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.