Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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The philosophical approach to the world called Holism maintains, broadly speaking, that nothing can be properly understood unless it is taken in the round. We can analyse things, people and their ideas as much as we like - but only when we put them together again in wholes do we know them fully.

Holism as a way of understanding the world is difficult for traditional Christians to handle. According to the philosophy, the world itself is an absolutely coherent whole. All its parts hang together in harmony in space and time. 

Humans may fragment the whole to understand it better. So a scientist may study the ocean as a whole, noting how the currents move through it and the wildlife migrate, feed and breed. But it's an error to think that the ocean can be known in isolation. It is an integral part of the total natural order of the world.

The hard part for the churches is that Christian theology claims to embrace every aspect of the world. And yet many of its fundamental tenets appear to contradict what we know of the world as a whole. For example, resurrection from death is impossible and always has been - if we take all of modern science and history as a whole.

Ironically, Holism was first devised in a country built upon the principle of the division of a society into parts - South Africa. Jan Christiaan Smuts (1870-1950) was a lawyer, scholar, soldier and international statesman. Like many brilliant people, the price he paid for academic achievement in his early years was relative social isolation. Perhaps nowadays he would be labeled "somewhat autistic".

Events thrust him into the public eye with the outbreak of the Boer War, when Britain decided to take over the Transvaal Republic and its enormous gold reserves. Then and later, Smuts proved himself a capable military leader and politician of iron will and great determination.

His book Holism and Evolution (1926) had as its theme the integration of parts into wholes. He intended it to form a sound basis for a philosophy of science. He took evolution as his primary model. It is not enough, he said, to note the astounding variety of beings which have arisen through the process. There is a "creative tendency or principle" which results in entirely novel forms of being. These Smuts called "wholes".

Smuts seems to have thought of the world as a sort of ladder of being. At the bottom of the ladder or pyramid, it makes sense to analyse the define the being's parts. It the top of the ladder, we can only usefully talk about wholes.

Human beings occupy the place at the very top of the ladder. We are, said Smuts, 

... the supreme embodiment of Holism ... it is in the sphere of spiritual values that Holism finds its clearest embodiment ...

and it is here that we find love, beauty, goodness and truth.

Holism as Smuts worked it out presents considerable difficulties. Bertrand Russell focused on its language. Take the statement, "John is the father of James". The Holist will point out that we can't know fully what this means unless we also know a great deal about John and James - their genetics, upbringing, education, cultural context and the many other factors which make them who they are. We must, the Holist would say, look at the whole, not just the parts.

Russell asks how knowledge could ever begin if this is correct.

I know numbers of propositions of the form "A is the father of B", but I do not know the whole universe. If all knowledge were knowledge of the universe as a whole, there would be no knowledge.

As he points out, for the proposition to be true we need only to be able to identify both John and James.

A similar problem attaches to argument about the nature of society. For example, how do we best understand the Church? Is it best to look at its parts? Or can we understand it only when we look at the whole? As far as I can tell, there can be no definitive answer to this dilemma. Most sociologists appear to switch constantly between the two perspectives.

Holism as Smuts put it forward has not received great support. But I think the date of the publication of his book is significant. At almost the same time, the first steps were being taken in a paradigm which is today rapidly changing the way we perceive the world. While Smuts' philosophical paradigm appeared to encounter a dead end, its biology counterpart was surging ahead.

Ludwig von Bertalanffy, a biologist, first proposed thinking about living things as systems at about the same time in the mid-1920s that Smuts was writing his book [1]. A system, he said, is comprised of parts which operate seamlessly as a whole. But the whole does not function if the parts are merely put together any old how. They work together in a particular way, in a process unique to each system. In other words, the sum is greater than the parts - or, in Smuts' terms, the whole means more than the aggregate of its parts. 

Unfortunately, Bertalanffy's ideas have been slow to catch on. This was partly because Aristotle had  long before argued that a whole is more than the sum of its parts. His once-dominant paradigm of the world was overthrown in the 17th century by what we today call "science". His idea of wholes fell along with the rest of his ancient "science". 

Our science succeeds because it disassembles things and processes them into their constituent parts. Understanding of the whole is derived by reducing it to its parts (reductionism). But many scientists appear to work as though knowledge of the parts is all that's needed. So a doctor might treat a diseased liver but fail to deal with the alcoholism which is doing the damage.

The progress of systems thinking into a dominant paradigm has been further retarded by relatively restricted applications. Psychology, anthropology and linguistics have made some use of systems theory. But most effort has gone into understanding biological and mechanical systems (particularly cybernetics in computers and software). As a result, living systems have frequently been regarded as akin to complex machines.

Only recently has our understanding of systems begun to deepen and expand. It has been realised that even the most simple natural system is probably more complex than we can ever fathom.

Take a single human cell, for example. We now understand a great deal about its parts and how they interact within the cell. These processes stretch the boundaries of our analysis and comprehension to the limit. Nevertheless, it had been thought that we were close to a more or less complete understanding of a cell's workings. But it has recently been realised that a cells' interface with its outside environment is mediated by more than 200 enzymes. The complexity of internal processes this produces is currently more than we can manage.

This degree of complexity applies to every other system we know of. It has forced us into what's broadly known today as the mathematics of complexity. In effect, we have realised that it's unlikely that we will ever be able to reduce any system to its components and describe everything about how those components interact. We will know the whole and know the parts, but we will never know precisely how the parts work together to produce the whole - except perhaps in statistical terms [2].

Because Smuts was in his day at the very forefront of thinking about such matters, he was unable to perceive the full implications of his approach. He could not, for example, know that the systems paradigm is useful down to the most basic level of matter in quantum mechanics. String theory attempts to describe a basic system by which energy is ordered into matter. Nor could Smuts envisage the universe in all its vastness as a total system, containing within itself every other system.

Holistic medicine is another expression of our growing awareness of how systems operate. Reductionist medicine has for many generations assumed that all physical illness is the result of the malfunctioning of a body part. So-called mental illness has therefore been classed as something essentially different (psychological). 

It is now gradually being realised that each of us is a system. Anything happening in any part of my body affects the whole - that is, every other part. We are each more than the sum of our parts. True wellness derives from treating ourselves as wholes, not just as an assembly of parts.

So also is the environment being increasingly perceived as a whole. It is proving impossible to manage the natural world merely by manipulating only some of the parts of the whole system. Every part interacts with and depends upon every other part. A being which fails to cope with the demands of the world as a total system - tsunami, volcanoes, weather and all - will not survive. That includes humanity itself. Human survival is a holistic matter.

A number of important implications of adopting a systems paradigm of the world and the universe impact upon the sub-system of human knowledge we call "Christian doctrine".

Perhaps most important is the Church's almost universally held doctrine concerning Providence. This refers to God's government of the universe. God is thought of as creating, sustaining and directing all things. 

Both Christian teaching and a holistic, systems view of the universe accept that space/time had a beginning. If so, the universe can have neither an "outside" nor  a "before", since space/time did not exist until the universe began.

If we perceive the universe as an all-embracing system, then every other system we can possibly know, including ourselves, is a sub-system of the universe. And if God intervenes in our lives then every other system in the universe is also affected by such actions. And if that is the case, then God must perforce micro-manage every sub-system of the universe to keep the whole operating properly.

Unfortunately, if this is true, then two important pillars of Christianity fall:

  • Jesus, it is taught, was God and human. God took on a human existence so that human beings need not be punished for their sinful behaviours. For a person to sin, he or she must to a great extent be a free agent. But if God "tweaks" any of the universe's systems, any action of ours may actually be due to God, not us. In that case, we can't definitively state that any human act is sinful.

  • If there is a way of distinguishing between a God-action and a natural or human action, nobody has yet discovered it. It is therefore pointless to attribute any fact of history to human or natural causes since they may have been due to God's action. If so, we can't talk about a Jesus of history who really lived and actually did and said certain things. In that case, Christianity cannot claim to be a historical faith because history as a discipline is not valid.

Jan Smuts' Holism, it turns out, has contributed significantly to revising the way we perceive the world around us. He started the ball rolling for a thoroughgoing systems paradigm which, I predict, will one day rule the way most of us interact with our environment and manage our lives.
[1] General Systems Theory, Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Braziller, 1968
[2] See The Macroscope, J de Rosnay, Harper & Row, 1975


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