Since I was already scheduled to blog this upcoming week prior to the decision to "engage" my new book GloboChrist starting August 18, I want to take this opportunity to talk about something mentioned in the book, but not developed as far as the actual conversation next month will probably take us. It is something that has come up in countless conversations with new, emergent-style pastors over the past six months in one form or another, and something I also gave a serious of talks about last spring at Crosspointe Church in Dallas. Crosspointe is actually discussed as an illustration of one of my general arguments in the book. I want to talk about the Deleuzian notion of the "rhizome" and how it applies to the new Christianity that is globally "to come". Here I am not using "to come" (avenir) in the strict Derridean manner of a pure, floating signifier that may be considered as the operational, lexical "deconstructor" of any particular moment in our ongoing conversations about politics, institutions, and social structures.
When I refer to the rhizomic church "to come", I am talking about the church present and self-transforming (we could also say "emerging", though that term has become so loaded of late). It is what was really implied in the use of the term ecclesia militans (normally translated as "church militant") in ancient orthodoxy, despite its later doctrinal misuse by Roman Catholicism . It is similar in meaning to what Islam originally meant by "jihad," that is the "struggle" or "endeavors" of the faith community to grow, expand, and carry out its mission and purpose as ordained by God. For Christianity, that mission and purpose is contained in what we call The Great Commission. " Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.'" (Matthew 28: 16-20).
In its original orthodox context, the expression ecclesia miltans derived from the sense that Jesus had attached to his post-Resurrection "command" with an unmistakable urgency. Just as a military commander would order his soldier to "take that hill," and they will strive to do so, thus Jesus' disciples took away from their Rabbi's words the obvious experience of an critical and unswerving obligation to transform the world. One neo-Orthodox theologian some time back described Jesus' declaration on the threshhold of his ascenion as "God's Omaha Beach." This set of connotations is better conveyed in the German word for "Great Commission" than the English version. The German expression, used for centuries in theology, is Missionsbefehl, which actually has the force of an order given by a military leader to his subordinates.
A looser, less "military" manner of talking about the Great Commission, as some Biblical exegetes have underscored, is that it literally "puts flesh" on the Great Commandment to love God with all one's heart and one's neighbor as oneself. Since Christ himself is the "fulfillment," that is the embodying of everything "shadowed", as ancient and Medieval interpreters put it, in the exteriority of the Torah, the Great Commission is the realization within the contingency and contextuality of human history of the not-then-but-now-complete divine presence through what might be called loosely the propogation of incarnation.
In other words, the "militant" command is to immanentize and to enlarge visibly the Word made flesh. As Luther put it in his famous line (which I quote and cite repeatedly in my new book) at the start of the Protestant Reformation in what is probably his most important treatise (The Freedom of a Christian), "each one should become as it were a Christ to the other that we may be Christs to one another and Christ may be the same in all, that is, that we may be truly Christians."
Thus, as I argue, if we are serious about being "incarnational Christians" (as emergent types claim to be) , we cannot simply give lip service to the locution. One of the problems that the contemporary, Western, "postmodern" Christian has - which their counterparts, particularly in the global South, don't have - is that their Christianity is not really informed by the Great Commission. Western Christianity, especially in both a modern and post-modern venue, can best be described as The Great Option.
That framing of matters of faith is relatively novel, if one considers the sweep of Western history. The Constantinian era marked the establishment for the first time in history of state-sponsored Christianity, which persisted even after the fall of Rome itself. The spread of Christianity throughout the Dark Ages and Medieval period was wholly dependent, barring a few exceptions, on the strategic conversion of the tribal chieftain or regional sovereign, and this principle continued to flourish for at least two centuries after the Reformation of the sixteenth century with the practical adoption throughout Europe of the Augusburg formula of cuius region, eius religio. In other words, the possibility of choosing one' s faith, or even choosing Christianity over other faith-trajectories, was not even entertained. Those who pushed the notion, such as the Anabaptists, were severely persecuted as heretics or dissenters.
It was the Revolutionary period and the American frontier that changed everything. The radical, anti-monarchial attitudes of the Westward-migrating settlersdisrupted once and for all both the current economies of religious life that had been largely pluralistic, yet at the same time strictly communitarian with no toleration for individual expressions of religious belief. The fact that the original thirteen states with the exception of Rhode Island, founded by the Baptist Roger Williams, tried to maintain for the most part their own "established churches" testifies to his persistence of the Augsburg model.
Frontier revivalism, pioneered by the Methodists and later morphing into the style of conversion aimed at the soon-to-come immigrant masses, constituted the cultural crucible for what could be called the "decisionist" model of most Christian evangelism. In the decisionist approach the private individual is called to account before God to respond to the claim of salvation in Jesus Christ. The Protestant idea of the primacy of the proclaimed truth of the preached Word of God thus combined with the moral voluntarism of the Enlightenmenet though to give us the garden variety evangelicalism that has long distinguished American culture. So much of postmodern Christianity, whether it is "conversative" or "progressive," retains this character.
But global Christianity is not American Christianity. As a number of well-known "post-colonial" theorists are beginning to point out, the function of religion in the developing world, especially the so-called global South, is not to provide a personal, consumer choice - as it is in America and to a lesser extent in Europe - but to forge both cultural and national identity. The withdrawl of colonial rule, which according to such theorists had destroyed traditional tribal and communal self-awareness, forged the persistence of a generic and complex pseudo-cultural identity of what Gayatri Spivak has termed the self-erasing and self-loathing consciousness of the colonized "subaltern." In order to replace the "unhappy consciousness" (Hegel's term) of the subaltern, both Christianity and Islam, even though they were often brought by invaders and colonizers, have been reinscribed and "indigenized" as forces of identity formation.
As African theologian Kwame Bediako has suggested, "the contribution of African churches to the process of democratization in Africa in the 1980s and 1900s as a genuinely religous achievement, linked with 'the mind of Jesus' in the African churches." African democratization to a major degree has been a post-tribal, post-racial, and post-colonial movement of interpersonal connectivity and activism that has leveraged its Christian roots not for social justice crusades, as has often been the case in the United States, but for creating a new sense of a universal Christian polis that promotes broad commitments to human solidarity where no traditions, precedents, or historical legacies exist for the same purposes.
No institutional command centers have overseen these movements of democratization, despite the campaigns of even post-colonial power interests to suppress them. Drawing on village-level and kinship-related, and urban-neighborhood, and largely grass roots sources of charisma and authority, the African Christian democratization avante-garde have been "rhizomic" in the manner I describe in GloboChrist - they go where they grow, and grow where they go. They do not go and grow because of individual decision-making, but because of the power of relationship itself as it is Christ-infused. There is no "map" for the rhizome. The map comes after what Deleuze calls the horizontal "tracing" of the rhizome.
It might be somewhat useful here to lay out what Deleuze himself had in mind when he introduced the construct of the "rhizome." "Any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other and must be", Deleuze declares. Both structuralism and deconstructivism in our thinking are the direct consequence of the hierarchical as well as binary grammar that characterize our Indo-European languages, what Derrida terms our "white mythology." Even the debates over what should constitute "church," in both modernist and postmodernist discussions, reflect this structural bias. When Mark Driscoll dismisses many as emergents as "whiny idealists" complaining about megachurches, he is underscoring the way in which the logic of centering and de-centering, domination and resistance, etc. which has totally absorbed the modernist/postmodernist conversation affects even our own poverty of imagination when it comes to the truly twenty-first centure ekklesia. In Deleuze's words, "transcendence is a specifically European disease."
It is a somewhat sad commentary on contemporary Western culture that we cannot get out of this endless loop of self-referentiality. Churches are either too large or too small. It is size rather than the surface reach and what Deleuze describes as virtual extensions of rhizomic radii that count ultimately. We swing back and forth in our loyalties between the megachurch that provides colossal theater - the "Jesus show" - or the house church that implodes gradually from its own banal domesticity. But the rhizomic church - I have coined the word rhizone to characterize it - is the network church. It is a going and growing, connecting and disconnecting, "terriorializing" and "de-territorializing" (in Deleuzian parlance) network that is not only global, but radical, relational, and transformative.
The rhizone is also incarnational in the sense that Frost and Hirsch use it, because it allows the global transformative Christ presence to "indigenize" in relational space without a locus of formal "Christian" activities. The rhizomic implications of "where two or three of you are gathered together" becomes evident here. I have been working with a few others to engineer a blog to which we are inviting people with ministries and "rhizomic" Christian projects to participate in at rhizone.typepad.com.
In my work and development of relationships in Austria over the past year or so I became quickly aware of how the almost instinctive notion of "going to church" is more difficult to express in European languages and cultures than it is in ours. To start with, I was confounded that there is no direct equivalent to our phrase "going to church", that is, being present at, or involved in, a local within the German vocabulary. The phrase of course for "attending a church service" (Gottesdienst beiwohnen) is used, but even this expression does not imply some sort of identification with a particular organization.
Interestingly, the older meaning of the term beiwohnen is the same as "to sleep together," so its entire contemporary semantics has more the drift of intimate communion with the divine than any kind of voluntary association. Being a "church going" Christian signifies simply entering into the presence of God. But we do not enter God's presence in isolation. It is through our incorporation into what Hugh Halter calls the "tangible kingdom" of those who are "being Christs" to each other. The meaning of the Great Commission is that is that our own relationship to Christ demands participation in an incarnational chain of connections, involvements, and relationships with others. Through us the relational God is establishing his relational kingdom. The kingdom ever "draws near" to us through the expansion of this relational kingdom.
Both modern and postmodern Christianity have unfortunately pushed us into the thought habit of thinking of the church as either a place, or a collection of places or sites, or even particular organizational setups, where God is supposed to be active at any particular moment in time. But in terms of t he New Testament itself church and kingdom are indistinguishable. Both church and kingdom are what Derrida would call a "place without place," a full, yet fully concrete, space in which infinity flows out into the terrain of the finite in uncharted directions through what we would call "rhizomatic growth." Just as the nutrients for the plant rhizome is not stored in the external surroundings, but in the ever-splaying, subterranean and invisible, tuber-like complexity that sends down roots where soil conditions are favorable or sends up stalks where there is moisture and sunlight, so the church also "goes where it grows" in keeping with where the Spirit blows.
When one reads the Book of Acts carefully, one detects that Paul and his apostolic crew were following a rhizomatic trajectory led by the Spirit of God. The first-century church indeed followed the principle of going where growing and growing where going. The rhizomatic church is neither centered or de-centered; it is multi-nodal. From the nodes grow outward as well as inward, intersect, disperse, and rejoin while ever expanding. The rhizomatic church is the rhizomatic presence of the who Christ is ever incarnating, becoming "all in all."
The rich incarnational texture of global Christianity in all its cultural, organizational, and theological diversity can, and should, be understood as rhizomatic in this sense. The rhizome-metaphor is also a profound challenge to imagination-challenged Western Christians of all varieties. It calls us to put aside so much of our theological pettifoggery, as well as cultural and social narcissism, and see what God is really doing. Deleuze intended the notion of the "rhizome" to provide the basis of what he called a "new image of thought" when it comes to signs and concepts as well as to the more familiar idea of history, texts, and interpretation. Becaue we live in a global world, we live in the ever-configuring space of rhizomatic processes. We especially need a new image of thought when it comes to ecclesiology, let alone theology.