Prospector Pete had never struck it rich. He’d spent most of his working life struggling through underbrush, wading up rocky streambeds and fighting off mosquitoes. Oh, he’d found a few deposits, but only enough to earn him grubstakes to keep going. But someday…
Up a creek in the back country, picking his way over a pileup of flood-jammed dead wood, Pete suddenly notices a green-blue stain on rocks ahead—on both sides of the creek. It’s copper! High above the trees on a rockface there’s a matching green-blue patch—a big one.
Pete quickly lines up the stain areas and pushes away from them through the underbrush along that line. Shortly he finds himself looking up at another copper-stained bluff. Pete’s heart thumps hard. Off comes his beaten-up old hat. He slaps his thigh with it, grins all over, yells and jumps and whoops like crazy. He’s found a really big vein of copper. It runs across the whole valley and back into the mountain. It’s bound to go deep. At last—at last—yippee!—he’s struck it rich!
I think I know how Pete felt when he made his big find. When I stumbled upon the systems line of thinking, it seemed that I too had stumbled upon a rich vein of high-grade ore. You probably wouldn’t understand the wave of sheer joy that broke over me when the notion of systemicity first registered with me. You likely haven’t yearned with all your mind for some fertile figuration which can make sense of this variegated world, yielding a place for everything, holding it all together despite its problems and paradoxes, with nothing obviously left out.
Maybe you haven’t followed the history of Western philosophy as I have, excited by each new insight that originally turned a great mind in some new and productive direction. Or you haven’t shared my disappointment at discovering how far short of my fulsome hopes each new approach fell. So many slippery and ambiguous abstractions. So many questions unanswered. So many issues left out. So many dead ends. And how easy it was to turn each new philosophical structure upside down, inside out and backwards.
My philosophical training had equipped me to be critical and destructive. World War II was on. I knew how to turn the guns of philosophy against the old philosophies and their correlative theologies. The traditional intellectual strongholds were no longer inhabitable. The old philosophical mines had been worked out. Thinkers were halfheartedly sifting through old tailings hoping to uncover a pocket of pay dirt all the others had missed. But it was no use. The concepts and questions which our forebears had respected had long since lost their meaning. The whole works was overdue for abandonment—a ghost town.
Nevertheless I could not bring myself to the point of giving up the intellectual search in which I had already invested so much of my life. Surely somewhere a constructive, positive, intellectually respectable approach to the world could be found. Surely God wouldn’t have equipped me with a good mind, only to withhold the satisfaction of using it worthily. Surely he did not intend me to eke out the rest of my days in frustration. It seemed he had set me a task. I would press on with it as best I could, hoping that in due time, somehow, someday…
Then, like Prospector Pete, I struck it rich. I encountered the notion of system. The first sample ideas which I picked up in that vein proved to be “high-grade ore.” I had stumbled upon what promised to be the richest philosophy I had ever sunk my mental pick into.
It was my understanding of systems that enabled me to venture out of the theological comer of the university. I now felt at ease within the scientific and technical disciplines. More and more of them were adopting in whole or in part a systems approach to their subject matter. I found that wherever I drilled into a subject I always struck “system.” The “ore body” must be extensive.
The model model
When I’m trying to learn something in a specialized field, my feel for system enables me at least to ask intelligent questions and fit together meaningful answers. Just as knowing the grammar enables me to frame all sorts of questions in a certain language, so my knowledge of what makes a system a system helps in understanding how the world looks through the eyes of discipline specialists.
In the past these specialists found it very difficult to communicate with each other. But when a group in one field becomes conscious that people in a different field are also using the system model, easier cross-talk between them immediately becomes possible. So far no other model of the world has served as well as the general systems model in describing so many physical, organic, interpersonal and social processes. If universities intend to contribute towards a commonly shared, viable view of the world for our times, they sorely need this commonality of language and consolidation of concepts. So do theological colleges.
The general systems model provides a conceptual framework that will adequately encompass everything that is presently known about the world. No one, of course, is yet quite clear about what is actually going on in the micro-minirealm of the atomic nucleus. Nor does anyone know much for sure about the whole macro-maxiuniverse. But between these most distant extremes on the scale of knowledge, however, the systems model expresses quite well the way the world appears to operate. Although system components, their interrelating processes and their constraints come in many modes, forms and values, the same general systemic concepts always usefully apply.
Knowledge in any field cannot be developed or explained unless the discipline makes use of some model. Models may be set forth in various modes: equations, diagrams, descriptions, theories, laws, etc. But whatever the selected mode, a model is always systemic. It will describe each of many similar sets of coherent interrelationships through an extensive range of instances.
Since the general systems model is intended to describe any model of any situation whatsoever, the general systems model is the model of all models. This metamodel may not explain much in particular or in detail, but it can direct a great number of relevant questions that probe the adequacy of any specific model of any interesting structure, organization, process or event. Where are the boundaries of the system? Does the model take account of enough external relations? Does it acknowledge sufficient internal cross-connections? Does it include a sufficient number of components? What do the components do? What materials, energies and information are traveling into, through and out of the system? How does the system as a whole behave? What are the sources of control? What are the rules? How are initiatives and resistances reconciled? What holds the system together? What were its initial conditions, and what are the values of its variables at present? How will it behave through time? What can go wrong? With what effect? What will happen if… ?
When someone offers an explanation of a certain phenomenon, I automatically look for the systemic connections. There is more to any phenomenon than meets the ear in a sentence or two. Being aware of the general systems model makes it easier to spot inadequacies in explanations and descriptions. Possible directions for research and development immediately begin springing to mind.
System is the essence of organization. Our society has become a complex organization of complex organizations. Someone has to direct, manage and superintend each of these organizations. Managers who are aware of systems will find the model helpful for understanding what goes on in their organization, and for recognizing and selecting techniques relevant to their tasks. Those in organizational milieux who plan, design, decide, control, predict, diagnose or improve a situation would do well to look closely at system philosophy. They too will find it to contain “high-grade ore.”
Systems are inherently conflictual. They owe their character to a continual tension between opposites. If the gravitational attraction toward the sun didn’t keep pulling a moving planet back into orbit, its momentum would soon take it far off into space. Within every system there is dialectical interaction between oppositional pairs and groups.
Any organization or system that lasts over a significant period of time has somehow succeeded in managing its inner conflict. If any system variable is allowed to increase its influence unchecked, it will destroy the system. Try uncontrolled eating! Every move within a system must therefore be opposed by checks and balances. Cars need motors and accelerators, but they also need steering and brakes.
Anyone in an organization who starts new procedures or develops innovations may expect to encounter opposition and hear the scuffle of dragging feet. All moves towards freedom will meet with restraints and channelizing. Infringement on rights and curtailing of liberties will generate beefing and rebellion. Tensions and conflicts within an organization are not necessarily either signs of the forthcoming demise of the organization, or signs of the emergence of new life. They may simply indicate the continuing life of the organization.
Some Christians expect an unbroken peace of idyllic unity to pervade the church at all times. It has never been so, however, nor will it likely ever be so. The tensions within and among churches are not so much to be wondered at as the fact that after enduring through centuries of stresses and strains, any church at all remains to undergo further tensions. Perhaps if church leaders understood better the built-in oppositional aspect of systems, they would pay more attention to developing their organizational, communication and management skills. They might then receive that blessedness which was promised to peacemakers—perhaps a reward in the form of fewer ulcers and heart attacks.
One of the outstanding strengths of the systems model is its ability to encompass both cooperation and opposition, unicity and diversity, action and reaction. Every complete model must do likewise if it is to avoid unrealistic lopsidedness. Visionary simplistic unities are neither realizable nor comprehensible. Systems must embody opposites and opposition. The drama, the plot of life, the reason for our striving and our sense of having a task in the world, are preserved in the basic constitution of systems. Teachers would be out of a job if it were not for the ignorance of students. Police would not be required if there were no lawbreakers. To whom would ministers preach and whom would evangelists exhort if there were no sinners? The church’s mission requires the continuing existence of unbelievers, heathen, heretics and “the world.”
If the powers in a social structure are to be kept honest and just, critics, protesters, resistors and sometimes even revolutionaries are necessary.
In this world some perennial systemic opposition and resistance will always be encountered. Theologically speaking, this is a major constituent of “the problem of evil.”
Like all other disciplines, theology employs models. In order to explain the relationships between God, humankind and the world, St. Augustine conceived God according to the model of Light. His analogy was biblically based and commonly experienced, yet remained most mysterious. From the systems approach we could have predicted that darkness would appear somewhere in the description of his model. And it surely did.
Sometimes, as in Neoplatonic theology, God was abstractly conceived as Pure Form. The problems in the world therefore must arise out of the stubborn resistance and utter ignorance which characterize material substance, which is the opposite of Form.
St. Thomas Aquinas conceived of God somewhat in Aristotelian fashion as Pure and Perfect Being. Creatures merely “exist,” their various kinds being arranged on a scale of descending degrees of perfection until utter nonbeing is reached. The constant problem with creatures is their deprivation of fullness of being.
Consider three common world-encompassing models, each of which tries to incorporate the same three “components”—God, humankind and the subhuman world—into a comprehensive system. Whether it is the orthodox Judeo-Christian-Islamic model, the humanist model or the natural materialist model, each attaches a different value to each of the same three components. Each takes one of the components most seriously, assigning only lesser importance to the other two.
The common Judeo-Christian-Islamic conception lays primary and preeminent emphasis upon the role of God in the overall system. God is the creator, the provider, the monitor, administrator, savior and judge. Human beings are cast in a strikingly subordinate role. Though the rest of the creaturely world is not entirely neglected, it tends to be regarded rather commonly as a set of mere pawns.
The humanist model is centered in human experience. Relying as it does entirely upon human science, technology and creativity, in this model there is no actual God. Humanists tend to believe that religious people create mythical beings, a god or gods, in order to justify their own enterprises by laying on “divine” rights and sanctions. The world’s subhuman beings may be manipulated, utilized and exploited according to human desires. Sometimes, for teaching purposes, certain animals are humanized and sentimentalized. By itself the world has no transcendent purpose or inherent value. It is simply a stage where human beings do their thing.
The natural materialist model starts from an ever-existing set of material substances which interact according to timeless natural laws that govern all natural processes. The world as we know it evolved through a sequence of random but successful encounters between natural units. The role of “God” is filled here by a vaguely conceived “Mother Nature”—a personified composite of all productive natural systems. Human beings can claim no special right to priority over any other creatures except the right derived from sheer power. In this model human beings are likely to be the villains of the piece, for they keep disrupting the natural order and ruining natural systems.
People who are devoted to one or other of these three different models are inclined at times to denounce the proponents of either of the other models as stupid or malicious. They appear to be adversaries, rivals, opponents, heretics and enemies. It seldom seems to occur to anyone that something in each model could be taken as a corrective for what is overemphasized or minimized in each of the other two.
Each model is an attempt to describe and explain the actual system of things, but each party perceives it all in a different way.
Consider modeling a doughnut. One model could emphasize the intention of the doughnut maker, another the expectations of the doughnut eater, and a third the materials and equipment involved in the process of making a doughnut. Which of these models is right? Each is right in a certain way. Which is inadequate? All are inadequate, but in different ways.
Consider an apple tree, producing its flowers in May. One model claims that God created apple trees to bear fruit for human beings, and that the flowering tree is simply doing what it has to do. Another model imaginatively sets forth the tree’s experience of awakening from its winter slumber, celebrating its springtime joy by freely sending forth its most beautiful blossoms. In terms of physics and chemistry, a third model describes the response of organic molecules to the season’s heat, light and water, all developments being preprogrammed by inherited specific cellular DNA molecules.
Is there any real reason any of these models should be exclusively preferred and the others utterly abandoned? Do they not actually complement or supplement one another? Each describes the same tree, in terms that belong to very different systems.
Used by a mind sufficiently experienced, capacious, flexible and imaginative, the systems approach ought to be most helpful in fitting together the strengths of each different model into a less distorted and more comprehensive way of looking at things.
The notion of a system, as we have seen, is capable of reconciling tensions between opposites. Systems not only are compatible with polarities; they feed on them. An apple tree must produce blossoms, and finds itself free to do so. Systemically, determinism and freedom are only two different ways of describing the same system. So are supply and demand, rights and obligations, egoism and altruism, likeness and difference, positivity and negativity, discreteness and continuity, rest and motion, and so forth. Although describable in many pairs of opposite ways, the universe is what it is and continues to do what it does. Some people will always be glad to receive a doughnut, while others will complain about receiving only one—and that with a hole in it. Both parties are right in a way, but both of them are incomplete.
In systems—however paradoxical it may seem to say so—both mutual opposition and mutual cooperation are not only compatible but necessary. The systems approach to any situation or process therefore tends toward completeness, encompassing a number of points of view. It can assimilate conceptual conflicts and turn them into cooperative coalitions. At its best, systems thinking is characterized by gracious acceptance, generous openness and appropriate humility.
With a little goodwill, different, alternative or opposite models of the same system can be taken as complementary rather than as contending. This must be so, for while protagonists argue about rival conceptualizations, the actual processes of the systems in question carry on and do what they do, oblivious to the heat of the controversy. Light goes on behaving like waves and also manifesting particle-like characteristics. Matter keeps on acting like particles while exhibiting wave-like aspects. Regardless of the contrariness of the various models, light and matter get on with their respective jobs and manage their affairs quite nicely. Systemic light on the matter (pardon the pun!) indicates that we should concern ourselves with assimilating opposing conceptions rather than with defeating them. Many styles of hat will fit the same head and accomplish the same purpose. When the model fits, on occasion we can wear it.
I have become reconciled to the fact that the world and everything in it, other human beings, myself and God are sublime mysteries. I no longer hope for a full grasp of “The Truth” of anything. All I can expect is a reasonably well-fitting model that leaves room for growth. The sciences deal only with models of the actual world and cannot claim to present us with “The Truth.”
It is obvious that no model can be completely adequate for every purpose. The actual terrain always contains many more features than the few which appear on a map. In fact, no feature ever appears on the map—only a symbolic representation of it. Systemic models and intellectual arrogance do not belong together. No one can ever tell “the whole story,” nor can it be told simply, using a single model.
No model of God will ever be entirely adequate. Nevertheless every model of “the world” has a vacant slot at some essential position for an ultimate, dominant mystery that can be filled only by God or some surrogate for God. If “system” and “model” are almost equivalent terms, then a general systems model, as a model of all models, must possess somewhere within it an inherent theological relevance.
Because of its innermost themes and its history, the Christian religion is bound to take its gospel into every cultural milieu. To convey a message from one culture to another, however, is always difficult. Each society views the world in a somewhat different way, and the significance of the commonest things may vary greatly from one cultural worldview to another. The systems approach to the world implies that, whatever cultural models may be in use in the various societies, the general nature of those models must be similar, and that human needs are much the same the world over. The “slots” of each cultural system will be filled by elements, therefore, which function in much the same way as the corresponding elements in any other cultural system. The systems-minded translator will promptly seek out the correspondences between the categories employed in any two systems, using them to facilitate understanding between the peoples holding those systems.
Since the late nineteenth century, Western peritechnical culture has been spreading rapidly throughout all nations on all the continents. The general systems model fits well with a scientific and technical approach to the world. If the characteristic features of Christian faith could be translated into terms which key into that systems model, it should be more easily translatable, not only into terms that are already familiar in a given culture, but especially in those societies where a peritechnical culture has already taken hold.
As modernization proceeds in so-called developing countries, the older ethnic religions could well decline to the point of disappearing. In “developed” countries, nationalistic and racial interpretations of Christian faith have been steadily losing their hold upon the people. Science and technology, despite abundant and well-deserved criticism, are intensely interesting and powerful everywhere. A translation of the Christian gospel into terms that are keyed into the systems approach might lend the message a means of universal understanding that is presently denied to presentations of it which are rather obviously oriented in ethnic and nationalistic directions.
Few people realize how quickly the teaching of Jesus, as well as the understanding of his person and the events associated with him, were forced into cultural molds. He was identified as the Jewish “Messiah,” the “King” of the Jews, somehow the “Son” of their God. An exclusively Jewish cultural label, however, would not likely make Jesus a popular and acceptable figure in Greek and Roman culture. Titles like “the Word” (logos) and “the Light of the world” would be more acceptable among the Gentiles.
Neoplatonic interpretations of Christianity dominated Europe for a thousand years until that otherworldly philosophy began to lose ground to the approach of natural science with its technical achievements. The ideals of human comfort, convenience and power came to have more appeal than Plato’s “Perfect Ideas” in heaven. Christian theology began to be translated into Aristotelian terms. To this very day, classical orthodox Christian theology still smacks more of classical Western philosophy than it does of the words of Jesus.
The classical worldview which underlay traditional interpretations of Jesus is no longer believed anywhere except in certain cultural remnants. Being so demonstrable, the chastened worldview of science in the latter half of this century seems destined to prevail for the foreseeable future throughout the whole world. Systems thinking fits nicely with this revised scientific worldview. A translation of theology in terms of systems might bypass some of the cultural resistance which Greco-Roman-or Jewish-flavored theology has always encountered from non-European cultures, and also from bung-over Western scientific dogmatism.
We must not forget that a feel for the world as a system of interdependent entities is not an entirely modem invention. Such « world was always assumed by Asian, African and aboriginal cultures—and still is, despite the prestige of Western science-based technical achievements. While the concept of system has only recently surfaced and been consciously validated by Western thought, it has been accepted as true everywhere else for countless centuries by the deepest intuitions of the human spirit.
It is truly inspiring to see contemporary science catching up to where prehistoric human beings likely were and where allegedly “more primitive” peoples have always been. It remains for Christian theology also to catch up to the world’s ancient wisdom. Great assistance to this end could be given by the systems approach. Because the systems approach is so easy to integrate with the new science and technology, it is likely to suit the Western mind much better than the “mystical” Eastern philosophies. Systems philosophy could become a satisfactory mediator for the words of Jesus, originally spoken in Asia.
In the Bible, God is always to be understood through some commonly encountered situation which speaks to a discerning spirit. God is like a ruler, a deliverer, a shepherd, a potter, a parent, an investor, a landowner, a speaker, and so forth. Jesus felt free to say that “the kingdom of God is like unto… “all sorts of situations, incidents and relationships.
That only makes sense. If everything in the world is created by God, then each and every thing must surely bear characteristic marks of the Creator’s hands. Discernible in all creatures—not just in human beings—there must be some “image of God.” God is the one “from whom every family [paternity? species? system?] in heaven and earth derives its name.”1
It could quite well be that the systemic character of all things is a true sign of their origin in the same one Creator. Shall we say that their systemicity is God’s image, God’s telltale trademark, imprinted upon them? If theologians were once interested in working out theological matters in terms of something so abstract as “Being,” they should now be willing to explore the possibilities of expounding theology in terms of what is so much more comprehensible, namely relational systems. “Relation,” to say the least, is far less remote from “love” than the concept of “Pure Being.”
To consider the theological possibilities of the systems model is not to identify God with “a graven image.” A graven image is inflexible and static, an obviously poor representation of a living God whose experience and purposeful activity, if not his “Being,” continually change as his world-making proceeds. Systems are never static. Systems change in process, just as Jesus developed throughout the various stages of his life. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews called Jesus “the exact representation [i.e., model] of His nature.”2 God may be worshiped as the ineffable, unsurpassable source and archetype of every system that comes to pass.
Frame and fruit
In all cultures certain experiences have traditionally been considered to be “religious” or “spiritual.” These kinds of experiences fit easily with the systems model. In fact all of them fit with it so well that it is difficult to say whether systems thinking is the basic model for religion, or whether the makings of religion are inherent in the systems model. Perhaps the notion of “truth” covers both approaches.
When people realize how utterly dependent they are upon a vast variety of existing resources and conditions, they can be filled with reverent, grateful awe. They intuit the inescapable presence of Someone who reminds them of their individual vulnerability and personal limitations, but who also provides for them and sustains them by an intricate system of relationships and arrangements.
After being born, babies cannot survive for very long if what they need to stay alive is not readily available to them. The newborn don’t realize that from the beginning they have been provided for. Normally the physical environment which surrounds them is responsive, not hostile and barren. A mere cry brings mother’s milk, comfort and care. The social system of adults has already been at work extracting from the world the essentials for living, and these are shared as necessary with the growing child.
Sooner or later it may dawn upon a person that the vital fit between him or her and the world around is not a matter of mere chance. Amazingly enough, the universe has mysteriously conspired to produce this person, equipping him or her to respond to it in the ways called life. How wonderful to discover that one has been provided for, that one “belongs” in the great scheme of things!
Millions who reflect upon the complicated arrangements that created and upheld them feel constrained to believe that a Higher Intelligence must have organized it all. With deep wonderment, they experience the whole vast system of things as wise and beautiful, powerful and good. They see that the source of what is so vitally important to all deserves veneration—a place of supreme value.
Many who are born, however, don’t live very long. Some live longer than others but never reach their potential. In the end, all die. If deaths due to privation, “untimely” deaths and deaths in general are to be reconciled harmoniously with the otherwise benevolent, providential system which successfully fosters so many, a more complex understanding of the systemic context is required.
Maybe you remember occasions when exactly what you urgently needed appeared “out of nowhere,” just in the nick of time. Often a long journey, an amazing process or an extended period of preparation had to take place before what you required arrived at the right place at the right time under the right conditions. When what you needed thus comes to you, and when you think about all that had to be gone through to make possible the auspicious occasion, it is difficult to resist feeling that such “timeliness” resulted from Someone’s careful planning and gracious forethought. How wonderful to feel “planned for” by the universe!
Sometimes, because of opportune circumstances—the present state of the system—a person comes to sense not only that a certain goal is worthy and achievable, but that he or she has been “called” to attain it. The world seems to focus in upon that one person, enhancing his or her personal significance and responsibility with a certain sense of “destiny.”
Instances when the worid of the future could not have become what it did if certain persons had not made their particular contribution, serve to remind each one of us that our acts as individuals can have far-reaching consequences. The ripples from a pebble falling into a pond will travel to every point of the entire shoreline and make an observable difference there. Just so, an individual’s initiative in any situation can contribute something unique to the world, and thus to the experience of God. That “something” would never have existed without that person’s action.
No one who is aware of the systemic nature of things and of the potentialities of personal participation in events can take life to be utterly meaningless or absurd. Systems philosophy is the antidote to nihilism. We can make a difference to the systems of the world, and every difference makes a difference.
People who understand that many, many things in their past have worked together to make them what they are, and who see that what they are doing affects other people and things, find it much easier to have a fellow-feeling for all creatures, human and otherwise. To feel bound up with them in “the bundle of the living”3 enables us to rejoice in the joys of all the creatures, to relax in their peace, and to give thanks for all good that comes to others. Of course it also means that we feel the suffering of those who are afflicted, so that we not only “rejoice with those who rejoice” but “weep with those who weep.”4 From such participation in the mutuality of life, the cross of Jesus gains a profound dimension of meaning. Even the experience of excruciating pain may derive a bittersweet sanctification from the cross and be transmuted into a positive, uplifting blessing.
A systemic sense of unicity with what is ultimately of divine origin is the experience of the branch abiding in the vine.5 Jesus prayed: “Even as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be in Us… ; I in them and Thou in Me. “6 He believed that one result of his coming among us would be that a new sense of oneness would arise among the human race, and prayed “that they may be one, just as We are one. “7 This systemic understanding of the relation between believers, Jesus and God lies at the very heart of New Testament Christianity. Long bypassed by rationalist theologians, it has usually been taken seriously only by “mystics.”
Each human being is born into some particular social grouping. As children grow up in a grouping’s social system, they become aware that people around them have definite expectations concerning their behavior. Wherever they may go, their group’s expectations continue to exert a powerful obligation upon them to do their duty and fulfill their responsibilities. The cultural metaworld of social rules bears down upon the individual, enforcing conformity and encouraging performance.
Although the pressure of the moral code is often mediated by parents and various associates, its full weight never appears to reside entirely in any of those immediate personal contacts. Even before parents or other leaders in the community came on the scene, the rules that govern the group’s way of life were already there. The source of those powerful and immortal rules is therefore nonlocatable and invisible— probably divine. These rules preside over, pervade and structure the entire community, binding every member of it to obedience. This elusive but powerful moral force is experienced as “bigger than all of us.” Kant labeled this commanding and mysterious systemic metaworld “The Categorical Imperative,” but others have taken it for the pressure and pulling of the will of God.
Whoever fails to meet social and personal obligations feels guilty, and carries a troubled conscience. The word “conscience” is an appropriate systems word for, in its origin, it implies that people have a way of “knowing things all together.”
When someone puts aside individualistic wishes and goes along with the overarching compulsions of the social system, the community gives him or her praise and support, as when young people volunteer for military service in a war. These rewards may inspire further courageous self-sacrifice, such as bravery on the battlefield. The community also defends those who are wrongfully treated and offers helpful compassion when they are suffering. All of those who truly belong together are expected to love their neighbors as they love themselves. In a “we” system, it is easier to understand the love of God by analogy with the concerned community.
Occasionally someone may break away from a social system and try to behave as a self-sufficient individual. Such persons go their own ways and do what they want to do whenever they want to do it. But When an individualist like the “prodigal son” has spent everything and then comes to his senses,8 the wandering one may realize that he or she has been missing out on important things by deserting his or her family’s “we” system in order to participate in a foreign “swine-raising system.” Employees are not necessarily treated the same way as sons and daughters. The two systems have different rules, and different messages circulate in them.
To feel that one really belongs to a certain system, the component people in it must be accessible, available, accepting and receptive to other component people. They must be sensitive to each one’s presence and appreciative of each one’s efforts. It is necessary to soak up the lore and experience of one’s fellows. When such mutual messages freely circulate throughout a social system, the glow of personal participation in the larger, supportive organization can be akin to religious ecstasy. Such a family generates undying gratitude and loyalty. A marriage which sustains such sentiments feels as though it had been “made in heaven.” Long-lasting marriages of this quality become much more massively and richly significant than the most exciting temporarily shared experience of two singles.
People come into Christian churches from many different nations, races and social levels. Some may have little Christian background. It may take a long time for a stranger to feel at one with those who have already found a place for themselves in a certain congregation. Once the newcomer, say, a woman, has experienced a good deal of what regularly goes on in that congregation and has come to understand its history and present objectives, she may begin to feel at home with its people. If she has become the center of especially loving, helpful interest on the part of a number of church members, she may feel a deep, personal response to their caring and realize that she really belongs with these people. In a great rush of tingling warmth she comes “on line” with the others and is “united with the body of Christ by the Holy Spirit.”
Participation in systems which successfully accomplish an important task can awaken deep emotions. Athletes representing their respective countries find it a tremendously stirring experience to take part in a great Olympic procession representing their own country. Musicians who have played well together experience a kind of mutual exultation. How delightful to be part of a skilled troupe of dancers, each of whom manages to be in the right place at the right time doing the right thing to fit with the others. The experience of social integration, of mutual response and coordination with others can produce extraordinarily powerful feelings, feelings closely comparable to those which arise during the most miraculous moments of spirituality. That there is some connection between social solidarity and unicity with God is evident from these self-transcending phenomena.
Every bush afire
The systems model is capable of demonstrating the supernal dignity of systems that are so common, ordinary and familiar that they are taken for granted, neglected or forgotten. Even self-styled “secular” minds are sometimes overcome by awe and wonder as they trace out the intricate details of some tiny organism’s incredible organization. Who can go unimpressed by the well-timed unfolding of the successive stages of an organism’s development? Who has not marveled at the utterly ingenious arrangements which fit a living form to its environment, and vice versa? For open minds, living systems have rather obvious religious implications. Not only the bush that burned in the desert for Moses, but every other common bush everywhere, is afire with light from a divine source.9
If the systemicity of every system is taken as God’s signature on his handiwork, the marks of the presence and power of God are available for experiencing in, under, by and with anything anywhere anytime, organic or inorganic.
Christians should never allow their attention to be drawn exclusively toward unusual and “spiritual” experiences. If the world’s various domains are being distributed among the several intellectual disciplines and only the extraordinary realm of occult and spooky phenomena is willingly conceded to religion, Christians should object. There are Christian scientists and philosophers who can stand on equal terms with the world’s foremost researchers and teachers. Why should they not be among the very best of them all, since they not only see what the others see but, in addition, are able to discern and celebrate the uncommonly wonderful aspects of the most commonplace subject matter?
My mother used to have a scrap box into which she put pieces of cloth from various sewing projects. Eventually she would make them into interesting patchwork quilts. Religious history, it seems to me, has dumped a scrap box of leftover and outmoded models onto our contemporary table. The heap contains former insights that are too good to throw away but aren’t good enough to display proudly in the most respected company. Some loyal souls are still willing to keep patching them together to make something useful and acceptable. Meanwhile in all departments of knowledge the loom of systems thinking is already producing smart-looking patterned fabrics. Even the most ingenious collage of fading patches cannot hold for long the interest and convictions of a consciousness attuned to systems.
Classical models of God and the world are practically useless today as frames of reference for organizing our modem experience. Inability to move beyond inherited models has greatly reduced the force of the Christian faith. It’s high time to begin exploring the possibilities of expressing religious faith in terms of systems.
Many Christians prize greatly the “gift” of being able to speak in incomprehensible tongues. I crave the ability to speak about God to the age in which I live in such a way that it immediately makes sense to them. For me, that would be the most valuable product that could ever be derived from the “high-grade ore” of systems philosophy. Charles Wesley sang:
O for a thousand tongues to sing
My dear redeemer’s praise;
The glories of my God and King,
The triumphs of his grace!
“Systems language” is at least one of the thousand tongues in which the human race can praise God.
1. Ephesians 3:15.
2. Hebrews 1:3.
3. 1 Samuel 25:29.
4. Isaiah 63:9; Romans 12:15.
5. John 15:5.
6. John 17:21, 23.
7. John 17:22.
8. Luke 15:11-20.
9. Exodus 3:2-4.