking of the rapid growth of people in the 21st century that began claiming they’re “spiritual but not religious,” you are connecting the dots here).
Once this occurs, “always without fail, the thing that gets lost early in the process of [such] a reconfiguration is any clear and general understanding of who or what is to be used as the arbitrator of correct belief, action, and control.” Soon a period of crisis emerges as a maelstrom rages around one central question: “where now is the authority?”
This may appear to be a very anthropological view of religion, but I think it has value, inasmuch as even divinely-revealed religion holds real and powerful roles within the context of culture and historical narrative.
The question about authority also intrigues; I do not know whether or not Lyons is Catholic (though I suspect he is), but I know that Catholicism is suffering perhaps most acutely within the Christian world from the crisis of leadership we are now enduring. This is leadership in the more literal sense, as we look with a sense of futility for guidance from our bishops and pope, but also in the broader cultural sense wherein the Church no longer exercises moral leadership or the power of example.
Tickle, Lyons tells us, identified a pattern that reoccurs in every one of these major cycles:
[T]he emergence of at least one “new form” of Christianity, but also simultaneously a process of “re-traditioning” by the original faith that has “occurred with each turn of the eras and is a substantial dynamic in the progression from upheaval to renewed stability.” In the case of the Reformation, the Church was “freed” to tackle errors and corruptions, and to make significant institutional reforms (in the Fifth Lateran Council, the Councils of Trent, etc.) during a period of counter-reformation that would eventually produce a less decadent and more unified, clarified, and vibrant Catholic Church.
This re-formation only resolves things for a while, however. The process (patching up the cable) takes about 250 years, at which point it immediately begins to decay again for about another 250 years and enter into a new crisis.
Lyons goes on to tell the story of our societal decay in broad, comprehensible strokes:
The Enlightenment took hold in the West and its emphasis on reason began to undermine religious certainties. Then science, from Darwin to Faraday to Einstein to NASA, began to systematically destroy traditional collective story and imagination about how the universe functioned. It was in particular “biology and physics [that] were to split the cable open, tear the story, snag the sleeve, and lay out to public view the braided strand.” Next came the psychoanalysts and psychologists, the Freuds, Jungs, and Campbells, whose popular exploration of human consciousness and the unconscious mind, and of common mythical/archetypical religious experiences, served to both open a new frontier for “rational” exploration (“what really makes us tick?”) and break down, in the public imagination, the separation of the Christian from the generically “spiritual.” This merged with a growing philosophical obsession, dating back to Descartes, questioning the nature of the “self” and its relationship with reality. These questions would only be further inflamed by the impact of Buddhist ideas that captured the counter-cultural imagination during the 1960s – along with the influence of psychoactive drugs.
Meanwhile a revolution in communications technology, from radio and television to eventually the internet, served to democratize religious messaging and break down hierarchies of informational authority (much like Gutenberg’s printing press did for the Reformation). The invention of the automobile also played a fundamental role, by beginning the process of splitting apart extended nuclear families. Families were soon no longer gathering at Grandma’s for post-Sunday service collective meals every week. This was more important than anyone realized, because it was Grandma who was usually the authority figure willing to state in no uncertain terms that the new preacher with “his tendency toward fancy or newfangled sermons and imported theories” was spouting nonsense. “Grandma was, in essence a brake – a formidable one, in fact – on social/cultural/theological change.” But she got left behind.
Then came the culture wars, including the sexual revolution, women’s liberation, gay rights, and so on, which finished off the process.
What happened in sum, in Tickle’s telling, is that “sola scriptura, scriptura sola,” which “had answered the authority question in the sixteenth century and, more or less, had sustained the centuries between the Great Reformation” and the modern day, was mortally wounded. In largely Protestant America, this had big consequences (and meanwhile the Catholic Church was facing similar pressures). Any agreement on the three strands of the cable – what it means to be “spiritual”; what the corporeality of the church should looks like, or if it should even exist; and eventually what it means to be a moral person – was now gone.
The result, she says, has been the emergence of a new faith structure.
The bit about mass communications plays a bigger role than most people realize. Consider that mass literacy is only a little over a century old; then couple that with the emergence of a global, instantaneous media infrastructure, and you can see how profoundly differently you and I interact with the world than our great, great grandparents did.
As for familial elders as gatekeepers and arbiters of tradition, that’s another thing we’ve seen totally inverted. For many of us who grew up in the immediate aftermath of the ecclesiastical revolution of the 1960s, there was even an inversion. A point in time came when I found myself — born in 1977 — trying to convince my late grandmother — born in 1924 — of the superiority of the traditional Latin Mass. As a convert, she had always struggled with the Latin, and I think, to some extent, the rather mysterious goings on at the altar, particularly during a low Mass. She was no intellectual slouch — she held a Master’s Degree in English and worked as a teacher before having a large family, but she felt a certain relief when the liturgy changed in a way that was more understandable to her.
We also commonly hear the children and grandchildren of Baby Boomers complain about the amount of cultural degeneracy their forebears seem to have accepted. The point is, at least anecdotally, there came a point in living memory where younger generations wound up, for reasons that aren’t simple, more invested in the traditions of the Church or the culture than their elders.
So what of this new “Emergent Church”? Well, it’s egalitarian, relativistic, short on reason, and long on story:
First, the Emergent Church has – enabled by technology – essentially dedicated itself to taking Luther’s proto-democratic dream of a “priesthood of all believers” to its maximum extent. Like Pentecostalism, the Emergent Church believes everyone has a direct connection with God, or whatever they like to think of as God-like, and no one gets to tell them to believe differently.
This priesthood of all believers “is certainly and most notably global, recognizing none of the old, former barriers of nationality, race, social class, or economic status. It is also radical… [a] relational, nonhierarchical, a-democratized form of Christianity entering into its hegemony.”
And the “Emergents,” it turns out, “are postmodern.” Despite all that rationalist science from earlier, the takeaway from the collapse of authority has been “that logic is not worth nearly so much as the last five hundred years would have had us believe. It is, therefore, not to be trusted as an absolute, nor are its conclusions to be taken as truth just because they depend from logical thinking.”
“Narrative, on the other hand,” is for Emergents “the song of the vibrating network… Narrative circumvents logic, speaking truth of the people who have been and of whom we are. Narrative speaks to the heart in order that the heart, so tutored, may direct and inform the mind.”
Story over substance. Pathos over logos. It all sounds troublingly familiar.
Lyons says that Tickle wasn’t worried about the development of this disturbing new leaderless religion that relies on crowd-sourcing to determine its narrative. Then again, he concedes, Tickle was “an enthusiastic self-described Emergent who thinks this is all great news.”
But Tickle died in 2015, and she didn’t see how far this would go.
Lyons says that nevertheless, Tickle got a lot of things right: “the cable of institutional Christianity was corroded by science and cultural entropy; sola scriptura, scriptura sola did break down, and the faith did enter a crisis centered on the question ‘where now is authority?’ A new Christianity did began to emerge, just as she described.”
He also sees the decline in mainline Protestantism and Catholicism as indicative of the Emergent Church; but “there is no reason to think that most of these people losing their religion were becoming atheists,” he writes, “or even necessarily ‘secular’ – they are just identifying as ‘religiously unaffiliated,’ or ‘none of the above,’ so it’s hard to know exactly what they believe.”
Ultimately, the first iteration of Emergent Christianity “provided a weak social construct” in Lyons’ view:
It existed to gratify its adherents with the belief that they were still morally good members of a religious tradition, whose primary goal was to provide for their happiness, while liberating them from any higher authority beyond themselves and freeing them from any of the responsibilities or strictures that had once characterized that religion.
In other words, Emergent Christianity was mostly Moralistic Therapeutic Deism all along.
Ultimately, this fragile early-stage Emergent Church didn’t resolve the crisis because it didn’t have any real authority, meaningful substance, or unifying purpose.
And then, Lyons pivots straight to the heart of the matter:
[M]ost important of all was I think something Tickle doesn’t really touch on too much: the modernity-driven suspicion, deep within the hearts even of many Christians, that in fact, as Nietzsche infamously put it, “God is dead.” Increasingly skeptical about the existence of any kingdom of God in heaven, they were primed for a logical alternative: building the kingdom of heaven on earth instead.
I’ve written about this phenomenon here before, with specific reference to Pope Francis and his approach to the Church as some kind of environmentalist, social-justice obsessed NGO. I’ve also talked about how this ideology has been percolating within the Church for most of my lifetime:
I had a conversation with a Facebook friend some years back, I wish I could remember who, and she told me about meeting a nun in the 1970s who was very active in feeding the poor and working on various aspects of social justice. And when she was asked what provision was being made to help these poor souls make it to heaven, she looked blankly at the woman and said, “Oh, we don’t believe in that anymore. That’s why we do our best to make heaven right here.”
I’m paraphrasing from memory, so some of the nuance is perhaps lost, but the point is not an unfamiliar one. This is the driving purpose of the immanentist: to busy themselves with the improvement of temporal circumstances because they see no point in striving for eternal felicity.
And in an essay that’s already grown long with excerpts, we now arrive at the shape this Emergent Religion is taking: Wokeism.
Lyons says that
At some point the Emergent Church came face-to-face with secular, identity-based “Social Justice” activism – likely in the 2010s, when core theoretical ideas behind that movement, based on post-modern Critical Theory and neo-Marxist frameworks of identitarian struggle, first really began to seep out of the academy and crystalize into effective activist movements, such as Black Lives Matter or the trans rights movement, in a big way.
Both sides liked what they saw, but for the Emergent Church in particular this was a match made in narrative heaven. Secular Social Justice activism dovetailed perfectly with both the strong historical emphasis on social justice work within many Christian denominations (including the Social Gospel movement) and the post-modern seeds already present in Emergent Christianity (such as the primacy of self-interpreted identity). But more importantly it offered Emergents nearly everything they had been missing and longing for. Suddenly they had a new source of authority (the doctrines of Critical Theory and the hierarchy of intersectional identity), a clear metaphysics of good and evil (the oppressed and their oppressors), an ultimate objective (to perfect the world by the elimination of evil), and a grand narrative of how to live in the world.
George Orwell famously wrote in his 1940 review of Mein Kampf that: “Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people ‘I offer you a good time,’ Hitler has said to them ‘I offer you struggle, danger and death,’ and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet.” Well, the Emergent Church offered its restless followers comfort and a good time on earth; neo-Marxist Social Justice offered them revolutionary struggle, and so they prostrated themselves immediately.
Lyons explains how white guilt has never found a satisfactory answer in Liberalism, but “suddenly, along comes the New Faith, and tells her that it’s all true: she is indeed a sinner, and she’s not alone!”
“Even better,” he writes, ” it has a comprehensive plan of action for how to address this sin.”
The concept of sin … implies that progress can be made through a sort of personal moral transformation (say by acknowledging one’s privilege and “unconscious bias” and moving from “racist” to “anti-racist”) which anyone can achieve if they “educate” themselves and “do the work.”
The guilt, militancy, and moral superiority of wokeness are baked right into this ethos:
Someday, if all sin can be confessed and confronted by collective moral transformation, then a much-heralded day of “reckoning” will arrive in which said sin is cleansed from the body-politic, the unrepentant sinners are done away with, and, with no remaining opposition, the kingdom of heaven is therefore achieved on earth. You know how I think that kind of utopianism usually tends to play out, but I assume in this case it will be a very diverse, equitable, and inclusive place, ad majorem DEI gloriam.
Until that day arrives, though, the religious infusion helps allow members of the New Faith to taste that sweetest of nectars: being both intellectually and morally superior to other people. The very fact of their awakened ability to see revealed truths of systemic injustice (having “woke”) and begun their journey of moral transformation is proof of that. The result is a sort of new Calvinism, in which, as John McWhorter describes it, the faithful are the new “Elect” who get to look down on all the ignorant sinners. Suffice to say, our once-guilty feeling and confused secular suburban white lady has likely never felt this level of moral righteousness and fanatical zealousness before, and the result is intoxicating.
Lyons points a warning finger at the “hyper-democratic” nature of this “odd community” that helps its members “overcome the atomizing isolation and loneliness of liquid modernity.”
As Aristotle put it in his Politics:
[T]here demagogues spring up. For the people becomes a monarch, and is many in one; and there many have the power in their hand, not as individuals, but collectively… At all events this sort of democracy, which is now a monarchy, and no longer under the control of law, seeks to exercise monarchical sway, and grows into a despot.
If you ever wonder why something you said that was fine 72 hours ago is now an unredeemably racist, sexist, excommunicable offense, it’s because the disembodied Swarm Pope, who leads the People’s Democratic Priesthood of All Believers, crowd-sourced it from the swirling Id of the mob on Twitter while you weren’t looking.
I strongly recommend the entire essay from Lyons if this topic interests you. It’s a fascinating theory, all in all, and one that could very well help to explain some things that have seemed elusive up until now. People throughout history have wanted to be part of something they can believe in. Weak religions do not inspire. If the 500-year-cycle is real — and the thesis has merit — then what we are seeing right now may well be a pivotal moment in salvation history.
The Church has survived all other heresies and challengers. How will she arise anew in response to the latest of these?
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher and Executive Director of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have seven children.