Clay Shirky on collapse from complexity
When ecosystems change and inflexible institutions collapse, their members disperse, abandoning old beliefs, trying new things, making their living in different ways than they used to. It’s easy to see the ways in which collapse to simplicity wrecks the glories of old. But there is one compensating advantage for the people who escape the old system: when the ecosystem stops rewarding complexity, it is the people who figure out how to work simply in the present, rather than the people who mastered the complexities of the past, who get to say what happens in the future.
Maybe it's because I'm fresh off of a conversation with a colleague this morning about how complexity at Luther invites fragmentation, rather than adaptation, that I can't help wondering if Shirky's musings are also very much on point with regards to theological education? I gave a lecture in Philadelphia earlier this week, where I was arguing for listening more carefully and thoughtfully to a wider range of people in asking "why" someone might want to learn with the Bible. That's one of the only ways I know to move forward these days, when we're embedded in so much change. But some of my colleagues in that space wondered/worried about whether doing so would in fact lead to such simplification that we would eviscerate the Gospel.
Teaching and learning in theological contexts has grown so complex that I fear more and more people are simply abandoning it all together. Why go to seminary and spend four years learning Greek and Hebrew, not to mention an enormous amount of classical theology and church history, if on the other end of that process you're tens of thousands of dollars in debt and there's no church for you to lead, anyway? Particularly when some of the more interesting engagement with the Gospel might be happening in media contexts, or over coffee in local shops, or at the bedside of people struggling with illness?
Why be a part of a church -- like my own Roman Catholic community, for instance -- if it means you have set aside your own critical thought and simply "obey" a structure that seems intent on perpetrating child abuse?
I think Shirky may be picking up on something via Tainter that those of us who work in church seminaries very much need to attend to. If we believe we are nourishing and sustaining something important, something vital to the life of the world, how are we making that vitality present to people? At a minimum, might there be ways to learn leadership in communities of faith alongside of the members of those communities? rather than sequestered away in an ivory tower?
To repeat Shirky: "when the ecosystem stops rewarding complexity, it is the people who figure out how to work simply in the present, rather than the people who mastered the complexities of the past, who get to say what happens in the future." How present are we, as theological educators, in the world as it is right now? what part will we play in saying what happens in the future?
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