The Work of the People

Design for Transcendence and Transformation

In design, because of the corporate mindset that we bring to the work, we focus on physical and digital tools and technologies. We tend to serve the machine rather than humans. We refer to humans as users, targets, markets, customers, audiences and stakeholders. Our language dehumanizes. Dehumanizing humans helps numb ourselves to the work we do to manipulate people to buy more products and services, because that is how the machine works. That is how we designed the machine.

Back to the garden. Photo by John Towner on Unsplash

From the physical to the metaphysical

However, we are beginning to realize the impact that our tools and technologies have on us. They are ripping society apart.

We value and prize the objects of our desire more than we value human beings. Our devices are causing irreparable harm: distraction, mental health issues, fear, panic, suicide, murder, and the rise of authoritarianism in global politics, leading to what amounts to a humanitarian disaster.

If we are to think beyond the physical, we would need to be thinking about the metaphysical. The prefix meta means “after”, or “beyond”.

Design as Metaphysics

If we are moving away from the design of physical objects to designing living systems, we must think in terms of metaphysics, beyond the physical.

As it so happens, I have been steeped in the metaphysical for the past 50 years, both in terms of spiritual upbringing and in terms of design culture.

The Christian Context

I write about what I know. I have been raised in a culture that has been influenced by a sacred text that has been compiled over millennia, called the Bible, the book. A social identity called Christianity has been extremely influential in my daily life. It could be argued that the past two millennia of human history has been dominated by Christianity and its conflicts and relationships with other cultures. To be clear, there have been other important stories that have not received proper attention, since the victors write the histories.

However, the Christian story appears to be coming to a conclusion. It no longer holds sway. Internal contradictions threaten to topple its world-wide dominance as a political force and its hold over our individual psychology and behaviour. Many of us who have been raised Christian are questioning the very label.

I was asked recently, “If we aren’t Christian, what do we call ourselves?”

I replied, “Human?”

As a designer, I have been trained to think of names in terms of brand identity. A brand is a symbol of trust. Over time, it is possible for a brand to build equity. For example, the Apple brand is worth $214 billion.

As a brand, the name Christian may retain a high value economically, but in terms of trust is becoming worthless because of its association with hypocrisy. The brand acts in opposition to its own values (ten commandments). It cannot be trusted. It seems to me that those who most vocally claim the name Christian least resemble their Christ.

  1. the worship of God and country over the value of humanity, since it is possible to overlook the torture and dismemberment of a reporter in order to maintain an economy based on exporting genocide;
  2. the idolatry of money, fame and power, as these are signifiers of God’s blessings (printing “in God we trust” on the currency creates a sense of cognitive dissonance in light of the inability to serve both God and Mammon);
  3. the use of God’s name to justify oppression, racism, discrimination, and misogyny;
  4. the inability to acknowledge the need for a weekly day of rest when the show must go on;
  5. the inability to earn the respect and loyalty of the younger generation (the rise of the nones) because it is difficult to respect people who preach love and mercy while engaged in apathetic indifference, judgment, and hatred;
  6. the support of the military-industrial complex and the justification of slavery, murder and genocide to steal land from indigenous people;
  7. the surrender of moral moral principles in order to get into bed with empire for the sake of political power, regardless of whether they support adulterers, pedophiles or rapists;
  8. the support of the kleptocracy and the fleecing of the sick, the poor and the aged to maintain revenue for the institution;
  9. the doctrine of inerrancy is a falsehood that supports an intellectual house of cards that cannot coexist with reason;
  10. a purity culture that is a thin façade over a patriarchal hierarchy that systematically disempowers women and is actively engaged in the cover up of sexual abuse.

If we think about the original usage of the word “Christian”, wasn’t it originally used as a derogatory term or a term used by outsiders to name a new social movement?

The early church was called “Christians” by the powers-that-be for the first time in Antioch (Acts 11:26). It wasn’t a name Jesus’ disciples gave themselves — it was a name given to them by the society in Antioch.

Enter Christ-followers. Enter the Gospel. The Church came to Antioch and began breaking down the dividing barriers in a way that upset the society’s existing categories. People from all parts of the city — Jews and Gentiles alike — were suddenly coming together. This group of people was redefining community in a radical and unprecedented way, so much so, that a new word was needed to categorize what in the world was happening.

People have a tendency to categorize as a way to name patterns of behaviour and as a way to separate and classify items and individuals based on the perception of commonly shared features and characteristics.

It is often assumed that the name “Christian” was given somewhat flippantly or even derogatively by these powers-that-be — a sort of dismissive wave of the hand to those “little Christs.” Technically, the ending “-ian” means “belonging to the party of,” so “Christians” meant those of Jesus’ party.

At the time, the distinction of a Christian, from an outsider’s point of view, was the lack of divisions across race, class and gender within the community.

Distinctives

Since that time, humans have been able to come up with many terms to classify people and signify differences. Often, these differences are enough to lead to doctrines such as mutually assured destruction. Christianity has become a means of raising people with a social identity with a language and etiquette that wears conformity to a bizarre collection of social norms as a badge of honour and a secret handshake to distinguish insiders from outsiders.

However, the distinctives were intended to be much more about character.

According to John 13:35, Jesus says the world get’s a vote as to how they will know we are His: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

And Matthew 7:16 provides another distinction: “By their fruit you will recognize them.”

Jesus is recorded as saying that he will make a distinction based on the way people treat the homeless strangers, the refugees, the sick and the prisoners (Matthew 25:31–46).

I would expect that people who experience the love of God would want to spread the message that while we might have felt separated from God, the good news is that we can all experience a reunion with God. Communion with God is supposed to bring about a transformation.

A metaphysical unity: faith hope love

These seemed to be the important themes in the stories and letters that were preserved:

  • Jesus prayed that we would be one, that we might be brought to complete unity
  • There is no Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female
  • One new humanity
  • What counts is a new creation
  • What counts is faith expressing itself in love
  • And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
The physical is a metaphor for the metaphysical: light water land

Signs of Hope and Beauty

I still find hope and beauty in the stories that we have been able to preserve over millennia of recorded history. We have come so far, but we have so far to go. However, the world in which we live has so much more to say to us. It is a small seed of life in the soil of the universe. We are but dust, but we are stardust.

I think about the poetry of Genesis and I am amazed at the iterative design process that it communicates.

Aren’t the central themes of the Biblical narrative summed up in the first few chapters of Genesis?

  1. Day one: light
  2. Day two: water
  3. Day three: land

The gestation process for vegetative life.

  1. Day four: light
  2. Day five: water
  3. Day six: land

The gestation process for self-conscious life.

Separation

  1. Day one: light (Israel is a light to the nations)
  2. Day two: water (Moses is drawn out of the water and leads the people through the water)
  3. Day three: land (Joshua leads the people into the promised land and David secures the kingdom, setting the stage for the building of the temple)

The gestation process for a holy nation, set apart for God. Israel was to be a blessing by preserving stories of God manifesting himself in the physical world, stories of the embodiment of the divine.

Union

  1. Day four: light (John introduces Jesus as the light of the Word)
  2. Day five: water (baptism inaugurates the ministry of Jesus)
  3. Day six: land (Jesus ends his ministry by sending people to the ends of the earth)

The gestation process for one new humanity. The ekklesia was to represent the unity of those who put their trust in the process of spiritual transformation and in the power of love to bring the world together.

When we finally see the light, we are compelled to drown our selfish desires in the waters of baptism and dedicate our lives to spreading love throughout the earth. We are supposed to become one big happy family of humans.

The end of the story is union with the divine.

Transformation

Is it possible that a new form of life is beginning to emerge from the violence of the past 2,000 years? A transformation can result from renouncing the church’s unholy union with empire. The church needs a divorce. Since Constantine, empire has been a controlling and abusive husband. #churchtoo

The church just hired the devil to handle its PR. They have lost the plot.

If we engage in the human project of restoring ourselves by restoring the planet, we can restore our original role of keepers of the garden. We can find warmth and energy from the light of the sun to preserve and protect the water that sustains us and reap the harvest that comes from working the land and sharing the fruit of our labour together.

A spiritual process of transformation: at its core, it’s about love

I find hope in recognizing a design movement that started with a socialist utopia in Germany called the Bauhaus. After 100 years, a new generation of designers seems to be rethinking our relationship to empire. We are considering human-centered design as a way to spur one another on toward love and good deeds.

To me, that sounds a lot like “church”: one new humanity figuring out how to work together to take care of the garden.

Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against governments, corporations, churches and institutions that are merely legal documents and human inventions impersonating human bodies.

Judgment Day has already happened. We invented the Terminator. It is the definition of a corporation: a legal entity, a body of people, designed to absolve itself of responsibility by impersonating a human.

A Design Sprint

Jesus started another design sprint. He kept on pointing to the third day as significant. “Destroy this temple and I will rebuild it in three days.”

In design, we talk about inspiration, ideation and implementation. We separate ideas into categories to make sense of them, we bring the ideas together to try to prototype concepts, and then we bring those concepts to life as we build them in reality. It seems to follow the same processes described in the first few chapters of Genesis.

Chapter 1 is about separation. The elements of the design are separated to become signs, symbols and metaphors, setting the stage — setting, characters and plot — for an epic story.

Chapter 2 ends with the discovery of a mate for the man and a remark about the union of male and female, becoming one flesh.

In chapter 3, failure marks the beginning of a process of transformation. In design, you cannot get anywhere unless you embrace the concept of failure. We surpass failure by learning and trying again.

  1. Separation
  2. Union
  3. Transformation

You never change things by fighting against the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the old model obsolete.

— Buckminster Fuller

We resist with art and science. We build a new model to replace our crumbling institutions, especially undemocratic corporations, with something that will be much better for the planet and, consequently, for humans.

That is liturgy. That is the work of the people.

Gathering the Creative Collective

Take Me to Church: Scott Bradlee & Morgan James at Paste Studio NYC live from The Manhattan Center

Designer, writer, educator, social architect, founder, Builders Collective, Leading with Design. https://stephenbau.com

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