Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Open Source Theology

I recently had the amazing experience of attending a week-long Religious Educators Leadership School. With 17 other religious educators and 5 inspiring faculty, we spent a week exploring our personality types, group dynamics, systems thinking, conflict management, leadership styles, UU History, and theology.

It was all pretty cool stuff, and all of it was well-presented by faculty that were each passionate and inspiring, but one thing that stood out for me was a particular process we engaged in for theological reflection. This process is called Open Source Theology, using the software term for things like wikipedia which allow virtually anyone to collaborate on the writing of something. This can be done, and is done, on the internet as part of the cyberchurch phenomenon. A quick googling of "open source theology" will turn up a few sites where you can see it in action.

But we did it as a group exercise, and it was very powerful done that way. A group of nine sat down with a question or topic that was given to us. My group had the question "what is faith?". Ground rules were to focus on the commonalities between ideas and opinions and not engage in in-fighting. Then we had a step-by-step process:
1. Silently reflect for five minutes on the topic.
2. Next, silently write for five minutes your own statement in answer to the question.
3. Each theologian is now invited to read their statement. The group task is to listen with an ear to the common ground and new perspective that could be explored further.
4. After everyone has read their statement, then go around the circle giving each person a chance to say what they heard in common among the statements, and write those commonalities down on newsprint.
5. Take at least a minute to silently read over the list of commonalities.
6. Next, go over each statement on the newsprint and give participants a chance to say how that speaks truth to them, holding disagreement until later.
7. Now discuss if there are any points that need clarification, and add that if there is consensus to do so.
8. If there are point of disagreement still, those may now be expressed on the newsprint in a different color ink.

At that point you would turn your notes over to a subcommittee of two who would be charged with writing it up as a statement of belief for your group, while noting the points of difference if there are some.

What was really powerful about the process was the feeling of ideas expanding as all the participants collaborated. We were not able to completely avoid debating points of disagreement, but we tried to stick with the process and I think it was important to do that. By focusing on what we hold in common, it felt like we were digging toward some sort of Truth, with a capital T. Of course, I realize that it would have been different with a different group, and that it was only Truth for that group of nine people sitting there at that particular time. But still, it was deeply meaningful to several of us and gave us a sense of grasped meaning that we could take away with us.

I very much hope to do something like this at my church this year.

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