The Covid-19 pandemic, along with prevailing challenges such as climate change, inequality, socio-political divisions, and leadership crises in the church and elsewhere have certain things in common. Not only are they major challenges of our time but more importantly, they call for deep conversion in our fundamental paradigms and ways of proceeding.
Now the task of rebuilding a post-Covid world presents an opportune time to foster such conversion. To this end, it might be useful to distinguish at least three levels of human consciousness.
The first is that of empirical experience. This pertains to concrete events, contexts, and situations of people, as well as actions, decisions, thoughts, and feelings in their immediate experience. The second is that of orienting principles, which include underlying influences, motivations, assumptions, rules, and guideposts that shape experience, whether consciously or not. The third is that of philosophical foundations. This refers to core beliefs with regard to those primordial, ultimate questions that form the basis of one’s worldview and understanding of reality. Philosophical foundations are intricately linked to people’s sense of identity, meaning, values, and security.
As an illustration of how these three levels work, the issue of climate change can be taken.
First, it is observable that there are contrasting actions of people towards the environment, such as protection versus abuse. There are also contrasting solutions proposed by climate change advocates on what needs to be done. All these pertain to the level of empirical experience.
Beneath these actions and opinions however, there are underlying motivations, principles, concerns, and assumptions held by each person. Such underlying forces can in turn be traced to fundamental beliefs about certain core issues: human existence, the cosmos, history, and ultimate values; that is, one’s philosophical foundations.
Therefore, for any joint action on climate change to be effective and sustainable, it is not enough to merely operate at the level of empirical experience.
Unfortunately, this is often the case, as evidenced in the tendency to jump from problem to response, partly because of our contemporary culture of immediate action and quick results. This leads to short-sighted solutions, unprincipled actions, and stalemate among conflicting views.
In contrast, authentic universal flourishing entails going beyond empirical experience to examine orienting principles and even to confront philosophical foundations. In doing so, we seek to arrive at common ground on what is genuinely true and good.
Though a more difficult journey that involves depth of reflection, risk-taking, and the experience of vulnerability, tension, and uncertainty, it nevertheless has lasting, positive effects on the capacity of humanity as a whole, and represents authentic human development.
Moreover, the integration of the three levels of human consciousness is essential for each person’s growth, and helps overcome the modern malaise of fragmentation of the self, as manifest in many people’s search for wholeness in identity, meaning, life, values, and work.
These include the valuable perspectives of C. Otto Scharmer’s Theory U, Bernard Lonergan’s functional specializations especially foundations, and the Ignatian tradition’s method of communal discernment.
In particular, the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius have been an effective means of facilitating the integration of identity and purpose with life orientation and particular choices; ie. the “Who-What-How”.
Bringing these insights to bear, the following section outlines a method that can be adapted for a wide range of organizations and agendas, including multi-sectoral networks and community groups tackling climate change, rebuilding a post-Covid world, implementing sustainable development goals, or dealing with various common issues.
It can also be used by youth and other groups to reflect on an immersion experience or a social challenge, and by organizational team members to establish common grounds for working together amidst diverse religious, cultural, and professional backgrounds.
Notably, the proposed method goes beyond the conventional pastoral cycle (or See-Judge-Act) process, which does not adequately provide for the questioning, examination, and purification of evaluation criteria used in judging present experience; ie. the orienting principles and philosophical foundations.
The diagram and explanation below summarize the three-level method:
1. Subject matter, purpose, and persons
The first step is to note the subject matter at hand, be it a climate change project, a social conflict, a recent immersion experience, or a Covid-related issue. The main purpose or desired output of going through this process, as well as the persons involved, are then established. It should be ensured as far as possible that all relevant stakeholders are able to participate effectively.
2. Mindful presence
Each person begins by developing an interior attentiveness to the issue at hand and becoming more centred. This can include finding a silent time and space, and reflecting on questions such as:
- What has been my immediate experience of the issue?
- What relevant happenings have I noticed?
- How do I feel?
- What are my immediate questions, interests, and concerns?
- What are my hopes and fears?
- What have I found to be life-giving? What have I found to be desolating?
- What ideas and views do I have on the matter?
Notably, these questions are more about getting in touch with “what is”, rather than jumping into “what should be”.
3. Group awareness
Members of the group or network then gather together, taking turns to share the above reflections.
A disposition of attentive listening, which respects and welcomes the other, is central in this conversation. Just as important is safe sharing, in which one is able to acknowledge the feelings and experiences faced, and share them honestly and securely. In such listening and sharing, members can start to feel a sense of mutual acceptance and hospitality in the group, and develop the trust and interior freedom needed for the next step.
Usually, there is also a new collective awareness about the issue and about the experiences of each person. In this step, the method of Spiritual Conversation in the Ignatian tradition can be a very effective tool. Through this initial exchange, the group notes the points of resonance among members as well as the points of tension, along with the issues, questions, inclinations, and affectivities that are emerging.
Examining underlying influences
4. Reflection and research
An intervening time can be inserted here to allow for assimilation of the points raised and for research to gather relevant information where needed. Such research can include factual data, viewpoints and opinions, or knowledge from relevant fields of specialization.
During this time, participants can carry out some introspection of their “driving forces”-ie. the assumptions, motivations, concerns, and principles influencing their opinions and feelings. The following questions can be used:
- Looking back at the group conversation, what struck me? How was I moved? Why?
- What might be some underlying reasons for my opinions or sentiments, especially those strong ones?
- What might be some unspoken rules operating in me?
- What are my desires, motivations, or fears? What is most important to me?
- What are my assumptions on this matter?
- What new questions are now raised within me?
- Overall, what might be some lights and shadows in my own actions, attitudes, and viewpoints?
In this reflection, the emphasis is on allowing deeper questions to arise, and to let oneself wonder, even be provoked, and to step beyond one’s comfort zone. The self-awareness and honesty required for such reflection can be fostered if the preceding steps are carried out well, especially when an atmosphere of generosity, openness, and solidarity is created in the group.
5. Recognizing driving forces
The group then comes together again to share the above reflection and examine the research findings where relevant. The method of Spiritual Conversation can once again be used, and the main objective is to identify driving forces in the group as well as in the research findings, including the assumptions, aspirations, anxieties, influences, and the operating principles or rules that undergird the various experiences and viewpoints. The group can also identify root issues that need to be addressed, and most importantly, raise questions about the sources and validity of their driving forces. This thus prepares them for the heart of the process, which is a renewal and rediscovery of the “Who”.
Purifying philosophical foundations
6. Awareness of worldviews
Here, participants endeavor to become more aware of the implicit worldviews and values that underpin the driving forces identified in the previous step. These can be regarded as fundamental beliefs, whether espoused consciously or not, about life and reality. They can be represented in root questions such as:
- What causes events to happen?
- What is the nature of reality and how do we know it?
- What is the meaning and purpose of human life?
- What is the ultimate good?
- Does reality have an ultimate cause?
Each person can take note of his or her own current beliefs regarding these questions and then share them with the group. As in the previous conversations, the same atmosphere of openness and hospitality is called for. After the sharing of personal viewpoints, participants can then contribute additional insights, if any, from their religious, cultural, or other wisdom traditions. The mutual sharing and learning, especially through seeking diverse views, are crucial in this step.
Typically, there would be hesitation and discomfort because for many people, the above questions relate to core issues that they seldom think about, let alone share explicitly with others. Modern society has also come to regard philosophical viewpoints as a personal and private matter.
However, for a sustained effort in re-building a better world, a communal confrontation with these foundational issues is indispensable. Moreover, attending to them often nourishes the human heart and soul in profound ways. This is because these issues lie at the transcendent depths of our being, and can bridge us to our ultimate source of energy and life. Hence a well-structured and safe process for confronting these issues, both personally and communally, can have very fruitful and lasting outcomes.
To this end, philosophical foundations might be discussed in terms of at least five core issues in which most of our viewpoints and motivations have their ultimate roots. As indicated in the reflection questions above, these issues are: the causality of events (What determines the unfolding of history?); the nature of reality (What is real and how do we know?); human existence (What is the nature and meaning of human life?); purpose and value (What is the good that we should attain?); and ultimate cause (What is the primary driving force and ground of all being?).
The last issue regarding ultimate cause is central because it determines our stance on the other four. In this regard, the Catholic faith tradition can contribute helpful insights. It proclaims a God of love as the ultimate driving force in the universe, constantly drawing all creation to loving communion and fullness of flourishing, albeit through a growth journey that is dynamic in time.
In this divine enterprise, human persons are called to be free and responsible collaborators, and their flourishing, knowing, and being entail a fruitful integration of the physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and communal dimensions.
Besides the Catholic tradition, other viewpoints can also contribute helpful perspectives. In particular, alternative and more inclusive concepts and languages can help widen our understanding of God. Some common ground might even be reached regarding the ultimate source of all life and goodness, which is experienced by people in various ways as a universal lifeforce, the Absolute, divine mystery, the common human longing for ultimate fulfilment, and the ground of all being.
7. Personal conversion
Having heard all viewpoints, participants then come to the core of the process where they assess and purify their own philosophical foundations. Each one can reflect on questions such as: Where have my current worldviews come from? What uncertainties, ambivalences, doubts, or tensions do I have now, if any? What strikes me from the group’s sharing? What have I learnt? What might be some potential areas for development, conversion, or deepening in my worldviews and values? What do I truly believe?
As implied by these questions, this is a potentially defining moment that calls for openness to deep learning and conversion. Participants are challenged to go beyond superficial and uncritical thinking or blind faith, and embrace the uncertainty involved in questioning and examining long-held beliefs, with the possibility of changing them. Such a discernment entails not just intellectual reasoning but engages the whole person, including spiritual and interior affectivities, so that there is genuine conviction in the heart.
Indeed, truth moves us deeply and authentically, and becomes clearer when we ask ourselves what feels truly life-giving. It also requires an interior poverty which recognizes one’s need for growth in wisdom, knowledge, wholeness, and healing. With such openness, like Saint Ignatius at the Cardoner river, ultimate truth can sometimes grasp us in its own time and manner, filling us inexplicably with its utter fullness and love.
For this reason, participants need to be in a safe space that facilitates self-honesty, risk-taking, depth of awareness, self-emptying, and receptivity. The way to create such a space depends on each person. For some, it entails reflection on all the foregoing discussions followed by silent meditation, prayer, and various forms of centering or mindfulness. For others, a safe and contemplative space is found in nature, music, art, or any other context which engenders security and creativity. For still others, it is reached by recalling past experiences of genuine growth, gratitude, and love.
8. Developing the communal wisdom
Participants take turns to share their new insights with the group and arrive at resonant points towards a common philosophical foundation. Contrary to relativist and post-modern stances, it is indeed possible and necessary to have common ground on worldviews and values. From local and organizational to global levels, it can be seen that human persons have always endeavored to establish some normative principles for living and working together, without which the common life would be difficult and even unproductive. These normative principles in turn imply some degree of convergence with regard to what is real, true and good.
In this regard, it might help to view philosophical foundations not as a set of static doctrines which we attain once and for all but as a growing awareness through a lifelong and communal pilgrimage of questioning, learning, and discerning. Philosophical foundations are also not positions adopted according to what’s currently trendy, popular, or convenient. Instead, a historical and universal dimension needs to be taken into account because ultimate truth is illuminated consonantly and progressively by our journey of salvation at the personal, communal, and universal levels.
Revising the orienting principles
9. Re-defining principles and goals
From the purified philosophical base, the orienting principles for the matter at hand can then be established. These include common goals, underlying guidelines for the way of proceeding, evaluative criteria for decisions and actions, and key principles or priorities. Where relevant, the underlying strengths and potentialities of the group, as well as its weaknesses and limitations can also be identified.
Responding in context
10. Formulating a heuristic response
Finally, the response required for the matter at hand is formulated based on the orienting principles and adapted to the present context. This response is often experimental, heuristic, and developmental in nature. In fact, any desire for finality needs to be overcome in this step, so that there is on-going openness, listening, discernment, dialogue, and learning. The implementation of the response also leads to new experiences and realities, for which the above process can be undertaken again.
Rebuilding a better post-Covid world
In conclusion, sustainable and authentic human flourishing is facilitated by processes that attend to not only empirical experience but also to orienting principles and philosophical foundations. This helps to counter the growing culture of superficiality, fundamentalism, and fragmentation in society, and enables human persons to discover and integrate their identity, beliefs, values, life, and actions.
For a diverse group or network collaborating together, the methodical framework of the three levels also provides a way for ensuring depth of reflection, a common foundation, and sustainable action. Moreover, at the global level, the increasing urgency for a common vision of what is true and good calls for processes that promote the long-term communal wisdom, capacity, and solidarity of humanity.
Given the present need for rebuilding a better post-Covid world, the time is certainly ripe to explore these new ways of proceeding.
Christina Kheng is a planning consultant with the Jesuit Conference of Asia Pacific and a faculty member of the East Asian Pastoral Institute. Her current research focuses on inter-disciplinary methods for church-society dialogue. Christina can be reached through her email [email protected]