14 FOUNDATIONAL THINKING
CATALYST SUGGESTION SHEET #14
Ours is a culture that prizes rational thought, clear and distinct ideas. Problem-solvers are in great demand. The functionalistic types who can get the job done are well paid. All of which is like garlic in cooking – some of it is fine but you can overdo it. We tend to overdo it. At every turn we foster rationalism and functionalism. The fact that the deeper issues of human existence – most particularly those concerning relationships (with God, self, others and environment) – tend to languish in such an atmosphere seems to go largely unnoticed.
The Church is primarily about relationships. The ways of rationalism and functionalism that so dominate the prevailing secular culture are apt to be particularly damaging if we let them also dominate us as we approach the huge and complex matters of renewal and reform within the Church. Yes, there are some very practical and functional tasks to be done. Yes, it is important to be able to think rationally and clearly about matters. And yes, we can learn much from big business and the way the secular world achieves best results. But the essential matters of renewal will not succumb to the functionalistic and rationalistic approaches that seem to drive the secular world.
Together with a healthy dose of the functional and rational, we also need an ability to listen, wait and submit to the emergence of truth that is, in the end, the sole possession of none of us.
TWO CONTRASTING STYLES OF THINKING
There are a number of ways we can speak of different styles of thinking – concrete and abstract, left brain and right brain, linear and comprehensive, meditative and calculative and so on. Each of these distinctions is more or less helpful. It is also very helpful to distinguish between issues thinking and foundational thinking.
Issues thinking tends to be characterised by at least five distinctive features:
It tends to decontextualise or isolate the matter being considered – the matter in hand is removed from its context and treated as if it were an isolated matter, not intimately or essentially connected with a web of other matters; it is not uncommon to find issues thinking preoccupied by a very limited focus;
It tends to be reductionistic – the matter in hand is reduced to fairly simple components, and even quite complex matters may thus be spoken of and dealt with in a simplistic way;
It tends to be dominated by a felt need for a practical outcome – the matter in hand is regarded as "a problem to solve", and once you have worked out what the problem is, all you have to do is apply yourself to the appropriate strategy to solve it;
It tends to be relatively superficial – pressing to achieve a "solution" to the "problem", issues thinking can never get very deep; it is more interested in a workable outcome than an enriching process;
It tends to be driven by a desire to control – the issues thinker is bent on mastering the information, being in command of "the truth", staying on top of the matter.
Clearly, there are many day-to-day situations in which issues thinking is not only acceptable – it is desirable. However, the more complex and subtle challenges in life – like the essential processes of renewal and reform in the Church – demand something much more. It hardly needs to be stated, for example, that issues thinking typically does not lead to good conversation. Rather, on its own, when applied to complex matters, it tends to lead to strategic manoeuvring and even confrontation.
If we were to apply only issues thinking to the matter of, say, leadership in the Church, we might just consider that matter alone – and probably not the whole of it either – perhaps just the juridical or organizational part of it, or the part that affects us most immediately and concretely. Issues thinking might, for example, become preoccupied with the election and appointment processes.
Such thinking would not pay sufficient attention to the fact that leadership in the Church is a profound theological matter, rooted in the Incarnation and developed throughout the tradition; a profound social, historical and cultural matter, rooted in the time and society in which we live; a profound institutional matter, rooted in the particular needs, limits and possibilities of the organization; a profound political matter, rooted in the expectations and possibilities of all the people concerned, and so on.
Issues thinking will bring something worthwhile to the challenge of renewal and reform in the Church, but it must be secondary to and dependent upon foundational thinking.
WHAT IS FOUNDATIONAL THINKING?
Foundational thinking tends to be characterised by at least four distinctive features:
It tries to contextualise the matter being considered – the matter in hand is placed within a context and treated as part of a bigger picture, intimately and essentially connected with other matters; it will be attentive and alert, listening for further connections and implications;
It tends to be integrative – the matter in hand is treated as an integrated whole, within itself and in its relation to other matters, with all the complexities and subtleties sought out; foundational thinking is thus at home with ambiguities and paradoxes, grey areas and uncertainties;
It tends to be dominated by a felt need to allow the truth to emerge – the matter in hand is regarded as a possibility for building relationships and seeking the truth with other people;
It tends to be foundational, as the name suggests – it is all the time in search of the deeper dynamics, the roots; it is more concerned that the Truth, rather than any individual, wins out.
Foundational thinking will ask questions like: "What is happening here?", "Do I have any prejudices?", "Are there other agendas at work here?", "Am I willing to be transformed by this process?", "Are there more fundamental matters of which this is a manifestation?", "Do I fully understand this matter?", "Do I understand what the other person is saying?", "What is my gut saying?" and so on.
Foundational thinking assumes that thinking is a way of relating, that it is, in fact, a form of love. It also assumes that, ultimately, to seek to know the truth, in whatever form, is – at least implicitly – a seeking to know the Truth who is a Person.
SUGGESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND DISCUSSION
"At every turn we foster rationalism and functionalism" – do you agree/disagree? Reflect.
"The Church is primarily about relationships". Reflect.
How might rationalism and functionalism be damaging to our work for renewal and reform?
Explain in your own words the difference between issues thinking and foundational thinking?
Are you more inclined to issues thinking or foundational thinking? Give an example.
What does it mean to contextualise a matter? Give an example.
What does it mean to be integrative in thinking of a particular matter? Give an example.
Reflect on the differing outcomes for conversation of issues thinking and foundational thinking.
What sorts of questions might foundational thinking ask about renewal in your parish?
What can you do to promote foundational thinking?