Open source theology
Over at Rough Type, Nicholas Carr is writing (again) about the Wikkipedia and it’s shortcomings. I’ve been a fan of the Wikkipedia for a while, and have linked to it often in my posts when I want offer a helpful background brief to a reader. It’s something I know anyone can access. That said, I’ve never been of the opinion that it’s as good or better than a paid encyclopedia with professional, paid editors – and without pranksters and worse.
The problem with those who would like to use “open source” as a metaphor, stretching it to cover the production of encyclopedias, media, and other sorts of information, is that they tend to focus solely on the “community” aspect of the open source model. They ignore the fact that above the community is a carefully structured hierarchy, a group of talented individuals who play a critical oversight role in filtering the contributions of the community and ensuring the quality of the resulting code. Someone is in charge, and experts do count.
The open source model is not a democratic model. It is the combination of community and hierarchy that makes it work. Community without hierarchy means mediocrity.
I simply cannot avoid pointing out that this argument applies to Churches as well. When tradition and authority are decried what results is usually hypocrisy – a church of all believers in which the all accepts that it is a church of all believers because the church authorities have sold them on it. A real church of all believers tends to be disorganized cult, and at worst it leans in this direction. When there is no structure people gravitate to those who are the most charming, and the charming are, in turn, are untrammeled by restrictions. After all, who is anyone else to say they’re wrong?
This fellow’s description of the Catholic preisthood and Pope is quite erroneous. He succumbs to the old charge that a religious class ‘intercedes’ for people with God. This is false; they are custodians of tradition, which is not saving, but instructive. Because they have no other interests, they can devote themselves to this task in a way that no lay person could. The brightest among them can engage in the study of theology and philosophy and we can all then share in that. Is theology saving? Is philosophy saving? Heck, is reciting the rosary saving? No, to all of that. A priest in his teaching and counseling is simply a specialist in the same way that a doctor, scientist or social worker is.
The ‘Church of all believers’ argument is a sort of iconoclasm, and it fails for much the same reason. Placing yourself before a stature or a picture is not worship of the stature unless you hold that the item itself has some sort of divine power. If it merely serves as an aid to thought, to memory, then that is all that it is. The only thing active in the relationship is the mind and heart of the believer. If clergy can show us an error or a contradiction in our thinking, that is an aid to thinking and not an “intercession” on behalf of someone who is not “good enough” or “smart enough.” A specialist, for example, can point out to us that the form of a stature is not the same thing as its content. That is, it is not synonymous with the thing it is intended to represent. Attempting to correct erroneous thinking is exactly what PG Mathews is attempting to do in the article I’ve linked.
The same can be said about prayer. Someone who prays for another – robed or unrobed – is not ‘interceding’. Even if it were, the argument would apply to all prayers on behalf of another, not just prayers by clergy. The point here is not to bash other Christians but to try and recognize that churches necessarily have structures and traditions – some more formal than others. The ‘all believers’ argument is more about shunning rivals than it is an argument about theology. In fact, it’s not really an argument at all.