Donate to RNS

Phyllis Tickle’s Holy Ghost heresy

The controversial author says Christians are now living in "the age of the Spirit."

Phyllis Tickle grins at a Veritas Forum event,
Phyllis Tickle grins at a Veritas Forum event, "Sacred Explorations: Learning to Pray with the Medievals," hosted by the University of Tennessee . - Image courtesy of Wyoming_Jackrabbit (

Phyllis Tickle grins at a Veritas Forum event, “Sacred Explorations: Learning to Pray with the Medievals,” hosted by the University of Tennessee . – Image courtesy of Wyoming_Jackrabbit (

Phyllis Tickle may look like a sweet grandmother, but do not be fooled. She’s sassy, smart, and always does her homework.

Tickle is founding editor of the religion department at “Publishers Weekly,” the author of multiple books, and a matriarch among many progressive Protestants. For several years, she’s argued that Christianity undergoes a massive transformation every 500 or so years and is currently entering a period she has labeled “the Great Emergence.” Here, we discuss her newest book, “The Age of the Spirit: How the Ghost of an Ancient Controversy is Shaping the Church,” and the revival of interest in the Holy Spirit seen in churches across the theological spectrum. Her answers, which she labels “heresy,” will undoubtedly make some Christians squirm.

RNS: Phyllis, you’re always out there stirring up trouble and I can assume you’re doing no less with this book. Why did you want to write a book about the Holy Spirit?

PT: You cut right to the chase, don’t you Mr. Merritt? I began the whole business of chasing emergence Christianity when I was at “Publishers Weekly” and I began to write about how this was one of many upheavals in Christian history. When my first two books on the topic were finished, it was clear that this thing that what was happening—whatever you want to call it—was going to have the significance of what we saw 2000 years ago. And one of the key characteristics of this period is the completion of the Trinity, whereby we engage the third part of the Trinity more.

This is I call a “continuing maturation” of the faith, and it is heresy. I can already smell smoke from my burning flesh as they roast me for it. In the Old Testament days, we see a greater clarification of and engagement with God the father. Then when Christ comes, God reveals God’s self, showing what God would look like in human flesh. This allowed humankind to know Godkind within time and space. But then there would come a time when the third part of the Trinity would also move as easily in and out of human affairs and human worship as had God the father and God the son. That was the prophecy of the mystics.

RNS: A lot of this has been built on the rise of emergence Christianity. But a lot of folks have observed what may be called the decline of the so-called Emergent Church. What once had commercial appeal and a mainstream following seems to have somewhat disbanded. How does this affect your thinking?

PT: I have argued that when we are talking about Emergence Christianity, we’re talking about what is emerging out of the brouhaha right now. But the Emergent Church is not the same of Emergence Christianity. It is one of several expressions that would also include charismatics and new monastics and progressives, for example.

Image courtesy of Baker Books

Image courtesy of Baker Books

RNS: Fair enough. So exactly how do people today think about and interact with the Holy Spirit differently than Christians in years past?

PT: There is a greater experiential intimacy. Traditionally, a Christian has been able to say “I feel the Spirit” and mean it. But they largely entered into that personally and privately, without the expressions we saw at Pentecost and in the early church in the days following Pentecost.

Additionally, we’re seeing a need to experience the Spirit everyday and a belief in the accessibility of the Spirit. Most Christians 100 years ago would have prayed to Jesus. Today, people are actually praying to the Spirit with regularity. So, there is greater engagement with the Spirit in a way that would not have been true in years past.

Finally, our ecclesiology has changed. The Holy Spirit seems to like and speak to women as much as men. The Spirit seems to like street people as much as the rich and powerful and blessed. So an equalness is emerging as a result that is undeniable.

RNS: But why? What’s driving this interest in the third person of the Trinity? Why do you think the Spirit would wait until now to “show its face” like this?

PT: Why would God the son wait 6,000 years to show his face? I don’t mean to sound like a smart ass; I’m really asking. If you read scripture, you’ll find that in the beginning we had “El” and that morphed to the Father and then we had the Son. I would say that these expressions of God were the expressions we needed. It wasn’t that the Spirit wasn’t present in the beginning, but there was no widespread engagement by plain people until after Christ comes. I suspect that the Spirit didn’t show up like this until we evolved, until we were able to receive the Spirit.

RNS: Could a greater reliance on the Holy Spirit weaken the authority of the scripture? When looking for answers, many Christians look first to the Bible. Are they now going to look to the Spirit in place of the Scriptures?

No, I think quite the opposite, but I may be wrong. My assessment is that we go to the Scripture and we ask the Spirit to discern what the scripture is saying. Scripture is going to hold as the center and remain the word of God. But it will be discerned through the Spirit rather than the mind, logic, and intellect. It won’t be Protestant inerrancy, but it will stay central.

RNS: You’re 80 years old. Having lived four-fifths of a century and having been a Christian for a large portion of that time, how your engagement with and connection to the Spirit morphed over the course of your existence?

PT: That’s a good question, and I’ve never thought about it. Isn’t that interesting? Look in the mirror, Tickle, and see what you find! Over time, my spiritual life has matured and where I’ve seen it the most is my engagement in God the father and much clearer understanding of God the son. But in recent years I’ve become a consumed, burning Trinitarian.