Emergence is a pretty constant topic in religious circles these days. The focus tends to primarily be on whether a culturally sensitive emergent / emerging church can reach “unchurched” folks or the “nones.” The UUA even launched its Emerging Ministries webpage and video this week.

This weekend, while traveling in the car, I turned to one of my all-time favorite Radiolab podcasts on Emergence. I highly recommend listening to this episode about trying to find patterns, or leadership, in the behaviors of dragonflies, bees, ants, and more. It’s brilliant and sometimes mind-blowing.

On this most recent listen, my favorite part was the exchange between the hosts almost halfway into the podcast. Robert Krulwich is reporting that for him there must be some author to the hidden patterns of an ant’s trails or an impressionist painting. Jad Abumrad shares that if there is some director or architect, all the mystery is lost for him.

What I found fascinating is the way they seem to be arguing about their individual abilities to let the holiness or beauty of emergence just be. Driver or intent, or not, they are wrestling together with the purposelessness or purposefulness of emergence.

One of my primary teachers around emergence is Margaret Wheatley. She writes,

“Emergence violates so many of our Western assumptions of how change happens that it often takes quite a while to understand it. In nature, change never happens as a result of top-down, pre-conceived strategic plans, or from the mandate of any single individual or boss. Change begins as local actions spring up simultaneously in many different areas. If these changes remain disconnected, nothing happens beyond each locale. However, when they become connected, local actions can emerge as a powerful system with influence at a more global or comprehensive level.”

What Wheatley is calling us toward is (re)receiving how we understand change and where it comes from, and perhaps more importantly, decentering the role we think we have in instituting or influencing change.

I think recognizing emergence is religious work.

Emergence asks of us to put down the question of creation and actor and design. It invites faith that something greater than the sum of the parts can emerge from seemingly unconnected, oftentimes minor sources or influences.

We do not make emergence happen, though we can create the conditions for it. We also cannot anticipate what will be required to support whatever emerges. We have to trust that the new system will have the capacity to do that. Emergence necessitates wonder and awe – as new systems, structures, and patterns are made known.

Another central teacher of emergence is the visionary Adrienne Maree Brown. Adrienne writes,

“emergence shows us that adaptation and evolution depend more upon critical connections. dare i say love. the quality of connection between the nodes in the patterns.”

I pray we engage the religious work of recognizing emergence for its true nature, and let Love do what it does.


image credit: top – Phil “Emergence !