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The current installment of the COEC began meeting in 2007.

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5.18.2008

Field Conditions

Postmodernism is so 1985.

Or so Architecture Theorists would have you believe. The philosophical underpinnings and theoretical discourse that exists behind much of what is built is mind-bendingly esoteric and elitist at worst. It can, however, be potentially insightful when extracted from the jargon and reapplied for us mere mortals to absorb. I find that like any other system of theory (music, art, information etc.) architectural theorists are reflecting the zeitgeist of the day through a specific lens, but that the system of thinking can be much broader. The other nice thing about buildings is that you can see them and read them as three dimensional expressions of the ideas that float.

My current floating idea is that the emergent conversation is often inaccurately labeled as postmodern. In architectural discourse, where the term actually originated, postmodernism theory is considered a period of thinking a certain way that started and has since stopped (around 1995), though it's reverberations are still felt. The resulting deconstruction had it's place, and it brought us to where we are now: the field condition.

Take this example:

Peter Eisenman was the architect at the Wexner Center of the Arts at the Ohio State University. This is a prime sample of deconstructionist project that we know well, but the ideas were formed much earlier. In fact, Eisenman was architecturally deconstructing modernism while most of us were still in diapers. From his 1984 article, The End of the Classical, he breaks down the misplaced idea that things were better back then (whenever that may be), a line of emergent thought that sometimes surfaces:

An origin of value implies a state or a condition of origin before value has been given to it. A beginning is such a condition prior to a valued origin. In order to reconstruct the timeless, the state of as is, of face value, one must begin: begin by eliminating the time-bound concepts of the classical, which are primarily origin and end. The end of the beginning is also the end of the beginning of value. But it is not possible to go back to the earlier, prehistoric state of grace, the Eden of timelessness before origins and ends were valued. We must begin in the present without necessarily giving a value to presentness. The attempt to reconstruct the timeless today must be a fiction which recognizes the Fictionality of its own task-that is, it should not attempt to simulate a timeless reality.

The argument I forward is that it is not the process or task of the emergent church to deconstruct modernity or the church in any way. Deconstruction is less an active process that is applied and more of an end condition of an old way of thinking. A more accurate word would be decay because it originates from with in. These ways of thinking deconstruct themselves. As emergent thinkers and conversationalists, I believe that we are simply aware of this collapsing narrative and are trying to navigate the resulting environment wisely.

This condition could be considered a field. Turning to another Architectural Theorist, Stan Allen writes in his essay From Object to Field. (An example of this Field condition is Allen's own proposal for Downsview Park)

In the late 1980s, artificial life theorist Craig Reynolds created a computer program to simulate the flocking behaviour of birds. As described by Mitchel Waldrop in Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos, Reynolds placed a large number of autonomous, birdlike agents, which he called 'boids', into an on-screen environment. The boids were programmed to follow three simple rules of behaviour: first, to maintain a minimum distance from other objects in the environment (other boids, as well as obstacles); second, to match velocities with other boids in the neighbourhood; third, to move toward the perceived centre of mass of boids in its neighbourhood. As Waldrop notes: What is striking about these rules is that none of them said "Form a flock" ... the rules were entirely local, referring only to what an individual boid could do and see in its own vicinity. If a flock was going to form at all, it would have to do from the bottom up, as an emergent phenomenon. And yet flocks did form, every time."

The flock is clearly a field phenomenon, defined by precise and simple local conditions, and relatively indifferent to overall form and extent. Because the rules are defined locally, obstructions are not catastrophic to the whole. Variations and obstacles in the environment are accommodated by fluid adjustment. A small flock and a large flock display fundamentally the same structure. Over many iterations, patterns emerge. Without repeating exactly, flock behaviour tends toward roughly similar configurations, not as a fixed type, but as the cumulative result of localised behaviour patterns.


So to are we caught in a field phenomenon. We follow simple rules laid out in the Bible: gather, eat, worship, pray. From the outside it might look like some sort of organisation, like a coordinated flock of birds, but that's simply inaccurate. Just like there's nothing saying "Flock!" there's nothing saying "Church!" To an outsider, people living this way become threatening because it looks like a church forming. It's not. From within, there's no such thing as an Emerging Church any more than a bird has any concept of a flock.

(Random side note: I wonder why small groups are called "Flock groups". Flocks cannot be signed up for and then attended every other Thursday. Flocks emerge.)

The elements of modernity occupy this field: the Bible, Worship, Liturgy. But the field is flat and we acknowledge the existence of other systems like Buddhism, Science, Orthodoxy, mysticism and more. This is a dangerous landscape full of truths, half truths and no truths. Of course it would be simpler to imagine that we exist inside a safe sanctuary (pun intended) above this expanse. I for one can't cling to that delusion any longer.

I believe that God ordaining our steps is a promise to release us into this field certain that He is our guide. Postmodernity happened. The deconstruction is over. We are left to navigate the resultant field, but are not left alone. The Spirit is living and active, a comforter and helper. I think our churches can still be part of this new landscape. I don't think the emerging conversation is to coalesce into one single body. We're already part of The Body and that's where our membership rests.

I see Christians constantly moving across the field, not in pursuit of a higher ground to look down on the uninformed or to smash someone's Greek interpretation with my own, but simply walking in peaceful motion with God. The field is only scary if our God is not all powerful, all loving, and all knowing. He created it all and it is all subject to him. No idea, value system, or ideology can threaten our peace if He is who He says He is. I may have moments of doubt and uncertainty, but that is only when I forget about or ignore His sovereignty. I believe He is in all of these things and more and I am not afraid to venture into this new landscape: this field condition.

What emerges is not a new form of thought, a new kind of church, a superior way of thinking, but rather the emergence is our awareness and recognition of God and Christ as author, the architect, our savior. This becomes collectively part of our every breath. Not recognizing this reality doesn't diminish His power, it only diminishes our incorporating its truth into our life. This happens best in community, through the living out of these simple actions: gather, eat, worship, pray. This is emergence, unplanned, unstructured, un-outlined, and mysterious. We humbly acknowledge His incarnate Body now, the promise of His kingdom come, and pray His will be done in us and through us. Amen and amen.

4 comments:

:::: Travis Keller :::: said...

I really like the concept of "flocks."

A couple notes from my reading and interaction with Walter Brueggemann:

W.B. noted when speaking here at MVNU that animals understand community much more than humans (though we are animals, too). they naturally exist in community (or "flocks") and we have to "try to create it."

Deconstruction:
A Brueggemannian concept is to "criticize the currect consciousness so long as we are energizing toward an alternative consciousness."

JaaJoe said...

Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck just released a great book on the growing Emergent Christian movement and what a load it truly is. Why We're Not Emergent. It is a must read.

Jane Johnson said...

This is a really neat idea! One thing I especially like about the concept is that it reinforces the idea that God has put together our human bodies in such a way that we can do things, even profound things, without being conscious of it. In the boids program the flocking always occurred as individuals in the field their "own" decisions, instead of a few of the boids getting together in a corner of the screen and deciding that a group should be formed with X purpose underscoring it. I see the same sort of phenomenon at the dog park: as I see it my dog Mason doesn't consciously force himself to join the pack and be social, he just starts making decisions about what he wants to do, instinctually. The other dogs do the same, and gradually more and more dogs come and meanwhile some leave, and before you know it there are 20 dogs galloping across the grass in a joyous pack. We owners hardly have to do a thing. God has clearly built earthly dogs with an amazing sense of the social, without making them robots. I see a lot of parallels between the pack at the dog park and our cohort. Obviously human group dynamics are embarassingly complex, largely due to this little sin problem that we can't seem to get over... This is where we must lean on the Holy Spirit as we are "instinctually" making decisions that contribute to the larger group's dynamics. I think this concept also speaks to "letting things just happen" and living in that tension of coming into something yet unknown, a theme that we've all been mulling over in the cohort lately.

Just a note to end: I do think that postmodern thought is still extremely useful in historical study, especially when one is looking at primary source materials written in the past. Deconstructing texts and ideas from the past is still a really useful scholarly tool, because the importance of knowing the motivations and hidden goals of an author is still pretty important in scholarship, at least as far as I can tell. This might extend into reading spiritual texts as well - does anyone have thoughts about that?

Greg said...

Great first line Andrew.

Thanks for giving us an architect's perspective with regard to postmodernism and its (ir)relevance to the emergent conversation. Making connections to the more current concept of the field condition is fascinating!

I was a little intimidated by the boids. :) Seeing the program might make it clearer. What did become clearer, however, was the use of the word emergent as it relates to a bottom-up hierarchy. In this use, "emergent" applies so perfectly to what is going on in the Church as it relates to structure and leadership. Would you go as far as to say, Andrew, that the Church, as originally intended, was always supposed to be a field condition phenomenon, and that we are only now putting it into language? And that modernism came along and introduced small groups every other Thursday, etc?

Reading your words that "The deconstruction is over," reminded me of a book I read a few months ago by John Caputo entitled "What Would Jesus Deconstruct?" I think he would agree in some ways that, yes, the deconstruction is over, because in his view Jesus was the ultimate deconstructor as it were.

Thanks Travis for bringing Brueggemann into the conversation. Perhaps before the fall, community arose more instinctively for the human condition. What would you say, for Brueggemann, represents an "alternative consciousness" towards which we are energizing as the EC?

jaajoe, thanks for referencing "Why We're Not Emergent." Some of us have in fact read it and enjoyed it as well. What would you say are its highlights?

Jane, I agree with you that in the area of scholarly research, the tools of deconstructive analysis have obviously brought much to the table and will not likely be leaving anytime soon. And, I think those same tools can aid us in learning more about spiritual texts. Incidentally, how cool is it that Andrew, an architect, and you, a music historian, and all of us in the EC conversation are uniquely connected by the effects of postmodernism. I wonder if there are any fields left that have not been impacted by it in someway?

"I see a lot of parallels between the pack at the dog park and our cohort." :) I love it.