For the next few days I will explore a book called Presence by Peter Senge and three others. The authors are a small group of people who meet regularly to share their experiences of profound collective change.
In the early pages of the book, the authors identify a number of key ideas. In an earlier post I discussed convergent and divergent systems. Their view is that convergent systems determine the way most people think about systems. Convergent systems are made up of parts. You can lay out the component parts and then put them together to form the convergent system. Each part can exist on its own; it is not damaged by being taken away from the whole.
Most systems are not like that because the parts grow out of the whole. Neither the part nor the whole can exist without the other. So, they use the example of a hand. Hands do in fact vary a great deal but all hands are recognisable as hands. Indeed it would be more accurate to say there is no such thing as a hand because what you have is a 'pattern Integrity'. The pattern integrity is 'the whole of which each particular hand is a concrete manifestation'.
I have some reservations about this idea because I fear it may be taken as a manifestation of Plato's ideal types (try this post and a few posts following it). However, if we accept the pattern integrity does not have any reality itself but is simply the pattern that makes a hand recognisable as a hand, it might serve as an idea. Far more important is the hand as a manifestation of the whole body; the body as a whole has integrity, the hand separated from the body does not. Presence quotes Bortoft: 'The part is a place for the presencing of the whole'.
The point is that convergent systems are observed (by definition) from the outside looking in. The car mechanic is not a part of the car. For divergent systems, the observer is inside the system looking out. This is another distinctive trait of soft systems.
A member of any Christian tradition, approaching ecumenical conversations, does so from within the Christian faith and indeed from within a particular tradition. Each tradition is a faithful part of the pattern integrity of the faith, complete in itself (otherwise it would not be Christian). Each tradition is also subject to change. Just as the cells in the hand change every few years, so the Christians who are part of the tradition will turnover every few decades. Looking at its history we can see it was very different in the past and yet is still recognisably the same tradition. The difficulty is to hold together both the whole and the parts in our minds so that we can see our common heritage and our differences.
Paul did this in his analogy of the body. The faith is like a body with parts; the body is complete with all its parts and its parts are representative of the body as a whole. When we look at the world soley from the perspective of our own tradition, we cannot see the faith as a whole. The problem is of course that no-one can see the whole faith, our position within it prevents us from doing so.