This is the story of my intellectual trek from the limited perspective of a farmer’s son in a small town to the far-ranging vistas of researchers expanding the frontiers of knowledge about the universe.
During and after my college days the classical worldview presented by my philosophical and theological courses left me decidedly uneasy. When I began to teach in church and university, that persistent underlying dissatisfaction continued to sap my spirit. During the sixties any teachers who were brave enough to think carefully about what they said, realized that their leaky old worldview had finally foundered and sunk. Much of what had traditionally been taken for theology followed that hulk to the bottom. Little of it remained afloat except some tangled rigging and loose deck cargo. The core of my own faith would still keep my head above water, come what might. But in the hope of putting together a more seaworthy worldview, one which could carry an adequate explanatory load, I set about gathering everything I could find that would float.
New technologies were taking over the world. Universities which had formerly been dominated by classical learning were being quickly and radically altered by growing technical faculties. While the sciences and technologies were spectacularly forging ahead, the arts, humanities and theology were steadily dropping farther behind. Although I was convinced that what I was saying to students was at least as good and important as most of what I had ever heard, I often felt that my words were going right past them. Moreover around me wherever I went I was hearing things that I myself could not understand.
The time was right for me to find out how engineers look at the world. At the University of British Columbia (UBC) Frank Noakes, then head of the department of Electrical Engineering, listened to my questions with obvious interest. He not only responded helpfully but somehow persuaded Jim Ham, then the dean of Applied Science at the University of Toronto, to “give me the keys” to his faculty during my sabbatical year in 1969/70. Thus opened for me the tremendous opportunity of roaming through the various departments in search of a philosophy of engineering.
The professors of course were quizzical about having this philosopher-theologian at large in their midst. But they were friendly and did their best to answer my unusual queries. George Sinclair, himself in search of a philosophy of engineering, took time to steer me in profitable directions that enlarged my experience. At the outset I myself didn’t quite understand what I was up to, but the experience quickly became highly rewarding. At the end of that academic year I returned to UBC with all my lights on and my wires enthusiastically humming with what I had learned to call “the systems approach.”
Once I had caught the notion of “system,” many of the long-standing paradoxes of classical philosophy became easy to resolve. It seemed to me that this comprehensive conception could provide the framework for a whole new worldview, one which could be appropriated and adapted for theological expression. As I explored the systems theme with people whose opinions I respected, the first exciting trickle of ideas gradually grew into a small stream, deepening and widening as it fed from all sorts of sources. That swelling current of thought enabled me at last to move freely across the fragmented postmodern world.
Systems talk is now acceptable jargon in all technical fields. To some extent the systems approach has penetrated the most traditional university disciplines. In my opinion this new philosophy is worthy of genuine intellectual respect. For me it has opened up great fields of knowledge. Subjects which once seemed to be separate islands can now be understood as one archipelago. Very old writings—especially the Bible—have become much more comprehensible in the new light of systems. But most important of all, this new worldview is obviously incomplete without God. His necessary presence backlights everything at every level of this universe.
This book is intended to put on record where I’m presently at in developing a philosophy and theology of systems. But I wanted to avoid as far as possible producing “another textbook.” Exploring all sorts of subjects was so exciting for me that I didn’t want to lose my enthusiasm in the flat impersonality of academic writing. I decided that, at the “beginning places,” I would share something personal with you—personal bits to be woven later into the structure of the book. Even when I had to lapse into a more “scholarly” style I have included illustrations from ordinary experience, from biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, logic and wherever. Because both technology and theology are such natural parts of my way of thinking, you may find me switching from one approach over to the other and back again quite unconscious of having crossed any firm boundaries.
The librarian who has to catalogue this book has my sympathy. It seems to have a bit of everything in it, plus—are you ready?—quite a bit about “nothing”! Although the book turns out to be about systems in general, if you didn’t know its destination in advance, you might wonder where the steadily climbing road was heading. Chapter by chapter the thinking moves methodically from relatively simple and basic ideas toward conceptions on higher and higher levels, philosophizing in narrative style along the way.
In passing through so many different kinds of terrain I have probably strayed occasionally a little too far from my familiar paths of competence. Apologies to any specialist whose field I may have inadvertently misrepresented. My apologies, however, are perhaps not quite as abject as they should be. I am simply tired of waiting for the specialists to get together and produce a book which will offer us a general worldview that takes into account the whole round of human experience and makes sense of it.
The book in your hands is not written for specialists in any particular discipline. It is for people like myself who want to get a handle on all sorts of new things which they have read about, but haven’t as yet been able to assimilate into a unified picture. As for me, I like to think of myself as a professional human being. That’s MY specialty.
In a general book like this, extensive footnotes would only be a conventional nuisance. However, because systems theology is so “different” from the conventional and traditional, I felt that it would be both interesting and useful to include references to relevant biblical expressions and passages. Unless otherwise indicated my biblical quotations and references are taken from the New American Standard Bible.
At UBC I had abundant access to some top-rated professors who listened patiently to my questions and tried to set me straight on matters touching their specific disciplines. Particularly helpful were Chris Brion, Bart van der Kamp and Hugh Dempster.
A group of professors and graduate students from many faculties and departments has been meeting regularly for fifteen years as the General and Applied Systems Forum—a loosely organized but perspicacious group which we affectionately refer to as “the GAS works.” Papers on a wide spread of topics in all sorts of fields keep demonstrating how deeply the systems approach has made its way into the contemporary intellectual scene. I will always be grateful to the participants in the Systems Forum. Their broad interests and uninstitutionalized “mystical” tendencies encouraged me in my own personal quest. Their keen perceptiveness made me sharpen many of my concepts, and their various modes of expertise added greatly to my knowledge of their respective fields. In particular I owe a great deal to John Milsum, Larry Ward, Jim Whittaker and the late Michael Ovenden.
In the Art Library at UBC Diana Cooper was helpful beyond the call of duty. She kept her eyes open for reference material relevant to my project as it touched upon the philosophy of art.
The then chancellor of UBC, John Buchanan, took a personal interest in what I was trying to do, and dipped into his own pocket to help with the expenses. Miss Hazel Kitchen enabled my wife Kay and me to travel in Britain retracing the course of the Industrial Revolution. Miss Annie Hill provided some technical equipment. With some help from her, the Board of St. Andrew’s Hall made generous arrangements so that I could get away from my regular work to research and write.
No words of gratitude could ever express adequately my appreciation of the work done on the manuscript by three women in my family. Karen, our younger daughter, generously gave up most of her spare time one summer to type much of an early draft. Her sister Dawn, working in Geneva, sacrificed months of what should have been leisure to type and retype the manuscript’s other versions and final copy. Her editorial suggestions were invaluable, her determination was inspiring and her unceasing encouragement was indispensable.
Even in the midst of a long and distressing illness, my wife Kay read every word again and again through all the revisions. She is a practical person with a good background in science, though not in the fields to which I refer the most. She had an uncanny way of putting her finger at once on those passages where my knowledge was the most skimpy. If Kay, when reading the manuscript, came upon something she didn’t understand, she would insist on having it explained to her. I realized that what I couldn’t explain to my wife wouldn’t likely get through to many other people either. Kay’s questions were very helpful—but as the scope of her education broadened, the manuscript steadily expanded. From our learning and working together in honesty and patience, we have reaped very rich relational rewards. My admiration for Kay’s warmth, devotion, courage and perceptiveness knows no bounds.
Having officially retired from academic life, I can only hope that sometime somewhere someone who was not “born too soon” will find in this book more than a few sparks of inspiration. May some fresh wind fan any such coals into a living light by which it will be possible to see farther than I ever could.
John A. Ross