The Endowed Possibilities of Human Ccollaboration
At the beginning of his last academic year before retirement, Patout Burns, the Edward A. Malloy Professor of Catholic Studies, addressed the Divinity School, charging the community to embrace communal learning and collaboration.
Vanderbilt Divinity School
J. Patout Burns
I want to begin with a little Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics that distinguishes between individual subjects, such as organisms or persons, and the systems through which they interact. Paul DeHart and I led a seminar on Aquinas last spring and my mind has been wandering around in the 13th century—which is at least a little closer to the present than the 5th century where I usually spend my time.
Organisms—plants, animals, humans—have a natural spontaneity and dynamism which directs their bodily and psychic energies and operations in specific ways, within a defined and limited range of options. They are stable and hardy; they grow toward maturity and stoutly resist their own disintegration. Even in human beings, who have intelligence and free choice, the majority of organic operations and emotional responses are spontaneous and preprogrammed. These kinds of beings have an essential or horizontal finality in which each subject tends to maintain itself and to repeat its type by generating others like itself. One can understand that the ancients—and many moderns—judged that the species were more important and real than the individuals in them. But the internal dynamism of even successful species only maintain and repeat their members; they are not really “going” anywhere.
Things, organisms, and persons can also form or be formed into systems through which they interact with one another and which result in more—or less—than the sum total of their individual operations. Such systems are not themselves subjects or things; they have neither natural spontaneity nor programmed operations of their own. Nor do they lock their components into the kind of fixed roles and unvarying processes that are realized in organisms, species and even in well designed machines and buildings. Yet they are more stable than situations, the simultaneity based on little more than accidental presence in the same place and time. Instead, these systems arise from the interaction of a set of things, organisms, and persons. The patterns of activity which constitute them manifest a degree of stability, of repetition and predictability, in which they resemble organisms. This may have led the Neo-Platonists to their characterization of the universe as a whole as a kind of organism, with its own proper All Soul.
Unlike the neo-Platonists, the Aristotelians—and consequently Thomists—realized that these systems follow not the “natural laws,” which describe the regularly and largely unvarying operations of things, but statistical laws which describe the probability of the occurrence of the particular patterns and outcomes of specific systems.
The difference between the intelligibility of these two types of reality can perhaps be illustrated by the recent unpleasantness in the Gulf of Mexico. The blowout of the well and subsequent explosion can be understood in terms of gas pressure and the weight of fluids—understood in retrospect by the white-collar engineers in Houston and in prospect by the blue-collar drill manager on the rig. Once the crude oil got into the water, however, the different forces at play and the independent variables in equations began to multiply. Predictions quickly turned into probabilities. It was not exactly chaos but neither was it the kind of rocket science necessary to land something on the planet Mars. We all recognize these kinds of systems when we think about pollution and global warming which are being influenced by many forces largely independent of even the behavior of the human agents within them.
Each of these natural systems exploits the particular capacities of the types of things and organisms that make them up. The system as a whole is a higher form of reality, one in which chemicals interact and organisms flourish in ways that they could not in isolation. Out of the concrete particularity of things and organisms, a new and higher reality can arise, which integrates their proper fullness into more excellent types of good.
Thus we can distinguish two types of finality or dynamism built into the world. First, a kind of horizontal tendency. Things tend to maintain their own existence and to resist their destruction; organisms, as individuals and as species, tend to develop, maintain, protect, and even to reproduce themselves. This we could call an essential or horizontal finality. It is built on a natural spontaneity which is repetitious—and the more stable and certain the repetition the better. The second kind of dynamism is vertical but nonessential. It exploits the capacities and dispositions of different kinds of beings to build more complex systems in which at least some of the participants attain a higher form of existence. As a system, it is more fragile and less likely to repeat its successes; when it does succeed, however, it produces something truly new and wonderful.
For present purposes, the systems that emerge through the interaction of human subjects are more interesting. The more obvious of these on the micro level are perhaps friendship, and its more specialized form, the family. The family can take a variety of shapes even within the same culture but in general it can be said that families are formed of persons who are different and generally exercise different roles within the system. They might be said to work best when the participants are both different and complementary so that their interactions, even their conflicts, are creative rather than destructive. I refer here to something very much like what Victor Anderson terms “creative exchange” in his constructive theology of African American religious experience. Some families endure for a single generation—or even less—while others maintain significant cohesion through a century or more. Eventually, however, the “bonds of blood” are not strong enough to maintain increasingly large and complex systems. A family reunion might be held every once in a while, but no one is giving or lending money to a cousin anymore.
Human systems built by different forces and capacities can be more long-lasting, incorporating new members into existing but ever varying patterns of interaction. Universities are often long-lived but religious communities probably hold the records. The Benedictine abbey at Monte Cassino, for example, has been in continuous existence since 529. Saint Catherine’s at Mount Sinai may be even older. We who find ourselves at the crossing of religious and academic systems may be optimistic about our chances of corporate survival.
Because the interaction of their components is not naturally determined and limited, these human systems can be the source and site of greater development and innovation than any individual. They can advance cumulatively over generations. They can also fall into repetition and decline. Their internal diversity is the source of both their strength and their fragility.
The creativity of these systems is largely a function of the interaction of their diverse and complementary participants. When the participants become too much alike, the probability of something significantly new arising from them goes down. When the participants are so diverse or wedded to their differences that they cannot—or will not—interact, the system is sterile. But when the participants are both diverse and interactive enough, these system can result in new and wonderful realities. On the organic level, one finds evolution of new forms. On the human, leaps forward in social organization and security, individual understanding and happiness. Such systems can be cumulative. Our cultures provide all sorts of resources that make human life richer—social capital—that as individuals we have to acquire but do not have to invent—languages, computational techniques, and understandings of ourselves and our world.
As a school, we are a specialized kind of human system, set within larger and more permanent systems. We are not a single subject but a group of interacting subjects. Our system is indeed diverse in many different ways—ways in which a theological school or a denominational seminary are not or at least do not intend to be. Like those other types of schools, we are a professional school which attempts a dialogue between religious practices and the academic study of religion. Our common task is to mediate between the church’s practices and university’s disciplines.
As a human community, we are endowed with possibilities of advancing and burdened with probabilities of failing. We can be creative and innovative in our collaboration or we can become stagnant and repetitious. We can expect to fail, indeed, we have to make provision for the correction of that failure.
Failure can occur in individual performance but it can also take systemic forms. Success in a system like ours requires the creative interaction of diverse participants. The corresponding dangers are homogeneity and isolation.
We could get caught in homogeneity by limiting the internal resources at our disposal. A faculty made up of people such as I —traditionalist, creedal, hierarchical, ritualist Catholics—might be cohesive and highly interactive but it might engage a much narrower range of possibilities—I speak from experience on such a faculty. Our predecessors at Vanderbilt, and we following them, have worked hard to diversify the participants in our system, our enterprise. Some of those decisions have been struggles, but we can congratulate ourselves on seeing them through and sticking to the objective. If the wounds suffered in such conflicts heal, their scars become trophies. We know that this work of maintaining diversity is never finished, that it must continued every year.
To have struggled against this first limitation, to have achieved some significant diversity in our membership is, however, only the first part of our challenge. In order to be successful precisely as a system, we must overcome the danger of isolation. We must achieve a high level of creative interaction. Unless we who are so different really engage one another precisely in our differences, we will not be creative and thus will not make the lasting contribution for which our predecessors struggled and which our successors can legitimately expect of us.
Our challenge will always be to engage one another on those issues which are at the heart of our enterprise: a systematic and structured understanding of the truth and goodness of very different religious traditions and communities. We must each and all—faculty, staff, students—labor to make accessible and intelligible to our colleagues religious beliefs and practices which initially seem foreign and implausible to them. We must each and all strive to understand the ideals and aspirations from which those beliefs and practices develop. In this way, religious traditions can influence one another and each can be transformed or at least attain a better self-appropriation through the interaction. The experience of ecumenical dialogue which was undertaken by the churches themselves during the last century has clearly demonstrated that we should anticipate the development rather than the suppression or assimilation of existing traditions. Even theologically, we are striving not for some grand synthesis but rather that each tradition will be elaborated and enriched in ways which are appropriate to its own genius.
Let us have no illusions. This sort of collaboration is hard work and it often ends in failure. It will require not only clear heads but patient and even forgiving hearts.
Let us then be about our business.