This is part two of my series on Phyllis Tickle. Having been exposed to her through video and print, I ventured to ask her a few questions through email. She was remarkably accessible and gracious enough to allow me to share her responses with you.
Phyllis Tickle’s Dangerous Hermeneutic
By Scott Fowler
Though much could be said and discussed concerning Phyllis Tickle and her theology, my chief concern is her hermeneutic (the theory and methodology of interpretation). In this article I will begin to share the questions I asked Ms. Tickle, along with her responses, and explain my concerns.
The First Question: Gay Christianity
I asked Ms. Tickle the following question:
Based on your book The Great Emergence and a video interview with Andrew Marin, can we say that you are a supporter of Christianity among the LGBT community?
Yes . . . there is no question and never has been. I believe that the GLBT community can be/is as much a part of Christianity as is any other segment of society. This can be elaborated and a well-argued support be made, but that is probably not in any way required here, so the simple answer: Yes.
Not that surprising coming from a “lay Eucharistic minister and lector in the Episcopal Church.”1 It’s how Tickle arrives at her theology that concerns me. Let me explain.
Some who have arrived at their support of homosexuality have done so by twisting Scripture, either linguistically or contextually.2 One blogger from the UK, in her defense of homosexuality, declared, “Jesus said that if a man look at a woman with lust in his heart, he had already committed adultery. He did not say the same if a man look at a man.”3 There will always be those who are content to say that up is down and will surround themselves with people who agree.
Then there are those who simply choose not to follow what Scripture says. Again, not uncommon. Examples of people going against Scripture in support of their own preferences abound. Interestingly, Tickle belongs to this category but in a unique way. According to Bart Gingerich, Phyllis Tickle affirms that “the Bible is not in favor of homosexuality—it just isn’t. The approval is not there,” 4 and yet she supports it anyway, or has at least “gotten over it” as she is fond of saying.5 But Tickle does not feel that she is going against Scripture. Somehow, she arrives at her support of gay Christianity through a complex approach to God and Scripture that leaves her enlightened by the Holy Spirit and able to unapologetically to support what Scripture does not.
In order to begin to understand how Tickle approaches Scripture, we will have to examine her words very closely to try and peel back the artfully woven layers of her responses to my questions.
Next Question: The Authority of Scripture
Ms. Tickle is quite articulate, but at times I have wondered if she is not trying to say what she wants to say without any real proof that she has said it. It has left me with the impression that she wants to lead a revolution but does not want to offend anyone while she does it. I made the following statement to her:
I would like to know if we are reading you correctly or not. Many times I have gotten the impression that you are artfully parsing your words in order to not alienate anyone which leaves the impression that you are not committing to the things mentioned above but no one as articulate and as passionate as you are is without her convictions. I would like to speak rightly about you since you are strongly influencing the Church.
Tickle’s response was:
. . . careful as I try to be…and I do parse my words carefully and often repeat them, in fact…it is apparently very difficult for some listeners to separate what Phyllis Tickle believes from what she reports as descriptive of Emergence thinking. The two are not always the same and, when they differ, tend to differ rather sharply. Over and over again in speaking, I make the distinction not only in general, but also in particular points being made or about to be made. In religion and faith, however, the enormity of the issues and the passion surrounding them all too often obscure the caveats.
At first, this seemed to be the case in her words concerning Sola Scipture or Scripture only. In her book, The Great Emergence, in a significant section entitled “the Erosion of Sola Sciptura,” Tickles writes:
“When it is all resolved [‘the arguments and questions surrounding homosexuality’]—and it most surely will be—the Reformation’s understanding of Scripture as it had been taught by Protestantism for almost five centuries will be dead. . . . Of all the fights, the gay one must be—has to be—the bitterest, because once it is lost [and she means once the inerrant, Sola Sciptura, “factually true” crowd loses its battle against homosexuality in the church], there are no more fights to be had. It is finished. Where now is the authority?”6
One could say that maybe this is Phyllis Tickle the reporter rather than Phyllis Tickle herself. I believe she demonstrates her own view of Scripture by supporting homosexuality and gay Christianity.
Surprised at her stance and troubled by her claim that the end of Sola Scriptura is near, I asked Ms. Tickle the following question:
… it seems clear that you are aligned with those that [no] longer see Scripture as the final or ultimate authority in a Christian’s life. Is this accurate?
NO! Now this one surprises me, for so far as I know I am not usually misunderstood or misquoted here. As an observant Anglican, I believe, and continue to believe, that authority rests in Scripture, reason and tradition. Like Emergence Christians, I believe that Scripture must be seen as “actually” true, rather than reduced to the confines and strictures of human “fact” or being “factually true” in the sense of Protestant Inerrancy, as that term is normally defined. It is one of the prime roles of the Holy Spirit to lead the believer to correct discernment of Scripture, and as Christians we read with and through the tutelage of the Spirit. The odd thing about this point’s being questioned is that I say a dozen times every lecturing day that if there were such a thing as an “average” Emergence Christian and an “average” Protestant or Roman Christian [which there is not, of course], it would be the Emergence Christian who exhibits the more radical and emphatic devotion to the ‘accuracy’ of Holy Writ and to believing in its absolute function as the Word of God Almighty, Now and Always. Of course, the Emergence would also be appalled by the need, esp. on the part of Protestantism, to reduce that same Scripture to non-paradoxical exegesis, to “acceptable” doctrine, to the kind of consistency human reason can perceive and approve of. The two, then…i.e., actuality vs. factuality… are entirely different approaches to Scripture, the Emergence being not only a more passionately persuaded one, but also a much, much humbler one.
There are some serious implications in her response to my question concerning the authority of Scripture that we must sort through if we are to begin to decipher her meaning. First, the juxtaposition of her view of Scripture as “actually true” over against the Protestant, inerrancy view of Scripture as “factually true” is curious. Second, the phrase, “non-paradoxical exegesis” is intriguing. Third, the picture she draws of reading Scripture “through the tutelage of the Spirit” is worth investigating when compared to what she seems to have discerned. And finally, I have a question about what Tickle means by the phrase “correct discernment of Scripture”?
The next installment of the Tickle Chronicles will address these issues.
1 See Tickle’s website: http://www.phyllistickle.com/about/; Part I: Andrew Marin Interviews Phyllis Tickle http: //www.youtube.com/watch?v= SOQQPC_SsEs.
2 For a vast array of Scripture twisting, just Google the phrase “reinterpreting the clobber texts.” For a specific collection from the UK check out http://queeringthechurch.com/queer-faith/queer-scripture/clobber-texts/. For a shocking treatment of the subject by someone who is rather a mainstream in the church see the pamphlet online written by Walter Wink at http://forusa.org/content/homosexuality-bible-walter-wink.
3 https://ccithink.com/2013/03/31/why-the-focus-on-homosexuality-abortion-evolution-arent-all-sins-the-same-in-gods-eyes-part-1/ Of course, if we build our belief system on all the things Jesus did not say we are in for quite a ride.
4 http://juicyecumenism.com/2013/01/18/emergence-christianity-comes-to-memphis/ This quote is in a sense corroborated by Tickle’s interview by Andrew Marin (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v= SOQQPC_SsEs ) where she compares the acceptance of homosexuals in the Church with the Church’s acceptance of feminism and divorce which she lifts up as examples of behavior advocated against in Scripture but “gotten over” by the Church in modern times. You can read the transcript of this interview here (https://ccithink.com/2013/05/13/the-tickle-chronicles/). The Gingerich quote comes from Tickle’s National Gathering on emergence Christianity held in January 2013 in Memphis.
5 See the Andrew Marin interview or transcript noted in the prior footnote. I think it’s interesting when we decide to yield the counsel of the Bible to the whims of the culture.
6 Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence, (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing, 2012), page 98-101.