CATALYST SUGGESTION SHEET #33
WE NEED SYSTEMS
Human beings necessarily form structures when they come together for a common purpose. If the truth be told, we probably do this even when we act on our own. We are system-making animals. We cannot live without systems. We need them for the obvious practical value of enabling us to live and work and play together more or less successfully. But we also need them for a much deeper purpose: Systems enable us to preserve our sanity. They carve out a patch of meaning in a world that would otherwise overwhelm us with meaninglessness. Systems are like a spotlight in the dark. Initially at least, we find our identity and sense of security through systems.
We could say systems are structures that more or less govern our thoughts, words and deeds. The structures may be constituted and manifested in many ways, for example in ideas, images, symbols, written rules, architecture, rituals, customs, modes of dress etc. Some systems are bigger and more complex than others (eg a national culture versus a school culture), some are very informal (eg a social tennis group) while others are more formal (eg a Lions Club or the Masonic Lodge). The same system might occupy a large part of one person’s life and a tiny part of another person’s life (eg a parish will ask more of the pastor than most of the members of that parish). Typically, we all belong to many systems. Systems are always and everywhere imperfect.
The structures that constitute any system are, for the most part, human fabrications. They are, if you like, mostly fictions – necessary fictions but fictions nonetheless. Take, for example, the way we dress. Can you think of any human system in which the mode of dress is an absolute, an objective given, an utterly indispensable necessity? Of course not. And the same applies to the various rituals, symbols, customs and so on that constitute any system. That we have structures and systems is an indisputable and necessary fact of life. That those structures and systems take this or that form is a negotiable fact of life.
If we say the structures constituting a system are fictions we are not thereby saying those structures do not really count for anything. Start changing or violating those structures and you will realise very quickly how important they are. Withhold a handshake when the other holds out his or her hand, for example, and you will probably get an angry reaction. Or consider culture shock: We are vulnerable to culture shock precisely because these structures actually leave an imprint on our nervous system when we live them for long enough. Very easily we think of the culture of our youth as the normal way for human beings to live. Systems, such as culture, routinise our behaviour and create blind spots to other possibilities.
We tend to find our identity and security through systems. Some of us never outgrow this need. Thus, common human phenomena such as resistance to change, racism and religious prejudice can be better understood if we realise the place of systems in our lives and the particular hold a system and its fictions might have over this or that individual or group.
THE CATHOLIC CHURCH AS A SYSTEM
The Catholic Church too must develop and maintain credible structures and appropriate fictions. A most serious question arises: In the structures of the Church, what is "an utterly indispensable necessity" and what is not? Too easily we have allowed ourselves, over the centuries, to become terribly confused about this. In addressing that question we need to bear in mind the absolute necessity we have for structures of some kind or other and how deeply they establish themselves within us. Consider the Eucharist. The Eucharist is an essential part of the Christian life. It is a non-negotiable. However, the form we give that celebration is definitely negotiable. We might consider, further, whether unleavened bread and wine from the grape are "an utterly indispensable necessity". And even if we, as a Church, decide they are not, we might then ask whether we should stick with those ingredients anyway. And so the discernment should be promoted through ongoing conversation throughout the Church from generation to generation.
One of the functions of authentic religion is to provide us with a system through which we can find the Ground beyond systems. Paradoxically, the purpose of religious systems is to help us live with detachment within any and all systems. Religion will fail in this critical work when it invests too much time and energy on its structures and not enough on God. Thus the structures may cease to be recognised as fictions and the means may become ends and the ends may become means, the relative things may get absolutised and the Absolute may be relativised. Thus the system, which is called to bear witness to God, may become a god. Hence the need for ongoing critical reflection and discernment within the Church.
A word of warning needs to be sounded at this point. Renewal of the Catholic Church is not primarily a matter of reforming the system, changing the structures, valuable and necessary as this is. It is possible to change structures for the better but be actually worse off if minds and hearts do not change for the better. And vice versa, it is possible to be better off with the same old inadequate structures if minds and hearts change. Life is not what happens to us but what we do with it. Failure to realise this simple truth can leave people frustrated and chronically angry. This in turn may lead to despondency and even despair.
JESUS AND SYSTEMS
Jesus respected the human need for systems and their fictions. "Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets" (Mt 5:17-19); he taught the people in their synagogue (cf Mt 13:53-58; Mk 6:1-6; Lk 4:16-30); he urged his disciples to pay Caesar what belongs to Caesar and God what belongs to God (cf Mt 22:15-22; Mk 12:13-17; Lk 20:20-26); he instructed his followers to remember him in the breaking of the bread and sharing of the cup (Mt 26:26-29; Mk 14:22-25; Lk 22:19-20). But there is no evidence that Jesus had in mind any particular system with particular fictions. In fact, he conflicted with the religious authorities because they had focused on a particular system and lost sight of the Covenant that system was supposed to serve. Jesus’ vocation as the Son of God become human, was to set us free by winning the victory over the source of all oppression. He did that through the Cross. His resurrection is the affirmation of his victory. He says to us: "You must have systems, so make sure they serve you well. Let them be instruments of liberty rather than oppression, let them bear witness to the prodigal love of my Father rather than your own anxieties and fears, let them enable you to live in communion rather than hostility, let them be the instruments whereby you come to know that you are called to be in Love!"
SUGGESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND DISCUSSION
- Describe a system and some of its structures which you have experienced in your life?
- Contrast those structures that have served you well with those that have not? Reflect.
- Can you imagine living without structures? Reflect.
- In what sense can we say systemic structures are fictions?
- Do you understand the difference between Eucharist as such and the form of celebrating it? Reflect.
- What do you think is absolutely necessary in the life of the Church?
- Reflect on a passage from the Gospels which shows Jesus’ respect for human systems.
- Can you imagine yourself thoroughly committed within the Church yet grounded beyond it? Reflect.
- Have you ever experienced being trapped (happily or not) within a system? Reflect.
- Good attitudes, bad systems = good outcomes; bad attitudes, good systems = bad outcomes. Reflect.