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Exploring Freedom. A Conversation between FLOSS-Culture and Theological Practices of Freedom

The Freedom of a Christian entails concrete practices of freedom. In order to unveil this connection, this paper compares practices of the "Free Software Movement" with key insights of the Reformation and how Protestantism develops its theology.

Published onNov 11, 2019
Exploring Freedom. A Conversation between FLOSS-Culture and Theological Practices of Freedom

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“If contemporary theology has a central theme at all, it is Christian freedom.” With this statement the German theologian Eberhard Jüngel has highlighted the significance of the term ‘freedom’ for theological discourse. And while forty years later there are still numerous scholars who would consent to this sentence, it is crucial to investigate what the term freedom carries out in the fields of dogmatic and ethical inquiry beyond the aspects of subjectivist independency and a general statement of personal sovereignty.

In this paper I want to examine the intertwining of the conceptualization of freedom and the social practices and structures it entails. In order to do so I will describe the phenomenon of Free Software and the cultures of ‘Free-Libre-Open-Source-Software’ (FLOSS) it has shaped.1 As a theology-unrelated phenomenon, the Free Software Movement has successfully developed ways to implement its distinct ideas of freedom as a mode of cooperative engagement in the creative process of software development.

After describing the specific aspects of these practices and how freedom is performed within this field, I will ask for resemblances in Protestant theology in order to explore the analogous intertwining of the ‘Freedom of a Christian’ and concrete theological practices of freedom that derive from this statement. On each level of these localizations I will ask for the pneumatological implications which render a freedom-based understanding of how theological knowledge is gained.

The free software license

It was the beginning of what is known today as Free Software when Richard Stallman founded the GNU-project with the idea of creating a fully functional operating system that refrained from the idea of restricting copyright. His main concern was the participatory and innovative mode of software development and the non-restrictive access to the very core of all computer programs: the source code.

By developing his idea of Free Software (‘think of free speech, not free beer’2), Stallman introduced a concept of freedom that was directly applied to the very practices of people working with software. Of course Stallman was ultimately concerned about the freedom of the human being living in an information based society. In fact, the ideology that drives the ‘Free Software Movement’ until today largely consist of a quasi-eschatological vision of commonly shared knowledge and a just society that is free of restricted access to intellectual goods.

And in order to address the freedom of human beings, the Free Software Movement understood that it was fundamentally necessary to move the involved medium, the source code, to the center of the discussion about freedom. Thus, its main concern is the freedom of software which users can participate in through various modes of interaction.

Free Software is not only concerned about freedom as a certain practice for the distinct processes of writing code, but it has also engaged with the question of how these practices of freedom can be sustained and structurally secured. By inventing and using ‘free licenses’ (such as the General Public License [GPL] in its several versions), a powerful instrument was found that promised to give both the moral visions and the pragmatic dimension of free software development a legal framework. It is one of those ironic incidents that law-like licenses have become the very epitome of freedom of FLOSS.3

At the core of most free software licenses there are four paragraphs, which state the basic aspects of free software:

a.) The essential statement of the license is that one is free to use the software for any purpose.

b.) It states the freedom to examine and to adapt the given software to one’s own needs. Thus, the implications of this freedom make it imperative that free software is shipped as open source -- in contrast to proprietary software distribution of binary code which won't allow the user to study its inner mechanisms and the way it was conceptualized.

c.) Free software is not only allowing individual customization but also permits anyone to redistribute it with or without additional modifications.

d.) Thus, free software implies the license to improve the software, extend its functions and make it easier to use, while it is imperative to share those modifications with the public. Of course, this also means that the source code of this redistributed new ‘version’ needs to be publicly available.

Although this has been a challenge for many juridical systems in terms of intellectual property, licenses like this have achieved a big transition of how authorship of software and other intellectual inventions is assigned: it is no longer a question of property but a question of engaging in a solutions-seeking community.

The GPL has now been a reference license for free and open software for over thirty years but it has also been the core of great disputes among the community and sometimes is even seen as the dividing line between distinct ideological groups within FLOSS.

With the idea of conquering proprietary software, which became the industrial standard for at least two decades, extremely fast-growing developer-communities arose. Several operating systems (best known are GNU/Linux and BSD) have been developed and licensed as free software. Despite the unquestionable success of Microsoft Windows and Apple OSX in desktop computing, a huge amount of Free Software projects have emerged and have been developing software for nearly every purpose. The fact that most of the infrastructure of the internet, the implementations of several standards within communications technology and also the core (kernel) of every Android and iOS-device is nowadays based on Free Software shows that its idea has become much more than a small counter-movement within hacker communities. In fact, by establishing complex practices of cooperative and decentralized work driven by this distinct vision of freedom, Free Software has made a deeply formative impact on how our digital world is structured today.

It is crucial to understand that the transformative power of Free Software isn’t only measured by the extent to which its projects have spread. Beyond the undeniable success of the movement in that regard, it is also enlightening to investigate the structural consequences and the practical implementation of this very vision of freedom. From a freedom-theoretical perspective it is remarkable that Free Software has found ways to derive habitually and structurally formative practices from its just described ideological and legal foundations of freedom.

Recursive Publics and Their Platforms

Free Software licenses understand freedom as a mode of interacting through a certain medium – the medium of code. Freedom in FLOSS is therefore not a goal in itself but a mode of collaborative interaction, which takes the structural and habitual necessities into account.4 This can be elucidated by looking at several paradigmatic operational procedures. Free software not only gives anyone who chooses to engage in software development the chance to provide his/her own ideas to a specific project. It is also responsible for the fact that a special need for appropriate platforms and environments arose which would allow the developers to not only submit their own code but to cooperatively, even simultaneously work on the same code: For that reason working communities have invented numerous tools for collective code manipulation. The initiative for the creation of those tools came from the core of the Free Software Movement and was driven by the vision of sharing the different capabilities, the highly specific knowledge of a great number of people, which was required for new and original solutions. They came to the realistic assessment, that milestones in large scale projects are only to be reached by a critical mass of participants.

For the decentralized development process ‘version control systems’ are most important.5 These platforms are tools that structure the way people collaborate in software development by displaying the process of growth of a project and thus making the history of co-authored development itself transparent.

Whoever has the technical capabilities of reading and writing code can engage in the enhancement of the different parts of a program by implementing new features, fixing bugs and security issues, adapting it to personal needs or making it easier to use. They can either adjust a program to their own needs or they can engage with the development community if they consider their ideas noteworthy for others.

Depending on the organizational structure of a given project, people can either directly submit their ideas of improvement (into the so called ‘master branch’) or they can submit their suggestions by creating an own branch. This is the very point that decides whether the freedom of FLOSS leads either into a fragmentation of different branches where everyone starts his/her own branch or whether it can grow a culture of co-dependent joint development. The technical process of this is called ‘pull-request’: It means handing in a code snipped via the platform that is used for the organization of the joint development of a given project. Pull-requests aim at solving existing security-issues, at finding solutions to either known or overseen problems of the program and eventually show so far unseen possibilities of enhancement of the software. Pull-requests can also — in a non-deficient-oriented way — add one’s own sense of creativity by contributing ideas of further development that entail new functions and directions that would meet the needs of other people who are using the software.

Generally speaking, pull-requests are initiatives of individuals who want to provide solutions that might be useful for the project by contributing their particular knowledge of how certain issues can be dealt with. For that reason, pull-requests need to be explained and have to prove their value to the project before being implemented. Therefore, pull-requests can be accompanied by large discussions via mailing-lists or other communication tools and sometimes trigger conflicts within the community.

If others review the submitted modifications as valuable to the project, the changes can be merged into the ‘main-branch’, which is authoritative for big releases. Merging two branches requires a thorough understanding of the specific features of every branch and eventually leads to the enhancement of the initial project. However, if the maintainers of the master-branch reject the suggested modifications, it doesn’t mean the end of this development branch. If the initial contributor (maybe together with a minority of other users) sticks to the assessment that their contribution is nevertheless valuable, one is free to continue to work on one’s own branch. On the long run it might turn out to be more useful than at first sight and eventually will be merged into the master-branch after all.6

Merging and branching are counterparts of cooperative development by incorporating high-frequent just-do-it- as well as trial-and-error-habits: They epitomize differentiation and synthesizing of creative work, which stays itself revocable and open for change.

All this can be done with decentralized version control systems. The technical functions I have outlined show how the idea of free software has led to the development of platforms which help to facilitate the joint efforts of collaborative software development by making the contribution both organizable with respect to quality control while being highly transparent to the public. They are an essential part of how the legal framework of the GPL is implemented as a practice of collaborative freedom. Christopher Kelty, an anthropologist who has published a book on the habitual practices of FLOSS, sees in actions like these the specific sustainability of the Free Software Movement that goes beyond its mere ideological foundation: “The ideas of sharing and common property and its relation to freedom must always be produced through specific practices of sharing, before being defended.”7 This can be characterized as a ‘recursive public’ as it combines an infrastructural framework that arranges complex interactions: “Two things make recursive publics distinct: the ability to include the practice of creating this infrastructure as part of the activity of being public or contesting control; and the ability to ‘recurse’ through the layers of that infrastructure, maintaining its publicness at each level without making it into an unchanging, static, unmodifiable thing.”8

For a concept of freedom that is based on the idea of sharing and cooperative networks such as developer communities, the transparent and itself revisable development of platforms as the structural base of practices of freedom is crucial. Without them, the idea of freedom is either limited to a pure potentiality or misses the awareness for the requirements of concrete actions of freedom.

Requirements for Participation and Knowledge Communities

So far, I’ve outlined the emerging structures of collaborative development which manifest the freedom to study and manipulate software code in a joint way. I have shown that the freedom of free software isn’t only rooted in the ideological and legal foundations of a free license but in structurally maintained practices that depend on a critical mass of interaction.

But this interaction is not only to be understood as the active development of a few skilled programmers. The success of FLOSS is also based on the fact that it has implemented ways for less technically skilled people to make contributions that are important for the enhancement of a given project. E.g. by translations, sending in bug reports, responding to surveys that ask for users’ wishes for further development and new functionalities. And also the mere usage of free software has driven the standardization of the internet’s foundational communication protocols (TCP/IP) and data types alike.9

This means that both the usage of a given program as well as different forms of its co-development foster the dimensions of freedom that Free Software envisions.

In the following, I want to concentrate on the requirements of active and (co)creative engagement in FLOSS-projects because its strategies of countering the thresholds of engagement are insightful for the theological adaptation, as I will show later. In FLOSS these thresholds are mainly localized on the level of abilities: Co-creative participation in the freedom of FLOSS is a question of knowledge, experience and skills as one needs to know how computer programs are developed, how code is written and how complex projects are designed.10 The technical and communicational capabilities have to be learned and taught. This requires a high sensibility of not only mutually sharing knowledge about a given project but also about how to connect and interact with the habitual standards of its development community. The simple idea of freedom as a desire for transparency and openness is worthless if people are unable to benefit from it.11

FLOSS-culture has realized this from its early days on and understood that, in addition to its transparency, making it a recursive public, it must face the challenge of enabling and empowering others. Thus, the mere sharing of code isn’t enough to derive a liberating effect from the idea of free software.

This is why since its appearance the 'Free Software Movement' has incorporated ways of mutual education, which is performed in sometimes excessive documentations, highly frequented online forums and mailing-lists that often care for a welcoming and supportive environment within the community while fostering the quality of its contributions.12 Freedom of software correlates with sharing knowledge. Thus, it is not coincidental that the idea of Free Software has influenced other knowledge based sectors: The invention of a collaborative content management system for documentations has set the foundation of today’s most used encyclopedia: The technical infrastructure of Wikipedia is a derivative of what participants of Free Software have already used decades ago for documentation purposes and it is developed as Free Software until today.

The implementation of data-mediated freedom through openness, transparency and participation has not only transformed the ways of software production but also the creation, evaluation and spread of knowledge. The rise of Open-Data, Open-Science and Citizen Science are prosperous examples of the intertwining of qualitative collaborative work and the educational and knowledge gaining movements.13

Despite all efforts, it is evident that most implementations of freedom in FLOSS — especially the freedom to manipulate and to become creative in the development of software — is only performed by a few. Engaging in free software development and programming free software is still an activity of either professionals, who are either paid directly for writing code or who need this code for professional tasks, or a few enthusiasts.

However, the long-term effects of what FLOSS is envisioning are enormous as they change the way people communicate and cooperatively co-author the narratives of the digital. By inventing its own infrastructural basis of joint efforts, the concept of freedom within free software has affected the life of everyone who is using an online device. This shows how practices of freedom and their effects can be masked anonymously. But it also demonstrates, that actively and explicitly offering freedom in and of itself might not be convincing to everyone in the same way, as it depends on how one can make use of it. The prevalence of free software shows that practices of freedom are obliged to reveal their immediate practical usage and to give reasons why one should expense time, energy and creativity to leave the seemingly safe haven of proprietary software,14 which actually restricts not only developers but also the users in a way that they are often not even aware of.15

The Risk of Competing Visions

The idea of free software reacted to the fact of limited resources, working hours, technological knowledge, and creativity of individuals who were nevertheless eager to chase after big visions of technological development. By releasing software under free licenses, people like Linus Torvalds, the inventor of the Linux kernel, opened the development process to the public. They trust in the positive effects of crowd-based co-creation that is driven by the commitment of individuals who share their experience and knowledge. Free Software therefore ultimately profits from the coexistence of multi-individual knowledge and contextual experience which are brought together.

But licensing software under a public domain must not be misunderstood as simply distributing programming tasks to an arbitrary public. Although this might be one of the initiator’s interests, especially when FLOSS-practices are adopted by commercial software companies, the consequences can be way more unpredictable. To dispense with a copyright by publishing software under a free license means for most people to dispense with one’s exclusive authority of decision making in the future. It means to switch from the copyright of an owner to a generally open process of co-authorship with unforeseen outcomes. The practices of FLOSS show that freedom — for the initiator as well as for any contributor — is highly ambiguous and eventually may result in a competition of different visions.

On an individual level, releasing software as Free Software means not only to provide a final product, but to take the risk that the very work that one values as useful and powerful enough to be published will be criticized, adopted or even misused by others. Although the main currency of FLOSS-practices is public recognition and reputation, the publication of code snippets nevertheless requires the admission of the fact that it implies the openness of results. As described before, this openness to competing imaginations and visions can ultimately lead to division within communities (forking) and are a frequent cause of personal frustration. This can occur because of a lack of response to pull requests that people have put energy into, because of a lack of understanding concerning the demands of a project16, or because of political issues.

But FLOSS-practices don’t only reveal individual vulnerabilities. Until today FLOSS-practices have been widely adopted by a lot of software companies which expect positive effects of encouraging the public to participate in the development of their products.17

Of course, this poses a potential risk to the driving ideological ideas of Free Software: Its notion of freedom that it is mediated by software and therefore mainly independent from its engaging subjects is highly vulnerable to the shifts of power, e.g. when not only individuals but companies enter the field with a decisive business plan that becomes authoritative.18 Although a free share-alike-license19, which demands that further developments have to stay licenced as free, legally guarantees that a given FLOSS-project won’t be turned into proprietary software, the funding and organizational leadership of big players nevertheless have a strong influence on the dynamics of a given project. On a small scale this can influence practices of writing and implementing code and on the long run this generalizes the ideas of a company or a patron for the whole project. This certainly corrupts the idea of equally competing visions and the openness of the development process which is the most persuasive element in FLOSS.20

It is the very reason why the conflict between Open Source and Free Software plays a significant role in the question of how freedom can be sustained: While the Open Source Initiative attaches more significance to the actual practices of collaborative development, the Free Software Movement is additionally concerned with the explicit conception of these practices as practices of freedom. In theological terms, one might call it the doxology of freedom that the Free Software Foundation finds indispensable for implementing and sustaining the practices of freedom. This is the reason why the Free Software Movement puts great emphasis on the label free, as it communicates the ideological background and its visionary narrative.21 It not only states the wish of a certain sustainability but also keeps up the proclaimed vision of a just society through the appreciation of free and collaborative gaining of knowledge. Contrary to this, Open Source is generally more interested in the direct effects of dealing with the openness of the source code without missionarily supporting the ideological basis of transforming societies from proprietary distributed information. It is mainly interested in spreading the concrete practices of FLOSS in order to foster high quality software through the experience and skills of the crowd, whereas Free Software shows a tendency to spread its idea of freedom and by directly and deliberately countering proprietary modes of development. It highlights the intertwining of practices and praise of freedom. Thus, it doesn’t simply trust in the system-immanent powers of self-spreading freedom but it openly and directly faces the challenges of commercial occupation and the assimilation of its practices through other ideologies. It incorporates the idea of the constant and open competition of visions through its name-giving doxology of freedom.

Theological Resemblances

Free Software is neither a nominalistic claim nor a mere collection of habits of interaction. Rather, as I have shown, Free Software/FLOSS has achieved to derive concrete practices and sustaining structures of freedom from a distinct concept of freedom. This is the initial point of my examination of analogies between Free Software and Protestant theology.

From the events of the Reformation on, Protestant theology has referred to certain notions of freedom in order to describe the Christian faith as well as its dogmatic, ethical and existential implications. In the following chapters I want to examine resemblances of the above ascribed structure of the intertwining of fundamental claims of freedom and the shaping of practices of theological freedom within Protestantism. For that purpose, the analysis of FLOSS-culture serves as a spotlight, which sheds light on the texture of Protestantism and its embedded practices of freedom. This can either make visible certain freedom practices in Protestant theology that may even resonate with FLOSS or it can also illuminate the differences which distinguish them from each other. What follows is an endeavor in search for analogies as well as contrasts between FLOSS and Protestant theology.

The following considerations are based on the observation that practices of freedom in FLOSS are concrete communal (inter)actions. This resembles the Paulean understanding of the faith in Christ which is fostered in communities of faith in the presence of the Holy Spirit (Rom 8,5—11; 1Cor 12,12-30). It is only to be understood in concrete communal (inter)action. On several occasions Paul highlights the significance of freedom in Christ which inevitably leads to the formation of communities where people come together to serve another with their gifts and virtues. In Galatians, for instance, he refers to the freedom from the obligations of the law and from the desires of the flesh in order to lead over to the fruits of the spirit, which are characterizing the spirit of the community (Gal 5,13—25). Thus, I am following the trait to overcome the subjectivist idea of negative freedom as mere independence in favour of an approach that values the intertwining openness and co-creativity as characteristic for practises of freedom through faith. Consequently, freedom is to be understood in a pneumatological and ecclesiological contexts: A biblically oriented theology of freedom is about the implementation of practices of freedom that tend to shape communal existences. This existence is characterized by both the openness to its further development by and for its participants and by the building of structures that foster this very freedom in a communal way.

The struggle of the reformation against proprietary distribution of orthodoxy

In a first step I want to observe the resemblances of specific adjustments of the reformation as the implementation of practises of freedom by freeing the promise of salvation through faith from its proprietary distribution. On this first level we can observe similar structures in both contexts: In this perspective FLOSS and Protestantism will appear to be analogs.

It was the struggle of the reformators to challenge the copyright of christian orthodoxy in order to rectify the heretic practice of indulgence trade. The foundational modification performed by the theologians of the reformation was only possible by implementing a practice of theological freedom which was achieved by denying the exclusive authority of religious and theological authorship of the roman-catholic church.22 This directly resembles the paradigm of free software to dispense with the centralization of decision-making by denying any sort of copyright and by freeing software code into the public domain.

In his treatise “On the Freedom of a Christian” Martin Luther deals with the same issue by questioning the centralized restrictions of the Roman Church of his time from an anthropological and christological perspective. His dialectical argument argues against a soteriology that sees salvation externally restricted and regulated -- historically by the religious demands of the Roman church. This first step in Luther's writings on freedom therefore establishes the negative freedom of a Christian whose faith frees him from a soteriological point of view. This approach is then constructively developed in two theologoumena, which lead to a positive understanding of freedom, that render the way, how Protestantism envisions theological authorship: It is the combination of the mandatory scriptural principle and the non-restrictive priesthood of all believers that transform the Reformation theology of freedom into a mode of doing theology.

The scriptural principle as an epistemological proposition initially leads to what Matthias Gockel has called “a theology of open sources,” which holds the referential standard of theological search for truth and dogmatic authorship.23 Luther's emphasis on the importance of the linguistic methods of his time shows that theological authorship on the basis of Scripture must be implemented in a controlled, comprehensible and therefore transparent way.24

The scriptural principle was accompanied by a christologically grounded understanding of priesthood, which is the second foundational implementation of theological practices of freedom:

With reference to 1 Peter 2:9 Martin Luther identified Jesus Christ as the one and only priest and only through their participation in Christ, other human beings ought to be called priests.25 It is the root of the theologoumenon of the priesthood of all believers and within ecclesiology this creates a general field of tension between the exclusive singularity of priesthood in Christ and its universalisation in all who are baptized. This marks the area in which concrete practices of freedom may be localized in an ecclesiological and furthermore in a pneumatological manner.

While Luther and Calvin advocate for a functionally structured church through the provision of ministry, Ulrich Zwingli, the Zurich reformer, explicitly offers a distinct pneumatological approach. He takes up Luther’s concept of the Freedom of a Christian and emphasized the significance of the work of the Spirit that enables human beings to read the bible as the word of God: Therefore he identifies the engagement of the non-ordained as a liberation from the moral and clerical restrictions of the roman church through the work of the spirit, which empowers human beings to understand scripture as the word of God without the guidance of the Church -- or even against it, if it misses to perform its duties.

“This will help all those who adhere to the Holy Scripture, who stand up to the enemies of the Scripture. So read and understand, open the eyes and ears of the heart! Listen and see what God’s Spirit is saying.”26

For Zwingli, the Freedom of a Christian therefore establishes human practices of engaging with the bible, practices that he interprets pneumatologically. Moreover, Zwingli identifies the work of the spirit within these very processes of religious and theological learning through reading the Scripture. This notion has later become known as the testimonium spiritus sancti internum.

Zwingli underlays this with the confidence that the appropriation of biblical texts is not an arbitrary but a spirit-led updating that the individual’s understanding of the Word of God derives from.

Such a pneumatological interpretation of the theologumena of the scriptural principle and the priesthood of all believers shows parallels to the first two freedom claims of the free-software license, which states the freedom to use and to study a given program. Analogous for Zwingli, the liberating work of the Spirit empowers individuals to acquire, study and interpret the biblical texts. However in order to turn this empowerment into a freedom practice of the masses, enormous challenges in terms of accessibility have to be faced. Thus, it was only consequent that the Reformation went hand in hand with translations of the bible, the development of letterpress and that ordinary people were encouraged to learn to read.

However, a mere individual interpretation and application of the biblical texts can only be understood as a first phase of a theology of freedom: After all, Protestantism is characterized not only by the individualization and particularization of religious and theological continuation. Therefore, the next step is to ask about ecclesiological practices of freedom in the light shed by the analysis of FLOSS-culture.

Software/Ecclesia semper reformanda

The history of FLOSS shows how freedom not only enables individuals to study program code and to perform adaptations for their personal needs. Moreover, FLOSS-culture is characterized by the formation of institutionalized platforms that have shaped the understanding of the freedom of software: Public version control systems, for instance, are concrete implementations of freedom practices that enable people to engage with each others impulses for improvement and development. They are the consequent embodiment of the fact that free software is software semper reformanda and can only draw on the full potential of its freeing license by fostering the creative and competent engagement of a multiplicity of contributors. This needs adequate environments and an infrastructure that brings those contributions together. Thus, FLOSS has created recursive publics, which are the basis of collaborative evolution and are able to handle the concrete adjustments in the code by executing pull-requests, which are the procedural basis for the improvement of a collaborative project by suggestions of individuals. We might look for analogous processes within protestant theology by asking, what structural implementations of the freedom of a Christian we have found to perform the idea of the ecclesia semper reformanda.

Protestant traditions offer multiple models, how this theologoumenon can be implemented theologically in the social structure of the church and its endeavor for reflecting, evolving and sustaining its teaching. One of them is the ecclesiology of Friedrich Schleiermacher, who highlights the importance of mutual sharing of religious experience within the community of the church as only the rich plurality of individual impressions can approximate the redemptive work of Jesus Christ.27 Moreover, he considers the shared and therefore over-individual religious consciousness of the community to be the Holy Spirit itself.

Despite the potential of a fundamentally egalitarian approach on biblical hermeneutics through a pneumatological interpretation of the above ascribed theologuma, most protestant thinkers have seen the need for ordering concepts in order to deal with the complexity of the church as an organization that demands securing structures for its visible persistence. And this challenge has returned ever since and whenever the church had to conquer heretic and harmful influences that would corrupt its nature as a community that derives its communal spirit from the freedom in Christ.28

Within this tension of the need for securing structures and a non-restrictive approach on hermeneutics, it is insightful to look at those ecclesiological approaches that have sought to implement practices of freedom through institutionalized structures of the church.

One prominent example is the German Lutheran theologian Wolfgang Huber who’s institution-theoretical approach highlights that the adequate way of understanding freedom within Christian theology is to understand it within a communal paradigm: “It renders as community and mutual understanding, as communio and communicatio; thus, it may be called ‘communicative freedom’”.29 Huber therefore locates freedom within the concrete shapes and actions of communities that individuals engage in. For Huber this applies to all sorts of communication within the church, may it be religious, moral or theological.

The problem with this concept is that there is a lack of concrete implementations of structures that actually promote this communicative freedom and its further development. Huber’s ecclesiology “church of freedom” rather resembles the idea of installing structures of freedom without an adequate concept of how their further openness to development can be ensured. Although Huber mentions the tool of language, he doesn’t pay adequate attention to the dynamics of power within the empirical church.30

In this case, FLOSS-culture can serve as a contrasting template which shows why Huber’s ecclesiology lacks a proper implementation of practices of freedom: We have seen that practiced freedom is always linked to enabling structures through appropriate platforms (recursive publics). Their important task is to implement circular movements of irritation and external impulses by providing interfaces for individuals to engage with their visions and suggestions for improvement. The most successful of such platforms have emerged from concrete needs and the knowledge of the communicative specifics: The success of FLOSS is based on a bottom-up development principle that relies on the particular, non-restrictive involvement of additional contributors.

An ecclesiology of freedom that seeks to learn from the successful cooperative practices of FLOSS may therefore point to a systematic appreciation of co-creative dynamics and emerging structures that the participants actually maintain themselves. In computing as well as in christian communities, this implies the necessity of educational processes that on the one hand cultivate and perpetuate expressiveness which then can lead to the emergence of recursive publics that enable individuals to hand in high quality religious and theological pull requests:

Churches of freedom may search for grassroot structures promoting dynamics that allow broad religious and theological literacy at eye level without undermining the different parameters of the various contributions. This is because it is the variety and speciality of contributions itself, that drives the quality of gaining technical as well as theological knowledge.

On a parochial level, this could be exemplified by appreciating communicative, decentralized community forms. Movements like fresh expressions and emerging church have developed reasonable alternatives to the model of the so called peoples church, which is driven by the vision of an all-compatible program. Contrary, the named movements try to establish platforms of theological co-authorship through flat teaching hierarchies in dealing with biblical texts, the sharing of life experiences out of specific contexts and the sensible evolution of religious practices.31

On the specific level of scholarly theology, approaches such as Citizen Theology pursue the vision of implementing pull-requests for scholarly discourse that integrates the diversity of Christian life forms and religious knowledge in a multidirectional way.32 It is the idea of experience- and context-based learning from theological adaptations to specific requirements that emerge out of situations that put people in an epistemologically favorable position and function as an outset for theological pull-requests. This vision of a systematic implementation of pull-requests is driven by the pneumatological assumption that the teaching of the Spirit does not only act within singularities but through engagement: by sharing religious and theological knowledge beyond certified expertise. Rightly understood theological authorship is always to be understood as theological co-authorship, as reflective assessments about the Christian faith derived from shared experiences and contextual insights into the meaning of the biblical traditions.

Such an epistemic adjustment is not without risk: The open source movement exemplifies that the structural integration of cooperative practices does not necessarily have to support its ideological foundations, as the still active dispute between Free Software and Open Source shows. This correlates with the question about the significance of both orthodoxy and the doxology of the reasons behind these freedom practices. However, this disputability is not a sufficient reason to completely abandon such models. It is a question that every model of ‘church for the world’ has to deal with.33

The development of a theology of freedom in the context of ecclesiology and the church as social constructs of the Christian faith builds on the idea of religious and theological co-authorship, which needs to be properly implemented in social structures of the church and the methodology of its theologies. It understands these as practices of freedom and -- precisely aware of the risks inherent in them -- is relying on the promise of the presence of the Spirit through the various charisms of the members of the Body of Christ. Protestantism needs this breadth of authors for its theologies in order to be enhanced, constructively challenged and developed.

Ecumenism of branches and merges

On a third level I want to use FLOSS-culture, as described above, as a contrast medium to elucidate protestantism’s specific inability to assure its own epistemic standpoint. This makes the embracement of the Spirit’s freedom a necessary consequence.

In order to do so and to visualize the scope of this chapter, I want to concentrate on the structure of how cooperative development takes place in FLOSS: As described above, decentralized development of FLOSS often involves the simultaneous development of different development steps by a variety of people. Small-scale changes are being outsourced to branches and eventually will be merged back into the master branch.

By comparing the practice of this decentralized process of branching different directions of development with the generation and growth of theological traditions, we can unveil the specific blindspot of theology which lies in its non-foundationalism. To understand this contrast to FLOSS, we first need to identify the tertium comparationis which lies in the analogous freedom practice of the separate, yet parallel development of different branches. What version control systems make possible for collaborative code manipulation can be seen in the history of ecumenism: Theology, not only understood as an analytic but a constructive enterprise is a vital continuation of differentiated yet codependent co-authorship. Different theological approaches or even denominations can be envisioned as branches that continue theology not only as a linear development but as independent, parallel, and alternative developments in theology.

Examples for externally driven developments are theologies that point to contextual issues: The emergence of liberal traditions in the nineteenth century is a response to the Enlightenment philosophy in Western Europe. Likewise, the innovations of various liberation theologies have emerged from certain life contexts and experiences of poverty and oppression. By contrast, e.g. internal reasons are the systematic detection of theological blind spots within one's own dogmatics or also new exegetical insights that attempt to rectify certain theologuma. Of course, in most cases external and internal reasons concur. The history of the diversity of theological and religious traditions of Christianity can be read as a complex network of different branches which are sometimes loose- and sometimes close-knit.

This last point shows that the theological tradition isn’t only a history of mere differentiation (branches) but also of mutual interdependencies and stimulation through the difference of theological developments (merges). The practice of theological encounters of different branches promises the possibility of mutual correction. The conversation between different approaches and traditions in the search of theological knowledge may turn out to be quite conflicted or even disruptive and merge attempts most of the times demand a great deal of challenges for the involved branches. What signifies a time-consuming process of merging-conflicts in software development, is for the fides quaerens intellectum the place of constant and not always consensual search for truth.34 Not only the church, but also its reflective enterprise theology is an endeavor semper reformanda.35

However, particular merge processes can not be identified only in the context of explicit theologies. Even in the encounter of implicit theologies, in the practical formation of ecumenical or inter-religious encounters, occasional merges can be discerned. And realistically speaking, this often doesn’t result in a success story of pure common consensus. Again, a closer look at the experiences of FLOSS can illustrate that: For example, large projects like the Linux kernel have masses of branches with dead-ends, which due to their technical, stylistic or political inadequacy are never merged into the crucial branches, which are attracting the interest of the public. Of course, this raises the question of powers — for both software production and ecumenism alike: The maintenance of merges as well as the encounter of different theological development branches doesn’t happen in an egalitarian way. While it is possible, that the decision making in the so called ‘master branch’ of a software project is overtaken by a company or a patron, we can observe similar tendencies in the writing of theology.

This is where the analogy ends and where protestant theology shows its decisive contrast in its practices of freedom: Because by renouncing a synthesizing and boundary marking unity of an organization -- after all, Protestantism knows of no central teaching position -- it also lacks any empirically organizing reference.

Theology, rightly understood, simply doesn’t have a fundamental tool that allows it to locate its own branch relative to a master-branch, because the Christian faith is not to be understood in the category of ownership, but only by means of authorship and co-authorship. Without any institutionalized and theologically legitimized teaching position, there is neither a distinct maintainer of a master-branch nor is there anyone who could label any branch as a universal master-branch without manifesting a paradox of freedom practices. In contrast to the clearly localizable structure of the branches of a development tree in a software version control system, the Protestant epistemological principles lack the possibility of independent verification of their own branches. I have shown this inability to verify above by describing the inevitable tension of the scriptural principle and a christologcal reasoning of the priesthood of all believers. Post-theistic theologies as well as theologies based on the openness, changeability, and liveliness of God will renounce a verifiable reference to a master branch. And they will do so not only for epistemological but also for theological reasons.

The pneumatological assumption on this third observed level is that the self-unfolding presence of the Holy Spirit is not only to be located within the boundaries of what we call church -- which in particular can mean one’s own religious, denominational and contextual bounds -- but that it is the presence of God which acts within the transgressions of these epistemic borders. Without assuming a blurring and indistinct presence of the Spirit, the work of the spirit is however to be seen as a force transcending the boundaries of social and therefore epistemic self-affirmation. In addition to Schleiermacher’s notion of the Holy Spirit within the communal spirit of the church it is therefore adequate to also hope for the presence of God’s Spirit in the differentiated intersections of mutual learning in the broadness of ecumenism. Practicing theological freedom has to take the freedom of the Holy Spirit into account and that it might unfold within unknown contexts that themselves testify the Spirit of faith, love, and hope. Fostering those testimonies of others might eventually turn out to be a more adequate description and even an impulse for solutions of one’s own and particular theological and religious quests. This re-localization would lead from a pneumatology of the spirit in nos (like observed on the first and partially on the second level of the constructive part of this paper) to an understanding of the spirit extra nos toward an inter nos in the encounter of separate branches. While software production follows mostly the logic of technical compatibility and efficiency, theological development is not only to be functionalized for its practical feasibility but also by the question of truth. This is why the question of the discernment of the spirits in light of faith, love and hope becomes the crucial question and is deeply entangled with what I have described so far. The assumption of the spirit extra nos and the mere presence of the other is no guarantee for the enlightening and self-revealing work of the Spirit -- and neither is a mere communal spirit of one’s own branch. It is therefore crucial to understand theological freedom not only in the sense of independence but in the co-dependent engagement with the source code of the christian faith, which is rooted in the engagement with the pluriform and many voiced biblical canon.

A small remark about the eschatological implications of this: This idea of possible and particular merges must not be understood teleologically. The eschaton is not to be envisioned as a super-merge, that re-includes every single branch. It is rather the justification of the diverse and multiple endeavors to conceive the reality of God within this world through the contextual exploration of the biblical promises.


In order to show show how FLOSS-culture and fundamental theologoumena of protestant theology can be compared, I have outlined the intertwining of a proper concept of freedom and the practices of freedom it entails. I have therefore described the concrete phenomena in FLOSS, that have proven to be successful and influential for the ways software is developed nowadays.

By understanding theology as a creative enterprise the category of authorship has shown to be superior over the category of ownership in context of its development. Therefore, I have compared how software development and theological development according to the fundamental convictions of the reformation implement structures of free and co-creative engagement.

I have examined three levels of theological practices of freedom that resemble the fundamental insight, FLOSS has given, which is conceptual connection between a general statement of freedom(s) and its implementation in concrete practices.

The first level has been located in the combination of scriptural principle and the priesthood of all believers. It is the practice of a fundamentally non-restrictive openness of the bible that enables individual to engage with the foundational texts of the christian faith.

On a second level I have shown how the social structures of the church and the development of its theology can resemble the idea of the ‘Freedom of a Christian’. In order to foster the freedom of software, FLOSS has developed recursive publics. By this, it can serve as an example for protestant ecclesiology to foster structures that embody the communal aspects of theological co-authorship.

In the lost section, I have compared the practices of version control systems (branching/merging) with the mutual influence and interference of different theological developments within ecomenism. In consequence, the epistemological uncertainty of one’s own branch in relation to others’ has turned out to be one of the major differences between FLOSS and protestant theology. This is why gaining theological knowledge depends on the constructive transgressions of denominational and cultural boundaries.

I have stated, that these different levels, where we can identify theological practices of freedom, are co-dependent and may be understood in a pneumatological way: By stating the Freedom of a Christian and its corresponding practices of freedom protestant theology expresses its faith in the plural and differentiate presence of the revealing spirit. After all, theological enterprise is not only driven by the aim of mere innovation but it is a quest for knowledge, which can only be carried out by a free development of theology that needs to be cultivated in cooperative practices freedom in order to grasp the plurality of the self-revealing presence of the Spirit.

Clifford Anderson:

Love this phrasing! If we give up the economic incentives to create by not granting authors ownership of their creations, how do we continue to provide authors with the financial means to create new works?

Thomas Renkert:

I get the feeling we’re jumping here from epistemological to metaphysical categories. What I’d be even more interested in are - once again - our practices: Why are there so very few real-world ‘merges’ of communities/churches from different denominational or theological branches?

(I am aware that merges or real forks in FLOSS are pretty rare, too.)

Thomas Renkert:

I think that we need to focus on the issue of marginalisation, too, as it comes into play in theology as well as in FLOSS development. Mere numbers of authors won’t be enough in the end, we need to look beyond quantity to practices of freedom that counteract disadvantages and foster inclusive participation.

Thomas Renkert:

I love this description. My question would be: is it really already pull requests or rather bug reports, feature requests and so on? To put it differently: how can we enable ‘users’ to work theologically on their own or within their smaller community and then make a pull request to a/the master branch? (does the metaphor still work here?)

Kate Ott:

How might we related this to hacking across digital communities, software, and platforms that doesn’t have the same positive ethical bent?

Thomas Renkert:

Very nice, indeed. I feel we need models of epistemic equity and testimonial sustainability if we want to speak of ‘liberating communities"‘. The top-down approach that ignores concrete, actual practices is counterproductive to its own goal.

Thomas Renkert:

nicely put.

Thomas Renkert:

In my view, these structures are nothing but “coagulated practices” in the model of Wittgenstein’s river bed analogy. Which means, among other things, that they are constantly on a quest for their own normativity and the continued actualization of freedom within their practices.

Thomas Renkert:

Statistically over a large number of projects, vulnerability and exploitability could perhaps be seen as an important ‘selling point’ for people who are otherwise ‘ideological free riders’.

Thomas Renkert:

As with all practices, secondary and tertiary effects play a big role apart from the intended benefit. Things like recognition and respect are valuable currency within meritocratic communities.

Hanna Reichel:

This is very interesting and has some parallels with my epistemological deliberations about worldmaking by world-reading/-rendering. The idea that the label might be in some ways be more “real” than the thing itself, or here: the practice itself is not enough, how and as what it is “read” is what matters

Hanna Reichel:

I am very intrigued by this comparison and would love to hear a little more about it

Thomas Renkert:

I feel this is very important: it’s the continued ‘doing’ of practices that is the infrastructure which allows for mass interaction in the first place. This collaborative culture is - as many others, too - essentially bootstrapped.

Hanna Reichel:

I am not sure I would see this as ironic. A standard that someone is free to use to signal certain properties of a work are not a law, much less legalistic, much less oppressive. Freedom as complete absence of rules or norms is a very shallow understanding of freedom. Maybe you can do more to actually analyze the complex relationship of freedom and order/regulation here: What are the conditions of possibility of what kind of freedom, and how do they generate what we understand to be free?

Hanna Reichel:

I think this is a good example how a theoretic universalism and participatory openness doesn’t always translate into practical accessability. It seems that here we encounter specific educational as well as social and class barriers, and despite the theoretical openness software developers are almost exclusively white males…

Extending your parallel with the Reformation - maybe the practices of freedom have to be accompnaied by practices of formation! The bible will be accessible to everyone, but we need to introduce universal alphabetization…

Hanna Reichel:

As a side quip against Dabrock: Maybe our freedom and “self-determination” in the digital age wouldn’t depend so much on “classical education” (in an earlier version of his paper, he invoked the bible, Faust, mathematics and languages) but learning to code?

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Hanna Reichel:

I know that FLOSS might have good reason to uphold digital binaries and see them even as the condition of the possibility of the kind of freedom they envision, but do we need to extend that to gender binaries? ;)

Kate Ott:

agreed ;).

Hanna Reichel:

I am very intrigued by the move from freedom as a good to freedom as a quality of certain practices here…

(Thanks for filling in for the “practices of freedom which I announced in the working title of my contribution to this conference, but didn’t actually end up addressing [that would presumably have become a 3rd contribution, and I already took too much liberty…])

Hanna Reichel:

is this a covert Welker-reference, my friend? ;)

Thomas Renkert:

I am very interested in hearing about the difference between

  • solution-seeking


  • salvation-seeking


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Hanna Reichel:

love it!

Hanna Reichel:

can you provide a reference?

Hanna Reichel:

I hear this mostly in protestant circles, though. Even as a prided identity marker. To me it has always soudned like one of Laclau’s “empty signifiers” - it organizes the discourse, but doesn’t have a substance. People fill in different things (from interreligious marriage to military interventionism) and claim that that is “freedom”…

Hanna Reichel:

this gestures towards some kind of disillusionment, care to detail?

Florian Höhne:


Benedikt Friedrich:

oh yes! hopefully not lost!

Florian Höhne:

I am interested in discussing how non-restrictive such bottom-up developments acutally are.

Kate Ott:

In what ways are the participants already marked by certain hierarchies that get reinforced even in bottom-up development practices?

Florian Höhne:

I very much see this point of your criticism of Huber. What about the dynamics of power in FLOSS-culture? Why are there - for example - so few women writin in wikipedia?

Thomas Renkert:

My guess would be that every set of practices needs conscious entry points for irritations and interventions. Communal practices have a tendency to become hermetic and fall into group-think if they don’t pay attention to testimonial justice.

Florian Höhne:

Ok. That answer my commenty/questions from above…

Florian Höhne:

I see the theoretical point. But how far did this go practically? I am thinking of the case of Felix Manz for instance, whose bible-interpretation against the church/city/Zwinglian theology ended in the river Limmat.

Thomas Renkert:

Right. To stay in Benedikt’s framework: Perhaps this particular theological insight was still constrained by the mode of doing theology imposed by century-old practices?

Florian Höhne:

It is a great idea to narrate this story in terms of copyrights!

Thomas Renkert:

It truly is.

Florian Höhne:

Yes! I agree. To me it sounds a lot like “communicative freedom”. Is it okay that i am reminded of this Tödt-Huber-concept? ;-)

Benedikt Friedrich:

read: ‘master-branch’… will be corrected after the conference as a modification will erase the allocation of the previous comments.

Thomas Renkert:

not anymore, apparently

Thomas Renkert:

My association is: This is the overlap of pneumatology and ecclesiology.

Thomas Renkert:

Actually, it can be shipped as binaries, as long as the source code is also available somewhere (reasonably easy to access).

Frederike van Oorschot:

I am looking forward o discuss the implications of this understanding with you.

Florian Höhne:

…and i’d be interested to hear more about what that means!

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Frederike van Oorschot:

so true - and so often neglected in dogmatics…

Frederike van Oorschot:

I like that description very much and look forward to hear more about it and the consequences you think of in theological research, teaching and writing.

Frederike van Oorschot:

Maybe we can link this to your thoughts on power and power structures mentioned above - priesthood is about power.

Kate Ott:

And to the considerations of power related to knowledge that Hanna discusses.

Frederike van Oorschot:

I would love to deepen this interesting thought in our discussion! It pretty much reminded me of my understanding of the communal process of interpreting Scripture and I am looking forward on your remarks, Benedikt.

Kate Ott:

And to the theological anthropology of Gebara that I lean on.

Frederike van Oorschot:

Very compelling!

Florian Höhne:

Yes, very compelling! What about the about the power-structures and power asymmetries when only individuals are on the field?

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Frederike van Oorschot:

I see a kind of “practical turn” in most of the papers - part of a transition in theological thinking or due to our topic? Just an observation along the way…

Thomas Renkert:

The practical turn is long overdue within theology, in my opinion. But with self-organising collaborative systems that emerge from very few shared norms or ideologies, and in infrastructure-agnostic ways, looking at practices might be the natural way to go.

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Frederike van Oorschot:

I would love to deepen this point regarding to our understanding of knowledge in general. And maybe even think about a theological understanding of knowledge, as you suggest later.

Florian Höhne:

Me too. And i would also be interested in inquiring further into the difference between property and solutions-seeking, between owning an entity and responding to it (in my paper, i was trying to distinguish between owning one’s own action and responding to a challenge, which might be similar to this…).

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Frederike van Oorschot:

This eschatological dimension is a very interesting point, Benedikt.

Hanna Reichel:

do you mean “utopian” or what qualifies it specifically as “eschatological”?

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