The Interfaith Vision of Phyllis Tickle

By Jon Sweeney

(The following is an excerpt from Phyllis Tickle: A Life by Jon Sweeney, published with permission.)

When one considers the life and work of the late Phyllis Tickle in every respect – from the early scholarship, to mentoring students, to encouraging the arts, teaching a generation of children to find their own poetry, curating and publishing important writers, writings of her own on liturgy and prayer and the spiritual life and the changes roiling the organizations of religion that she loved, and the indefatigable way that she taught hundreds of thousands of people from podiums for decades – Phyllis was surely one of late twentieth century’s most important advocates for the written word and the life of faith.

With her energy for learning and communicating what she knew, Phyllis fueled dozens of conversations burning in religion and spiritual life. There was chaos theory and chance, followed by domesticity and wildness as alternating images for spiritual life. The appropriation of Eastern religious practice into Western religions – assimilation, or just the latest form of imperialism? Zen Catholics. Kabbalah for everyone; for instance, Madonna – not the Mother of Jesus – and how in the late twentieth century a rock star could invigorate interest in Jewish mysticism. Ecumenism, interfaith, multi-faith, and what they all mean.

Why people look for religion in spiritual books, and what does this trend mean for the future of faith, and of organized religion? Womanist theology, Mujerista theology, Green theology. The environmental revolution and what it means for God and the Earth. Changes in the language that we use for God. Changes in the language that we use to describe ourselves in relation to God. The rapprochement of East and West in Christianity. The rapprochement of Judaism and Christianity – which she first picked up from her friend Bishop John Shelby Spong, and later began to explore while a guest at one of the meetings of the think tank, The Jewish Public Forum in New York City, sponsored by CLAL–The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. Christian hunger to learn about the Jewishness of Jesus. The rediscovery of mysticism and meditation as native within Judaism. The impact of the Global South on Westernized or Latinized Christianity. The growth of Islam worldwide. Gnosticism and other secrets: “The pursuit of truth through the acceptance of mystery,” she called that phenomenon.

After she was diagnosed with cancer in 2015, Phyllis wanted to keep writing, thinking, doing her work. “I’m still reading material for that book, crazy as that is,” she wrote to me in an email” about a book she and I had been planning. We called it One God: Judaism and Christianity 2,000 Years Later: For centuries, Christianity has been pleased to teach that there was a mighty tree or root that was Judaism, that in time gave rise to the true branch, to the true purpose of its being, in the coming of Jesus as Messiah, thereby obviating the old tradition from which it grew. This is known as the doctrine of Supersessionism. But Emergence, more and more, are having none of that, choosing instead to suggest a position for which the better metaphor is that of a tuning fork. The two arms of this fork arise from a common base, and the place of their separation from one another is 70 CE with the destruction of the Temple (thereby scattering everybody) and the coming, as a result, of rabbinic Judaism and Pauline Christianity. The two tracked side-by-side until 70, Jewish both, until they gradually separated. This separation, post-Shoah, is healing rapidly. The tuning fork that may emerge in the near future is one in which both tines vibrate, and the music happens only when they vibrate (once again) together.

To the end, Phyllis was convinced that the future for Christian vibrancy would lie in a spirituality with Christ at the core but including all religious traditions and ways of life. It would be cosmos-focused rather than congregationally-focused. The “new way of doing church” that filled emerging church talk in its early days would be replaced by something much more mystical and universal.

She expressed this eloquently late in life: “I can’t articulate exactly what it means or is or is going to be – none of us can, yet, of course. But we are about the business of stripping the mythology off of the mythos, and that’s dangerous work, as well as exhilarating. Just now, I am more deeply into reading physics and neuroscience than religion, though I am not sure I would say that to just anybody. But therein lies the next message – the next revelation. As sure as Sinai or Tabor, this is our next moment of pivot and holy, frightening grandeur. It’s going to mean everything from re-adjusting and re-assessing the universe and the canon to doing the same to basic theology and communal life. I am both glad I shan’t be here to see it, for it terrifies me for those who must be Moses to it. But I yearn achingly towards its beauty and truth and revelation.

Jon Sweeney is the author of Phyllis Tickle: A Life.

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