At the church we are doing a six week study using a DVD with presentations on Emerging Christianity from Phyllis Tickle. Week 1 was a generalized intro to the Great Emergence and the 500 year cycle of "rummage sales" within Christian/Judeo-Christian history. Last week was about authority.
Tickle points out that one of (if not the) defining questions in each 500 year cycle is the question of authority. After the Great Schism of 1000 years ago the Papacy/Curia became the source of authority in the Latin Church (and to a degree in the culture at large) and then with the Great Reformation we see the development of sola scriptura as a principle of authority within the church--all the while the church maintained its self-understanding of being a/the source of authority in the larger culture. Sola scriptura has, arguably, been under attack for quite some time now -- and in fact the concept of Biblical inerrancy was/is more or less a reaction to the beginning of that attack. So what comes next?
Being at the beginning of the new era we do not know yet what the source of authority will turn out to be. One thing that is easily said is that the source of authority within the church will not have the same place in the culture that it once had. I am quite sure that the various versions of Protestantism will continue to include scripture (possibly with less focus on tradition than either Roman Catholicism or the sola scriptura folks have ended up with) as a part of that authority. But it will be an authority based on a different hermeneutic, a different set of interpretive assumptions.
Of more interest to me is are 2 other questions. One is the question of authority in the culture at large. Where will it be located? We are continuing the challenge to authority that really started to hit North American culture 45 years ago. We started with "don't trust anybody under 30" and have moved to the mass protests against the WTO and the OWS movement and the INM protests. As we move forward (Tickle suggests that each "rummage sale" period starts with about a century of sorting out the answers to these sorts of questions), where will civic authority be assigned?
The other question is how we will make these decisions. The century of sorting that followed the Great Reformation was a century of open warfare that shattered Europe, paired with internal repressions and heretic burnings and so on. I am sure that we don't want that again. But can we redefine our understanding of authority in the civic society and avoid bloodshed??? It was openly wondered during all those protests I just named. People were wondering when they might become riots. If more such things are in the future when will they turn into riots???? OR can we avoid the violence? In the church can we redefine authority and avoid schisms (something that has not been done well --or at all-- in the past)?