Friday, August 30, 2013

Get Thee a Mentor: Theoria, Praxis, and Poeisis

A few years ago Leader Breakthru founder Terry Walling taught me a crucial life lesson. Surround yourself with mentors, ideally a constellation of mentors. 

Identify mentors who are ahead of you, where you aspirationally want to go. Identify mentors who are alongside of you, your peers who are on the journey with you. Finally, mentor people, those who you are equipping to go where you have already been.

Today I called a mentor of the first type. Sometimes in your life/vocation, you feel like you are at a cross-roads, and you need to focus. You're spinning. Outside voices push you in certain directions, internal voices call in another. The result is an unfocused spiral.

This month has been, in some ways, such a month. 

When you talk to your mentor, you expect them to break you out of such circular thinking. How most mentors do this is often surprising. The best come out of left field.

To wit, my mentor said today (I paraphrase), "So Aristotle had these three classic ways of being in the world. Theoria, praxis, and poiesis. Which is your mode?" 

My response: "Well, I've never really known, I tend to think I operate in all three kind of equally."

The mentor: "Well of course, we all do all three, that's how we survive and thrive in life. But what is your dominant mode?"

Me: "Hmm.... well, I guess if I had to say, I'd say praxis."

Mentor: "No, I don't think so. I've watched you for a while. You're comfortable with theory, and you are practicing stuff all the time, but your mode is poiesis. You create stuff, and re-organize existing things into new things. That's your mode."


So, back up. What are theoria, praxis, and poiesis? 
Theoria, praxis and poiesis are the three Aristotelian "activities" of humanity: theoria - the contemplative, analytical mode; praxis - the mode of action; and poiesis - the conjury, the making, or (after Heidegger) the 'bringing-forth'.
Theoria types are philosophers, theologians, monastics. They hunker down and think deeply. Without them, we would be busy but lost.

Praxis types take engines apart and put them back together. They put a new roof on your house. Without them we might be found but stuck.

Poiesis, well, that's the one everyone (including prominent philosophers) struggles the most to define. But conjuring, making, bringing-forth, those are pretty solid definitions.

Creativity. Magic. Muse.

Of course, theoria and praxis are not divorced from poiesis. Creativity relies on much theory, and it takes a practical, technical kind of knowledge to implement what is brought forth in poiesis. But poiesis is in the middle position, more difficult to put a finger on.

Poiesis reconciles thought with matter and time (or at least that is what Wikipedia says). 

For me, in my vocational discernment, this was an immensely helpful way to frame the question. Although I am comfortable in, and regularly engaged with, the life of the mind--and although I am on a daily basis putting my hands to the plough in specific congregational and ecclesial practices--the truth is that I am especially focused on the bringing-forth.

I am an ecclesial poet. Or something weird like that.

Other people, some of them my best friends, simply live for theoria, or praxis. These are not better or worse modes. They are essential and inter-related modes, all of them needing the other to help the world turn round.

The problem and joy of poiesis is that there is not a clear way to get from point A to point B. Since it is the birth of something new, the creation of that which hasn't been or the mixing together of old to create something new, there's a sense in which you can only know what it is you have created a long time after you have created it.

In some sense, with poiesis, you have to retrofit the story of the initial creative impulse that simply emerged.

I tend to think real creativity arises out of rest, out of calm. Frantic busy-ness trying to get it done, even too much study, won't get you there. So this focus, noting that poiesis is my mode, reminds me that I have to stay still, rest, be here. And that's where poiesis happens.

Terry Walling also taught all his students to write a life mission statement. The life statement I brainstormed violates all kinds of grammatical rules and doesn't quite match what we produced in that class a few years ago, but it helps me know what I'm up to for the foreseeable future. So here it is, for what it is worth:
Commit to stability in a context of plasticity and elasticity for non-domesticated meta-poetic liminal ecclesiality for the healing and freeing of the world.
It may make little sense to other people, but it makes tons of sense to me.

I realize now re-reading this how idiosyncratic and personal this post is. But maybe it leaves readers who have made it this far with three actions they could consider:

1) Create a constellation of mentors... who is ahead of you, alongside of you, and "behind" you... write the names down, be intentional, get the people in place who you need and will benefit from you.

2) Which mode is your primary mode? Praxis? Theoria? Poiesis? Are you sure?

3) What is your life mission statement? If you've never tried, write one down. It will be hard, you'll struggle. But it will be worth your time.


  1. I will definitely affirm, from what I've seen of you, your balance among these three, but your strong draw to the poietic rather than the practic. Both of these terms act in semi-synonymous ways as "doing," for example in Romans. But praxis is acting or implementing, where poiesis is making or inventing.

    I think everyone who knows me knows my dominant mode is theoria. :) Much as I enjoy praxis in my alter ego as someone who takes things apart and fixes them, even my poiesis springs from theoria. But might I say, you seem to have written a statement that it takes a theorist, rather than a practitioner or a poet, to decode?

    Is your stability grounded in the plastic/elastic context, or against it? I take it that your commitment to stability is intended to support this husbandry of creative fringe communities.

    From what I know of you, it's probably silly to ask whether you mean the communities or the husbandry activity "for the healing and freeing of the world"—I assume it's both-and.

  2. Thanks for the conversation, Matthew. One thing another mentor told me one time: "For some people, there is a division between heart and mind. For you, your mind and heart are the same thing. Which is why really deep intellectual inquiry can often bring me to tears.

    So similarly, I wonder if there is a kind of poiesis that is theoria focused? Still working on that one.

    Yes, a both/and.

  3. Love this post. I'm guessing my primary mode is poiesis tempered by praxis, all of which is eclipsed by my deep commitment to line editing. Make sense?

  4. What was Jesus? Creative, theoretical, fixing things (like the world).. hmmm