Making Footprints Not Blueprints

S07 #19 A gentle plea for some basket-weaving and aphanipoiesis - A thought for the day

February 10, 2024 Andrew James Brown/Caute Season 7 Episode 19
Making Footprints Not Blueprints
S07 #19 A gentle plea for some basket-weaving and aphanipoiesis - A thought for the day
Show Notes Transcript

The full text of this podcast can be found in the transcript of this edition or at the following link:

Please feel to post any comments you have about this episode there.

The Cambridge Unitarian Church's Sunday Service of Mindful Meditation can be found at this link:
"New Heaven", written by Andrew J. Brown and played by Chris Ingham (piano), Paul Higgs (trumpet), Russ Morgan (drums) and Andrew J. Brown (double bass) 

Thanks for listening. Just to note that all the texts of these podcasts are available on my blog. You'll also find there a brief biography, info about my career as a musician, & some photography. Feel free to drop by & say hello. Email: caute.brown[at]

A short thought for the day” offered to the Cambridge Unitarian Church as part of the Sunday Service of Mindful Meditation


Since the pandemic struck in 2020, here in the local community in Cambridge where I am minister, we have been affecting a quiet, gentle and necessary revolution. This began because, for all the pandemic’s dreadful aspects — and believe you me, I am acutely aware of them — its arrival helped make clearer than ever before that many, many of the old ways of doing liberal religion were simply not working, and that change, really radical change, was required if it were not to continue its precipitous decline into extinction.

Just so you are aware that I am not exaggerating about extinction, the national umbrella body to which our community here in Cambridge is affiliated, namely “The General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches,” has recently informed us that the decline in national membership is currently running at 4% per year and, as of last year, it now stands at only 2,536. At this rate of attrition, membership will have fallen by over 40% to 1,830 from 2019 to 2030. They also note that 63% of the 148 member churches have congregations of fewer than 20 members and, consequently, many of them are rapidly becoming non-viable and are facing closure or merger.

Now, the business of how to affect the kind of move or change that may help reverse such a catastrophic decline may be described, and often is described, as “a problem” to be solved, and so it should come as no surprise that in this situation various schemes have been set up over the years in the hope that they will be able to provide some kind of solution to the problem.

But this way of proceeding is, I would argue, problematic and destined ultimately to fail because, as the filmmaker, writer and educator, Nora Bateson, powerfully observes, there is not “A” solution to “A” problem. Why? Well, it is because in ecological systems — and a network of liberal religious or spiritual communities is clearly a kind of ecological system — in ecological systems nothing is happening one thing at a time, and so our problem of decline is not a single something to be met head on, but met around, met within, met totally.

And one of the things that continues to encourage me to keep going here in Cambridge is that this has, by and large, been recognised by us, and we are today genuinely trying to address the issue, not head on, but around, within and totally. But, as this process has been unfolding, I can also see that for some people this more discursive, conversational and mindful way of proceeding — that is not seeking a single, clearly identifiable solution to a single clearly identifiable problem —  is deeply frustrating and can create real nervousness and a panicky sense that absolutely nothing real and concrete is happening at all.

Given this, I’ve been keeping my eyes and ears open for a way to make more clearly visible for you the real and concrete process of change that I think is underway here — albeit often unconsciously and unseen. And, thankfully, just a couple of weeks ago, two interrelated things have come my way thanks to an article by the excellent editor of the excellent Triarchy Press, Andrew Carey. One of them, a new word, comes from the aforementioned Nora Bateson, and I’ll come to that word in a moment. The other thing, with which I will start, comes from the performance-maker, writer and academic researcher who specialises in work connected with walking, site-specificity and mythogeographies, Phil Smith, who writes:

“The process of randomly driven providence should be familiar. Dinosaurs did not come to fly because they ‘tried’ to fly. They first grew feathers as functionless mutations which turned out to cool them usefully, hence the tendency of those with the mutant feather-trait (jouissant in the feeling of their cooled pleasure organs) to survive and prosper, and pass on their trait. Then, as the trait grew more abundant over further generations, (and new desires replaced those already satisfied) they ‘accidentally’ facilitated flight. Similarly, there is such a tendency (or tendencies) in ‘the pattern’, for it is packed with desires, but there is no intention at all; an outcome arrives by tendency and mutation and functionless desire and not by will or target. The basket weave of tendency is dominant over the spear thrust of intention” (in “Goblin Queens and Qualia Knights: A guide to Xisting”).

OK . . .

Now, as I turn my attention to Bateson’s new word, “aphanipoiesis” keep holding firmly in mind Smith’s point that, “the basket weave of tendency is dominant over the spear thrust of intention” because I am going to return to it at the end.

So, Bateson tells us that “aphanipoiesis” combines two words from ancient Greek to describe the way “in which life coalesces toward vitality in unseen ways.” [All quotes for Bateson are drawn from her paper 2022 paper called “Aphanipoiesis”, which you can download via this link.]

She coined this term because through her own work, often centred on questions about how we learn and affect systems change, she has seen that it is always easier to name what is seen and then to spend all our time and energy on striving to change that seen thing. But, drawing on her father, Gregory Bateson’s remarkable work, she insists we continually ask the question of whether “what is seen is already old news?”

Let’s immediately ground this question in the situation I’m talking about here. The thing clearly seen is “liberal religion and its decline” and so it’s mighty tempting to direct our strategic action towards simply reforming this visible thing in various ways to make it more popular and successful. But what if this visible liberal religion is already old news? If so, it becomes a question, not of reforming liberal religion but, instead, of finding ways to access the hidden unseen processes, below the soil so to speak, that enabled it to grow in the first place? In other words, we need to be asking whether it is possible to grow a new kind of liberal religion or, as we seem to prefer calling it here in Cambridge, a new kind of jiyū shūkyō, that is to say new kind of creative, free spirituality.

I hope you can see that concentrating on liberal religion as it is currently seen simply helps “to obscure essential information about how submergent, inherent, unrealized information is forming” and so makes it difficult, if not almost impossible, to begin to grow a new kind of creative, free spirituality or jiyū shūkyō.

Consequently, we need to find ways once again to immerse ourselves in, or touch the unseen realm that is the complex, creative, living, dark, rich, deep, vital, non-trivial, and sacred soil out of which all things have always sprung forth. But, as Bateson observes, “to attend to the unseen requires patience, hard work, and seemingly endless searching through infinite lenses.” This is important work because for Bateson — and, indeed, for me — “the most fecund realms of change, learning, and evolution are beyond the organism’s current capacity to perceive.” And to make it absolutely clear what I am trying to say in the context of this piece, let me rephrase this to say: the most fecund realms of change, learning, and evolution are beyond liberal religion’s current capacity to perceive.

And now, at this point, I can return to Phil Smith’s recognition that “the basket weave of tendency is dominant over the spear thrust of intention” because, as Andrew Carey notes, it is clearly very closely related to Nora Bateson’s definition of “aphanipoiesis” as “a coalescing of unseen factors toward vitality.”

It seems to me that our own quiet, gentle and necessary revolution is being brought slowly, slowly, slowly to fruition because we are trying to open ourselves and this community up to the basket weave of tendency that is a coalescing of unseen factors toward vitality, towards new life, towards the emergence of a new liberal, creative free spirituality or jiyū shūkyō.

But I acknowledge that there will always be those who would prefer me, and us, to be attempting the necessary revolution through some clear spear thrust of intention directed at what is already visible. To them, I suspect that what I am advocating will always be a deeply frustrating inquiry, especially in a time of great urgency. 

Nevertheless, along with Nora Bateson, I remain convinced that when “change is sought through adaptation to existing systems, that change is sourced from the system itself [and i]n this case, perpetuation is more likely than change.” If we truly want to see change rather than perpetuation, which I would argue inevitably results in decline and extinction, then we must continue patiently to attend to the unseen factors that, alone, will restore to us vitality.

And, to conclude, I’ll simply borrow Andrew Carey’s words from the article from which I have so extensively and gratefully drawn: 

“Let us then pray, as it were, that some vital basket is weaving itself unseen in these dark times.”