Wednesday, April 2, 2008

A Big Picture Framework of a History of Christianity

By Terry Dosh

As a church historian, I find Karl Rahner’s three-epoch theory of Christian history very helpful – and hopeful – in understanding the huge changes taking place in today’s church.

Rahner, the preeminent Catholic theologian of the 20th century, delivered these remarks in 1979 at age 75 while reflecting on the impact of Vatican II in the long schema of the history of Christianity.

Theologically speaking, he sees this history as divided into three epochs. Chronologically, an epoch can be a very limited time period, or a very expansive time period. The transition between epochs marks significant shifts.

The first epoch is the short period of Jewish Christianity from the time of Christ until the late first century. Christianity is heavily indebted to the Jewish ethos and culture in its beginning years. For example, the liturgy of the word in the celebration of the Eucharist is rooted in the Jewish liturgy of the word.

The first Christians were all originally Jews who lived in a Greek-speaking Roman Empire. The shift from the first epoch to the second is marked by a deep cultural shift from Judaism to Hellenism in the empire.

The second epoch goes from the late first century up to 1950. Obviously this covers a lot of ground: Constantine, Charlemagne, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and Reformation, the Enlightenment, a variety of revolutions – scientific, industrial, agricultural, political (American, French, Russian) and two World Wars.

The four characteristics of epoch two are: a Eurocentric church; a centralized governance; monocultural (Latin, Roman, Mediterranean); and patriarchal, that is, a top-down pyramidal line of authority. There are many appropriate subdivisions in this epoch, as noted above, but the overarching characteristics remain valid for the entire epoch.

The third epoch is the period in which the major sphere of the Church’s life is not just Europe, but, in fact, the entire world. It began about 1950 but made itself observable officially at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). So we are just at the beginning of epoch three.

The four characteristics of epoch three are: World-Church; a decentralized mode of governance, as shown in the various regional groups of bishops promoting their regional churches; a pluriformity of cultures as manifested in the hundreds of vernacular languages in the contemporary Eucharistic liturgy worldwide; feminist, that is, a series of concentric circles (pope, bishops, priests, the rest of the baptized) wherein each circle serves the other circles in an egalitarian, reciprocal way.

This term feminist is not Rahner’s as such, but rather that of John Glaser who uses the term to counter the term patriarchal of epoch two.

Admittedly, this three-epoch theory is a grand schema and is open to many questions and comments. But I have found it quite helpful in reflecting on the half century since Vatican II. The four characteristics of epoch three give me a sense of hope whenever I observe some current Vatican officials and some local clerics still functioning from an epoch two model.

I believe that the epoch three view of history is with us. This lifts my spirits as I keep moving along, trying to make this vision of history a reality.

At 77, I experienced the first 30 years of my life in epoch two, where my parents spent most of their lives. But the last 47 years are happily in epoch three, where our two sons and their families have spent their entire lives.

As a ‘middlelescent’ living in the swing generation between my parents and my sons, I see that my task is to translate the values that made my parents wholesome and holy to my children and grandchildren who only know the third epoch. Quite a joyful challenge.

Terry Dosh is a married priest, a co-founder of CORPUS, and the editor of “Bread Rising,” a newsletter on Church reform.

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