Quantity and the Unseen

“We look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” – 2 Corinthians 4:18

A few days ago I was having a chat with an old friend, and we were talking about several ideas I have about education and evangelization.  Halfway through the conversation, I expressed some frustration with what I called “program fatigue”.  That is the idea, especially endemic among established bureaucracies, that the solution to any problem involves more programs, more meetings, and generally more control.  My friend, himself a scholar of many years, acutely observed, “This is because it’s easier for some people to be able to quantify success…that if we feel busy going to this meeting or that meeting, or if we can count numbers of services offered and people served, we can feel like we have actually done something.”

That is a very charitable and I think psychologically accurate portrait of a certain bent of manager.  God Bless those people.  These are the ones who render a great service to the Church and Society by quantifying and organizing our efforts for the Common Good.  Certainly reliable data and attention to detail are very important in administration.

However, there is also something missing here, and I think it is common in the Church and in the regular work world: the most successful organizations are those that possess vision.  Nothing can make up for it, although many things attempt to substitute for it.

The most successful companies out there, from Apple to Amazon, thrive because they have a healthy balance between the practical/pragmatic and the visionary.  Their founders in particular had a synthesis of both, but arguably they leaned more to the latter, and it is from there that they possessed true power to change things.

In the realm of the Church, it’s hard to imagine the Apostles having “meetings”, as if it were a regular occurrence.  We know they had Councils for very important decisions, and some degree of administration did exist in large dioceses, but generally speaking, it seems from the information we have, that most of the Church’s “institutional energy” was deployed toward action on a local level.  Hence some of the most powerful movements in the Church started as local movements centered on men and women with vision.  St. Anthony in the Desert just started “doing his own thing”, as they say, in the deserts of Egypt.  St. Benedict did the same, as did St. Augustine.  It’s hard for me to conceive of St. Benedict launching a feasibility study before founding Monte Cassino, or St. Augustine having to call the Chancery of Hippo Regius to see if his small community was in accord with Diocesan Norms.

I don’t deny the necessity for some modicum of order; but at the same time, there comes a point where these norms don’t serve the mission, but the norms for some have become the end.  It is thought, both in government and in the Church, that if we simply update our policies and tweak our programs, we can help cure the malaise we see around us.  In fact, I would suggest that as meetings and policies proliferate and become more necessary, it is precisely because lower levels of order have broken down: what follows is a structure more and more divorced from the individual and particular, because by nature it must focus on the general and non-specific.  This is bound to produce profound alienation and lack of engagement in a common sense of mission.

Can we afford this approach as a Church?  Can we continue to do this when especially, as we know, the Gospel is not something we share on a loudspeaker, but is communicated to human hearts, where person-to-person contact is of pivotal importance?

Moving with Purpose

In Christian circles, much was made of Pastor Rick Warren’s book A Purpose Driven Life when it was published in 2012.  Its popularity demonstrates that Christians, like everyone, inherently crave for purpose in the world.  This to me is somewhat surprising, that Christians have to be reminded what their purpose in life is: after all, we worship a Savior who before his Ascension gave his Church a mission: to “go forth and teach all nations”. (Matt 28:19) We are told how we were “purchased at a price” (1 Cor 6:20), and we are destined to union with God, as long as don’t impede his grace.

Having a purpose in life, a sister concept to having vision, readjusts our whole approach to day to day living.  For one, we attain a new appreciation for the creative and the contemplative.  We reopen our eyes to wonder and to beauty, because we are not caught up managing all the “moving pieces” in life.  I predict even a reduction of stress and anxiety, because unavoidable obstacles and difficulties, from annoying co-workers to sick children, are placed in the context of an overarching vision of life.  This is one reason why many people report a reduction in pain and anxiety when they have as a baseline belief, “Pain and difficulty are a part of life, and I must accept what I can.”  Then, having purpose and vision over and above that allow one to move forward.

Is vision useless?  I hope so.

One of my favorite topics is art and aesthetics.  The British Philosopher Roger Scruton once put out a great program called Why Beauty Matters, in which he very insightfully traces the connection between a loss of a sense of beauty with the rise of a quasi-worship of the “useful”.  He noticed that beautiful buildings and art, much like beautiful social conventions, were, and are, increasingly discarded in the name of efficiency.  He also notices that what we do not prize as beautiful, we inevitably discard.  (Pope Francis’ “throwaway culture” comes to mind)  Hence, when it comes to a thing being fit for use throughout time, he concludes by saying, “There is nothing more useful than the useless.”

The same is true, I would conclude, for initiatives in the Church and in society.  I think today’s technocratic, pragmatic world is very difficult for people who are creative and reflective.  In other words, this world which is seen, with its opportunities and difficulties, belongs to the realm of the actual and the practical.  We can forget, because of this, that the point of reference for the world is something which is beyond it.  Losing contact with the possible for the sake of the practical is one of the surest solvents to a sense of vision.

Naturally, the results of vision are difficult to measure: how do we quantify things like faith, knowledge, beauty, or goodness?  In the Church context, I think that we put way too much stock in Sacramental and Administrative Numbers: number of baptisms vs. number of funerals, number of kids in Catholic school, Sunday Collections.  I recognize we do need some numbers to help us get a picture of what is happening, but perhaps better questions would include: when was the last time a parish put forward a native son for the Priesthood?  How many ‘non-marital’ converts are there? How many stop by the Church during the average working day? How many attend “non-Sacramental” but religious events, which would indicate a growing desire for discipleship?

At the end of the day, all these questions pale in comparison to one question that no survey can adequately measure: do you have faith?  Do you have a purpose?  Can you say you led someone to Christ in your life?  The answer to these questions are essentially unquantifiable and unseen.  Yet arguably they are the most important things we must have, if we are ever going to see a true reform of life, manners and morals in the world around us.