You may have heard me say this before, but church historians and thinkers like the late Phyllis Tickle are convinced we are in the midst of a Rummage Sale. Tickle often taught that every 500 years, there was a major shift in world culture, and for the last 1500 years, the constant that helps us to track those changes has been the Christian Church. 500 years before now was the invention of the Guttenburg Printing Press and the subsequent Protestant Reformation of the Church. 500 years before that, there was the schism between the Eastern and Western churches, 500 years before that, the Bible had only recently been assembled, and the Holy Roman Catholic Church dominated the known world as the only “legitimate” religion. At each of these major turning points, technology and human culture and institutions all come to an intersection with history in which decisions have to be made in order to figure out how to reinvent human civilization this time around. Tickle called these moments in history “Rummage Sales,” as people decide what to keep and preserve from the past and what to throw out.
It is the firm belief of many—myself included—that we are headlong into that Rummage Sale process, as the internet, human activity, and aging and obsolete institutions are crashing into one another…and we are realizing more and more with every passing day that the world we have known is giving way to a world that has yet to be fully formed. It can be a time of great anxiety and fear for many people.
It’s also…an incredible opportunity.
For example: From roughly 500 BCE up until now, the Bible has had an incredible run as the singularly most influential book ever published. This one book and the 66 smaller books it contains has been the building block of society as we know it. And about 70 years ago, just after the Second World War, a farmer outside of Egypt discovered a treasure trove of “forgotten” Christian texts. They were written around the same time as the Gospels and Letters in the New Testament. They speak of Jesus and God…though from different points of view than what we have traditionally been taught through the Bible. As the information from these scrolls—known popularly as The Gnostic Gospels—began to disseminate through Doctoral Programs and seminaries, we have had to slowly wake up to the fact that a particular group of people (men) at a particular moment in time (the height of the Roman Empire) made a decision to include particular Gospel narratives in their Bibles (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John)…and to exclude others (The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Mary, The Gospel of Judas).
Our Bible Study gathered last Monday to begin discussing these “non-canonical” texts, and there was a popular opinion shared early on in our conversation. “I find this really troubling,” one person voiced, “that a group of men halfway around the world, more than 1,000 years ago, could somehow dictate what the whole world has been taught ever since then. This is really troubling.”
I couldn’t agree more. It is disorienting when you have lived your entire life with a particular set of assumptions,..only to realize that some of our assumptions are based on limited information…some of our assumptions are based on wrong information…and we realize there is an entire universe that we’ve never even gotten around to envisioning because the world had convinced us, “That’s just not the way things are done.” As we are discovering just how varied and diverse the early Christian church was—before the Roman Empire consolidated power and insisted that there was only “one way” to believe—we begin to articulate our own spiritual lives in new ways. Questions we never knew we were allowed to ask start coming to the surface. We begin to see that areas of religious life that have always bothered us are rather modern inventions. We begin to recognize that God’s dreams for humanity are more rich and deep and wondrous than we ever gave ourselves permission to imagine.
We are in a Rummage Sale…we are going through our attics and basements, deciding what to keep, what to dust off, what to get rid of…to figure out how to live into the next chapter of human history. We have more information to sort through, and more resources to utilize than any of the generations who have come before us. We owe it to one another and to future generations to do the hard work of challenging our own assumptions about the world. We owe it to one another and to future generations to look bravely at all the evidence at our disposal and make the best possible decisions about what new assumptions to adopt in a rapidly changing world. It can be hard work…and for many it can be disorienting and troubling. We owe it to one another and to future generations to be patient with one another…to be kind to one another…to speak to one another honestly, with love, and make space for people of different points of view. We’ll never again be able to go back to the idea that there is only “one way” for anything. What does that imply for our shared future on the One Planet we will ever inhabit?
As the leaves change color all around New England, it’s helpful to remember that change is not just scary and anxious…it can also be beautiful. As we adapt to changing weather and living conditions, we don’t have to focus on the difficulties or the stress…we can also focus on the brilliant, bright, diverse delights God brings into our lives and our world in these times of transition. I invite you to bask at these changing times of ours with the same wide-eyed wonder that we look at changing leaves…to know that God is present with us throughout this process…and well beyond it.