Open Source Theology: Is That Even a Thing?
The church that embraces these concepts will likely look very different from anything you’ve encountered before.
Theologians try to say things about God, but everything we say is secondary. God is the subject of God’s own existence. We can’t ever speak “directly” about God, only from our experience of God. So humility is not something theologians take up as a virtue—it is something required of us if we are to be at all honest about our work. This is important to remember when we consider how we hold and believe doctrine, and creeds.
—On Missing God, by Danielle Shroyer
Over the past number of months, I’ve been giving a lot of the thought to the conceptual challenge of envisioning what an “open source” church might look like, and by extension, how open source theology could be a part of it.
Let me explain: in the world of software development, there are two primary models of managing and producing a software product: closed source (aka proprietary) and open source. Closed source software is made up of code that can only be read and written by a select few programmers that are part of the software company or otherwise granted access. The program can be executed by regular users, but they are technically and legally barred from modifying any of the underlying source code.
Looking back at the history of Christianity, there was a time when the Bible was in fact inaccessible to the masses, and only a select few clergymen were granted the abilty to read and comment on the Word. We might call this “closed source theology.”
But the other software development model, open source, works very differently. In that paradigm, any person can access the program’s original source code, and they are free to modify the code as they wish and (optionally) share those modifications back with the software community. It’s a deeply collaborative model that usually features a more equalized hierarchy, due to the fact that no single person or organization “owns” the source code.
To a certan degree, the Reformation movement in Christian history was a step towards an “open source” view of theology, as now the Bible was put in the hands of the comman man or woman, and people were able to read and even offer commentary on the Word without the requirements of strict religious credentials.
Unfortunately, the Reformation generally failed to end unhealthy patterns of hierarchy and exclusivity among the clergy, and churches continued to stay arrested by a minister-controlled religious sytem that lives on even to this day.
So what would a real “open source theology” look like? How can we gather together as followers of Jesus and be unified and strong in the faith, yet gladly slough off the binding restrictions with which centuries of doctrine and dogma have obliged us?
What Happens When We Open Up?
In an open source church, you will find a number of characteristics that look very different from what you might expect in a “normal” aka traditional church.
Genuine equality is embraced. Male or female, black or white, old or young…those attributes simply fall away and all contributions are welcomed and discussed fairly.
Questions are accepted. Far from feeling threatened by the different points of view, questions, doubts, and debates put forth by various members of the commuity, the open source church thrives on them, as they are the essence of learning, authenticity, innovation, and progress.
Opportunities abound. Rather than rely on a small number of “gifted” and “trained” ministry leaders to figure out what to do and how to do it, service is determined and assigned based on whoever desires to participate. The innate abilities, talents, and passions of the many community members regularly shape the nature and direction of the church’s activities.
God isn’t placed in a box or on a pedestal. When you accept the idea that our very understanding and awareness of God is constantly changing and morphing as we go through the many seasons of life with their myriad of experiences and variety of people and places, it fosters a healthy humility and awe of the beautiful mystery of Divinity. As the quote at the top of this essay declares, only God has the definitive word on God, and all we can say or perceive is merely a distant echo of God’s eternal Truth. Therefore, while we might arrive at a heartfelt conviction of right or wrong, good or evil, and attribute those convictions to God’s will for our lives, we must always be ready to accept that…gasp!…we could be wrong.
Mutual respect is the key to everything. In open source software, the relationships formed within the developer community-at-large are super important, because in many cases, everyone is a volunteer. Things don’t just happen because CEO Bob says so or VP of Marketing Jane declares that X, Y, and Z must be done. Things move forward due to the principles of compromise, concensus, and careful discussion of the tasks at hand throughout the larger group. Sometimes this may seem to be a slow and chaotic process. And yet…who can deny the amazing things that open source software has brought to the world? (One of its chief inventions being many of the components of the Internet and the Web we take for granted today!)
The World Needs Us to Be Open
I firmly believe that a closed source mindset within Christianity will harken its rapid demise. The rise of the “Nones” and the “Dones” are a real phenomenon in America, and we’ve got to wake up and realize that a vibrant, colorful, and community-driven faith will be far more effective (and ultimately rewarding) than a fossilized, stagnant set of presuppositions and practices which is what many churches have become today.
I can’t say I have the full picture figured out of what an open source theology will look like when this new kind of church gathering emerges. In my quest to uncover “organic church” in its many guises and forms, I’ve been privy to glimpses of this new way of thinking, and it excites me. I hope to learn more, and share more, about this subject as the days roll by. Will you take a trip down the rabbit hole with me?