Reflection from the Emergent Village DC o9

PERSONAL THOUGHTS

I had a distinct moment this weekend where I recognized I didn’t have a dog in the fight; this fight or any other for the time being. It was an odd realization. Frankly, I’ve never been able to make that sort of statement. Nor, when thinking about this, can I remember a time that I would have blessed such a feeling either. Normally I associate those sentiments with apathy and some kind of lame-duck-so-called-transcendence. When I confessed my agenda-less state to a friend, they wondered if I was condemning having an agenda. God no. That really wasn’t my point. I just noticed it in myself—like looking down and seeing, to your surprise, that you’ve lost a leg somewhere in between here and there. That something you’ve lived with for years is just…gone, and effortlessly so. What a strange surreal place to be. Somehow, in that odd and neutral space I discovered my own presence. I can’t explain what that feels like. It just is. I was aware of myself; every last shitty thought or emotion. I was also painfully aware of others; their movements, their turmoil, and their hopes. It’s probably appropriate that hope comes into play. Because more than any other sensation present was a silver stream of Hope (against hope). The possibility of the glorious, diffused from expectation, separated from the check list of should’s or could-have’s or might-be’s.

Some of this feeling came from the fact that I was bombarded by new friends wondering what, exactly, it is that I do. You know, what I do in life. Not my job. What I do. It reminded me of the sort of question that a kid asks about a toy super hero figurine. “I like the cape and the helmet…but what does Captain Obvious do?!” You’ve heard that question before, right? After about the fifth time I started hearing something else entirely. What do I produce? What do I contribute? What am I bringing to the table? What is my value? I’ve used that question so many times before, in an unconscious way of discovering the Other’s worth. And for some reason I started to feel like shit… Well, at least I should have. My answers were non-existent. I couldn’t come up with anything. At one point I rambled off something about how I’ve spent the last decade living into flat leadership models and intentional Christian community, how I’ve helped plant house churches, how I’ve begun to imagine a different creative space here in Portland. But all of those sentiments felt like cold ash in my mouth. They were true but sounded hollow to me. Funny enough, the last person who asked me the question, “Brittian, what do you do?” got a shrug and the admission, “Nothing man. I’m fucking useless.” Then I laughed. Because in that hilarious moment I realized I didn’t actually believe what I had just said. That I didn’t have an agenda; that my do-ing had nothing to do with my be-ing. For that pristine second in time I wasn’t searching for a better God, or a purer Church, or even for the goals of the weekend. I was just there. Willing. Moveable. Shapeable. Liquid. There.

MORE TANGIBLE OBSERVATIONS

Signifiers like “insider” or “outsider” broke down the first night. It seemed like three fourths of the friends gathered used the word “outsider” to describe themselves. The cool kids, it turns out, were actually pretty normal. Tears from those who had “cut their teeth” on Emergent Village came the quickest. Tears from the rest of us followed. There were laughs and gaffs. There was poetry and at least two new songs written. There was Tai Chi, sort of. We heard Elizabeth O’Conner and Henri Nouwen (masterfully pronounced by the reader as “AWN-RAY”). I have to say, everything about Emergent Village was exactly as one might expect, in the best possible sense. The heart that forged the “generative friendship”, the restless gut-on-my-sleeve spirit, came through. Truth and beauty and love…over all things…love—before whom even Faith and Hope must finally bow reigned. It wasn’t exactly, as some asked, a “love fest.” Still, the words “over all things—Love,” are the most fitting I can use to speak about it.

It was clear; I think to many, that national presences will find themselves more distributed into regional and local coordinates. As we, individually, imagined our future in five years the absence of a National Directorship was apparent. The Kingdom of God, breathing and naturalized among us, was dreamed outloud (to which the Spirit and the Bride say “Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly”). Communities of restorative justice that lent themselves to transformative coalitions among groups that God is already using were birthed in the language of hope. The artist and dreamer were invited once more to cultivate their gifts and tend to the thing of beauty that is to come. Theology and Philosophy, those most subversive of all talents that Emergent has hoped to possess, were re-imagined as drawing from new and collective voices. These were the optimisms of the moment.

NOT ENOUGH..?

Some will be quick to point out that nothing actually happened. No monumental decisions were made. The heavy lifting goes unhefted still. Maybe so. But, perhaps that’s always been the frustrating intangible of emergence. Complexity Theory in science dictates the now cliché truth that a butterfly’s movement in China may cause a Hurricane in the Gulf. Cause and effect are no longer the conjoined twins we once imagined them to be. Everything is connected to everything now. Quite frankly that means we just don’t know how the hell things work any more. Oh, we have rough estimates. We write Theories and Laws. But increasingly the certitude of Newtonian physics doesn’t apply to Deep Math. Isn’t that funny? The very word “emergence” is borrowed from the science of complexity. It speaks of the way intricate systems come out of a “multiplicity of simple interactions.” In other words, the little thing that barely moved at all, that hardly seemed to even give off a shudder, just changed the world without our noticing it. How odd. Something about this reminds me of the Genesis narrative describing Spirit hovering over the waters. Motionless, save for some faint gasp and tremble—Spirit drew forth something New out of the primordial waters of Chaos and Uncertainty. Spirit is a weak force. Emergence, too, invites us to imagine a conflagration of “weak force,” inviting the New to rise up and be proclaimed as “Good, good, very good.”

WORSHIP AND DOUBT

One of the facilitators reminded us of the powerful closing scene in Matthew, where doubters stand with worshipers and witness the resurrected Christ. It is a fitting ending, then and now. There are, as others have already reminded us, lingering questions that we, the worshipers, are still left with.

• Who needs this conversation?

• Are we here to serve the Other? •

 How do we have perimeters but not Gates?

• Are we more useful together than separately?

• What is our Gift? What will we be for?

And more…

FINAL RELFECTION

There, in that space, being as present and agenda-less as I’ve ever been, I saw with feeble and searching eyes something straining to be birthed, to be visible…now, as it has ever been. I come back to Portland knowing that I’m the steward of a terrifying question, “What if…” How can we invite people, just as we were invited, to unpack the Miracle? What would be different in our lives if the Resurrection occurred in this moment, in this space? Can we bypass fears, or better yet—include them? How do we become imaginers once more (and not just managers)? I’ll be honest; I’m not content with deconstructing or deducting. I want to stand with those who are willing to draw out new growth; that will look up at the sky while the prophets of Baal dance longer and cry louder; who will call down something that consumes our lives.

Hopefully (and I mean that word with all the power it has to offer), I leave changed. Hopefully, I’m not the only one who does so. Hopefully, the next time I’m asked what it is, exactly, that I do, I have the prescience to answer, “I dream…I dream.” And that will be enough.

Bono Wants Your Soul…

Bono wants to know where your soul is this year.

I come to lowly church halls and lofty cathedrals for what purpose? I search the Scriptures to what end? To check my head? My heart? No, my soul. For me these meditations are like a plumb line dropped by a master builder — to see if the walls are straight or crooked. I check my emotional life with music, my intellectual life with writing, but religion is where I soul-search.

The preacher said, “What good does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?” Hearing this, every one of the pilgrims gathered in the room asked, “Is it me, Lord?” In America, in Europe, people are asking, “Is it us?”

Well, yes. It is us.–READ MORE HERE.

Shifting Social Structures

I remember how I used to think about systemic change, even though I probably didn’t use those words.  First, you needed a vision from which you then developed a strategy.  You then, either vaguely or concretely, outlined a time line of what you needed and when, and then you formed alliances.  People who bought into the vision were considered extensions of myself, little mirrors of my identity.  People who did not buy into the vision as outlined, quickly descended down the path of 1) The Other (not quite me…different…) 2) The Stranger (unrelatable…completely removed from my experiences…viewed with suspicion) 3) The Monster (vilified…often necessary to destroy or remove altogether). 

Underlying that kind of “strategic planning” were some basic assumptions.  Change was perceived as being top down and as requiring a level of management or control.  Change was viewed as a slow moving creature with long range implications with behavior as a mandated commodity, enforced by rewards/punishment.  Additionally, large scale changes were seen as depending on large scale efforts. 

But this really is inconsistent with how we view life at work in the world around us.  Margaret Wheatley, writer and teacher, suggests that the complex “emergent” phenomena follow a specific cycle: local action —> connection —->system.  Interestingly, within that little formula the only “controllable” aspect is the conditions for connectivity.  In other words, the thing that happens at the individual or local level is fairly free form and spontaneous.  The large scale “system” is almost unmovable or irreversible by the time it emerges.  This leaves only the middle point, connection, as within our ability to modulate or mediate.  In other words, if we are interested in “global” systemic change we ought not focus on the large system or the local network; we must focus on the place for committed connection.

I’ve been mulling these sorts of thoughts over in preparation for the Emergent Village “re-imaging” event.  How do I apply these types of thoughts to that environment?  As I’ve considered it, some of my brainstorming has included the following directive/suggestive thoughts:

1. Major on connecting:Internet, social networks, forums, conferences, etc

2.  Promote learning: resources, innovations, experiments

3.  Evolve Practice

In order to do these effectively it might become necessary to:

1. Cultivate institutional resources to develop connections

2. Bring practitioners (and curious) together more often for “think-tank” experiments (not unlike this upcoming one)

3. Seek Divergence–bring people from other idea fountains and experiences to share. Provide a space for insiders to become outsiders again…opportunity for conversion.

4.  Support local movements/cohortsthrough providing resources, ideas, on line forums, etc…but also encourage them to gather in regional connections.

In principle create an environment that supports local experiment that watches for and supports supportive dynamics and belief systems. 

All of this falls within the framework Wheately nicely establishes,   “Support diversity AND viability among practitioners”

It’s a tight rope being walked, there’s no doubt.  However, with imagination, authenticity and experiment I believe it can be done.

God, rid me of God

I’m on a journey.  Since having left the wild and wacky world of “primitive Christianity” (house church with a splash of new-monasticism and a strong sprinkling of fundamentalism) I have essentially been searching high and low for a place to hang my hat.  It is taking me across some interesting places.  Many of the posts I’ve thrown up in the last several months are themed towards this.  It isn’t exactly a worldview, but I am attempting to come to grips with both the content and implications of the places where I am.  In response to a recent comment I posted the following, and I think it’s a fitting description of where I am currently and what interests me:

The Project: Religion With/Out Religion

For the past while, I’ve been attempting to find some sort of working model for what Bonhoeffer called “religionless Christianity” and Derrida called “religion without religion”. Those seem, to me, to be very important concepts–and they resonate with me, they speak to me. Can God be the good news of the religionless without converting them to being religionFULL?  I would say, yes…and I’m trying to flesh out what that means. Part of what my war on certainty has affirmed is that almost everything requires a choice–a value decision. There really isn’t anything that is just “plain truth”, no matter how much science (or their kissing cousins fundamentalists) believe so. They are choosing the narratives that make sense to them. I believe this is Polkinghornes point from my last blog post of quotes(by the way–his charge was, i believe, more or less leveled at rationalists who come up with a utilitarian model of a clocklike universe…that lacks any sort of life, beauty, mystery, or wonder…).

The (Un)Wholly Other

I have also been meditating on the im/possiblity of God.  Or rather the impossible as God.  One way of thinking about this is that God is wholly other. In other words, we mostly fail to see God. Our intellect, our very ability to perceive God, is what is ill-equipped to witness God. Another way of thinking about this is that our imaged thoughts of God do not allow for God. This is why Meister Eckhardt cries out, “God, rid me of God!” Our concepts of God prevent us from experiencing God…often. However, God cannot be wholly other…else we would miss God altogether. There is, admittedly, an element that lies within our constructs causing an awareness. We are not totally oblivious to God.  There are aspects of the unknowable which, surprisingly, are  knowable. 

Here comes the first critical choice…on one hand you could say that the human species has evolved this collective consciousness of God…it cannot exist without having an Other to live with…This view seems to say that there is a God construct that our survival instinct depends on.  But that is a supposition, an interpretation, and hardly the only assumption to be drawn (I would also add it’s not even an assumption that bears out in our normal existence.) Far more common sense, frankly, is that the thing which we desire, and can sense (if not altogether perceive) is communicated by that which desires us (and wishes us to sense it). Just as hunger testifies to the dependence on and the existence of food, so too our own awareness to the wholy other speaks of the wholly other which is in relationship to us.   This to me, makes God, once more–loving, relational, and personal. God as being, or more than being, or less than being (I don’t know) is engaged in whispering and wooing.  Our awareness describes not constructs but communication.  I recognize that this is as a subjective choice, a value decision…but to me it paints a much more beautiful picture than the other subjective choice that opts for the other side of things.

Loving Love

Having said that, I’ve taken up the Augustinian question, that Caputo alliterates, “who do I love when I love my God?” And I’m trying to find a working articulation of what exactly I mean when I speak of God. Personally, I am coming to the Johannian (as in the epistle writer) view, that the first name of God, is love. That love, in all its forms, pure love is God. Love is something intangeble…always drawing us into action, but never quite resolving in that event…it requires more of us. God is that which we desire, but also that which desires us and pulls and propells us towards the event of love. Love in this case is so deeply intimate that to describe it impersonal, or unrelational, would be to demote it. Love requires such relating and such personhood.

If God is Love…Then Who Are We?

“If Love is the first name of God, then ‘of God’ is the name of those who love”. We’re always looking for who’s in and who’s out… To me, love, is the dividing line…always. This is why a secular person who’s life is for the other, is always a religious or God filled life. And a religious person who is only for themselves and what they consider right and wrong is not at all religious and God filled. The people of God are those who are lovers.

The (non)Spiritual Journey

The spiritual journey then is discovering that love…both in terms of our own sense of Belovedness and in terms of being a channel through which that love may flow.

So…these are the places I am coming to…I’m using, perhaps, overly vague language…and doing so because I deeply believe that the Christinese that we have so often used, no longer has place in this world. It has lost the right to speak. it has, to often, been complicit in evil for to speak of lofty good. It’s words are poison. This is the project I’m attempting to develop. I recognize that both cardinals and ordinary Christians alike may not be very happy about the direction its going. I suppose that’s the price I’ll have to pay for thinking about Christianity without Christianity.  But, I have to try…I can do no other.

Who do I love…

Augustine’s question, “who do I love when I say I love my God?” is an apt one.  It’s honest.  For all of our highly articulated dogma’s or “namings” we must acknowledge, in the end, that a question mark lingers with the person of God.  The face of God, unrevealed to Moses, is still no more revealed to us.  A hazy gauze lingers there, and a promise that one day “we will know even as we are presently known.”  In other words, the “event” of God–the experience–is still a Mystery (something known but not understood).  While we have many names for this underlying event (and it takes all of them to even begin to touch the event they house), no one of them takes the cake, so to speak.

But my point isn’t that we shouldn’t attempt to give name, or honor the particularity of names (such as Jesus).  Like the writer of the gospel of John, I think it would take all the words in the human language, and fill all the books ever written, to describe the presence of God.  No, I think part of what we must do is labor to give birth to better and higher articulations.  My feeling is that we must exhaust every available resource in the knowing of God in order to fall backwards into enjoyment; tossing our hands up and proclaiming, “this is a mystery.” 

So I search for better names and better namings. Last night I came across a simply beautiful phrasing of “the event of God.”  I was really blown away by it.  I think this most clearly articulates my current understanding of who God is and how we interact with Godself.  It’s from a book I’ve been reading called, “The Sparrow“.  This is a lovely novel. I can almost guarentee it will make my top 2009 list.  Amazing.  If you haven’t read it, please consider doing so.  Anyhow, here is the part I was drawn to, a working definition of who I love when I say “I love you my God”:

There are times…when we are in the midst of life–moments of confrontation with birth or death, or moments of beauty when nature or love is fully revealed, or moments of terrible loneliness–times when a holy and awesome awareness comes upon us.  It may come as deep inner stillness or a rush of overflowing emotion.  It may seem to come from beyond us, without any provocation, or from within us, evoked by music or a sleeping child.  If we open our hearts at such moments, creation reveals itself to us in all its unity and fullness. And when we return from such a moment of awareness, our hearts long to find some way to capture it in words forever, so that we can remain faithful to its higher truth…

…when we search for a name to give to the truth we feel at those moments, we [may] call it God, and when we capture that understanding in timeless poetry, we [may] call it praying.

Isn’t that beautiful?  I know that some will object to its universality, rather than its particularity (Russell doesn’t point to any one religion in this passage as the “name above all names” does she?).  Still, let’s not cut off our nose to spite the face.  Or in this case perhaps, let’s not cut off the face to eccentuate the nose.  The experiences and names we give God will (conceivably) be particular to our situations and context. I don’t think we have to work at bringing God down to our context, if anything we have to work at allowing God to be as big as s/he is.  As one of my friends put it, “there are thousands of types of lungs, thousands of ways to breathe in the air–still there is only one air…and I’m not sure if it cares what you call it…it still does it’s job” (my paraphrase). We do well to remember the differences and diversity–we also do well to remember the unity and BIGNESS of God. 

One final thought: if God is indeed who I imagine him to be then he will most certainly be bigger than my ability to imagine him.

God is Dead

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?–Friedrich Nietzsche

There is no Sovereign holding the “whole world in his hands.” There is no longer any kind and benevolent Maker to encourage us towards a prophetic imagination. The Prince of Peace could not survive the ravages of war and blood and dirt.  There is no one listening on the other side of our prayers. There are no answers that will come if we just wait a little longer; no yes, or no, or maybe to emerge in a few moments.  God’s provision is gone.  God’s goodness is not there.  There is no hopeful tomorrow to pine after. No messiah coming again, for he has already come and look what we have done to him.  God is dead.  God is dead. God is dead.

But we are living still.  How then shall we live on this Good Friday?  Shall we sink into less than who God created us to be? Will we, in the presence of God have become mature adults, and in the death of God shrink backwards into spiritually retarded children?  Or will commit our essence into His hands even as he has forsaken us? Must we now become what you made us to be–fully grown sons and daughters of God?

God. Thank you for dying.  Thank you for forsaking us. Thank you for keeping your part of the promise and allowing us to, at last, grow up.  Today, We celebrate your death.

The devil and a bit of truth

The devil and his friend were walking down the road when they noticed a passer by pick something up off the ground.  The friend wondered aloud as to what the person had found.  Satan replied that they had picked up a piece of Truth.  His friend was chagrin, “You can’t just let people go around finding Truth, can you?  I mean, what kind of world would this be….?” 

The devil laughed out loud and calmly reassured his friend, “Oh don’t worry, they’ll just turn it into a belief…I’ve seen this a million times before!”  Somehow Satan’s friend didn’t look convinced to which the devil addressed his final comment, “Just ask Jesus.  He’s came into the world and embodied Truth and look what happened to him…his disciples just ended up founding Christianity!”

Relieved, the friend mused, “Yeah, I guess you’re right…nothing to be worried about I suppose.”

The Impossible Now–Part Two

…There’s another kind of future, one we’re even less equipped to face….

Truthfully, the kind of event I’m envisioning can’t be prepared for. We cannot even begin to imagine or plan ahead for this kind of future—the wildcard future. It’s always out of nowhere. Nobody sees it coming. As post-structuralist philosopher Jaques Derrida said, it is the im/possible—the impossible that becomes possible by colliding with our immediate reality. The im/possible is truly unimaginable. And of course, the unimaginable happens all the time. We hear it in the sobs of the newly widowed, “I never thought anything like this could happen.” We observe it on the shocked faces of political pundits as outsider-unaccounted-for’s win primaries and then even presidential races. We feel it from time… to time…to time. In fact we encounter the im/possible so often in life that it’s a surprise that we’re surprised. Of course the examples I’ve used are basic, even bottom of the barrel; they’re somehow incredible familiar events. Truthfully, the reason why they’re familiar to us at all, why we relate to sentiment of the grieving widow or the shocked commentator is because we expect the unexpected. Culturally, we’ve built them in to our routine. Think about emergency rooms. What a strange place. It’s an institution built entirely on the premise that we will be taken off guard. Emergency rooms are a societal contingency plan. They’re an admission of our own lack of control. But even this apprehendible-unanticipatible is not the im/possible I speak of – not really. What I mean is an event outside of the built-in contingency plans; circumstances that overturn the apple cart altogether.

It’s difficult to get concrete with that term, “the im/possible.” Partially this is true because as soon as the unexplained and the unexpected enter our universe, we begin to explain and expect it. The impossible becomes…possible. That’s why I notate it with a little slash separating the word, because it is simultaneously possible and impossible.  Take a Biblical example, something outlandish – the crossing of the Red Sea for instance. In the book of Exodus, as their Egyptian taskmasters and previous owners are in hot pursuit, the children of Israel get stuck between a rock and a hard place. The armies of Egypt are behind them, and a body of seemingly un-crossable water is ahead. What happens next is remarkable. The im/possible occurs. There’s a divine intervention. The wave’s part and dry land appears. The ex-slaves pass through the clearing just in time and the story ends with pursuant horse and rider being swept away by the collapsing wall of water. Miraculous. My point isn’t the “fact” of the event; whether it happened that way or not. Actually my point is the absurdity of it all. These things don’t happen every day. It couldn’t have been expected or anticipated. And while the cries of the desperate would have certainly bordered on polite requests for rescue, no one could have imagined that the Sea itself would have been parted. Within the context of story itself it is a brilliant example of the impossible intersecting reality. What’s more is that the event is not only unexpected but is also unexplainable, at least within the text. The author of Exodus doesn’t attempt to give detailed scientific or historical precedent for the event but allows it to remain teetering on the edge of chaotic disturbance.

Several years ago the History Channel aired a series called “Mysteries of The Bible.” It featured various scholars, historians, archeologists and other experts in the field, each of whom took their best shot at rationalizing a handful of biblical stories such as the one above. I’ll never forget the slough of explanations for the crossing of the Red Sea. There were several of them. One focused on wind power and hurricane strength to clear water, rather instantaneously, from sea floors. Another proposed a case of mistaken identities; the body of water mentioned in the book of Exodus couldn’t have rationally been such a huge expanse as the Red Sea we know of, so it must have been a smaller one, such as the Sea of Reeds. The Sea of Reeds, being rather shallow, could have conceivably dried, in due season, in one place or another, allowing for a mass exodus such as the one described in the Bible. On and on the explaining went, until any logical person watching the show would have been sufficiently convinced that the real crossing of the Red Sea was slightly (or vastly) different than presented in the Biblical rendition, but was therefore entirely possible, conceivable, and explainable. In other words, the im/possible just became possible. As soon as the unimaginable future enters into our reality we immediately reconstruct our thinking to account for it. We rationalize how we could have been prepared (had we only thought far enough ahead or enough outside the box). As this happens an event ceases to be impossible and starts to acclimate into our version of reality. Experts figure out the science behind the magic. Historians matriculate the timeline of crucial events. Theologians and philosophers craft carefully articulated statements of description and prescription. Going back to a previous example, we build Emergency Rooms.

Content with content?

Content ain’t king any more… a Time article points out.  I’ve heard that axiom in countless applications.  It gets applied to website design, TV, news, church, spirituality, etc…  But it seems to be shifting.   While the Time article doesn’t get any further than investment priorities among affluent businesses, it may be the sign of a coming tsunami of change.

As people move further and further away from preset or well defined meanings in their life, there is the need to “diversify” into surface investments. Consider the cell phone and instant messaging. Gone are the days of the “personal chat” on phone, or the cup of tea face to face.   Texting is the dominant form of communication between those aged 9-24.  It’s appeal is massive.  This has led many people to speculate if “authentic” relationship is at a stand still. WRONG!!!  It’s only shifting in form.  If anything the last 40 years of relative isolationism and exestential anxiety are crumbling in front of the medium of texting, which makes it possible to relate and communicate quickly and with a vast extended network of “friends”.  If anything community is now being dished out in sample sized servings exponentially.  But it’s a different kind of community. It’s blippy. It’s hit and run. It’s guerrilla. It’s not cumbersome. It’s about outliers and the expanding fringe…less about the content heavy center. 

Spiritual leaders ought to take notice…people’s desire for authentic community will never have been greater than in the next 5-25 years; although their inability to endure the ups and downs of community will be equally great. They will also have never been as intolerant of anything over 5 minute monologues. Don’t even try to preach a sermon. No one will sit through it.

Truth be told…3/4 of my readers probably stopped reading after the first paragraph…the times are a changin…

Art.

Sorry for the proliferation of quotes…but I think each of them is inspiring and gives great insight.

Why indeed must ‘God’ be a noun? Why not a verb…the most active and dynamic of all? …It is the creative potential itself in human beings that is the image of God…” –Mary Daly (theologian)

“We must accept that this creative impulse within us is God’s creative pulse itself.” Joseph Chilton Pearce

“God must become an activity in our consciousness” Joel Goldsmith

“Why should we all use our creative power….? Because there is nothing that makes people so generous, joyful, lively, bold and compassionate, so indifferent to fighting and the accumulation of objects and money.” Brenda Ueland

“The purpose of art is not a rarified, intellectual distillate–it is Life, intensified brilliant Life.” Alain Arias-Misson

“It is the task of art to undo the work of our vanity, our passions, our spirit of imitation, our abstract intelligence, our habits…making us travel back in the direction from which we have come to the depths where what has really existed lies unknown within us…” Marcel Proust

I find myself in a reconstructive phase where I am re-imaging, along with others, what a collective of people engaged with God, each other, and the world around them could look like.  In many ways this is, as my friend Ryan observed, a very personal activity of “leaving behind an artifact”–a commemoration of the journey I’m on. 

Church is a hard word for me. Mainly because I’ve been actively engaged in comparing the Worst of what it has been and has become with the Best of other faith traditions or my own idealism. Still, it becomes easier for me to use this word when I talk about it using metaphores.  Church as…well, for one, (and owing a stiff tip of the hat to Troy Bronsink for the specific articulation of this metaphor)…art. 

That’s right…you heard me…Church as Art.

I believe that this is actually the most important and basic foundational piece of moving forward with people trying to live in the way of Jesus.

First…allow me to define Art.

Anthropologists define art as “the creative use of imagination to interpret, express, and engage life, modifying experienced reality in the process.”

To put it in my words, art is approaching life with a degree of authenticity, imagination, and experiment.  In this process, one often births artifacts–visible and tangible reminders of the places we have been and the beliefs we have held. 

Art isn’t limited to paintings, sculpture, drawing, music, etc… (though it certainly does include those). Actually art is simply creativity expressed. 

Why is this important?

Believe it or not we do not see the world as it is, but actually as we believe it to be. We are constantly engaged in interpret ting our environment through a complicated series of images and the framing stories that we tell ourselves.  When our ability to engage those with imagination is damaged we begin to interpret the world in harmful and unproductive ways. 

Culturally, few of us are immune to the lack of creativity that dominates Western culture for the last 250 years.  Left brain logistics are taught, reinforced, and invisibly upheld as the dominant way of viewing the world. Newtonian science has instructed us to see the universe as a great clock-like machine–Enlightenment inspired creatonism has maintained a view of God, actually not as creator, but as machinist or cosmic tinker. The professions that were most desirable in the last two centuries have been ones that processed accounts, calculated numbers, memorized tombs of law, and treated patients with cold impersonalities.  This sort of rigid thinking has led to the most atrocious wars known to man, the most destructive weapons capable of being used, and a general lack of wonder, mystery, and awe towards the universe.  Without imagination, fear NOT hope takes over. We become territorial, isolated, and repressed.

The solutions we are often offered for our world problems are as calculating and cold as the last, failed, set. In fact, some have commented that the central aspect of Western culture today is the failure to create anything new–caught in a holding pattern where regurgitation is the only option. For something to change…well…something’s gotta change.

And something IS changing:

Until recently, the abilities that led to success in school, work, and business were characteristic of the left hemisphere. They were the sorts of linear, logical, analytical talents measured by SATs and deployed by CPAs. Today, those capabilities are still necessary. But they’re no longer sufficient. In a world upended by outsourcing, deluged with data, and choked with choices, the abilities that matter most are now closer in spirit to the specialties of the right hemisphere – artistry, empathy, seeing the big picture, and pursuing the transcendent”

Imaginers NOT Managers

“The spiritual life of the West, which is impoverished and depressed could be seen as a failure to engage with imagination”. The Bible is approached boringly, with absolute literalism.  Church boards or elder councils are filled, not with artists and imaginers but with managers and pragmatists.  On and on it goes…while the spiritual life of the West starves; not for lack of truth but for lack imagination on how to engage and express it.

Simply put, if religion (in the best sense) hopes to address the needs of the world today, hopes to relate to God in anything but rote isolation, hopes to experience lasting renewal it must reactivate it’s view of God as Artist(literally Creator), of spiritual community as Art (literally the product of imagination, experiment and authenticity), and individuals as artists (those who labor to conceive and birth visible expressions of hope and love.)

Was Jesus Creative?

Some people will challenge spiritual community, or church, as Art purely on the basis that they fail to see Jesus as a cultural creative.  I think this may be short sighted. It may also stem from a literalist and unimaginative reading of the ancient texts.  Consider that in the earliest communities of Christians thought it was important to remember 34 miracles and not one of them was a repeat of the one before. Consider that Jesus’ profession might accurately be called “story teller” because of his preferred mode of communication. Consider that a number of times he compelled his students to think creatively about how they would approach his world.  Consider that one of his apprentices would later remember Jesus’ ministry not as miraculous but instead filled with artwork…pictures…symbols…literally SIGNS. 

I would suggest that viewing Jesus as an artist and provocateur may be one of the most important shifts in transitioning from a shame based reading of Christianity to one of hope and joy.

Unblocking

This will require some unblocking.  Most of us mistrust our creative sensibilities.  Imagination is culturally another word for “fake” or “not real”.  And so many have been conditioned to think critically not creatively that their inner critic is a giant compared to the grasshopper of their imagination.  In order to approach the deep issues facing the world currently, in order to live and participate in community and indeed perhaps even in order to approach God in a journey of transformation, we may need to simply learn how to approach a blank page or a canvas or a lump of clay.  The liberation of one faculty of creativity allows for release in other areas also. 

So…let’s be creative…let’s explore and discover and then express those monumental and mundane artifacts that are generated.  Let’s celebrate. And most of all, let’s learn to re-engage the God, each other, and our selves with experiment, authenticity, and imagination…as art.

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