Arborescent or Rhizomatic Structures

For centuries, we have looked at the New and the Old Testaments and have defined our doctrine and church structures based on our understanding of what we read.

We did not realize how much our own worldview skewed our understanding.

We all live in a hierarchical world. We had no experience with non-hierarchical systems, and when we spotted them, we hierarchized them immediately or saw them as very primitive.

This influenced our view of the Bible and even God as much as it did everything else.

We see the world as a tree. We see our systems and knowledge as tree-like. What do I mean?

A tree stems from seed and has one point of origin from which the visible tree grows in one direction and reproduces self-similar structures on the way up. Trunk, branch, twig–it all comes from one trunk, even from one point.

Think of the church described as twigs from a wild grafted into the cultivated fig tree. Think of our understanding of Jesse, the father of David, as the trunk, the stump that bears new branches in Isaiah.

Jewish mysticism has recognized that, depending on their kind, trees often have a root system as big as their visible parts. But that root system has the same point of origin as the visible part of the tree. The parts mirror each other, with the branches being the external, materialistic understanding of the spiritual, internal realities the roots represent.

You might say that all things have an origin, and I would agree. But there are important differences: for some systems, it is impossible to predict their future even in principle, and for some, it is impossible to deduct their past.

What do I mean?

Take a tree. In principle, we can imagine and predict a tree’s shape based on its kind. This is not true for chaotic systems. We can also point to the area a tree started its life and thus deduct its past.

But what about a mushroom? When we look at what we call a mushroom, all this also seems true. But the true mushroom lives underground. It is a mesh, a network with no center called a rhizome, and it is impossible to predict the future as the rhizome grows from every point and to deduct the past as it might well have multiple origins that grew together or one that is indistinguishable in nature of all other parts.

It’s not even the visible fruit that defines the knots of a network. The connecting pieces define the structure, similar to Iain McGilchrist’s concept of betweenness, with relationships preceding the things they connect.

We all know an interesting structure with a rhizomatic nature: the Internet. You can eliminate single nodes from the structure, and it will not have an effect. Granted, if you eliminate all Domain Name System Servers, we have to go back to using TCP/IP instead of URLs, but the system would still work.

We might historically know the origin of the Internet, but those nodes were retired a long time ago, and the Internet grows from every point it wants to grow.

Let’s look at some organizational forms now and how they differ. On one side, we have traditional news organizations like Fox News or the BBC, and on the other, Twitter.

We right now learn from the process against Fox News that such organizations have gatekeepers and editorial guidelines from somewhere up the hierarchy. Fox News and the BBC are arborescent organizations.

Politics, especially during Covid-19, tried to do the same to Twitter. It was forced into policing its content, but that did not go well. While Fox News hires all its journalists and can control the story they broadcast through job descriptions and salary, Twitter has no such levers to control its users.

Twitter as a company has an arborescent structure, and its behavior depends on its ownership, just like Fox News’ behavior does. But the product called Twitter is very much a rhizomatic organism that defies control apart from self-control through functions like following, liking, retweeting and blocking. There are some functions like banning that the company uses to enforce local laws, but moderation is an uphill battle that always comes too late, as it only can react when the content is already published.

Still, we try to force social media companies to succumb to and implement tools from another age, like censorship, editorial guidelines, and gatekeepers.

How about the church?

As I said in the beginning, the church has read the Bible through–go with the metaphor for a moment–a Fox News lens and a BBC understanding. We implemented the arborescent structure we were used to seeing the world through. And it served us well, just as the old-fashioned news company was of great service.

But I believe that the times are changing. You could say now that there is no reason to copy the world and follow every new trend it produces. And yes, rhizomatic structures could well be called a trend.

Let me ask you a question. Is God dealing with the church or with humanity? Does he want to draw everybody to himself? Does he invest in all people? Can non-believers have great ideas?

We are at a point when God wants to go one step further with all of us. He has started to lead us away from God-given hierarchical structures in the Reformation, but we only applied it to our doctrine, and even that only partially. He has distributed the Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit to everybody, hinting once more that it’s not about positions, hierarchies and institutions but about the individual in a community.

In my opinion, God has been leading us to a point where we are to adopt rhizomatic structures.

Not fully, because in the rhizomes we know, the nodes and edges are basic in function, lack major individuality, and the tasks they serve are rather simple–without downplaying the complexity of nature.

The nodes within our rhizome are highly capable, self-aware, conscious and gifted people with high diversity. The tasks we face are manifold and complex.

I propose a rhizome structure without structural hierarchy but temporary local natural leadership. By this, I mean that people rise to the occasion when the task at hand calls for their individual skillset and afterward step back and deconstruct the leadership structure again until another situation calls for another structure.

There might be arborescent substructures within that structure–like the visible mushrooms. Children need that, and children’s ministry might have a more hierarchical longer-lasting structure.

Let’s add another structure to the picture that will add a more dynamic flow—the swarm.

Swarms look like they are well-organized, but researchers have found that no central intelligence calls for swarms’ beautifully complex and seemingly ordered behavior.

Swarms depend on three local rules that play out between about seven individuals. They are:

  • Cohesion: Each member tries to stay close to the other birds in the mass. When registering their neighbors, this rule tries to get each to the center of their neighbors’ defined space.
  • Alignment: Each member is flying in some direction. When they see others, this rule gets each bird to try to align their direction based on their immediate neighbor.
  • Separation: When members get too crowded, this rule tries to keep enough of a boundary around each bird to avoid collisions. (It might even result in finding new neighbors to have cohesion and alignment with).

Again, the swarm alone does not reflect the complexity of its individuals when we talk about human beings. But it does not add the need for central control or hierarchical structures to add dynamic behavior to the church.

I see the church grow and organize like a rhizome, be on the move like a swarm, have local temporal skill-based leadership when a situation calls for it, and locally limited arborescent structures for children’s ministry and the like.

And when you look into the New Testament and the book of Judges with this new lens, you will find historical precedence.