Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Robinson on Conscience in the Churches

A Winter 2018 post in the American Scholar excerpts Marilynne Robinson thinking aloud about conscience. And, in the doing, she puts to words some of the thoughts about how conscience was supposed to work in the early church that have been swimming around in my head. I've long had the suspicion that more needed to be said about conscience, whatever it is. (We are still waiting on the latest brain scan to tell us.) Anyway, here is the relevant portion:
In his letter to the Romans, Paul asks the new congregation, apparently divided by cultural and ethical differences between its pagan and Jewish members, “Who are you to judge another’s servant? It is before his master that he stands or falls, and the Lord will make him stand.” This is advice meant for members of a community of believers, people who accept servanthood as descriptive of their and their fellows’ relationship to God, and who see this relationship as personal in the sense that God loves where he loves and compensates for his servants’ failings by his grace. Ideally they have accepted a particular obedience, with origins in the laws of Moses, exemplified in the life and teachings of Christ. So much might the apostle see, or hope to see, in the early Church. But history tells us that no great effort has ever been required to narrow the circle of those who should be seen as God’s servants, whose errors would be made good by God’s grace and therefore should not be judged. We all know the enormities that have made themselves presentable to the Christian conscience, often enough campaigns of violence against other Christians. Sects and denominations still remember the injuries their ancestors suffered long centuries ago, and can still become indignant at the thought of them. They might also remember injuries they inflicted, if the comforts of identity were not diluted a little by such ventures into honesty.
Here is another thing Paul says in the letter to the Romans, still in the context of his thoughts on tolerance and the authority of conscience: “The faith you have, have as your own conviction before God.” That is, do not judge fellow believers and do not offend them. It may be fair to wonder whether this excellent advice has gone unheeded all these years because faith has tended to be a conviction shown to men, who, if we can trust Paul, are a good deal more fastidious than God.

This to me is a vital plank about how we approach ecclesiology, moving away from a doctrinal line in the sand (always moving and porous for insiders, always firm and impermeable to outsiders) toward a generous tolerance bound not to tolerance for tolerance sake but to God's ability to govern for himself his own people. More later on this.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

On Bonhoeffer's world come of age

Today I finished Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Prison (MacMillan 1967 rev. ed.) and read for myself those oft-quoted passages of a world come of age and of Christian faith beyond religion. How many dozens of times have I thought about these words Bonhoeffer wrote from Tegel prison to his friend Eberhard Bethge? How many dozens of books and articles have I read from people also struggling to understand Bonhoeffer's pastoral vision?

Bonhoeffer observes that the people of his day are immunized by modernity against religious impulses. "Man," he writes (Mensch), "has learnt to deal with himself in all questions of importance without recourse to the 'working hypothesis' called 'God' . . . "Everything gets along without 'God'--and, in fact, just as well as before" (168).[1] And he wants to know how Christian preaching and the church should best address this.

What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today. The time when people could be told everything by means of words, whether theological or pious, is over, and so is the time of inwardness and conscience--and that means the time of religion in general. We are moving toward a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious any more. Even those who honestly describe themselves as "religious" do not in the least act up to it, and so they presumably mean something quite different. . . What kind of situation emerges emerges for us, for the church? . . . What is a religionless Christianity? (141)
At the same time, he finds the general theological response to modernity, namely the retreat to the subjective and psychological interior life, inadequate. He is no fan of a psychological flight into the inner life, which is taken up by, he says, existentialist philosophy, psychotherapy [psychologism], and methodism (which I take to mean Pietist, individualist brands of Christianity). Bonhoeffer hates their appeal to an emotional God of the Gaps that approaches a human being only "after his weaknesses and meannesses have been spied out [and in] those secret human places that God is to have his domain" (183). "The secrets known to a man's valet--that is, to put it crudely, the range of his intimate life, from prayer to his sexual life--have become the hunting-ground of modern pastoral workers" (181). "If [someone] cannot be brought to see and admit that his happiness is really an evil, his health sickness, and his vigour despair, the theologian is at his wits' end" (179). Such is not the way of Jesus for Bonhoeffer. I like this characteristic of Bonhoeffer's thought: it is muscular and energetic--courageous. "When Jesus blessed sinners, they were real sinners, but Jesus did not make everyone a sinner first" (Ibid). Such acts attempt to reduce a come-of-age humanity to an adolescent, "to make him dependent on things on which he is, in fact, no longer dependent, and thrusting him into problems that are, in fact, no longer problems for him" (169).

I therefore want to start from the premise that God should not be smuggled into some last secret place, but that we should frankly recognize that the world, and people, have come of age, that we should not run man down in his worldliness, but confront him with God at his strongest point, that we should give up all our clerical tricks, and not regard psychotherapy and existentialist philosophy as God's pioneers. . . . The Word of God is far removed from this revolt of mistrust, this revolt from below. On the contrary, it reigns. (184)
Bonhoeffer's way forward is a developing hypothesis. He knew the feel of his insight, but blurred and without edges. He eschewed what he calls a salto mortale, a death-leap back to the Middle Ages. (Here he quotes a song "Oh if only I knew the way back, the long way back to the land of childhood.")[2] And he embraced a way forward without religion, without the "religious a priori" of mankind. Bonhoeffer claimed that Karl Barth had here shown the way by means of the critique of religion Barth discussed in his commentary on Romans (Der Römerbrief, 2nd ed). Taking up the scalpel of penultimate-versus-ultimate that Bonhoeffer discusses in, for example, Act and Being, Bonhoeffer looked for a Christ outside of religion, "really the Lord of the world" (141). He would find Jesus at the center of life, not at the end of it. He would find Jesus not in the clouds, but in the concrete and everyday world. "Jesus claims for himself and the Kingdom of God the whole of human life in all its manifestations" (180).

It is not with the beyond that we are concerned, but with this world as created and preserved, subjected to laws, reconciled, and restored. What is above this world is, in the gospel, intended to exist for this world; I mean that, not in the anthropocentric sense of liberal, mystic, pietistic, ethical theology, but in the biblical sense of the creation and of the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
For Bonhoeffer, this new form of faith would use a new language "perhaps quite non-religious, but liberating and redeeming--as was Jesus's language" (161). It would speak from the courageous openness of the gospel, calling things what they are and not winking at the godlessness of the world (Luther). And it would not require, citing Paul's teaching about circumcision, people to become religious before they could be disciples. It would take "hold of a man at the centre of his life" and send "a man back to his life on earth in a wholly new way" (176).

Similarly, its god would not have his domain in the secret places of the inner world--the Bible doesn't separate the inner and outer. "It is always concerned with anthropos teleios, the whole man" (183). Its god summons his people to a maturity that means "we must live as men who manage our lives without him" (188), etsi deus non daretur (even if God did not exist).[3] Not that God is absent, but that he has "let himself be pushed out of the world and on to the cross.

The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15:34) . . . He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering. . . . the world's coming of age outlined above which has done away with a false conception of God, opens up a way of seeing the God of the Bible, who wins power and space in the world by his weakness. (188)
Bonhoeffer, following Martin Luther, bends to his work holding a theology of the cross. We know God best as he reveals himself in Christ crucified for sinners. And, indeed, the kenotic direction of his thought--where kenotic means "self-emptying" after the Christ hymn of Philippians chapter two--is what electrified the English west when Bonhoeffer's works were translated after the Second World War. This kenotic theology has since been well-worked-out in many directions: in the liberalism of John A. T. Robinson's popular book Honest to God and in Western liberalism (Spong etc.) and in the liberationist theologies heralded by Jürgen Moltmann, whose first published work was an essay on Bonhoeffer, and from there in Gustavo Guitterez and, after him, in a million splintered shards: womanist theologies, queer theologies, theologies of film, aesthetic theology, etc.

Finally, for I had not meant this summary of Bonhoeffer's response to modernity to go on for this length, he describes in two letters written March 19 and July 18, 1944 (within a year of his execution), his worldly Christian. It amazes me that these portrait miniatures are passed over in the literature; I see the same quotes pulled again and again (an epigraphic example of the word-thing fallacy).

In his letter of March 19, Bonhoeffer talks about maturity, about what it means to be a grown up.

Is it not characteristic of a man, in contrast to an immature person, that his centre of gravity is always where he actually is, and that the longing for the fulfillment of his wishes cannot prevent him from being his whole self, wherever he happens to be? The adolescent is never wholly in one place; that is one of his essential characteristics . . . There is a wholeness about the fully grown man which enables him to face an existing situation squarely. He may have his longings, but he keeps them out of sight, and somehow masters them; and the more he has to overcome in order to live fully in the present, the more he will have the respect and confidence of his fellows, especially the younger ones who are still on the road that he has already traveled. Desires to which we cling closely can easily prevent us from being what we ought to be and can be; and on the other hand, desires repeatedly mastered for the sake of duty make us richer. Lack of desire is poverty. Almost all the people that I find in my present surroundings cling to their own desires, and so have no interest in others; they no longer listen, and they are incapable of loving their neighbor. I think that even in this place we ought to live as if we had no wishes and no future, and just be our true selves. It is remarkable then how others come to rely on us, confide in us, and let us talk to them. . . . We can have an abundant life, even though many wishes remain unfulfilled--that is what I have really been trying to say. (127-128)
It is tempting to say that Bonhoeffer is but describing a socially respected, middle-class, German man in a society that values reticence, a man such as his father. However, such a conclusion is undone by the details. The "centre of gravity" by which Bonhoeffer's man lives is conceptually close to Bonhoeffer's emphasis throughout his writings, including those on the world come of age, on keeping ultimate things (Jesus's reign) ultimate . Bonhoeffer's Christian is not a stoic without desires but a person who values his desires, if only because they pave the road to riches of character. Desires frame the doorway toward the love of neighbor, a key Christian virtue--but as they are mastered. Those who do not master their desires, who cling to them, do not cultivate virtue and Christian character. Indeed, it is in his desires that Bonhoeffer's man becomes present: not dispassionate, but present for others who "come to rely on us." This is an abundant life, he says, even if desires go unfulfilled.[4] In summary, the Christian in a world come of age resists his desires for others and is fulfilled in each moment, even though his life may be fragmented. Such a man cannot help but become morally attractive. He attracts the nations, so to speak, and they come to hear his wisdom.

In the letter of July 18, Bonhoeffer talks about suffering. The Christian in the world come of age lives a secular life, he says, which means sharing in God's sufferings. He can do that because he is a free man, free to live "unreservedly in life's duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities" (193). He need not be religious in any particular way. Instead, he accepts himself as created by Christ. Living in the world is a metanoia, a repentance, "not thinking about one's own needs, problems, sins, and fears, but allowing oneself to be caught up into the way of Jesus Christ," which he later describes as being "caught up into the messianic suffering of God in Jesus Christ" (190). Jesus calls his people to live powerless and yet available to the world, as he did and does yet. Jesus is, as Bonhoeffer says elsewhere, "a man for others." This is to live as a blessing. "We have received God's blessing in happiness and in suffering. Yet those who have been blessed can do nothing but pass on this blessing; indeed, they must be a blessing wherever they are."

I hope this post has made a good outline of Bonhoeffer's cultural diagnosis of Western culture, his world come of age. And I hope it has suggested the kind of people and church that Bonhoeffer believes must live in such a world if they would be Christ's. I had hoped to make comments about how Bonhoeffer's points inform my own project and suggest themes that Bonhoeffer may have continued to develop had he lived. This will have to wait.


[1] Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor calls this state which is impervious to religious appeal the "buffered self."

[2] Analogous to discussions of enchantment, disenchantment, and re-enchantment, or the loss of an enchanted universe. On this blog, note the following blog posts: (1) Charles Taylor's ideological diagnosis of modernity, and (2) my description of the enchanted and disenchanted universe.

[3] Pope Benedict's used this Latin clause in an address to the Pontifical Council on Culture: "New information technologies [and] globalization has [sic] often also resulted in disseminating in all cultures many of the materialistic and individualistic elements of the West. The formula "Etsi Deus non daretur" is increasingly becoming a way of living that originates in a sort of “arrogance” of reason – a reality nonetheless created and loved by God – that deems itself self-sufficient and closes itself to contemplation and the quest for a superior Truth."

[4] In an earlier letter, Bonhoeffer compared human lives to Bach fuges whose motives are fragmentary but, in God's providence, are made into a whole.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Pattern Language: Death Begets Growth

Pattern: Death Begets Growth (85)

Jesus said, "Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit" (Jn 12:14 ESV). What we hope for, must die. We must surrender over that which we love best.


Related Cards

Working Notes

This is a mess of a card as it stands. As it is, some nut job will kill themselves or another out of hope and love. More work in this pattern is necessary, for when does it apply? To what degree? And how can we trust ourselves or our destroyer?

Pattern Language: Opening a Closed Circle

Pattern: Opening a Closed Circle: 83

We are confronted by a closed circle, with the hidden city, with the high garden wall, and with coldness of heart. What is on the other side? And how can we ask? As Socrates says in the Meno, "A man cannot inquire either about that which he knows or about that which he does not know. For if he knows, he has no need to enquire, and if not, he cannot, for he does not know the very subject about which he is to inquire." Plato's puzzle is about knowledge, but the circle is wider still. For example,

"Only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes," said Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Nachfolge).

"A Christian is an utterly free man, lord of all, subject to none; A Christian is an utterly dutiful man, servant of all, subject to all," said Martin Luther (De Libertate Christiana).

"Which comes first," asked the young Augustine, "to call upon you or to praise you? To know you or to call upon you? Must we know you before we can call upon you? Anyone who invokes what is still unknown may be making a mistake" (Confessiones 1.1).


Related Cards

Working Notes

I'm still working hard on completing even the first draft of this card. The circle problem is a problem of discipleship, of how one becomes another thing. It is a kind of miracle. It is ontological. It is election. What is the difference between it and creation? Is this card soteriology? Note the quote from Emerson's "Circles": "Everything looks permanent until its secret is known." And Dave Eggers has an essay called "The Circle" about corporate totalitarianism.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Pattern Language: Every Action is Reaction

PATTERN: Every Action is Reaction: 82

An end is governed by its beginning, and creation its creator. No action is an island, but is, in truth, reaction.

And because God is personal--that is, moral--reaction is a moral act. Stones testify to their fitness to the divine will. Times and seasons progress along their established ways. The natural world is borne along, green and flowering, by the progressive action of God's intent.

Human knowing too is reaction. We know in response to that in which we are thrown (Geworfenheit).

Persons alien to God's promise are not alone. Even where violent, dismissive, or agnostic, their acts (reactions) are framed still by the divine actor; God is not far away. "For in him we live, and move, and have our being" (Acts 17.28).

But the Christian has the best response, for their reaction is obedience. And that obedience is not born of force, fear, obligation, or automation. It is born of gratitude; it is born of love reciprocated. It is their appropriate hesed.


Metaphysics * Theology

Related Cards

Obedience (19) * Faithfulness (18) * Creation (31) * Time (40) * Choice (45) * Work (77) * Personal Relationship (80) * Wisdom (49) *

Working Notes

It seems to me that I'm trying to shove things clumsily together here. Natural theology; Heidegger's idea of thrownness, which is at least an epistemology--and in my thinking is a way to knowing-in-community thinking rather than individualism; the hesed of covenental fealty and obedience; and even an ontology of a sort with Ekhart. What am I trying to do in this card? I need to either abstract it out further or figure out exactly what it is doing. What problem is it solving? What pattern is it describing?

Monday, September 18, 2017

Pattern Language: God leads out

PATTERN: God leads out (81)

God begins. All else is response. From the creatio ex nihilo of the cosmos to the covenant with Abraham to the redeeming of the cosmos to the gift of the Spirit to the coming judgment, all of it would not and cannot be apart from God's beginning of it. This leading out is metaphysical (God as the Unmoved Mover), ethical (God's logos defining the basic categories of good and evil), soteriological (the missio Dei acts according to the agreed desire of the triune persons), and practical (the Christian lives upon the path of God's promises; the Christian prays the Lord's prayer and so asks that God affect his divine will).


Related Cards

Creation (31) * Grace (26) * Mission (34) * Law (37) * The Spiral/Recapitulation (42) * Election (43) * Promise (51) * Revelation (52) * Covenant (60) * Adoption (70) * Judgment (50) * Freedom (53) * Incarnation (81) * Faith (76) * Blessing (2) * Love (56)


Karl Barth: [God] wills and posits the creature neither out of caprice nor necessity, but because he has loved it from eternity, because he wills to demonstrate his love for it, and because he wills, not to limit his glory by its existence and being, but to reveal and manifest it in his own co-existence with it. . . . there cannot follow from the creature's own existence and being an immanent determination of its goal or purpose, or a claim to any right, meaning or dignity of its existence and nature accruing to it except as a gift" (CD: III/1.95).

Monday, July 10, 2017

Exploring pattern relationships: Community and Election

To move forward, my pattern language needs relationships. Where patterns are indexed to other patterns, meaning can be made. Apart from connection, what can be done? Below are my first two examples. One is built from *Community and the other from *Election.

Couple of comments: (a) Making relationships reveals holes. The *Election diagram is missing *Grace, for example. (b) Laying cards out like this begs some kind of method that identifies which idea is the spoke, which are antonyms or synonyms, which are higher-level or lower-level relationships, etc. (c) I don't think I understand what a pattern really is.

What is a pattern? Is it a recurring move or strategy or theme? For example, is *God the Father a pattern? What about *Water? What about *Christology?

And how many patterns is too many? Does a language need to be small enough to hold it all in one's mind, or, because patterns are indexed, can it be much larger? Does a large number of patterns suggest sloppy repetitiveness? Is too few not useful?

Finally, I have two ideas about an overall schema or index. I keep thinking about the divine economy and the Trinity and such. I keep thinking about the threefold liturgical confession: "Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again!"

I keep thinking about theological moves and movements. And so I have been toying with the following dramatic scheme:

  • creation/introduction/recognition
  • identification/empathy
  • kenotic service
  • gracious restoration
  • glorious presentation.

But, then again, maybe the classic divisions such as Christology, pneumatology, ecclesiology, etc. are just as good.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Notes on pattern making: June 22, 201y

  • “No pattern is an isolated entity. Each pattern can exist in the world, only to the extent that it is supported by other patterns: the larger patterns within which it is embedded, the patterns of the same size that surround it, and the smaller patterns which are embedded in it. This is a fundamental view of the world.” ~ Christopher Alexander
  • "Are you paying attention to Alexander’s more recent view that the use of patterns indiscriminately was a bit haphazard. He developed a process for how patterns should unfold in time – a process of structure-preserving transformation. That’s in the four volume The Nature of Order (especially vol 2)." ~ comment by fourcultures
  • "Part of what I like about this pattern language is that it includes organizations and resources for each pattern, raising the possibility that a pattern language could be used as an organizing tool (where do I fit? who do I depend on and need to collaborate with? who depends on me?) or as a guide for curriculum development (a student would major in a pattern; but understand well the patterns connected to their specialty plus the “whole” modeled by the pattern language)." ~ comment by Tom Atlee
  • "I think of a pattern as 'a design element'—-something we need to attend to when consciously creating a healthy whole (of whatever the pattern language is about). Another way I think about it is as a 'need' of a healthy system. A major test of a pattern is whether we can manifest it in many ways." ~ Ibid.
  • "The [Liberating Voices (MIT Press, 2008)] pattern language begins with the most general patterns (“Theory”) and proceeds to the most specific (“Tactics”). Each pattern is a template for research as well as action and is linked to other patterns, thus forming a single coherent whole." ~ from the marketing blurb
  • "A lot of the papers that are labeled a pattern language are not. For example, Coplien's process patterns are true, valuable, and important. But they are not a pattern language. There are too many holes. A pattern language has to be complete in some sense. There are various States of a pattern, starting from fledgling or proto-pattern and going up all the way to be part of a pattern society or group of collaborating patterns within a pattern language." ~ Ali Arsanjani
  • "A pattern has defined fields, including Context, Problem, Forces, and Solution. A pattern is used in a certain design Context, and considers a recurring design Problem in this context. It focuses on the Forces which confront the designer, before describing a Solution--a proposed approach to the situation which resolves the tensions among forces." ~ M. Mahemoff
  • "The expertise is in the language." ~ CA
  • We extract meaning from chaos by spotting patterns. It is the signal in the noise.

Here is a "how to do it" series of instructions about creating pattern languages by a guy named Ward Cunningham:

1) Pick a whole area, not just one idea. I like subject matter that is practical but seldom explored in a text book. You know, the kind of stuff you have to learn from your colleagues on the job. The discussion on the "patterns" list got me thinking about checking data.

2) Make a list of all the little things you have learned through the years about the area. Imagine that your kid brother has just taken responsibility for this area on his first big job. You're getting together this weekend. What are you going to tell him. Make a list.

3) Cast each item on your list as a solution. I like to write a sentence with "therefore" in the middle. You will have to think a little deeper here to figure out the forces that bear on your solutions. It's ok to speculate. I find this to be a rewarding activity since I often find new reason for what I do.

4a) Now write each item as a Pattern. I've come to favor a four paragraph form where the second paragraph ends with the pivotal "therefore:". This is a good time to flip through Alexander's Pattern Language. I feel my work has always improved when I more closely mimic his style. I'm just now learning to make the first and last paragraphs carry weight. These are the ones that link a pattern with others in the language.

4b) Organize your patterns into sections. Write a little introduction to each section that lists each pattern by name. You may find you need to adjust your linking paragraphs as you study the higher level structure of your patterns. Try to keep 4a and 4b fluid as you write. As you become more familiar with your patterns you may find that they organize themselves.

5) Now write an introduction to your pattern language that hints at the forces you will be addressing.

The Public Sphere Project is using the web to annotate each of the 136 patterns that make up their Liberating Voies project.

The already existing division of theology into academic, systematic, biblical, and practical theology (maybe even including mystical theology) may be the discovery of a vertically organizing framework in existence in the discipline itself.

Oyvind Holmstad blogging on pattern languages offers this helpful way of making patterns:

Identifying any type of pattern follows the same criteria in architecture as in hardware or software.

1. A repeating solution to the same or similar set of problems, discovered by independent researchers and users at different times.

2. More or less universal solution across distinct topical applications, rather than being heavily dependent upon local and specific conditions.

3. That makes a pattern a simple general statement that addresses only one of many aspects of a complex system. Part of the pattern methodology is to isolate factors of complex situations so as to solve each one in an independent manner if possible.

4. A pattern may be discovered or "mined" by "excavating" successful practices developed by trial-and-error already in use, but which are not consciously treated as a pattern by those who use it. A successful pattern is already in use somewhere, perhaps not everywhere, but it does not represent a utopian or untried situation. Nor does it represent someone’s opinion of what "should" occur.

5. A pattern must have a higher level of abstraction that makes it useful on a more general level, otherwise we are overwhelmed with solutions that are too specific, and thus useless for any other situation. A pattern will have an essential area of vagueness that guarantees its universality. – Nikos A. Salingaros

Here's a gnarl of quotations from CA: "The patterns are patterns of action, and the action will not happen unless the patterns are felt, and created, and maintained by the people whose action goes into the patterns . . . patterns operate upon the whole : they are not parts, which can be added – but relationships, which get imposed upon the previous ones, in order to make more detail, more structure, and more substance – so the substance of the building emerges gradually . . the whole emerges. You are able to do this only when you no longer fear that nothing will happen, and you can therefore afford to let go of your images. because the gaps get filled, the small things that are wrong and gradually corrected, and finally, the whole is so smooth and relaxed, that it will seem as though it had been forever. It has no roughness about it, it simply lies there stretched out in time. Architects sometimes say that in order to design a building, you must have “an image” to start with, so as to give coherence and order to the whole. But you can never create a natural thing in this state of mind. If you have an idea – and try to add the patterns to it, the idea controls, distorts, makes artificial, the work which the patterns themselves are trying to do in your mind. Instead you must start with nothing in your mind. You are able to do this only when you no longer fear that nothing will happen, and you can therefore afford to let go of your images. ~ CA assorted quotations.

A pattern language is composed by a number of elements called patterns. Each pattern is written in a certain format. Although there are several types of format, it definitely contains name of the pattern, problem and its solution, and it may also contain context to apply the pattern, force as a premise that cause the problem, and related patterns. Such patterns are often organized into a catalogue. ~ Takashi Iba

Patterns identify a problem and suggest a core solution. Each pattern is connected to a larger and a smaller pattern.

At the heart of every pattern is a design problem.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Notes on pattern-making: June 21, 2017

I've been continuing to read and learn what I can about pattern languages. My questions are: How do I identify a pattern? What is the difference between a taxonomy and a language? How many patterns are too many? What do I want to do with this thing?

Luck for me, some research on these very questions exists on the web for anyone willing to do the reading and to tolerate the jargon of other disciplines. What follows is a disorderly brain dump of notes that I have taken so far.


"While individual patterns are useful on their own, they are more powerful when three are used in combination."

To start the process, an initial design problem is chosen and the designer applies one or more related patterns to solve the problem. The process continues as the designer considers additional problems that arise from the requirements and constraints of the project. Additional patterns are applied until the designer is satisfied that all design problems have been adequately addressed through the application of patterns. Alexander's descriptive framework for outlining a pattern included a pattern name, a statement of the problem underlying the pattern, the context in which the problem occurs, one or more solutions to the problem, and any related information that might aid others in connecting the pattern with other related patterns.

as new patterns were generated, previously written patterns were revised in order to clarify any new relationships that were discovered to exist between the patterns.

patterns are considered mature as they explain their topic and suggest ways of encouraging the quality without a name to a greater degree.

The mere fact that Alexander used the descriptive phrase “the quality without a name” to name the quality he wished to describe is somewhat ironic, and this may confuse some readers. After all, if it does not have a name, can it really exist? However, readers should understand that Alexander used that phrase in part to emphasize the precise nature of the phenomenon and remind the reader that when they experience this quality they may have difficulty communicating the entire experience through individual words. Nevertheless, even though it may be difficult to describe this quality and to understand it intellectually, it should be remembered that Alexander claimed this quality is real and that it can be readily identified by asking the simple question of whether or not the artifact, event, or experience feels good.


The emphasis that practitioners have placed on Alexander's "quality without a name" has been a surprise. Alexander used this quality as a telos or target by which to judge the fitness of his entire project. And others have done the same after taking time to describe what this quality may be in their discipline. Their attention to this detail makes me ask whether I also shouldn't describe a quality for my own project.

My instincts gestures toward a kind of religious depth. Perhaps this is akin to what Schleiermacher meant by a "feeling of absolute dependence." This is the kind of thing William James is getting at in his famous lectures, or that his peers, the Transcendentalists, meant by the Oversoul. This is the sort of company that yanks me to a stop. Awe toward a transcendental mood is a false positive. So, I think that I will go a different route and call it "worship." The "quality without a name" my pattern language is aiming at is demarcated at this point by the word worship.

Moving on, I wonder if orthodoxy is a descriptor that means that certain patterns are present (or absent) in a matrix? And I wonder if the Trinity works as a kind of meta pattern or organizing principles that acts as a heuristic to the whole. In other words, if your pattern organizes itself according to a trinitarian heuristic, then you are working within the bounds of orthodoxy.

Asking after the transition from bare taxonomy to pattern language, the turned corner of difference seems to be organization along x, y axes. The x are related cards. The y is meta-relationships, both up into the abstract and down into the particular. I picture at least two levels and perhaps three. And so, I have to ask what my abstract index layer will look like. How complex will it be? How complex must it be to cover the field? And what qualifies a topic to exist at this level? Is this a simple matter of writing Father, Son, and Spirit on three cards and going for it? Or, will these meta principles be much more abstract, such as "being poured out"?

Finally, the question of what to do with this tool is slowly answering itself as work progresses. Here are three applications that I've been thinking of:

  • opening doors. A theological pattern language will help an individual or group think theologically. So, say a Sunday School group is reading about the baptism of Jesus and the teacher, before the class discusses the passage, lays out the following pre-chosen cards creation, mission, and chaos. I can see the members of that group using those cards to more easily enter into a theological discussion of that text at a level that is deeper than where they may have gone during the course of a normal morning.
  • mapping systems. I could see a student reading the first chapter of Augustine's Confessions and using the cards to map out topics as Augustine discusses them. Moreover, by laying out the cards in a tree or a circle or some other relationship and by using the meta-levels encoded into the cards themselves, the reader makes a map of Augustine's treatment. He or she might begin to play around with the organization, asking which are more or less important. And also, by looking at the relationships written on the cards, the reader might discover the third use that I could see this tool providing, namely
  • outlining what's missing. Thanks to the relationships encoded in the language itself, the cards could be used to highlight what is missing in a work that is being read or in one's own thinking. Thus, the language serves to aid and broaden one's own theological thinking.

The degree to which especially the last two aids will work depends largely on how an infinite number of cards may be properly reduced to a fit number of patterns, not ideas. I suppose, if the cards were indexed to their own web pages, as group works has done, any amount of information could be associated with a card. One could, for example, make a list of the theologians who best address a particular pattern and where they do so.

Finally, I need to remember that patterns are responses to problems, where a problem is a common problem in a field. To describe a problem is to describe when a particular pattern is applied. Consider listing potential solutions as well.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

First steps toward a theological pattern language

I sat down this afternoon with a deck of 3x5" cards and began writing a topic on each one. I didn't have a method of any sort. I wrote down themes that seemed ubiquitous and necessary. The work went faster than expected. After an hour, my table was covered with over a hundred cards. So what now?

To be honest, I have no idea what I am doing. Once every concept is written down that I can come up with, once I have two or three hundred cards in my hand, what then? How can I take a subjective list of topics and move them toward being a pattern language of their own? And how do I know what this would be? What is the use of something like this? Why am I doing this?

There are two clues on the group work's website that may help. One of these is an activity, and one comes from the orientation guide included in their kit. The activity is called the "pattern grab exercise." Here's how it works:


Option 1: Lay out all the cards in a spiral or other pattern on a table where they are readable by the whole group.

Option 2: Select a subset of cards to work with and lay these out. You could use a method like "Strengths / Growing Edges Circle" to make the selection


1) Have a participant describe an upcoming agenda item / event which they are facilitating, including the history and context of the item / event, and the goals.

1A) As the participant describes the item / event, the rest of the group picks up cards that they feel are important to consider in the design of the process for the item / event

2) Popcorn-style, participants read out a card they selected, describe how they feel it relates, and the group briefly discusses ways that this could be worked into the process design.

This can be done in-depth for as few as one items, or more rapidly for many, depending on whether the goal is process design or training. The cards are laid in a circle

Here is the other clue from their orientation guide. The cards in their deck are divided into nine meta-categories. And those categories can be used to structure the use of the deck itself. And I'm thinking, "How different is this from the way we use the creeds to structure theological thinking?"

So what am I after? Here is my thinking. I am not a professional theologian, and I will never be a professional theologian. And yet I cannot seem to leave it behind. So I've had to peel away the habits of thinking that go along with academic theology. And I have had to ask how theology can fit in my hand. And the models I keep coming to are art and cooking--not argument.

There is another barrier too: my brain. I do not remember details or recall details very well. My brain works in larger patterns and relationships. It works in shapes. And, though I work very hard, it does not run as fast as those of my friends who fit in the academy. I have ADD. Maybe that is it. Whatever the case, for me to do theology, it has to fit my brain as well as my hand. And this means a slower approach, or at least a different one.

And then, about two years ago, I learned about Christopher Alexander and pattern languages. Patterns that work together to create a way of talking about and passing on the fundamentals of a discipline. Patterns that can be used like a chef uses ingredients to plate a meal or an artist uses colors to make a painting. Can this work with theology? Can this tool allow me to use the emotional kaleidoscope in my head to do things with my years of theological training? I certainly hope so.

And so I made one card after the next. Again, I'm not sure where to go from here. But I'm willing to work into the tool, to let the tool and I become comfortable together. It took Alexander seven years to write his book. It took group works two to write their deck. It may take a while. But I am eager to see how it comes out.


For further thought, here is a link to group work's beginner's orientation. There are excellent ideas here about how to begin to structure and use even a pattern language that is in process.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Identifying patterns and pattern languages

I have a growing interest in something called pattern languages. Begun in architecture through the work of architect Christopher Alexander and his book A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction, pattern languages were quickly taken up by software programmers and mathematicians. These kept the idea alive until it gradually seeped into other disciplines.

An excellent example of this is Group Works and their GroupWorks deck, a deck of cards--patterns--that are used in facilitating meetings and social gatherings.

Group Works has a definition of what makes a pattern that I quite like, and I have lifted it wholesale from their website. They call it the Hallmarks List, and it is as follows:


The following list of questions are here to help guide the pattern writing and editing process. While it’s not required that every pattern necessarily be able to answer yes to every question on this list, these are hallmarks that have been noted across many of the patterns.

Does it further the goals of the project?

  • Support purpose-driven design
  • Deepen the skills of those who serve as group process guides
  • Serve as a resource for those who are teaching others
  • Increase process literacy among people who are users of process(es)

Does it point us toward “the quality that has no name”? Does it describe a feature that shows up repeatedly in group processes (link is external) that result in “deepening, connection, and a fulfillment of purpose”?

Does it feel resonant? Is it evocative? Does my gut respond to this with a sense of recognition?

Does it happen across methods/approaches? Is it a common piece underlying multiple methodologies? This is like stacking functions in permaculture, where one element contributes to many yields.

Can it take a large variety of forms? "Each pattern describes a problem which occurs over and over again in our environment, and then describes the core of the solution to that problem, in such a way that you can use this solution a million times over, without ever doing it the same way twice."--A Pattern Language

Is it fractal? That is, does it show up at more than one scale (such as within one item of a meeting and again within the meeting as a whole)?

Is it a distinct creature? That is, once grasped, it stands out as its own thing, coherent, and not merely a result of other aspects of process. While it may take a while to first “see” a pattern, its essential “shape” should be easy to recall once understood. Is it unifying? It may bring together what previously seemed like separate aspects of group process.

Does it describe an action that can be consciously undertaken by convenors and/or participants? Rather than, for instance, a dynamic to be passively observed. Does knowledge of this pattern increase the skill of practitioners?


For more information

Reading and Websites

Nikos A. Salingaros. The Structure of Pattern Languages. Architectural Research Quarterly volume 4 (2000) pages 149-161.

group works. What is a pattern language?

Christopher Alexander's website.

Ola Möller. Pattern languages and Generative Codes. MethodKit.com.

Design Matrix. Anatomy of a Pattern Language.

Dan Greening. How to Read and Write Pattern Languages.

Werner Ulrich. A review of The Art of Observation: Understanding Pattern Languages. (Journal of Research Practice Volume 2, Issue 1, Article R1, 2006).

Michael Mahemoff* & Lorraine J. Johnston. "Usability Pattern Languages: the "Language" Aspect"

Michael T. "Patterns Are Not Building Blocks.

YouTube Videos

"Spaces for the Soul:A documentary about the Architect, Mathematician Christopher Alexander" https://youtu.be/nWSDT2wdth4

John Athayd. "The Timeless Way of Building" (lecture w slides) https://youtu.be/3AltRFXviK4