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The Ecology of the Christian Church

2 April 2010

It may sound pionty-headed – in fact, qb’s quite sure that it does – but qb has just discovered a rich stream of ecology literature that may substantially explain why dissidents – vocational, counterculture prophets – are essential to the long-term health and sustainability of communities (even, and perhaps particularly, Christian ones).

And a bonus: For every dynasty of vile, self-important tyrants, only a few Ezekiels and Hoseas have to lie down on their sides, collect their facial hair, or marry harlots to shock the community out of a spiralling moral collapse. Gospel, indeed.

Finally, there may be good reason to suppose that the church cultures in which imperial, corporate megachurchism flourishes contain the structural seeds of their own collapse, arguing for a less homogeneous, more diverse, and smaller-community organization. Robust, sustainable communities may have a characteristic size of – remarkably – around TWELVE units, with self-regulating tension built into the mix rather than seeking a community of the like-minded, authority-drunk, and power-bent.

What if Jesus was crazy…like a fox?

The implications of these ecological ideas are interesting, I think:

1. Ecosystems tend to self-organize, and then persist (in the Darwinian, evolutionary sense), in accordance with their ability to scavenge resources from their environment.

2a. Those ecosystems tend to have a structure that can be described as “autocatalytic,” referring to a loop of feedbacks that progressively reinforces its growth. (Cancers are autocatalytic in this sense.)

2b. In social systems, competitive advantages, which may be accidents of birth, seem to confer pleasure on those who benefit from them. This is an example of an autocatalytic feedback.

3. Left to their own devices, autocatalytic systems generally wind up “overshooting” in ecological terms, that is, growing so large that their resource demands outstrip either the extent of the environment’s resources (e. g., Peak Oil) or the capacity of transport systems to deliver those resources to the system (e. g., drinking a vanilla malt too fast and cavitating one’s straw). The result is, of course, some sort of collapse.

4. Personal ambition would appear to blow gasoline mist onto an already red-hot, autocatalytic system. According to N. T. Wright, the pagan Greek philosophers Plato, Aristotle, and their intellectual progeny viewed this form of elitism rather favorably: the worthy should proclaim their worth in gaining power, and the polis should favor their further accretions of power, for the good of the polis.

5. The humility-centered ethics of Jesus (Calvary), Paul (e. g., Philippians 2), and Moses (Numbers 12:3) stand in stark, unyielding defiance of that kind of imperial ambition.

6. What if this whole set of ideas is the clever joke that God is playing on the proud, ambitious elites, those for whom quantitative growth (e. g., crowd size, budget, physical plant) is sufficient evidence of God’s favor upon them?

7. Following on #6, what if Christian ethics, and the Jewish ethics from which Christian ethics derive, are actually the way things work – that is, only those communities suffused with self-regulating, other-directed structural elements like self-restraint, love, humility, patience, and kindness will have a chance of persisting into the eternity reserved for the citizens of God’s new creation?

Here’s a great quote from Dallas Willard that is apropos here:

We may not soon have bigger crowds around us- and in fact they may for a while even get smaller- but we will soon have bigger Christians for sure. This is what I call ‘Church growth for those who hate it.’ And bigger crowds are sure to follow, for the simple reason that human beings desperately need what we bring to them, the word and reality of The Kingdom Among Us.

Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy

qb

P. S. If you like reading this kind of literature and aren’t intimidated by pionty-headed academic-speak, see e. g. R. Ulanowicz, “Ecosystems have directionality,” Ch. 4 in S. E. Jorgensen et al., A New Ecology: Systems Perspective (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2007), 59-78.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. 11 April 2010 6:21 pm

    Hey, qb:

    I felt for you. You said it was quiet…perhaps, it is even TOO quiet? I enjoy your comments on another blog which I would call blogacious with lots of blogacity. And it isn’t too comfy in there. Heh, heh. I’d write more, but, umm, I got nothing. Sorry.

    Read ya later,

    CJ

    PS-now quit yer whinin’ ;-D

  2. 16 April 2010 4:56 am

    I read A Third Window: Natural Life Beyond Newton and Darwin by Ulanowicz a year or so ago. It was great. Rather, the 3rd of it that I understood was. Been wondering what to follow it up with and you’ve reminded me and given a good citation. I like your summary.

  3. 16 April 2010 11:04 pm

    Well, I see that “A New Ecology” goes for around $160 at best on Amazon. Will have to find another alternative.

  4. 17 April 2010 1:15 pm

    LOL, Steve. Maybe you can find a used copy through AbeBooks.com or something. I’ve just ordered _Third Window_, so I’m glad to know you enjoyed it. qb

  5. 19 April 2010 9:51 am

    q.b., Steve,

    C. N. Cochrane in “Christianity and the Classical World” has pointed out that the “classical world” including Judaism had no word for humility. Deriving from the Latin “humus,” meaning from the earth or soil, Christianity transformed the classical world because of the incarnation, giving the West its far-too-often ignored virtue of humility–of whom the really bizarre prophets were forerunners. The closest classsical equivalents were the deceptive and manipulative tricksters like Ulysses.

    Blessings!

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