My son has a children’s book I used to read to him. It is an old African folktale called The Story of the Three Kingdoms. The three kingdoms are the air, the water, and the land, and each was ruled over by a particular animal: the hawk, the shark, and the elephant, respectively. These rulers were harsh tyrants who lorded their power over other animals, including the emerging new group of beings, called “the people.” In order to tame these powers and open up a safe place for their own life, the people developed a strategy. They would gather around the campfire each night and share their experiences, “warming them over” in conversation, until an innovative and imaginative solution was found. Then, one by one, the people were able to subdue and negotiate with these rulers. But the key is that the people found creative responses and approaches by bringing their disparate stories together in conversation around the fire.
This could be called an “open source” approach to problem-solving. I think that in this approach we are seeing the future of authority in the church.
We see an open-source method as well in Ernesto Cardenal’s classic account of liberation theology in practice: The Gospel in Solentiname. In this book, Cardenal recounts the weekly Bible studies he held with the local Nicaraguan campesinos. They would read a chapter of the gospels and then discuss it around the circle, “warming it over” in conversation. Each person brought her or his life-experience and knowledge to the discussion. They bowed to no learned commentaries and relied upon no theological “experts.” There was no sense of an authorized or official interpretation which was handed down for the people to swallow.
The open-source idea is a prominent one in information technology. A “wiki” is an oen-source internet website, which means that it allows contributions from just about anyone. Sometimes they have a system for editing and organizing the information, but mostly a wiki is supposed to be self-correcting. The most well-known example of a wiki, of course, is Wikipedia.com.
Wikipedia is an open source, on-line encyclopedia. The entries are written and corrected, sometimes very frequently and passionately, by anyone who cares to make a submission. And I mean anyone. They don’t have to have any reliable knowledge about the subject at all. They could just be making stuff up. But it still appears on Wikipedia, at least until someone submits something different.
It is the community, warming this disparate date over in conversation, weighing and evaluating all the options, perspectives, and information, that then decides what is reliable and what courses of action would be most beneficial.
In the Modern Age and throughout the whole regime of Christendom — roughly the 4th through the 20th centuries — authority in the church was mostly imposed from above. A common framework of belief was felt necessary to unite the Empire. Therefore, a single interpretive model was directed, which was basically people getting the “correct” information from a single teacher. Ultimately, in the West at least, the single teacher was the Pope. Even after the Reformation, when the source of authority shifted (for Protestants) from the hierarchy to the Scriptures, the church still maintained strict and explicit parameters for interpretation. Authority still came “down” from ecclesiastical or academic authorities. Mainline Protestant churches developed authoritative confessional documents and required subscription to them as a way to regulate the interpretation of Scripture. These interpretations had the desired effect of providing for social unity and propping up the economic and political order.
Phyllis Tickle has pointed out how we now face one of history’s periodic crises of authority. The authority of traditional ecclesiastical interpretation of Scripture is being challenged. For one thing, the system stopped making sense to people. It was not matching their actual experience of life.
Like any scientific revolution, anomalous data began to accumulate which increasingly questioned the validity of the traditional doctrines and interpretations. Tickle uses slavery and women as two examples where people realized that the traditional authoritative line was simply wrong. This happened with other issues as well. The authorities has assured us that all other religions were forms of devil worship or primitive superstition. But now that the adherents of other religions no longer live on the other side of the planet where they could be caricatured, stereotyped, and demonized, this view is harder to maintain; now these people are our neighbors. The authorities also insisted that our culture was the height of human progress and enlightenment. But we discover that horrible atrocities have been committed in our name and with our support and approval. We discover that our culture is no less corrupt, violent, unjust, oppressive, exploitative, and venal than most others, and worse than many. As our confidence, triumphalism, and certitude wane in the face of obvious and clear facts, our faith in our established authorities also crumbles.
Not only that, but when Christians started to read the Bible without the blinders of established doctrinal authority, many began to realize it doesn’t necessarily say what we were always told it said. Not only is the Bible not a document written to undergird the Powers-That-Be in society, it is actually a wall-to-wall anti-imperialist tract in which the emperors, from Pharaoh to Caesar, are the villains, and the heros are mostly slaves, migrants, refugees, exiles, ecstatic prophets, fishers, and campesinos. Rich people and kings are usually viewed with great suspicion; the Messiah is born, not in a palace, but in a barn, the son of a poor carpenter; and he is executed by the authorities for blasphemy and sedition. There is probably no more revolutionary, subversive, anti-establishment work in all of ancient literature than the Judeo-Christian Scriptures.
The old authority has been deflated. The new and emerging authority shows signs of being “open-source.” This is what Walter Brueggemann is getting at when he talks about a “dialogical” approach to Scripture study. He perceives a decreasing need to identify one authoritative and consistent set of answers in the Bible. Rather, we are learning to live and learn from the tension and ambiguity that presents itself all over the text. We feel the need to bring the divergent views within Scripture into dialogue, as opposed to choosing winning and losing texts. It may be that a community will come down here or there, but it will be with considerably less certitude and arrogance.
This way of operating is already advocated by many in the emerging church. The need to have everything wrapped up in neat, catechetical categories is diminishing. We are seeing more openness to other, previously ignored or marginalized, voices in Scripture and in the church. The conversation may even embrace previously excluded or condemned perspectives. For instance, we have to realize that the Bible includes explicitly universalistic passages which balance those better known parts that make more exclusive claims.
Some are already worrying that an open-source or wiki approach means that “everything is up for grabs” all the time, as if truth is completely relative and dependent on whomever has the loudest voice. It does depend on the sense and intelligence of the participants and their commitment to the community and to the search. Different views would have to be weighed and evaluated around the circle of the participants. The respective “agendas” of people would have to be exposed and critically examined as well. In the end, the fruit is a result of a common conversation and dialogue in which the best wisdom available to the whole group is taken into account. It may be that the findings of this group would be offered to the conversation in an even larger and more inclusive group, revealing a more embracing insight, and so forth.
The “open-source” approach happens to reflect the situation of the early church, when the faith was in considerable creative flux, before it was doctrinally nailed down. It also may relate to the way Judaism, without the burden of having to provide a consistent ideological foundation for a secular Empire, has always addressed the Scriptures and tradition.