One of the common tropes used in think pieces is “Change is Accelerating” which is usually followed by “exponentially” or some other superlative indicating a “Moore’s Law” like quality. We don’t dispute this trope but we worry that our fixation on our own moment is causing us to miss hard won lessons of the past where change also happened strikingly fast. The two Photos of 5th Avenue are 13 years apart 1900 (left) to 1913 (right)
One of those lessons is that transformation (change) is always asymmetrical.
In 1900 there were roughly 30 automobile models (likely more) of which at least 5 were Electric and a few were steam. But as you look at the photo above on your left you can’t see one. In the early 1900’s what few “cars” existed were the purview of what we now call early adopters, hobbyists, tinkerers, and entrepreneurs. Most of them in this era looked like the buggies drawn by horses in the picture above on the left because you tend to build on what you know. As a result few folks in New York City could see the usefulness of the horseless carriage because the horse and carriage was working just fine.
By 1913 the horseless carriage experimental machines of 1900 are gone. They are replaced by the very recognizable purpose designed chassis and bodies of what would become the definitive transportation technology for the next 100+ years… The car.
Just pause for a moment and think about the implications of the two pictures. The world on the left had furriers, stable boys, harness makers, carriage houses, fodder peddlers, trough makers.. There were layers of employment embedded in each carriage, tack, and animal.
“In New York in 1900, the population of 100,000 horses produced 2.5 million pounds of horse manure per day, which all had to be swept up and disposed of. (See Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 [New York: Oxford University Press, 1999])”
Being killed by being buried alive in falling manure was actually a thing in 1900. My God that had to have been horrible! And then there is the urine output of a horse which is roughly (thank God! who’d want to know exactly) a quart a day or 25,000 gallons which is a tank about 31′ high with a 12′ diameter. Or 1.2 Olympic swimming pools a month.
By 1913 it was garages, gasoline, mechanics, parking spots, speed, exhaust… (Traffic has always been with us.. ) We know the car world well. What we have forgotten is how fast the transition from horse to cars actually was….
It is also far to easy to forget that the change in New York City from 1900 to 1913 didn’t happen in Rapid City South Dakota, or Bakersfield California, or Talladega Alabama at the same time. The needs of those communities were distinct and different. The dramatic change was surely coming but it had not arrived and would not for a while.
One wonders if Easter Sermons in 1913 in New York City were some how dramatically different from the ones heard in 1900? It sure does seem from the two pictures above that some change worthy of theological reflection had occurred? What does one say theologically in the face of such rapid and significant change?
“Religion” and it’s theology is always inherently a conservator of past wisdom there can be no real escape from this essential quality of it’s nature. However “wisdom” is always contextual and malleable despite of our common assumptions, or if you’d rather, assertions to the contrary. There is a small body of “timeless” wisdom but beyond that very small corpus the bulk of what has been “wise” is as passing as the carriages found in the left picture.
The wisdom for navigating the New York City of horses was necessarily different from that of navigating the New York City of cars. Not to mention the technological and industrial changes afoot to make the transition possible. All of this change (delta – δ) surely must have led to some theological reflections of note about the nature of…
- horses, furriers, harness makers, carriage drivers, riding techniques
Perhaps more importantly the wisdom for navigating Bakersfield, Talladega, and Rapid city in 1913 was exactly the same as that needed for navigating New York City in 1900 which was fine as long as you weren’t in New York City in 1913. For the purposes of this essay it is the asymmetry of change that concerns us most.
Here at the edge of the continent we are the NYC of 1913 with many changes well afoot with lots of attendant religious and theological wisdoms being rewritten to suit our new circumstances.
What is notable to us is that the sharpest discussions, debates, and even arguments in the life of our modernist faith institutions fracture precisely along the fault line of asymmetrical change in our present day. We would submit in fact that it is this fault line of change that is the most significant locus of struggle.
In other words the asymmetry of change is the real issue and not the “presenting issues” so often articulated. In the face of this asymmetry it’s more than just befuddling to see the deployment of the shibboleth of orthodoxy (always self-proclaimed by it’s proponents) as if the solutions of 1900 Horse focused NYC are somehow just by virtue of being older and held true for nearly 500 years correct in 1913. But is isn’t as if the “other” side of these discussions are doing much better than trading culture war tropes either. Regardless of side we believe that it is asymmetrical change that is the real causal source of current discord in the life of modernist institutional church and the failure to understand this truth has led to much wasted effort on all sides.
Our opening salvo in the discussion across the fault line of asymmetrical change is to say we want no part of it.
It is not our work to engage across that line because we are consumed with doing the work of theology, faith building, and the craft pastoral ministry here and now.. not there and then… We who live and work in the metaphorical New York City of the emergent 1913 auto culture this is the place we will use to share our journey.
There are, of course, other journeys of equal value and vigor and we mean and intend no disrespect to them but this is to be a journal of our journey with the emergent future.
So it begins!