Open Source Theology (Sermon delivered 30 Sept 2012)

I remember the first time I saw an email. A scientist friend of mine dropped by, a university student. He was really excited. He had a paper print out with him, you know that kind of wide paper with two strips of little holes along the edges? The kind of paper that has text on it made up of little dots?

My friend announced that he’d just had a conversation with another university student on the other side of the continent using their computers.

I remember wondering how the computers were connected. Was there some sort of cable running between the two Universities?

He explained how it worked, which I didn’t really take in at the time. What most impressed me was his excitement: he thought it was going to change everything. I was interested, but I remember thinking “Yeah, I don’t think so, that sounds like something that’s just for computer scientists.” You know, the kind of people who spend a lot of time on their computers.

Clearly, if any proof were needed that I don’t have a crystal ball, that’s it right there!

Two decades later, barely a day goes by without me using email or the web or social media in some fashion.

At the start up workshop yesterday I was asked how much time I spend doing email and when I said “hmm about an hour and a half to two hours a day, five days a week,” I could see several people nodding their heads. My experience is not unusual.

For me, the change came gradually. At some point email became an important way to communicate, with its own rules — and it’s own dangers. It took time to figure out the kinds of things that email is good for, and the kinds of conversations that it isn’t good for — over time I realized that anything with emotional content or anything involving judgment or critique is better done by phone than email. (That was some painful learning.)

In some ways, email and the internet have transformed our lives and our society. But in other ways, we are still figuring out what it will mean for us.

This isn’t surprising — the implications of new technologies are often not visible right away. History is filled with examples of new technologies that are made to look like the ones they have replaced.

At one point in Europe the primary way for making a print was to use a metal tool called a burin to dig a groove into a copper plate. The result was called an engraving. Later, artists discovered an easier process: they could coat the plate with a wax and then scratch through the wax coating with a needle. The plate would then be dipped in an acid bath and anywhere the wax had been scratched away the acid would eat the metal plate. When the coating was removed, the places where the acid had eaten the plate would be filled with ink. This is called an etching.

When artists began to use the easier and more flexible etching process, initially they kept making prints that looked like engravings, even though the etching needle was much easier to control. It took a particularly visionary artist to see the potential of the needle, and the possibilities of cross hatching to make shading. It took several decades to really explore the potential of the new way of doing things.

It seems to me that the same is true for the Internet and its associated technologies. It’s difficult to see now all the ways in which we will use it — and how using it will shape us – in the future.

The Internet was designed to foster of collaboration. It was designed to allow people at different computers to be able to talk to one another and work on joint projects, using our best understanding of the principles that foster collaboration. It may be that these tools designed to encourage collaboration have, in turn, something to teach us about how collaboration can be encouraged and organized.

Some of the most interesting developments on the Internet, such as Wikipedia and open source software development, have risen out of a desire to find a better way of working together.

Wikipedia is currently the sixth most popular Internet website.

[According to Alexa at 6am on 30 Sept 2012

It’s predecessor, Nupedia, is less well-known. Nupedia imagined a free-content encyclopedia on the internet, but with an extensive volunteer expert peer review process. The volunteer writers would be experts in their field, and their articles would be reviewed by experts too.

It was a great idea, but between 2000 and 2003 only 24 Nupedia articles had completed the process and made it up on the Internet.

Wikipedia opened up the writing and editing process. Using the wiki format means that anyone who has access to a computer can write and edit — no fancy programming or editing skills necessary. Decisions are made by the consensus of the pool of people editing that particular page. There is no particular status given to someone because of their credentials. Editors have weight in the community because their arguments are persuasive and because they develop a history and track record and are therefore trusted. Wikipedia’s Administrators are voted on by the community from the pool of editors.

The idea of an “amateur” encyclopedia, in which anyone could write and edit appealed, and Wikipedia has grown rapidly. But the freedom to write and edit isn’t enough on its own. Wikipedia wouldn’t have worked without some sort of ability to correct and improve. Otherwise, no one would bother to look at it because they wouldn’t be able to trust the entries.

In Wikipedia, there is a process for flagging articles that might be biased or incorrect, and for flagging “facts” that are not properly cited, and these flags are visible to anyone who reads the article.

The consensus process means that sometimes the revision of articles can take a long time, but the process is mostly visible: anyone looking at a Wikipedia article can go “behind the scenes” to see the conversation in process. There is a certain amount of chaos, but if you look closely there is a process to follow that allows this large group of people who don’t know each other to work together.

The same is true of open source software development.

With “open source” software, the code is not kept secret. Instead, the basic building blocks of the program are released outside the company, so that those with knowledge and passion can work on it.

This giving up of control allows the company to tap into the great creativity of the users, and their desire to see the software become more useful to them.

Clay Shirky, who writes about the social and economic effects of the Internet, calls it collaboration without coordination.

[Clay Shirky, “How the internet will (one day) transform government.” Posted September 2012 http://

When I first heard that phrase, collaboration without coordination, it made me uncomfortable. Investigating further, though, I discovered that it did not mean that anything goes. There is a process. Programmers created software to help organize what seemed like it could turn into a free for all (github). Each distinct revision has it’s own name which is a permanent record of that change.

As Clay Shirky describes it, in a traditional method of organizing, everything would pass through one coordinating node. On an org chart, the flow of information would be clear. There would be one box at the top, with several at the next level, several more at the next, etc.

With github mapping the process the “org chart” is not neatly laid out. If you laid it out chart style, it would be filled with lines going in and around, with multiple nodes and no easily discernable pattern of flow. In effect, it would look like a giant hairball. For those of us who are not used to this style of operating, this is hardly reassuring!

Let’s turn to congregational life for a moment. What does all this have to do with congregational life?

Well, there are some immediate parallels. At a very minimum there is an agreement about involvement and decision-making. In a congregation, we tend to agree that the best decisions are made by those who are most affected by the decision. And those who care most about the project are the best people to be working on it.

Looking more closely at the design principles of Wikipedia, I can see another parallel. Wikipedia is not ‘anything goes’. There are foundational principles – five of them – which lay out the underlying assumptions of Wikipedia (the five pillars). These include basic operating principles such as neutral point of view and respectful and civil interactions among editors. Then there are the process guidelines, which provide a method for interaction.

Principles and processes. This reminds me of your covenant of right relations, which is founded on our principles. The covenant of right relations is a method for interacting which meets the criteria of the principles.

We could say more about this parallel, but I’d like to move to another area entirely, theology.

When people first come to Unitarianism, they are often struck by our encouragement of freedom of belief. The idea that no one is going to tell you what to think, no particular belief-statement is required of you in order to join can be incredibly liberating. It can be a relief to hear that it is ok to be yourself, as you are, with your doubts and worries. In fact it is your job to be you, the best “you” you can be.

But this is only half the story, because the people sitting beside you have all heard exactly the same message, and they are busy being THEMselves, figuring out THEIR beliefs. Which — frankly — are likely to be just as deeply held as mine or yours. And they are quite likely to clash with mine or yours at some point.

We don’t just encourage individual growth and exploration, we encourage acceptance of one another and growth as a community.

When we are looking at decision-making and the various clashes small and large that happen in the life of any community, we have our Covenant of Right Relations to guide us.

But what do we do when it comes to beliefs?

Many people walk into a Unitarian Congregation excited about what they hear. They love the idea of exploring different beliefs. They are intrigued by the idea of deepening their own spirituality or delving further into ethics.

I think that sometimes we haven’t quite lived up to our promise.

We have labels – I am a humanist, or a theist, or a religious naturalist or a mystic. The labels are useful, they have their place in helping us orient ourselves within the wide range of ways of being Unitarian, but they are only a starting place. When we want to go deeper, we need to hear the stories behind the label. What experiences led you to consider yourself a humanist? Or a theist? What does healing or wholeness mean to you?

What is our process for exploring this kind of deepening?

Religious education and religious exploration are integral to who we are. Giving people the opportunity to develop and grow is central to our way of being religious. Self-culture is what is was called in the nineteenth century. How do we do it today?

This congregation has certainly taken a big step forward with 2nd hour programming, bringing people together to explore sermon topics, explore new ideas, meet local activists and experience different spiritual practices (to name a few of the types of programs).

I can’t help thinking that open source programming might also have some ideas for us. What if we took the basic building blocks of theology – the basic concepts – and gave them away, so that people could decide what that theme meant for them, through conversations and sharing of stories?

Starting next month in my newsletter column, I’ll begin an exploration of theological themes, and I’ll be starting a blog to encourage discussion on these topics. These are just two possibilities – likely you will have your own ideas of things that we can do to open up discussions about beliefs, ethics and meaning-making in our lives.

The aim of this is not to end up with the one definition that we think is the right one. That wouldn’t be useful, and likely wouldn’t be possible, either!

What I want is to hear a number of stories, stories that I might learn from or draw some inspiration from, so that I can do something differently in my own life. Then, having tried something different, I want to bring it back to this place, to share with this community.

What I hope is that we could each, if we wished, develop an understanding of what a particular theme or concept looks and feels like in our own lives, as well as a sense of the range of possibilities among many members and friends in this community.

There is a great depth and richness in this community, evident in one on one conversations and in some of our programming. I hear, also, a desire for more – more depth, more inspiration. You have the resources in the people around you.

I hope that you will join me, and enter this place of openness and possibility.

Amen.  Blessed be.

“Open Source Theology”
by Rev. Karen Fraser Gitlitz
Sermon delivered September 30, 2012 at the Unitarian Congregation of Saskatoon

N.B. Preaching is an oral art form.  The sermon as delivered may differ considerably from this text!

One thought on “Open Source Theology (Sermon delivered 30 Sept 2012)

  1. My spouse and I stumbled over here from a different web address and thought I might as well check things out.
    I like what I see so now i’m following you. Look forward to finding out about your web page yet again.

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