May 17, 2006

New-time religion

Author: Tina Gasperson

Open source software methodologies, principles, and practices translate well into other arenas, like standards and intelligence, and have been proposed for the beverage and medical industries as well. But open source philosophy exists in religion too; a kind of collaborative spirituality in which there is no such thing as secrets known only to an inner circle, and participants work together to create a mutually acceptable and beneficial creed instead of passively receiving instruction from a priestly class.

Because the participants are collaborating, most open source religions tend to be new creations, and many are primarily Internet-based. Perhaps the best-known example is Yoism, which calls itself the "world's first open source religion." Yo is the name the group has given to what it calls the "divine mystery." Yoans say they reject truth based solely on authority, and focus strongly on community, evolution, democracy, environmentalism, and growth. Yoans also claim they can prove the existence of Yo, but that Yo is the "infinite, unknowable essence." Yoans, or followers of the "way of Yo," adhere to the Open Source Truth Process, which they claim was developed by members working with students and faculty at The Center for Public Leadership at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

Using the Open Source Truth Process, Yoans hope that the community's scriptures and beliefs will evolve and changed based on each person's experience of reality, much as open source software is continually changed and made better through the input of many people. "Our Truth Process depends on the increasing involvement of many people with diverse life experiences," proclaims Yoism's Web site, and visitors are encouraged to post comments to any writings with which they disagree.

The "Open Source Order of the Golden Dawn" (OSOGD) is a Pagan community that splintered from the original Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Followers of the Hermetic Order say that it is not a religion, but a system of magic that stresses religious tolerance, but originally kept much of its special knowledge secret -- sort of a proprietary collection of magical arts -- although most of that original material has now been published in various places. The Open Source Order of the Golden Dawn, founded by Sam Webster, takes the Hermetic Order's "source code" of magical arts and make it freely available to everyone. "The Open Source Order is founded on the principle that true spirituality is omnipresent and access to it cannot be owned or controlled by any group or individual," says Webster. "Sufficiently skilled practitioners can and do modify the practices to serve specific purposes or to take advantage of the century-plus development in the craft to improve their effect."

Webster says that many members of the OSOGD are in the computer industry "and so naturally turned to the open source software movement as a philosophical basis publicly demonstrated to work."

Another group that has adopted the open source philosophy is an offshoot of the emergent church branch of Christianity. It calls what it does "open source theology." The founder of the open source theology movement, Andrew Perriman, says he started it "out of the conviction that if there is such a thing as the emerging church ... it urgently needs an emerging theology. In the narrative world of the emerging culture, open source developers are the good guys -- quirky, generous, iconoclastic heroes -- and the commercial producers are the bad guys, with Microsoft dominating the axis of evil." Perriman says that in this postmodern culture, the Christian church is struggling to "rebuild credibility" and needs to change its theology from one that has generated by so-called "experts" to an open source theology that is the product of "public conversation. It is exploratory, open-ended, incomplete, less concerned to establish fixed points and boundaries than to nurture a thoughtful and constructive dialogue between text and context."

Perriman first encountered open source software and philosophies when he began using Postnuke. "I had been looking for a way to post some theological articles on the Web and see if I could generate some discussion around them -- this was before blogging really took off," he says. "The search for low-cost software solutions coincided with a growing awareness that theology -- evangelical theology in particular -- was going through some sort of transition or crisis, and was on the lookout for new methods, a new rhetoric, new ways of formulating old truths, and perhaps even a quite radical overhaul of old truths. This process of rethinking tends now to be labeled 'emerging theology' or 'emerging church,' but two or three years back it was the cultural and philosophical shift from modernism to postmodernism that really caught people's imaginations."

Perriman maintains that a religious system of beliefs is very much like a computer program. "[It is] complex, evolving, much of its workings hidden from the eyes of the casual user, potentially buggy, but also functional: we use it to do things, to organize our thoughts, values, actions," he says. "It is like a content management system. It provides the framework for doing things, for managing ideas, and in the process it both creates possibilities and imposes constraints. The assumption behind an emerging theology is that the process by which a community of believers develops, maintains, and implements its worldview makes a big difference to the end result.

"The emerging church wants to do theology itself (not have it spoon-fed), wants to be actively engaged in the process of regenerating an effective biblical mindset for a postmodern world, through conversations that are both deep and shallow, global and localized, both sophisticated and personal, both practical and mystical. The 'open source' metaphor perhaps doesn't quite do all of this, but it captures some powerful aspirations and convictions that lie at the heart of this whole thing."

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