Down to a System
Systems and Christianity. By Doug Hall. Not yet released.
Joel Mitchell


"In the beginning was the relationship," wrote 20th century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber: a profound articulation of the Christian concept of the intra-relationship of God's unity in three persons. This understanding of God is mirrored throughout creation in the interdependence of natural, biological and social systems. In his upcoming book, Systems and Christianity, Doug Hall underscores the importance of interdependent social systems in our rapidly urbanizing and globalizing world. Specifically he highlights how Christians can revolutionize their ministry paradigm, particularly (though not exclusively) in the city, by understanding the complex systems of interdependence and interrelationships.

In addition to the specific applications of Dr. Hall's understanding of systems in urban ministry here in Boston, Hall lays a foundation for a Christian understanding of systems theory more generally, which is in fact the focus of Hall's work. Systems theory, says Hall, began to be understood more widely in the 50's and 60's with MIT professor Jay Forrester, who applied his knowledge of electrical engineering circuit systems to the complex interactions of humans. While Forrester founded MIT/Sloan's "System Dynamics Group," others were applying the conceptual framework of biological systems to the health of communities in the emerging field of Public Health. Through these fields of business and community health, as well in as other fields such as climatology and computer technologies, the key concepts of systems theory have begun to be articulated. In 1990, another MIT professor, Peter Senge, continued the breakthroughs in systems theory with The Fifth Discipline: the Art and Practice of the Learning Organization.

Dr. Hall's book further articulates Senge's ideas by generalizing them so that they may be applied more generally to the most basic systems around us, as well as placing them historically. While Senge highlights five disciplines for optimization of the [business] organization in his eponymous book - systems thinking, personal mastery, mental models, shared vision, and team learning - Hall highlights five characteristics necessary for systemic growth or change: a safe environment, group ownership, group learning, ecology, and birth. Senge's disciplines, as well as Hall's parallel characteristics, merit the chapters of explanation that each book gives them, and could not be fairly summarized here except to say that they represent a series of internal changes within a systemic organism.

Hall's broadening of Senge's [primarily] economic framework draws on a fundamental contrast which systems theory makes: the organism vs. the machine. Hall enlivens this contrast with the specific examples of a cat and a toaster: the toaster can be disassembled and then, at least with the help of an expert, reassembled, while the cat's complex and sophisticated biological systems of inderrelatedness can not be deconstructed without irreparable damage. You'll kill the cat and cause a bloody mess. The visual imagery of this contrast underscores the human inability to deal with complexity beyond the order of seven or so variables. Once we exceed this magnitude of interrelated complexity, the human mind is typically not able to consciously process the interactions, and we turn to subconscious processes of cognition. This is how we learn language, most social interactions, and many other everyday tasks whose complexity we don't even consider. This is the realm of "tacit knowledge," which Michael Polanyi describes in Personal Knowledge (1958) as a kind of meta-knowledge that integrates conscious knowledge. Systems thinking is a tool which brings the processes of "tacit knowledge" - things we may subconsciously be inclined to do - to a cognitive level so that we can analyze them in the full extent of their complexity (through, for example, computer simulations or models).

Hall situates this move toward conscious understanding of systems in the proliferation of material culture. The development of individual self-consciousness and experimental self-criticism in the Renaissance, Scientific Revolution, and Enlightenment generally mark a shift between what he calls "primary culture" and "secondary culture" in the Western world. These cultural developments coincide with the major economic changes of industrialization, imperialism, and the emergence of a dominant middle class, but also coincide with the advent of post-Christian Europe. The many changes in society may be, and have been, simplified as the economic concentration of wealth in the West, but according to Hall, more importantly mark a shift away from a “primary culture” based upon relationships to a “secondary culture” constructed with material wealth. The latter culture leads to efficient yet impersonal achievements of organization, while the former puts a premium on relational interaction.

Because, as our initial statement from Buber elucidates, relationship is so fundamental to Christianity, it fits primary cultures well and addresses their needs and questions. Christianity however has not fared well under secondary cultures (as contemporary Europe shows) and the association of this secondary culture with materialism might lead us to write it off as just another sign of the depravity of our age. However, this would mean a general disdain for wealth, conscious understanding of complexity, and technological advances—all things that are not inherently bad. In fact, Hall argues, wealth, broader understanding of our complex world, and technology are very positive elements that God wants us to enjoy not just now, but eternally. Thus, John describes heaven in Revelation as not simply a reversion to the perfect state of Eden, but as a city – a redeemed manifestation of the accomplishments of human organization. As God draws us closer to this reality, Jesus explains our role in John 15: “I no longer call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing, but now I call you friends.” As friends of God we are better able to see the world as God sees it: in its systemic complexity.

By adopting the systems framework, we are enabled to not just read or study the Bible, but to “do the Bible,” says Hall, in his plea for a “systemic theology” rather than a systematic theology. The inherent stability of systems (as can be seen in the biological concept of homeostasis) through time encourages us to look even to the Bible’s way of doing things as important. It is with this model of “doing the Bible” that Hall has engaged in urban ministry in Boston with the Emmanuel Gospel Center for the last 40 years.

Dr. Hall identifies in his book a "Quiet Revival" that has occurred in the greater Boston area over the last 40 years, in which social systems have converged to bring about a significant increase in the number of churches and Christians in Boston in a period when Christianity was thought to be fossilizing and disintegrating as mainline denominations rapidly lost membership. Smaller ethnic churches moved into storefronts and other unconventional meeting places, while more visibly established church buildings were abandoned by dwindling congregations. The multi-ethnic nature of this grass-roots church growth movement in Boston, as well as the informal nature of local leadership development and the channeling of resources towards poor or marginalized communities led Hall to compare Boston's "quiet revival" to the early work of the church of Antioch as described in the biblical book of Acts. This comparison elucidates fifteen characteristics common to first century Antioch and 20th c. Boston that interacted in highly complex dependencies to effect major societal/communal innovation.

Hall asserts that understanding these complex, interdependent systems allows Christians to better come alongside what God is already doing. Through Hall's leadership at the Emmanuel Gospel Center, an urban ministry that practices his vision, Hall articulates further the importance of systems thinking, particularly in the urban context. His book's careful analysis of urban ministry, grounded in an evolving practice, provides an invaluable template for any Christian's integration of the intellectual, spiritual, and practical aspects of our lives. Hall exhorts readers to engage and embrace the positive elements of secondary culture’s organizational optimization of resources through the leadership of the fundamental interaction of relationship.

Joel Mitchell 04 is a joint concentrator in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and Classics. He lives in Currier House.