Swarm Church

There is an interesting paradox in the natural world, and it has to do with intelligence.

In the case of swarming animals, primarily insects such as ants and bees, large groups demonstrate more intelligence than individuals. There is what is sometimes called “swarm intelligence” that they exhibit. (I was turned on to this idea again when I read this in National Geographic recently)

A single ant is lost in the world, completely unable to function. But a colony of ants, even though no one is actually “in charge”, giving orders as it were, functions with amazing integration and precision, successfully functioning in complex and adaptive ways.

Human beings, on the other hand, are pretty intelligent by themselves, and not too bad in small groups, but in large groups, we are almost universally stupid. Even a large group of highly intelligent and educated human beings is pretty darn stupid.

This is odd to me, that relatively simple (for living things anyway) creatures exhibit emergent intelligence, whereas more complex creatures (ourselves) exhibit emergent stupidity.

Perhaps the problem is that we don’t swarm. Swarming is by its nature an only somewhat directed activity. That is, there is no one “in charge” of a swarm. Swarms do not have assistant managers or chief financial officers. They have members, and each of the members have very simple parameters in which they will act, and when those parameters are met, the swarm occurs. This swarming behavior enables thousands, or millions, of creatures to do incredible things that they could not do working as a set of individual units.

I think the key to a swarm, and to swarm intelligence, is the lack of leadership. Or let me say it this way – the lack of authority. The two examples of intelligent people doing stupid things were drawn from political bodies for a reason. When human beings form groups, we quickly become obsessed with hierarchy. How you dress, how you act, your conscious and unconscious body language, how you walk and speak, are all partially determined by how you view yourself in the social hierarchies you are part of. This is an evolutionary adaptation that seems to come up in all intelligent, social mammals – no, we can’t just get along.

Many posts ago, I talked about what I call Covenantal Anarchy, which is what I think the political structure of every Christian group should be. Here’s another way to say what I’m trying to say, working from the standpoint of swarm theory.

Let’s imagine that Christianity is a swarm. There is absolutely no authority whatsoever, apart from what we perceive to be the leading of the Holy Spirit, which applies to all of us equally, or the call to live as Christ lived, which applies to all of us equally as well. There is no social hierarchy, no ecclesiastical assistant principals or CEOs.

Like any good swarm, we have a few simple rules which guide our emergent behavior. The first is this:

That we love God with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength,

And the second is kinda like it:

That we love other people as we love our selves.

Then, we see what emergent intelligence those simple rules coupled with our commitment to swarming (rather than arming or bickering or bludgeoning or browbeating) engenders within us.

I think we might find we’re a bit smarter than a swarm of bees. And certainly smarter than Congress. I think that it is hierarchy which short-circuits us when we’re in groups, and I think that hierarchy has no place whatsoever among human beings living in the reign of God.

9 thoughts on “Swarm Church

  1. Interesting stuff man. Politically I agree with you, though I think the analogy of a swarm could get hung up around the fact that humans DO in fact swarm, but we call it a mob. And mobs are not good things, generally.


  2. That’s part of the point I was trying to make (maybe poorly), actually. When many “lesser” creatures swarm, they exhibit higher intelligence, problem-solving, cohesion, etc. When human beings swarm, they seem to immediately lose all of those things. A human being in a mob seems about as intelligent as a single fire ant. I run around. I hurt things near me. Maybe I get trampled. Etc.


  3. I don’t like the analogy of the swarm, but I more or less agree with you otherwise. I also think it’s a mistake to reduce human activity to evolutionary biology; as appealing as it may be and as much as it may make things understandable, it simultaneously renders those things not particularly interesting. Evolutionary biology has at once that sense of covering everything and the sense of leaving everything out. This is perhaps because it is so often used in conjunction with that deadly, awful word, ‘merely.’


  4. Group ThinkWhen being a “team player” is the wrong thing to do.But think about warfare. What makes 10000 guys charge into certain death? Sometimes it is necessary to become stupid for the sake of the collective. Or it has been in the past…


  5. Jodie: I’m not sure. I wouldn’t say that war has ever been “necessary”, but that’s a faith statement on my part and I recognize that. As a committed pacifist, I’m resistant to saying that any violence is “necessary”. I might be persuaded to say “justifiable”, in the ethical sense that it is wrong but perhaps the least wrong of the options someone is aware of or willing to attempt…My Covenantal Anarchist swarm rules would certainly preclude war however 🙂


  6. Hi, I happened to stumble across your blog while writing a paper. I’m a student at chicago theological seminary, and one of my intellectual/political/spiritual projects is working on the confluence between anarchism and the baptist movement. I think your notion of the swarm church nails it. I also think that the swarm church is what baptist polity was originally designed to be: all about local autonomy, and the right of the individual to make decisions. I think Quakers actually are perhaps the best contemporary exemplars of such a religious community.Anyway, I enjoyed the post. Perhaps you’d like to chat about empire, anarcho-baptist-ism, etc, some time. best,david


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