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From Hierarchical orders to Free Organizations

From Hierarchical orders to Free Organizations

by Charles Davies

Chapter 3 from A Question of Conscience Hodder & Stoughton, 1967 pg 198-209

IF we ask why the Church is at variance with the freedom demanded by modern men for their personal and social development and adopts an attitude that prizes heteronomy above autonomy, we must turn to the second point I have listed for consideration: the implications of the self-understanding of modern men for the manner in which they order their social existence. After all, there is no intrinsic incompatibility between the concept of man as a freely self-constituting person and the Christian message. Christianity announces the liberation of man. That Christians look to Christ and the Spirit for the achievement of that liberation can hardly be interpreted as a denial of human freedom itself. It should be seen rather as its enhancement-and as the disclosure of the source of the effectual realization of the personal and social development for which men are striving. No, the clash is not with the teaching of Christ but with the obsolete structure of the Church.

Corresponding to the shift from the concept of a fixed human nature to that of a freely self-constituting person, there is the social change from fixed hierarchical orders in a dosed situation to freely created organizations in an open situation.(1)

Fixed orders in hierarchy were typical of society when men worked with the concept of a fixed human nature. Notice in passing that it is significant that the word "hierarchy" is used outside the strictly ecclesiastical sphere when it is a question of rigid graded orders. The usage indicates the link between the insistence upon static social classes and functions and an archaic, sacral view of society and the world. Fixed, hierarchically arranged orders, permanently dividing men according to class and function, were regarded as given and preformed in the same way as human nature was understood as a static reality, given and complete, with its limits already definitively formulated. They preceded the exercise of men's freedom. They were not the result of personal choice or the expression of meaning freely they were part of an established system, usually presented as divinely sanctioned.

Each man belonged to an order, determining his place in society and in the hierarchically arranged cosmos. His order embraced a man totally in the sense of forming the total, limiting framework of his life. He had his place, whether high or low, in the general structure of society and the world, and was expected to keep it. A man was good when he submitted willingly and without objection to his predetermined place in the divinely sanctioned state of things. His protection against oppressors was that the higher as well as the lower orders, rulers as well as subjects, had their rights limited and their duties allotted to them in the general hierarchical scheme. But while men might strive for their rights against unjust oppressors, they were not entitled to work in freedom to build a new and different structure of society. The hierarchical structure was given; it was not considered as the changeable product of the common activity of freely selfconstituting persons.

Hence, men lived in a closed situation. The structures in which they were placed were resistant to change. There was not a general mobility nor a wide range for the exercise of their freedom, whether individually or socially.

Although that last statement is true, I am in general describing a theory of society and the world, not giving an account of the concrete reality of past societies. Just as the concept of a fixed human nature never adequately expressed the concrete reality of man, so also the hierarchical view of society was never fully in accord with the actual reality of society. The so-called divinely sanctioned structure was in fact the result of human decision and compromise, and society was always more mobile than the theory allowed. Nevertheless, the shift in man's self-understanding, with the consequent rejection of fixed hierarchical orders, has liberated society from the cramping effects of the attempted imposition of an unalterable structure and has opened the way to rapid social change. A development of consciousness inevitably had great repercussions upon the manner in which men ordered their social existence. The new consciousness is in fact the death warrant of all fixed hierarchical orders. It has already seen the death of Christendom and is now steadily bringing about the disintegration of the Church in its present form.

Modern society is built upon a structural principle different from the acceptance of fixed orders in hierarchy. The typical feature of modern society is the freely created organization. What has now been established is a technological-organizational state of life for man.

Organizations as distinct from fixed orders are the product of man's freely creative intelligence. They are not given and preformed, but made by men and explicitly acknowledged as such. This gives them definite characteristics which must be examined.

Every organization is limited in its scope and validity. It is concerned only with a particular, limited aspect of man's life and does not, or should not, claim to embrace him totally. Again, it is relative in value and essentially changeable; it should not claim any permanent validity.

To consider first the limited scope of every organization. Organizations are the product of man's intelligence. They therefore reflect the way that intelligence works.

In trying to understand complex data, man isolates particular features, aspects, objects or relations and, having grasped these in distinct concepts, proceeds to systematize his conceptual knowledge. Further, his aim is to relate the particular features or objects to one another, while prescinding as far as possible from himself as the observer or subject. He has to allow for the personal equation, but he does so in order to eliminate the subjective factor from the objectified result. In other words, abstraction in the sense of the distinguishing and isolating of particular aspects and objectification or the prescinding from the subject are typical of the working of man's intelligence.

Man's practical, organizing intelligence works in a similar fashion. Particular features, relations or aims are distinguished, isolated and dealt with separately. Hence any one organization is concerned with a limited feature of man's social existence and has a restricted purpose. This is the reason for the very great number of organizations in modern society and the increasing organizational complexity of the modern world. Again, the tendency is to objectify problems and relationships. In relation to a particular organization for a particular purpose, the person is not considered in his total reality, but as an objectified instance of a particular problem or relationship. Thus, a person becomes a case for legal advice, for a surgical operation, for taxation, for housing, for a driving test, and so on. Organizations are based upon objectified relationships. Taken separately, they prescind from the total reality of the persons they relate. This is what makes organizations seem impersonal.

Modern technological-organizational society has long been subjected to negative criticism, a criticism that seizes in particular upon its impersonality. But a merely negative criticism is worse than useless. There is no point in indulging in nostalgia for a past rural society, especially if that is idealized in retrospect. The organized, urban society of today reflects an advance in man's social consciousness. As concretely realized it has many defects. But the approach should be positively to appreciate the principles that underlie it, to learn how to live within it and to work to ameliorate it. Despite its defects, it has widened the opportunities for personal and social expansion. It is the social counterpart of the change in man's self understanding.

What can at once be remarked is that the change to freely created organizations is a liberation of men from fixed and preformed hierarchical orders. Men are now able by their intelligence and free decision to organize their social existence as they see fit. Since men must do this together, individuals have to work with others to achieve their social aims. They have to make their contribution to social thought and criticism and engage in political and social activity to give effect to their ideas. All the same, behind the present development of organized society is the acknowledgment that social structures are not given and unchangeable; they are the product of man's organizing intelligence and the exercise of his freedom. The freer men are from the bonds of fixed, preformed orders, the more they can become themselves.

The limited scope of every organization, with the impersonal character this gives it, should also be seen as the liberation of the individual from imposed and preformed relationships. An individual's personal life is now more his own, and his deeper and more personal relationships a matter of free choice. It may sound attractive that the doctor should be the family friend, but it can also be an intrusion. Many prefer to get medical attention without extending the relationship with the doctor to friendship, unless they deliberately choose to do so. Likewise, one may expatiate romantically about the friendliness of the village shop, but it is a restriction upon one's liberty and privacy to be unable to buy goods without entering into a discussion with the shopkeeper about the details of one's personal life.

We live in fact in a world of differentiated relationships. Necessary relationships are objectified, limited to their particular purpose and kept within those limits. And even in regard to such necessary, limited relationships, those who live in cities will usually have a measure of choice. However, more important, by the limiting and objectifying of necessary relationships, people as persons are freed from imposed personal relationships. They are able to commit and involve themselves as persons according to their own free choice. A village community may seem to be a richer and more human form of society than the city with the anonymity with which it surrounds its inhabitants. It is, I suggest, less human, because it encloses men in a set of pre-determined relationships. To have one's life thus enclosed and pre-shaped for one may provide a ready-made emotional security. Not everyone is prepared to meet the demands of freedom. But the absence of free choice, with the consequent inability to shape one's own life, often leads to personal relationships that remain comparatively superficial. Further, when the imposed relationships work out unhappily, the enclosed, preformed community can be sheer hell for a particular individual. The anonymity of the city and the general possibility of limiting the numerous, necessary relationships of social existence to their particular purpose leave men free to shape their own lives and commit themselves as persons by a truly free decision.

The deliberate limiting of many relationships within modern, organized society gives them an impersonal character, because they do not embrace the total reality of the persons involved. But this impersonality need not become in any way anti-personal. The conscious recognition that the particular relationship is limited should mean an awareness and respect for the undisclosed reality of the other person. It is where the limitation of the relationship is forgotten that the person is violated by its impersonality and treated as a mere object. A surgeon or lawyer or administrator who limits his relationship to his clients to what professionally concerns him is respecting not denying their integrity as persons. Only if he forgets that his relationship with them is limited and does not embrace their total reality as persons will he be guilty of treating them as mere objects for his professional skill. The bureaucrat is not wrong in limiting his attention to what concerns his administrative function. Where he often errs is in failing to recognize that he is dealing with only a very limited aspect of the reality and lives of the people who come under his administration. He reduces their reality to his administrative concern, instead of remaining conscious that it extends well beyond it.

As Harvey Cox has pointed out, we need a middle form of relationship between the I-Thou relationship of deep personal commitment and the I-It relationship that reduces persons to the status of things or mere objects. He suggests that we call it an I-You relationship, which is a limited relationship, but one where there remains an awareness and respect for the reality of the other person (2)

What, then, emerges from the consideration of the limited scope of every organization is the essential need to recognize and constantly remember that limitation. Where the limitation is not recognized, the organization becomes destructive of persons, because it reduces their reality within its own narrow limits. Where it is recognized, the differentiation of social existence into numerous limited relationships frees men to shape their own lives. The multiplication of organizations prevents men from being enclosed in a single all-embracing fixed order; none of the organizations can lay claim to the total reality of a person or presume to control his whole life. And each person remains free in regard to his deeper commitments and more personal relationships.

This brings me to the second characteristic I mentioned of organizations, namely that they are relative in value and essentially changeable.

The structural principle behind organizations is the creative intelligence of man. Organized society, therefore, must be placed in the context of the developing intelligence of man; it participates in the open dynamism of human intelligence. Modern society is essentially changeable because it is the expression of man's becoming. Behind that becoming lies man's restless, questioning intellect and his striving for greater freedom. As men engage in the process of making themselves and their world, they meet new problems and find new solutions to old problems. Socially man's becoming is expressed by the creation of new organizations and the leaving aside of old organizations, by the increasing differentiation of organizations as social needs and aims are more clearly defined and distinguished. Truth, I have said, becomes prejudice when it is taken out of the context of man's questioning mind. Likewise, if organizations are removed from the creativity of man's developing intelligence and made absolute and unchangeable, they cease to express and embody man's becoming and harden into irrational restrictions upon his intelligence and freedom. Organizations must remain open to change. They must be regarded as relative in value and without permanent validity. Otherwise, they are divorced from their structural principle: the creative intelligence of man. Instead of being the expression of the reality of man in his intelligent and free becoming, they block his development and imprison his humanity. It is when they refuse to change that organizations become inhuman and destructive of persons.

Thus, modern men live in a world that is immensely complex, but always changing. They experience the world as a succession of perpetually new situations. For that reason, they are or should be iconoclastic towards all organizations. Organizations should be open-ended. They should never become fixed in what they are, but remain constantly ready for change. There should always be the opportunity for improvisation, leading to new forms of expressing the reality of man and his becoming.

In a world that is in principle open to constant change what is man's relationship to the past ? Well, man in his becoming depends upon the past. A continuity with the past should be acknowledged in human development, both individual and social. For a person to repress and refuse to accept his own past is psychologically harmful and hampers his very development. To ignore the social past and think that every generation begins afresh is to destroy the possibility of historical development, in which each generation builds upon the work of previous generations. It is also to take away the meaning of education, the purpose of which is to bring each person to the point already reached in human development.

However, there is room for a distinction in viewing the past. There is the past that remains past in the sense that it is no longer relevant or meaningful for us. And there is the past that becomes present in so far as it is constitutive of our present being and thus meaningful for us. Now, we appropriate the past and make it living and meaningful only in as much as we look to the future; in other words, only in as much as we place it in the context of man's becoming. The past is falsified when it is made absolute, because this destroys its very authenticity as a past embodiment of man's reality. It is when we recognize it, not as an unhistorical absolute, but a past expression of man's historical being, that we can render it relevant and meaningful.

To return to my main theme.

The bearing of the remarks about the change from fixed hierarchical orders to freely created organizations is that men, both individually and socially, now live in an open situation.

By this I mean that their lives are not enclosed and shaped for them by the imposition of preformed relationships and restriction within fixed, unchangeable social structures.

The organizational complexity of modern society creates a variety of choice for the individual. Organizations in principle are freely joined and from them men can freely withdraw. Many factors, notably economic necessity, still unjustly restrict men's effective freedom in this respect. Again, social necessity justly limits the individual's freedom of choice. But the principle of the greatest possible freedom should be recognized. Even the modern, organized nation, granted many present restrictions, is freely joined by naturalization or freely left by emigration. Within the nation, men have a fair range of choice in deciding their social function and planning their general social existence.

Further, the limited character of organizations leaves men free to form their own deeper personal relationships and thus shape their own personal and social life. Whereas in an hierarchical society a man was good if he submitted willingly to the order in which he was placed and which totally embraced his life, where a man today forgets the limited function of any organization and submits himself and others totally to it, he disfigures his and their reality as persons. The extreme instance of this is the totalitarian State. Lesser instances are the organization man, who identifies himself with the organization for which he works, and the bureaucrat, who reduces people to numbers in a file. Only if the limited function and relative value of organizations are recognized, will modern organized society be preserved from inhumanity. Organizations cannot embrace the total reality of men as persons. They are but partial expressions of the rich and changing human reality.

Moreover, as I have said, organized society is a changing society, reflecting the open dynamism of man's creative intelligence. Not only individually, but also socially, men are now in an open situation, where all social structures are subject to constant change.

The open situation in which men are now placed has created the modern problem of loneliness. Not all are mature enough to embrace the freedom to shape their own personal and social life and exist stripped of preformed relationships. In the anonymity created by the city they remain lonely, cut off from social intercourse. Then there are social groups at an unfair disadvantage in modern society, deprived of reasonable social opportunities and unable to share fully in social life. The problems caused by modern society call for love towards those damaged and an active concern to eliminate the defects. But the problems cannot be met by attempting to return to an earlier state of society, but by trying to better the present, imperfect achievement.

However, this leads us to seek a deeper basis for modern society. Technological-organizational society will become truly human only when it is the expression of a common world of meaning and of an universal fellowship among men.
Freely created organizations have meaning. They are the work of men in freely creating and embodying meaning in the world around them and thus forming and developing the properly human world. In that sense organizations are never neutral. They are like language. They embody and communicate meaning, and through them meaning is created and unfolded. A programme, therefore, of modernizing society, understood as its more efficient reorganization, while ignoring meaning and treating organizations as neutral, is strictly nonsensical. It merely implies that one is the victim of unacknowledged ideology. A reorganization of society cannot be separated from its renewal, which demands the conscious fostering and development of a common world of meaning, thought out and critically examined. Organizations should be subordinate to that common world of meaning, each expressing some feature, aspect or relationship belonging to it. Men must work freely together to create the world of human meaning; organizations are the language they use.

But it would be a mistake to suppose that a common world of meaning requires embodiment in a single, over-arching organization. That is untrue. Any attempt to bring the common world of meaning within the boundaries of an all-embracing super-organization would be a disastrous failure to recognize the open, changing reality of man and the ceaseless activity of his intelligence and freedom It would be to create a vast prison for mankind. No, the understanding that men are self-constituting persons, involved in an individual and social becoming, leads to the conclusion that their common world of meaning can be expressed and embodied only in a great variety of changing and changeable organizations. Each organization, even if worldwide, will be limited in function. Men will be imprisoned in none, but will remain in an open situation. The present age is not an age of poverty of meaning, but of richness of meaning. Even were a common world of meaning achieved, which it is not as yet, many organizations would be needed to express its complex richness and open dynamism. And to attempt at present to establish a total organization would be to frustrate the process that could lead to such an achievement.

To say that underlying the development of modern society with its freely created organizations should be the creation and development of a common world of meaning is to demand the acknowledgment of a universal human community or fellowship. As I have already said, community at the distinctively human level is precisely a common world of meaning, in so far as that world is socially created and socially embodied in institutions and relationships.

But again it would be wrong to suppose that the universal human community requires a single, over-arching organization. Men will express their-universal fellowship in a variety of ways and through a variety of organizations. A single all-embracing organization is neither essential nor practicable; indeed, it would be positively harmful. What is essential is that the whole of human social life should be subordinate to the conviction of the unity of mankind and should serve the promotion of universal fellowship. The fundamental principle of human community is not organizational unity, but the conviction of the unity of mankind and the gradual working for the achievement of a common world of meaning. Men will work for this through free intellectual discussion and practical collaboration in the building of society. A variety of organizations, limited in function and subject to change, corresponds better to the human condition than the establishment of a single, total organization.

As individuals men will express their acknowledgment of the human community through three different forms of relationship.

There is first the I-You or limited relationship embodied in particular organizations. While this kind of relationship prescinds from the total reality of the persons involved, it is not anti-personal. but demands from each an awareness and respect of the other person. The doctor or lawyer or administrator, while keeping within the limits of his professional concern, is or should be exercising a just and loving service in relation to the other person. If the objectified relationship expressed in an organization is a just one, there is no need to step outside its limits in order to manifest love and justice towards the other persons concerned. It is fallacious to suppose that love of the neighbour demands the impossible feat of establishing an intimate friendship with everyone. Man expresses human community through objectified relationships, provided they are just.

The second kind of relationship is also limited, but it is unorganized. It is the service of a fellow man in need, wherever he is met. Man in an open situation should be prepared to help others outside any framework and whenever particular circumstances make this demand upon his love. No one can withdraw from such unexpected demands with the excuse that he is giving his service through established organizations. These are always inadequate. But the relationship thus embraced is limited to the needs of the particular case. As von Oppcn remarks in the article I have cited, the Good Samaritan did not take the wounded traveller into his house to live with him for the rest of his life, but bandaged him, took him to an inn, left money there for his care, promised to stop on his return, and then went about his business. The situation determined the nature of the relationship required; and it did not demand a life-long friendship. Thus, we should meet any demands a particular situation makes upon our love. What is required is usually limited; it is imperatively demanded for all that.

In the third place there is the I-Thou relationship of deep personal commitment and intimate friendship. Here men today have the greatest freedom. Modern society, with its general mobility and the limited character of its organizations, leaves men freer than ever before to shape their own individual and social life on the deeply personal level. This in fact makes possible a deeper because freer personal commitment, as it has, for example, created the partnership marriage in place of the arranged union. I-Thou relationships cannot of their nature be organized. They will be found in intimate personal friendships freely entered into and also give rise to small, interpersonal groups. Such groups will be fluid in form and subject to the vicissitudes of all friendships as persons change and develop or just move away. Attempts to organize them and give them stability usually kill them. Notice that because the principle behind them is free commitment and association does not mean that they are motivated by selfishness. They require the same kind of unselfish outgoing towards other persons as all friendship.

After this somewhat lengthy account of the social change from fixed hierarchical orders in a closed situation to freely created organizations in an open situation, it is now possible to look in contrast at the hierarchical social structure of the Church. At once it is apparent that it belongs to a different, archaic world; it is an obsolete survival of a past stage of history. The same applies to all rigidly maintained Church structures, even when they are nonhierarchical.

The imposition of an essentially unchanging social structure, hierarchical in form, dashes with modern man's social consciousness. It withdraws the social structure of the Church from the creativity and freedom which constitute the structural principle according to which man now organizes his social existence. So, Christians are prevented in this changing world from freely creating on the basis of their faith the organizational structures they require for the embodiment of their Christian life and mission. There is constant resistance to change and rejection of experiment and improvisation.-There is an insistence upon fixed laws and traditional procedures, inadequate as these are in a period of rapid change. In brief, to maintain the hierarchical structure, the Church is attempting to keep men in a closed situation, instead of recognizing that they are now in an open situation. What insistence upon an unchanging social structure means in effect is a denial of the social implications of the concept of man as a self-creative person. That is why modern men see the Church as oppressive.

But the problem is even greater than the continuance of a fixed hierarchical order from the past. The past is always falsified in making it an unhistorical absolute. A fixed hierarchical order in a modern context has not the same nature and effects as it had in the past. Out of its proper historical context it has become distorted.

The social structure of the Church has not been unaffected by modern organizational society. It has taken into itself the organizational complexity of the modern world and formed itself into a vast administrative structure, endeavouring to control, arrange and systematize the activity of Christians. Thus, the closest model for a modern bishop is a business executive. But in combining organizational complexity with the claims of a fixed hierarchical order it has left aside the features of organizational society that prevent its becoming inhuman and destructive of human personality. The protection of man's personality and freedom in the face of modern highly organized society is the firm maintenance of his open situation, with insistence upon the limited scope of every organization, the essential changeability of all organizations, their multiplicity and variety and the absence of any single, over-arching organization embracing his total reality as a person. By its maintenance of a fixed social structure and its stress upon its hierarchical authority, the Church refuses the application of these principles to itself. Hence throughout its structure it shows the worst, inhuman, bureaucratic features of modern organizational society without allowing and fostering its advantages. By attaching its claims as a divinely sanctioned and unchangeable hierarchical order to what has now taken on the characteristics of a vast administrative organization with modern techniques, the Church is crushing the humanity of Christians and frustrating their personal and social expansion as Christians.


(1). " Man in the Open Situation" by Dietrich von Oppen, in Journal for Theology and Church, Vol 2: Translating Theology into the Modern Age (Harper & Row, New York, 1965 pp.130 -158 created;
(2). The Secular City: Secularization and Urbanization in Theological Perspective, by Harvey Cox (SCM Press Ltd, London, 1965), pp. 48-9.

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