I think I have a new favorite Emergent writer, or at least someone to join Scot McKnight at the top of my list. Although I have some concerns with some moves that this book makes (which is nothing new for my reviews, no?), I came away from this book with some new ideas to contemplate, some mental tools to try out on the relationships that constitute human existence, and a sense that I’d found someone who is asking the same sorts of questions that I’m asking but who has turned to different intellectual traditions to start forming answers.
Networks and the Basics of the Book
Friesen takes his vocabularies of networks, nodes, connections, and clusters from network theory, that hybrid of computer science and sociology that begins to some extent with existentialist philosophy and picks up serious steam as computer networks become one of the primary media and in some cases the main medium through which human beings in the developed world relate to one another. The main features of network thinking that set it apart from some of its rivals and predecessors are a focus on connection rather than being-in-itself, an insistence that any thing’s or person’s being is nothing less than the sum of her or his or its connections to other entities in the world; and a more focused attention on the ways in which human relationships within those networks differ from one another, this casual acquaintance neither flattened out to be equal with that intimate friendship nor one set in hierarchical preference over another, except in the thick description of this or that “cluster” moment. (I’ll write a bit more about clusters, one of my favorite parts of the book, later.)
The bad news here is that Friesen falls to the temptation so common to these sorts of books, namely to divide the course of Western history into three segments called pre-modern, modern, and postmodern, and as with most such attempts to chop history into chunks defined by the current power structures, it lacks nuance. The good news is that he does provide a selection of excerpts from thinkers as diverse as George Bernard Shaw, John Muir, Martin Luther King, Jr., Barack Obama, and the Dalai Lama, each of which highlights the interconnectedness of reality and the sense in which no thing in itself means anything exclusively in itself. (As someone who studies and teaches 17th-century literature I was quite disappointed that John Donne’s “Meditation XVII” did not feature in the list, but I don’t expect seminary professors outside of the church history department to pay too much mind to folks before Hegel.) Moreover, he provides a nice argument against reductionist anti-Institutionalism, comparing it to Gnosticism’s nay-saying to embodied community (106).
Beyond those good things, Friesen also holds his own importance lightly, making fun of himself and his neologisims at one point and throughout the book insisting that whatever importance he holds is because of, yes, the good people with whom he’s connected over his years. He relates this conception of his place in the world as he explicates what he calls “the parable of Google” (83), a vision of authority within the Church that is “revealed, not held” (115), a conception that makes me worry, but I’ll get to that later.
Christ-Commons and Christ-Cluster
By far the most interesting set of ideas in the book (they’re interconnected, dig?) are what Friesen calls Christ-Commons and Christ-Cluster, and I do think that this constellation of relationships is as fine a way as I’ve seen to cut some of the Gordian knots that arise when folks like me (a Deacon in a relatively conservative Christian Churches congregation) and folks like many of my friends (who are parts of various Emergent cohorts, house churches, and other “EC” aggregations) run into when we talk ecclesiolgy. Rather than imagining such things as opposing entities of similar kind, Friesen locates them relative to each other as parts of a larger body of experience.
Christ-Commons refers to sustained traditions in Friesen’s picture of things. A venerable institution like the Catholic Church, an intellectual movement like Realism (in the medieval sense) or Calvinism, an Emergent cohort, and an evangelical megachurch’s small group all stand as Christ-Commons, relatively stable groups of connections that exist to serve a larger end but nonetheless exert some energy to sustain themselves. Friesen points to the genuine human goods like stability, responsibility, and patience that come from belonging to such while noting that they’re not the sum total of human experience, much less the Christian experience.
Christ-Clusters, on the other hand, are momentary happenings, things like the ad hoc outpourings of support that happen in the face of disaster and the seemingly spontaneous collaborations that often arise when online acquaintances put their heads together and launch into grand conversations about this or that topic. Friesen notes that much of what Paul writes about the movement of the Spirit in the letters to the Corinthians fits this pattern better than it does the more fixed organizations that he calls Christ-Commons, and he notes that Christ-Commons are helpful to facilitating Christ-Clusters precisely insofar as they encourage strong, intimate connections and less involved acquaintance among people with a common cause. The ad hoc character of a cluster, in other words, can derive great strength from prior and intentional communities that arise from the commons.
What causes frustration and sometimes even enmity, Friesen suggests, is that when some folks try to perpetuate those momentary and Spirit-initiated Christ-Cluster moments, they either remain blind to or become resentful of the fact that any network node that persists is going to become a Commons, losing the character of the Cluster when the moment that calls the Cluster into being has passed. In the case of blindness, the frustration comes from an anti-institutionalism simultaneous with the inevitable solidification of institution, and in the case of resentment, it’s likely to result in posts decrying “the death of Emergent” every three months or so.
Perhaps this relationship was more than obvious to everyone except for me, but since I took this book on, I’ve been thinking differently about relationships between the decline of mainline Protestantism, the rise and self-doubt that I’ve seen in Emergent, the pains that I’ve seen firsthand as evangelical congregations don’t keep up with the megachurch Joneses, and an array of other phenomena.
Friesen Exacerbates My Hangups with Trinity and Church
I honestly don’t know whether to attribute my first worry to my own theological timidity or to genuine problems with the book, but I’m almost certain that the second problem follows from the first.
As I noted in a post last week about the way that I do theology as someone who does more preaching than theological-book-publishing, I tend to make divine revelation the starting point for theological reflection, and more often than not, the form and content of that revelation is enough to fill the time generally designated for a homily, so I generally don’t go much farther. I certainly confess the Trinity, but I’ve studied just enough Church history that I suspect that any possible articulation of the nature of the Trinity beyond “Trinity? Yep.” is at least somewhat likely to fall into some council’s or theologian’s catalogue of heresies. Please understand that I don’t begrudge anyone else’s attempts to articulate the real nature of the ontological Trinity; I’d just prefer to stay safely on the economic side.
With that disposition in place, readers can certainly understand my unease when Friesen, establishing good reasons for using network theory in theology, refers to the Spirit as “the perichoretic relationship of the Father and the Son” (57, italics original). The implication with which Friesen wants to run is that “We is not simply a statement of relationship but actually suggests our relationships themselves are living beings reflective of the Triune God” (57-58). Friesen is duly careful not to elevate the status of human relationships to ontological equality with a Person of the Trinity, but the move still troubles me for a couple reasons. For one, there’s the third-man question that plagues Plato: if the Spirit is the relationship between the Father and the Son, then what or whom is Jesus promising to send exactly in the gospel of John, and what would be the name for the relationship between the Son and the relationship-between-the-Father-and-the-Son? And once we named that, would there be another name for the relationship between the Son and the relationship-between-the-Son-and-the-relationship-between-the-Father-and-the-Son? Certainly I don’t need to go farther than that: even if the assertion is compelling aesthetically, it makes no sense philosophically. My second hangup is that I’ve had people who actually do Trinitarian theology insist that the diminution of any Person of the Trinity from full Personhood is a bad thing, and although I’m not exactly sure what Personhood is, this move seems to diminish it.
All that said, remember that this criticism is from the cowardly lion who runs from his own tail when faced with the task of talking intelligently about the Trinity.
The implications of this picture of Trinity, of course, have directly to do with ecclesiology. If the Person of the Trinity is a relationship between prior personalities, it only makes sense for the authority granted by that Person to arise not from that person’s mysterious choosing of this person to heal and that one to speak in the tongues of angels and a third to exercise the office of teaching; on the contrary, as I noted before, in Friesen’s vision of the life of the Church, “Authority is revealed, not held” (115). I recognize that such a vision of the work of the Spirit is not prima facie incompatible with the text of Paul, but it would, I imagine, make certain sustained activities like oversight (what episkopoi do) or shepherding (what presbyteroi do) or teaching (what didaskoloi do) rather difficult. In Friesen’s vision, like others I’ve seen, the relatively chaotic gifting of the gospel of John and the letters to the Corinthians seem to take pride of place from the more orderly systems of the letters to Timothy and Titus. I’m not saying that I’ve ever seen an ecclesiology that balances those two in a way that compels everybody, but it is a concern that concerns me.
One more bit of philosophical trouble I had with the book has to do with its use of the words order and chaos. Friesen admits that he borrows his usage not from philosophical but from corporate-managerial vocabularies, but it still troubles me that he wrote a sentence (fragment) like “A time for chaos and a time for order” (96). If there is a time proper to one thing and a time proper to another thing, then it’s not chaos. I realize that this is a quibble, that a simple change from “order and chaos” to “conservation and innovation” or even “tradition and the individual talent” would easily enough make his point read more valid, but I figured I should note this and say as a larger point that part of Friesen’s charm, that he shifts so effortlessly from one vocabulary to another, is also a source of some fuzziness. For readers alright with a bit of fuzziness, that should not be too much of a problem.
Worth a Look
Overall, although at the end of the day I’m still uncomfortable with its vision of the Trinity and the resulting ecclesiology that flows from it, I think that Thy Kingdom Connected stands as a worthwhile book for contemplating in new terms some of the questions that have really troubled the Church in my own generation, and as with most books, I think that someone doing a different sort of Trinitarian theology (in other words, someone skirting another set of heresies) could easily enough adapt that understanding to Friesen’s philosophical and sociological insights. This is a book worth a look for a goodly range of readers, and I’m glad that Mike Morell sent it my way.