Systems and People


As modern human beings, we have developed great faith in systems. The scientific method of investigation has empowered us to exercise control previously unimaginable over outcomes in our endeavors, greatly reducing the role of chance and the folly of superstition. By following science’s systematic approach to information gathering and problem solving, we deal with conditions as they actually exist and apply knowledge rather than superstition to our efforts. As a minister and a believer in the redemptive truth of God come to us and for us in Jesus of Nazareth, I do not speak against the scientific method of investigating our world and seeking to solve problems; I do not call for a return to haphazard approaches to getting things done or to superstition and prejudice which empower fear over reason. Even if I could, I would not turn back the calendar to the pre-scientific days of untested methods and magical prescriptions for security or success.

But as a society, we who have been modern are now called postmodern because our faith in the systems we have developed has not only faltered as we have witnessed their limitations but turned cynical as we have suffered under their corruptions. We have seen truly scientific thinking replaced by checklist management where the motive has been, not to solve problems through open inquiry, but to silence questions and enforce top-down control. We now know that our best-made systems remain always imperfect, and we know further that we can develop no system that people cannot game for their own advantage over others, often to the detriment of the very people the system is supposed to help, for whom it is meant to make life better.

“one size fits all” is a falsehood that invariably hurts many people

Slowly and with great resistance, we are learning that “one size fits all” is a falsehood that invariably hurts many people. While systematic thinking has helped us all in many ways, absolutizing any system that governs people’s lives and manages their opportunities harms more and more people until finally the system must be broken because it has become a tyrant. In theological terms, absolutizing a system and requiring everyone to fit into it, whether it fits them or not, is a modern form of idolatry. Absolutizing anything in our world is idolatrous, and when we do it, we soon find ourselves pressed into the service of the very system that was supposed to serve us. The truth about people is that one size fits rather few because we are very complex creatures, and God has created us with an individuality, a uniqueness of each person, that frustrates the systematizers who try to force control by demanding conformity and ignoring people’s differences. Then the dictum of those who would manage and control our lives becomes, “Be normal or perish.” Meet the standards we set or be left behind.

And what is normal?

And what is normal? Here’s how it works much of the time. We describe an ideal, then call it the norm. The one size, one type, one way we choose to regard as right we make the standard. . . .

There’s an oxymoron for us or, perhaps, a paradox. We human beings are very much alike in many ways, which is good because otherwise we would not understand each other at all or be able to empathize with each other’s feelings. But though each of us is typical in many ways, each is uniquely so. God has made us very much alike but each distinct and irreplaceable, because God loves each as a person. . . .

What the churches do best is offer the human touch.

What the churches do best is offer the human touch. We all live under systems that tend to humiliate and dehumanize us in various ways and to different degrees. Some seem tolerable, others not so. Here in the community of faith, we are not given norms by which to label people “acceptable” or “unacceptable”; we are not given standards for judgment to impose control and demand conformity. We are called to be more family than system, more community than institution. We do not weed out the less efficient for some program. Here attitude matters more than ability. Here the two copper coins given for God by the poor widow are greater than the large sums given by the wealthy from their excess. Here those who fail the test of the norm are respected as persons of equal worth.

Note: This post is excerpted from “Human Touch,” a sermon I preached in January of 2010 on the day of our Annual Meeting as a congregation. I have pared down the sermon to refit it as a blog post I hope might be of interest to people bewildered or just bored by some Christian antipathy toward scientific method but, maybe, also troubled by dehumanization of our world. This post is no longer a sermon. Anyone wishing to read it as a sermon may do so by clicking here.