Friday, March 19, 2010

Wiki Theology

The Los Angeles Times carried a story earlier this week about a conference recently sponsored and hosted by the Claremont School of Theology, the title of which was “Theology After Google.” Here’s the money quote:

Jon Irvine, a 30-year-old Web designer who works with the "emerging church" movement, said the church of the future will have to be less hierarchical and more freewheeling and ecumenical. Using the familiar formula for tracking software changes, he said: "Church 1.0 . . . was always about a big council of big brains getting together and telling you, 'Here, we've gone into a room and we've decreed that you need to believe.' Church 2.0 is more bottom-up. Every man is capable of learning and providing feedback. Church 1.0 is all about creeds and doctrines, whereas Church 2.0 is kind of like a wiki-theology."

Wiki, of course, is a dynamic concept that represents both the best and the worst of how the internet has revolutionized the exchange of information inside of 15 years. If you’re reading this blog, chances are you’re familiar with Wikipedia, an online reference that is constantly being edited and updated by anyone who believes they have the knowledge to improve any given entry. No permission is necessary and there is no formal oversight. Most of the time, this results in factual and reliable articles. Where the subject is one of current controversy, there is usually an editing tug-of-war. The idea is that, while this will lead to anomalies and imperfections, sometimes of a gross magnitude, over time the forces of the intellectual and academic marketplace will prevail, and the rough places will be made plain.

Mr Irvine’s contention is that, in the church-that-is-emerging, theology will be done in the same way. Rather than creeds or councils (or synods or conventions) or hierarchical authorities deciding the content of doctrine or teaching, theology will emerge from the ground up, fine-tuned by a rich dialectical process the authenticity of which is attested by the sheer number of participants. Without anything so formal as votes by orders (orders?) or concurrent resolutions, everybody will have a piece of the action—at any rate, those with a broadband internet connection.

I’m in a frame of mind where I’m still trying to discern the vector and speed of the puck, so this whole notion catches my attention. And, somewhat ironically, perhaps, wiki-theology seems strangely consonant with a very traditional and very Catholic concept—the consensus fidelium, the consensus of the faithful. Even in the most hierarchically ordered churches, the voice of the hierarchy is understood to be ultimately credible inasmuch as it is also the voice of the entire ecclesial community. A decree of the magisterium, or of an ecumenical council, is formally final, but effectively is concluded with an asterisk: It must still be “received” (a technical term in ecclesiology) by the “faithful” (another technical term pretty much synonymous with “baptized,” therefore denoting the whole body of the Church, not merely those whose piety is exemplary). Moreover, this process of reception is not only horizontal across space but vertical across time; it takes more than one generation to be deemed complete.

Will the latest technology for information sharing be a major factor in any process leading to an expression of the consensus fidelium? Of course it will. Philip Clayton, the principal presenter at the Claremont event, stressed how Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type made the Protestant Reformation not only possible, but, some might say, inevitable. He then suggests that the latest sea change in information sharing technology—i.e. the internet—is bound to have an impact just as cataclysmic. It will bring about “Church 2.0.” (I would say those who use that expression have missed a couple of product upgrades: I would place the release of Church 2.0 in wake of the Edict of Constantine in the early fourth century and Church 3.0 with Luther and his 95 Theses in 1517. [What about the Great Schism of 1054? 2.5, I would say.] So what we’re looking at now is probably something more like Church 4.0. But I quibble.)

But is a technologically more efficient process for achieving and articulating the consensus fidelium tantamount to wiki-theology? Does it obviate the need for (or at least the relevance of) creeds and councils? Does it make ordination obsolete, as one of the Claremont conference attendees suggested? ("’I think things like denomination and ordination are part of the old system of control and domination that has to go,’ [Doug] Pagitt, 42, said…”)

Arguably not, and here’s why: It’s nothing new. I’m not opposed to trend spotting. Remember, I aim to get ahead of the curve on that. But I wonder whether the ecclesial populism espoused by Mr Pagitt is really a sign of a technological tectonic shift as much as it is of the old-fashioned free church evangelicalism in whose water he swims, whether he knows it or not. If you’re already predisposed against hierarchical structures and church order, it’s pretty easy to think that your position is the wave of the future. Is wiki-theology substantively different than the every-man-his-own-pope paradigm in which I was formed as a youth, or does it merely accomplish the same ends more efficiently, and, presumably, with demonstrably more buy-in? I am inclined to think that it’s the latter.

In my musing of last week (linked above) about figurative hockey pucks, I noted the challenging work of discerning the difference between the genuine pearls of our tradition and time bound customs that need to be changed out before their freshness date expires. What is so precious that we must insist on establishing it among those who are joined to our fellowship, and what do we need to be careful not to force on others, even if we are ourselves quite attached to it? I’m a hymn geek, and there are a number of hymns that I find quite lovely, but which are clearly in the latter category. On this Mr Pagitt and I would probably agree. But he and I would part company as soon as we get beyond the first point of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral. The creeds, the dominical sacraments, and the inheritance of apostolic ministry have already been vetted thoroughly and have settled positions in the consensus fidelium. They are no longer in a process of reception; they have been received. Editing is closed.

Just as Wikipedia can go bad at times, wiki-theology can also go bad. America (and any society where the secular politics are democratic) is a particularly risky environment for wiki-theology. It is distressingly easy for us to transfer our experience of and commitment to democracy in the secular arena to our life in the church, which is not inherently democratic even if some parts of it choose to employ democratic processes in discernment and decision making. It is easy to forget the given-ness of so much of our faith and practice, and entertain the illusion that we can make things up as we go along, decide doctrine by plebiscite, edit the creeds the same way we would edit a Wikipedia article.

If that’s where the puck is going, this isn’t hockey anymore.


brisson5800 said...

I think this was already happening before the internet got here. Perhaps that's why we have Christianity in so many flavors (not all of them very tasty).

But I'm glad editing wars on Wikipedia have taken the place of inquisitions and mutual anathemas.

Philip said...

Father Dan, I agree that there are dangers in the notion of a wiki theology. But you are right to link it to the traditional Catholic notion of a consensus of the faithful. Christianity must always look back to and honor its Founder. At the same time, the Church in the Spirit is responsive to changes that affect the people of God. Let's support the way that the faithful are wrestling to find ways to express the faith in ways that are relevant to contemporary men and women.

-- Philip Clayton

Jose said...

Jose from India
Fr Dan, Your analysis of the theology after google is brilliant. You brought out the interesting connection to consensus of the faithful. Creeds, doctrines, rituals are all beliefs and practices with consensus of the believers. They are true and valid at all times and places; yet the formula of the creed is one thing and its meaning another. Meaning and implication is subject to interpretation and fresh understanding.
There is a definite connection between Gutenberg and Luther, so also between Gutenberg and catholic academic theology. Likewise, the new internet and webculture has serious implications for theologizing - the wiki-theology is not the solution of the shape of theology to come - but it is true that we need an inculturation of theology in the mediated culture.