The report of the Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church is a winner. I support it enthusiastically. Then again, my enthusiasm is influenced by the fact that — as one mystified parishioner asserted months ago — I have a high tolerance for chaos.
Years ago I played college basketball, although not well. When our team fell behind by 20 points, with little hope of recovery except some drastic measures be taken, the coach would look long and hard down the bench. I knew his meditation: Should I put Massey in the game and hope that the resulting confusion will lead to new scoring opportunities? Early in my playing career my teammates hated to see me enter the game; I couldn’t remember the plays or I would follow them slavishly. At best my personal style could be described as unorthodox. More than once a teammate hit me in the back of the head with a passed ball, or I would return the favor. But over time these same teammates–as much anxiety as I caused them–began to appreciate the chaos I created. It proved even more disadvantageous to our opponents, who could not anticipate what they were about to experience. Out of chaos came creative play, and sometimes surprising victory.
Out of chaos God created and creates heaven and earth, but chaos is not all that it appears. Within chaos lie deep patterns that assert themselves, given time and freedom, due to “strange attractors” embedded in it. Chaos allows the strange attractors to experiment and finally assert a new, stronger, more life-giving organization to creation.
In her seminal book Leadership and the New Science, Margaret Wheatley frames the conversation about chaos in this manner:
In much of new science, we are challenged by paradoxical concepts-matter that is immaterial, disequilibrium that leads to stability, and now chaos that is ordered. Yet the paradox of chaos and order is not new. As ancient myths and new science both teach, every system that seeks to stay alive must hold within it the potential for chaos, “a creature slumbering deep inside the perfectly ordered system” (Briggs and Peat 1989, 62). It is chaos’ great destructive energy that dissolves the past and gives us the gift of a new future. It releases us from the imprisoning patterns of the past by offering us its wild ride into newness. Only chaos creates the abyss in which we can recreate ourselves (Wheatley, Margaret. Leadership and the New Science. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 1999, 118-119)
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has lost members annually since my ordination in 1983, and the reasons for this dieback have been laid at various doors. Repeated attempts to restructure, to move together in any particular direction, and to control one another have left the decline undisturbed. The formula offered by the task force and endorsed by General Assembly involves no new structures, but it does open the door to chaos, i.e. congregations and presbyteries having some leeway in ordination processes. This chaos is very good, in my opinion. Again, Margaret Wheatley speaks to our situation:
Chaos’ role in the emergence of new order is so well known that it seems strange that Western culture has denied its part so vehemently. In the dream of dominion over nature, we believed we could eliminate chaos from life. We believed there were straight lines to the top. If we set a goal or claimed a vision, we would get there, never looking back, never forced to descend into confusion or despair. These beliefs led us far from life, far from the processes by which newness is created. And it is only now, as modern life grows ever more turbulent and control slips away, that we are willing again to contemplate chaos (see Hayles 1990). Whether we explore its dynamics through new science or ancient myths, the lesson is important. The destruction created by chaos is necessary for the creation of anything new (Wheatley p. 119).
I am about to do a new thing, God says to the PC(USA). Now it springs forth, do you perceive it? Isaiah 43:19, NRSV. Opting for a measure of chaos in ordination practices allows the strange attractor of God’s Spirit to bring new patterns to our corporate life together. I believe that this chaos will prove ultimately far more life giving than we have experienced for quite some time, denominationally speaking.
Yes, risks abound. Fundamentalism, including a fundamentalism focused on church polity, offers security by assuming that God’s creative speech has come to an end. It attracts those persons who yearn to escape turbulence, and the number appears endless. Yet, the profound danger of any fundamentalism is that it offers confidence in fixed propositions as substitutes for faith in the living God.
But the opposing risk is significant: Embracing chaos admits that experiments in our denominational life will often fail, and even self-destruct, before new, life-giving patterns emerge that have been wrought by the patient work of God’s Spirit. The Lordship of the once crucified and now risen Christ looks like “yes” to us. But it means also “no” to some of our bravest efforts to live into the new emerging reality of what it means to be the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in the 21st century.
For sinners saved already by God’s unbelievable grace, I think the risk of failure is worth taking.
We humans pave sidewalks and parking lots to eliminate the cracks and bumps of untamed earth. Nevertheless, weeds and tree roots wreak havoc until nature leaves little doubt as to its power over human dominance. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” Robert Frost observes in his poem Mending Wall. We have tried other formulas to keep the PC(USA) intact. We have paved over differences and built walls between and around us. Perhaps God wants to do a new thing with us. A winning formula might mean controlling less, and relying more upon God’s spirit.
Sam Massey is pastor of First Church, Charlottesville, Va.