The Church in Outreach

The Church in a Complex World   

Creating an identity that is both diverse and one

In conversation with Vera Araujo   


'Being One' magazine invited Brazilian sociologist, Vera Araujo, to shed light on some of the challenges our society faces, and the part we can play as Christians in the Church today, called to engage proactively with the world in which we live.   Her words are in their original conversational form. 
Recently, an international group of 70 or so of us involved in the 'Dialogue with Culture', came together to deepen our understanding, in the light of Vatican II, of the situation in which humanity finds itself today, putting into relief its sufferings and anguish, joys and hopes.

It was a rewarding but demanding task, because we had to leave behind our own way of looking at things, even our own way of loving,  in order to enter into a completely different dimension, ready to dialogue with those on the 'existential peripheries' of society, as Pope Francis has invited us to do. It was a rewarding but demanding task. It's not an easy transition ... it is more like a leap in the dark.  And It's not something we can do on our own: we need the Holy Spirit, who, present throughout history, is able to live and act in every dimension, whereas we ourselves can only live in a more 'limited' dimension. Only in the Spirit, can we begin to understand, not just intellectually, but also existentially, the despair and sorrow humanity experiences, its fears, desires and hopes.
To understand the situation completely would take a depth of knowledge across all disciplines that is simply not possible for us. But we must at least try to do the bit we can.  In my case, I can offer a sociological perspective of the situation, an analysis of reality, at least as it appears.  I can indicate  possible 'causes'  and offer suggestions as to what we can do.

A diverse society and its global challenges

  • First and foremost, we live in a society of diversity and the way in which people relate to the Church is also diverse.  They belong to different 'categories', you could say:
  • Those who belong to the Church and feel very much part of it
  • Those not so involved but nevertheless 'connected'.  They are like the 'halo'. The Church, to some extent, has an influence on their lives.
  • Those who feel themselves quite distant, but not 'against' the Church; they remain aware of its presence, often in a positive sense.
  • Those who profess themselves 'agnostic'; for the most part, they do not believe but are willing to say 'maybe'.
  • Those who oscillate between the two (and this is very typical of our age), sometimes believing, sometimes not, holding views and attitudes that have not been properly formed or deepened.
  • Lastly, those who have no connection with the Church at all.  They have little or no knowledge about it.  This group of people, and it is a very large group,  represent what we call the 'existential peripheries'  and it is precisely here that we need to reach.
Now try to imagine these 'existential peripheries' as being the whole of society!  Suddenly, the Church needs to become aware of the many global challenges facing humanity, happening on two levels, the macro, which deals with large-scale systems and the micro which touches our personal lives.  Although connected, they are often treated separately.

Challenges on a macro level

But it is not only diversity which characterises our society; it is also complexity.
Diversity has always existed, it is part of our human nature and history.  Our human creativity produces diversity.  As long as we continue to exist, we will always create and be creative, forming different cultures and civilisations. Diversity in itself does not pose a problem: it's part of life - God's design on the human race, an expression of its beauty, richness and creativity.
Complexity, on the other hand, adds another dimension; it's more of a  'modern phenomenon'; it affects us at a cultural as well as on a personal level. Things can be complex by nature, or we can also make them complex! 
But what we are noticing now, is just how small the space has become in which our diversity is concentrated and how much more quickly this is happening.  This creates complexity.  Not so long ago, someone could be from Asia, and someone else from Latin America yet each could go about their daily lives independently, creating their own culture and civilisation. Instead, nowadays, we find ourselves thrown together in an increasingly reduced space, ever more closely-knit, right now. All of which signifies change; the need to manage something we have not dealt with before.
So it is crucial that we grasp the nature of complexity, in all its components. I would go so far as to say that it is a skill we need to acquire, which gives us the ability to separate things that have somehow been joined together; because reality is often already joined up, before being allowed to to be separate. The opposite is also true; we need to know how to bring together parts which are still separate and distinct. In so far as we manage this, the need for ideologies and their over-simplifications will gradually diminish and similarly the need to over-generalise things as things would become less complex. We would come to know each other in a completely new way, full of wonder at the surprises God never ceases to have in store for us,  and which accompany us throughout our life.
However, it is one thing to welcome God's surprises whilst comfortably seated, and quite another to do so whilst moving!  All these surprises and novelties need to be captured on the way!  Life isn't static, we have to keep going, so we must learn quickly how to get organised and establish some sort of order whilst still moving along. This is precisely where the difficulty lies, yet it is exactly what we need to do! In all areas of life, especially in politics and economics.  Politics has to keep pace with change and put things in order at the same time!
Perhaps, in this sense, globalisation could mean the ability to successfully embrace many different dimensions separately and together, at one and the same time.  This requires such a level of skill and depth that we might well ask ourselves, is it humanly possible to do it?  I am convinced that if we have come this far, then yes, we are capable of doing it. Certainly, we can choose whether or not to use this capability, but we have reached a unique and crucial point in history;  one not reached previously, nor are we certain that it will still be there in the future - the point where we must choose to take a step up and evolve, or continue on the path to self-destruction.
The technical revolution will surely have its own important part to play,  but as yet we cannot fully appreciate what that is. 

Challenges on a micro level

And whilst everything is going on at a macro level, we have to deal with challenges on the micro level too, in our daily lives; above all, in the context of relationships. At one time, human relationships tended to be fewer and deeper; fewer because they centred mainly around the family, or village and local community; deeper, because they had more time to grow and mature. 
By contrast, today, our relationships can be short-lived and superficial.  This is problematic because for a relationship to be human it must be authentic.  Not all our relationships are of the same quality or depth, so we need another skill; that of knowing how to discern and manage such a variety of relationships. The Church, as the community of believers, must be acutely aware of this. 

Managing Conflict

This leads to another great challenge - how to create social cohesion.
Since we all live within a social setting, whether as  inhabitants of a small village, as citizens,or as a nation, we are all involved in some way with local, regional,or global governing institutions.  So where do we even start?  How do we relate to one another? This is not only a problem for the Church but for the whole world.
The question is, why do we go to such lengths to promote social cohesion and yet get so easily drawn into conflict?
Differences in themselves are not a bad thing; living alongside others, our opinions and interests are bound to differ; it's all part of building relationships. The problem lies in
how we deal with those differences; how do we draw out values that can be shared by everyone, individuals, as well as groups or institutions, united in a common reference point?
How, for that matter, do we handle competition?
Unless we address these challenges adequately, we leave the way open for corruption.  Even the Law may not be able to protect us if it is interpreted as being a threat to human rights! 

The question of democracy

Then we come to Democracy. Once a great symbol of progress, it too is experiencing moments of profound crisis in various parts of the world.  The very principle of participation on which it rests, which fosters the building up together of public and social life, is being undermined, even in countries where it is well-established. All that seems to be left is the voting system and sometimes not even this!  In the USA for example, the fatherland of democracy, only 50% or at the most 60% , of those eligible to vote, do so. Other countries that have achieved democracy more recently, are doing better, though they may have other problems. Democracy is being put under great pressure, but solutions must be found if we are to avert serious social, political and international conflict.
Perhaps it is time to re-think our democratic institutions. Institutions in general have become unpopular; some feel they interfere with the democratic process, the bastion of liberty, but we must be not be too hasty. 
At a recent biblical conference, the words of Zygmunt Bauman, now ninety years of age, resonated deeply with me; he made the point that when the concept of authority was swept away to make way for the modern era, it took with it also the sense of what it means to be authoritative, to speak with authority, which is not the same as authority.   Someone needs to take the reins, to make decisions, once everyone has had their say.  It's not enough to have a vote, or to perform specific functions, one must be authoritative and able to take decisions.
This is a challenge for those in power today and a cultural challenge too.  What matters is to speak with authority, not so much whether one has a majority or a minority.
 This will strongly effect the economy, since politicians, without this voice of authority, will not be effective in regulating society as a whole, including the economy.  Left to its own devices, the economy is like a ship without a rudder.
How then shall we go ahead? 

A few suggestions

  • Always seek dialogue, as a means of journeying together on a path that leads away from relativism towards an understanding of the truth, which gets clearer with each step we take. This is the path of the Church too.

  • Always start from people's real needs, the challenges that affect their lives.  The hope of a  better society, a better world will come, but only if we have started from reality, putting people before systems or relying on anecdotal evidence.  From our solidarity,  people will begin to understand their situations more clearly and find new and better ways to go forward. They will find ways together to alleviate situations, which allow everyone to breathe.  

  • Build community : society is an abstract term but community means something alive and full of vitality.  Things will not stay the same. Communities will be new.  They themselves will learn  means to build social cohesion and experience first-hand words they had previously only heard but not understood, such as tolerance, respect, solidarity, responsibility, justice, merit, equality and many more.

  • Bear in mind that global and local are not opposites, as commonly thought; they do not contradict each other; they are mutually inclusive, working in synergy. In today's language, there is no 'local' without 'global' and no 'global' without 'local'. They are two dimensions of a single thought, a single, complex reality.   Just as the whole is made up of many parts and many parts make up the whole.  It takes a great deal of practice to acquire this dynamic way of thinking and acting!
Finally, the question everyone wants to know -  Who am I?  What is my cultural identity ?  How can I form my personality to be diverse and complex and yet one?
As you can see, our challenges are by no means small.  But let's respond to them collectively, as much as possible with that presence promised by Jesus to the community united in his name; a presence that gives life to that ' extra' vision and 'extra' creativity, we need so much in order to face the needs of our times and to offer our contribution to humanity as it travels towards the fulfilment of God's plan.