Is it possible to create structures that invite change and growth? I think the answer is yes, but it goes against much of the way we are used to, and how so many of our communities and organizations function. The Quaker tradition, of which I am a part, offers a glimpse at the possibilities, as well as the challenges, of a long-term tradition that seeks this kind of “architecture of openness,” or what Umberto Eco calls an opera aperta, an “open work.”
It is many voiced. It draws on the collective intelligence of the crowd/community/tradition. It is holistic in its approach to knowing rather than being one singular voice/text/role for truth. Within a model of collective intelligence all are apprentices.
It is decentralized. It is rooted in knowledge as participatory, shared, experienced through living and practice rather than “abstract and known.” In an open work, the process of making decisions is itself a tool for building community.
It is structured in a way that anticipates and welcomes change. There is a big difference between proprietary and open-source software. One is locked down, only a few have access to the source code. The other is structured in such a way that it anticipates many different streams of source code and is programmed to handle such diverse flows.
I see these threads coming together in many different areas of life from faith communities, to social media, education, and the arts.
Open Works and The Quaker Tradition
The Quaker tradition, with all of its beauty and imperfection, has many places where there is an “architecture of openness.” For instance, there is a practice of making large-scale decisions through group discernment we call “a sense of the meeting.” This process is structured in such a way that it anticipates and allows for change along the three lines suggested above: all members of the community are able to speak into the process; God’s voice is discerned through a well-defined process of listening, speaking, clerking, and minute taking; and decisions are committed to through a “sense of the meeting” (the closest analog would be something like consensus in secular spaces) allowing the group to adapt and change from the bottom up. Very often these “business meetings” are based in the open-ended questions (queries) suggested at the opening of this newsletter.
Another example within the Quaker tradition is the practice of worshipping through listening to God in silence. This is sometimes called “silent worship,” “unprogrammed worship,” or “expectant waiting worship.” I, and many other Friends, prefer open worship. This is intentional. “Silent worship,” and these other descriptors, in my opinion, obfuscate the openness and participatory nature of the worship, especially to people new to Quaker practice. “Silent worship,” sounds far less like an open work and much more like a closed one, especially in a day when silence can often be seen as abdicating one’s responsibility. Worship in faith communities, including liturgy, singing, preaching, and more can remain closed or be redesigned as open works that allow for growth and change, not to mention far more participation.
Other Examples of Open Works:
Consider things like wikipedia, which was intentionally modeled after Quaker decision-making processes
. YouTube started out as an open work because it was an empty platform. Users had to create its content, allowing users to shape the overall culture of the platform. There are plenty of social movements from Black Lives Matter to Occupy Wall Street that are open works. Critical Mass, the large bicycle protest movement that started in SF, was known to wait until everyone showed up for a ride to determine what the ride’s theme was going to be and where they would ride. It was literally “a work in movement.”
Or how about the old Choose Your Own Adventure books?
They had a hint of an open work as well. Similarly, Mike Huber sent me a link to Quaker Voluntary Service
webpage (I shared this in the last issue of the newsletter) pertaining to racial Justice. What is your right next step?
is a kind of “choose your own adventure” webpage created by Liz Nicholson, inviting people to consider “what is your right next step” when it comes to racial justice, giving them multiple options and entry points.
, a Montessori based Sunday School curriculum that many in the Episcopal and Quaker communities love, is an open work in the field of education. It is hands-on, experiential, participative, and story-based model of teaching. Children who participate in “Godly Play,” are drawn into the story empathetically and invited to consider questions like, “I wonder where you are in this story?”
Stories far more than doctrines, expository teaching, or even “values-based” teaching are open works. They allow for multiple entry points. They allow for open-ended questions to emerge, as well as multiple perspectives and interpretations. Godly Play utilizes wondering questions that allow Children, and adults alike, to enter the story and experience spiritual practice in a way that is open and playful.