Michael Polanyi, the Hungarian born philosopher of science, shapes the way I think about both science and theology. His description of the scientific community as a “society of explorers” points toward the way in which scientists advance knowledge by interacting as members of a community defined by common interests, values and methods as well as by a process of ongoing mutual critique. It is an especially rich metaphor that the church would do well to apply to itself.
The genius of science, he suggests, lies in the fact that while each individual scientist is free to develop her own theories and experiments, the community as a whole discerns which new ideas generated by those efforts reveal deeper understanding and which represent dead ends. A whole multitude of conversations between scientists – primarily at conferences and in professional publications – are the means through which the community assesses an individual scientist’s work and discerns whether that work provides a new way forward. It’s a very organic way of thinking about how new ideas become disseminated throughout the community.
He also notes that insights can come from newly minted scientists as well as from seasoned practitioners. Insight, it turns out, is non-hierarchal and democratically distributed. Breakthrough ideas arise from all corners of the scientific community and are, in fact, more likely to bubble up from below than to cascade down from above.
Polanyi sees these mechanisms especially in play in times of great changes (what fellow philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn called “paradigm shifts”). These shifts take place when older, established theories can no longer account for new observations and a more encompassing theory arises that is better able to account for data generated by that new reality.
I am convinced a similar process is going on today in the church, where it’s obvious that great changes are underway. We are at a moment in the life of the church where we would be well served to think of ourselves as a society of ecclesial explorers. Older models of ministry no longer account for what we are experiencing in our rapidly changing congregations and denominations. We are being called to be open to new insight.
In his recent post “Are Denominational Bodies Doomed?” CHC founder Bill Wilson spoke about the fragility of Baptist denominational entities and wondered aloud how long they might persist. The Presbyterian Church (USA) in which I serve is facing a fiscal cliff in two years and has just begun a process to discern what many of us believe will be a radical reshaping of its (still shrinking) national structures. Other denominational traditions are facing similar survival-challenging dilemmas.
Rather than thinking we are facing a religious doomsday scenario, we can instead frame this moment as an opportunity. We can shift our field of vision and discern which of the many new approaches to “being church” already bubbling up from below across the broad face of the church hold promise for living out the mission of Jesus in ways that are faithful both to the gospel and to our particular contexts.
If we aren’t already doing it, we need to pray for the ability to notice new intimations of the Spirit when they gently nudge us. We need to start paying attention to what is bubbling up from below in all corners of the church, noticing new patterns for mission that are proving to bear fruit, and keeping ourselves open to insight from wherever it comes.
The Spirit is already hinting at a new way forward. We already see new forms of church emerging. The Spirit is giving congregations, pastors, and church leaders the courage to experiment – and even to be willing to fail and learn from their failures – for the sake of the gospel.
At the same time we focus on listening for the voice of the Spirit, we also need to practice communal discernment. We need to talk with one another about what we’re seeing and what we’re trying. We need to listen to others as they tell us about the risks the Spirit has led them to take. In conversations at judicatory meetings, in cross-denominational conferences, and through books, articles, blog posts, Facebook entries, and Twitter feeds, we need to begin our own organic process of sifting through the experiments and to say “yes” and “no” to them together.
We who believe in the resurrection of the body are being given the opportunity to live out that belief at a time the body in question is the church – the risen body of Christ in the world. As we are willing to allow our old, default ways of “being church” to become that grain of wheat that drops to the ground and dies, we will surely meet the God who will raise the church up again in new forms … and in hope.