We seem to live our lives not in peace but in pieces. We accumulate hundreds of Facebook “friends,” but find it hard to sustain enduring friendships marked by loyalty and care. We turn up to our daily workplaces, but have little sense of how, if at all, our assigned tasks, or the products or services we help supply, contribute to any wider public good. We turn out to vote in elections but are rarely able to grasp how, or if, the fulfilment of that lone civic duty in any way builds solidarity and justice for wider society.
Among the many discontents of our contemporary civilization is an increasingly pervasive, but disturbingly elusive, sense of dis-integration, dis-connection, or fragmentation. What more and more people see when they deliberately zoom in on the centrifugal forces shaping their lives is, at best, a pleasing but unstable kaleidoscope of juxtaposed images, or, at worst, a disordered scattering of the broken shards of our selfhood.
The fissiparous experiences that make up late modern life threaten to dissolve our selves into a multiplicity of disconnected or jarring roles, disrupt the narrative sequence of our lives into a succession of momentary interactions, and send our moral and spiritual compasses into a disorientating spin. They confront us with deep and unsettling questions: Who am I? What binds my yesterdays to my tomorrows? Where am I heading?
Of course, that is rarely the totality of our experience. Many of us continue to enjoy meaningful bonds with family and friends, and find a measure of satisfaction in work, in creative arts, in the familiar fabric of neighbourhood, in political campaigns. The centrifuge may be spinning on high, but there are also centripetal forces at work.
The upshot is that many twenty-first-century people go through life with a gnawing sense that—to paraphrase William Butler Yeats’s “The Second Coming”—their personal centres cannot hold.
Indeed, were it not for these forces below the surface of our shifting interactions, our personal lives and the larger societal structures that frame them would simply dissolve. And—wittingly or not, reluctantly or not—our daily acts of participation in whatever relationships we find ourselves embedded in sustain these forces. Christians interpret these centripetal forces as the gracious sustaining by God of the wisdom of created order, which “cries aloud in the street” to us to follow its paths (Proverbs 1:20), even as we strive in the opposite direction.
That errant, self-defeating striving takes different forms in different historical and cultural moments. Today, the colonization of our societies by what seem to be “liquefying” global economic and cultural systems driven increasingly by high-velocity digital technology confronts us with incredibly powerful and unsettling centrifugal forces, while offering us a simulacrum of “connectivity” that tempts us to think we are, all things considered, relationally better off.
The upshot is that many twenty-first-century people go through life with a gnawing sense that—to paraphrase William Butler Yeats’s “The Second Coming”—their personal centres cannot hold, that some kind of anarchy has been loosed upon their private worlds.
With varying degrees of success, they strike a modus vivendi with relational and functional dissonance, scaling back their expectations of wholeness, while enjoying whatever episodically satisfying bondings come their way—for as long as they do. They acquire the survival strategy of learned rootlessness. Or, perhaps, they simply immerse themselves in the daily round, never really pressing the question why the disparate threads of their lives seem not to be woven into any discernible pattern. Whoever promised that, anyway? And who on earth could deliver it?
One name for the good that seems to elude us is, simply, integrity, meaning not primarily “honesty” or “living consistently with one’s beliefs” (though those are included), but rather—as one dictionary aptly defines it—as “the state of being whole, entire or undiminished.” This definition captures poignantly the hunger for wholeness experienced by many human beings. We all live “diminished” lives that are far from “entire,” and we yearn for things to be put together again.
The foregoing has gestured toward a “subjective” phenomenology of disintegration: a read on how disintegration looks from the inside. What follows is an initial stab at an “objective” sociology of disintegration: the structural patterns we see when we view disintegration from the outside. We can distinguish three interrelated factors at work: “hyper-differentiation,” “deepening disenchantment,” and what I’ll call “authenticity-introspection.”
The first is hyper-differentiation—specialization run amok.
Max Weber, the towering theorist of modernity, identified “differentiation” as a structural and spiritual process characteristic of modern societies. What I’m calling “hyper-differentiation” refers to the structural side, “disenchantment” to the spiritual side. “Authenticity-introspection” is a late-modern symptom of the latter.
Weber identified a profound societal transition at the birth of modernity in the West. The shift was from a culture in which social institutions were unified organically, and directed normatively, by the integrating sacred canopy of the church, to one in which these institutions gradually acquired their own organizational and spiritual independence and operated according to their own, self-posited purposes. Modernity was made possible by the progressive realization of “the internal and lawful autonomy of the individual spheres”—the state, the business enterprise, the university, the artistic community, and a host of voluntary associations.
Readers familiar with the social theology underpinning this journal will be right to recognize here something like Abraham Kuyper’s notion of the “sphere sovereignty” of many distinct social institutions. This was later developed by the philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd into a sophisticated account of—and strikingly robust affirmation of—institutional “differentiation” as the progressive historical unfolding (“disclosure”) of the deep latencies within created order itself. For him, such disclosure doesn’t just happen to us. It occurs as humankind faithfully takes up what Vincent Bacote calls “the church’s first great commission”—to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth (Genesis 1:28)—and to do so in line with the pathways of creational wisdom.
This is why this strand of the Reformed tradition has adopted an essentially positive, though far from uncritical, stance toward the advanced institutional pluralization that has indeed come to be a mark of modernity. Other Protestant strands, and modern Catholicism, have come to affirm it too, if for distinct reasons.
What unites these various Christian affirmations, and what, I submit, makes them Christian (and thus critical) accounts, is a twofold recognition. First, that human beings as created by God come with a variety of irreducible needs, capabilities, and aspirations, each of which is “integral to” (there’s that idea again) what it means to be human under God. Second, that these needs, capabilities and aspirations are often best met or expressed through the conduit of functionally distinct and self-governing institutions, rather than being orchestrated through the paternal, overseeing direction of some larger institution—for example, state, nation, even church. They are properly “self-governing,” but they are not to be “self-positing,” for as we humans form and manage them, we are to discern the creational pathways, the distinct societal charisms, each is called to pursue.
Human beings as created by God come with a variety of irreducible needs, capabilities, and aspirations, each of which is “integral to” (there’s that idea again) what it means to be human under God.
John Paul II famously formulated this insight in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus as the “subjectivity of society.” By that he meant that human social nature cannot remotely be fulfilled in membership of the political community alone but is “realized in various intermediary groups, beginning with the family and including economic, social, political and cultural groups which stem from human nature itself and have their own autonomy.” He adds, “always with a view to the common good”—a vital qualification.
Ironically, however, this entirely proper affirmation of multiple institutional servants of the common good is itself now being corroded by hyper-differentiation. Healthy differentiation is a form of institutional “specialization”—each body confines its responsibilities to what it is (or would be if it were well-ordered) fitted to do well: families to raising children; universities to advancing systematic knowledge; businesses to supplying socially valuable; environmentally sustainable, and affordable goods and services; states to promoting public justice; and so forth.
There is also a proper specialization of roles within institutions or simply among individuals. This was already well advanced in premodern societies, which well understood the distinctive roles of parents and children, priests and laity, canon and civil lawyers, soldiers and governors, and so forth.
But specialization took a great leap forward in modernity, from which emerged a vast new array of differentiated roles, each with carefully defined briefs: in an educational body, students, teachers of multiple disciplines, administrators; in a corporation, executives, managers and workers with highly diverse tasks; many new subdisciplines within the artistic world; and so on.
This already put new strains on the ability of many individuals to live “integrated” lives: a village blacksmith once knew where his product went and who benefited from it, while a sheet-metal worker in a modern steel factory has no idea where the slab of metal he hammers ends up or for what purpose it is used.
In time, however, compensating (“centripetal”) forces began to emerge. In the economic realm, workers organized protective trades unions that served as foci of identity, solidarity, empowerment—and, in British mining towns, as sponsors of pretty decent brass bands. In the realm of politics, parties emerged to channel shared visions of social and economic justice.
These wider disintegrating forces were also spatial: new industrial workers were torn from the “organic” bonds of their former rural communities and left to fend for themselves and their individual families in soulless, flattened urban “spaces.”
Again, compensating developments kicked in: towns and neighbourhoods gradually developed into “communities of character” (to adapt a term coined by Stanley Hauerwas)—“places” to which residents acquired loyalties. A plethora of new voluntary associations emerged, channelling people’s numerous social, educational, and charitable commitments and aspirations.
But today the phenomenon of role- and task-specialization is morphing into hyper-differentiation. The “Taylorist” movement emerging in the mid-twentieth century, which parsed jobs into discrete functions, continues unabated today. Our work tasks are narrowing in scope even as digital technology makes them globally available, as the author of Bullshit Jobs, David Graeber, notes. Even senior executives in larger corporations, who are supposed to know where they are going, are increasingly mesmerized by the short-term horizon of maximizing quarterly shareholder value for the sake of attracting yet more anonymous, footloose investors.
In the education sector, “knowledge” is being fractured into tinier and tinier pieces, making it ever harder to see its relation to larger vocations like the search for wisdom or truth. Academic publication is “salami-sliced,” as institutional performance indicators force researchers to know (and publish) more and more about less and less, burying them under mountains of detail while rendering them unable to keep in view the point and destination of their intellectual journeys.
It’s hardly surprising that individual participants in (or rather, operatives of) institutional sectors subject to such hyper-differentiation feel, as Karl Marx aptly put it, “alienated” from the content, process, and beneficiaries (as well as the rewards) of their efforts. Nor is it surprising that, at the institutional level, hyper-specialization produces chronic “mission-drift” as institutions, preoccupied with trying to hold together the increasingly specialized roles and tasks that technology seems to thrust on them, struggle to articulate, even to remember, what they actually exist for—in John Paul II’s terms, how to act “with a view to the common good.”
So far I have addressed only one half of Weber’s story of differentiation. But what about the spiritual dimension? For Weber, differentiation inescapably implied “disenchantment.” The “lawful autonomy” of the newly differentiated spheres was necessarily accompanied by the progressive secularization of those spheres. This resulted from the increasing “rationalization” of society, whereby differentiated institutions no longer relied on traditional religious or moral guidance but increasingly followed internal materialist “logics.”
For Weber, this was most glaring in the economic sphere. As sociologist José Casanova puts it, “No other sphere of the saeculum would prove more secular and more unsusceptible to moral regulation that the capitalist market. . . . [As] the religious roots dried out, the irrational compulsion turned into ‘sober economic virtue’ and ‘utilitarian worldliness.’” What is more, such a capitalist market becomes a destructive predator of other sectors, including religion: “it no longer needs religious or moral support and begins to penetrate and colonize the religious sphere itself, subjecting it to the logic of commodification.” The church itself became disenchanted.
We are here no longer talking about a historically legitimate pluralization of institutional responsibilities, each liberated to contribute in its own unique way to the common good. We are talking about the draining of spiritual and moral meaning from differentiated institutional sectors. It is not that they became directionless. On the contrary, they confidently struck out in their new directions, but according to their own inner rationalist imperatives. They discarded the moral and spiritual resources afforded formerly by the church as custodian (on a good day) of the overarching, integrative framework that had guided institutional actors in other sectors.
It is not as if the church put up all that much of a credible fight against this process of disenchantment: it was simply outgunned. Nor was it able to nurture a critical mass of new institutions embodying an attractive alternative vision. Casanova again:
No amount of economic casuistry could hide the distance between just price theory and capitalist profit or the irreconcilable conflict between the new capitalist relations and the traditional “moral economies” . . . [such as] communitarian brotherly ethics. . . . Nor could the church’s ever more desperate official condemnations of usury stem the growth of financial and merchant capitalism, a growth to which the church’s own avid search for larger revenues contributed in no small part.
The contemporary church is still only just beginning to recover from—even to take the full measure of—the depth of the “deformations” (as James K.A. Smith terms them) wrought on it by this centuries-long Babylonian captivity to a radically disenchanted form of capitalism.
Disenchantment, then, is the displacement of a societally integrative sacred canopy, of which the church purported (over-ambitiously, to be sure) to be custodian, and the consequent penetration of the various differentiated institutional sectors by norms arising from secular rationalist, materialist, and utilitarian logics rather than by any religious vision—by any theo-logic.
It’s true, of course, that premodern societies were often repressive, stifling, and marked by bitter institutional conflict and personal dissatisfaction (and early death). And modern societies were, in time, and still are, often experienced by many as liberating and fulfilling. What’s more, there are promising green shoots of “re-enchantment” emerging today, especially in what Smith calls “cracks in the secular.”
In a hyper-differentiated and pervasively disenchanted culture it becomes formidably difficult to achieve lives of “integrity.”
Yet it remains the case that in a hyper-differentiated and pervasively disenchanted culture it becomes formidably difficult to achieve lives of “integrity”—lives in which we can recognize our multiple social roles as ordered, severally, to some morally and spiritually meaningful purposes, and integrated, jointly, around some overarching, unifying end.
A third source of disintegration is, ironically, the result of an attempt to remedy it. The solution to disconnection is sought inside my “self.” Public life may remain fragmented and disorientating, but I can at least attain some measure of inward integration through introspection. I’m calling call this “authenticity-introspection”—the search for an inner “authenticity” that promises to unite the disparate threads of our lives as nevertheless “mine”, the expression of “my identity.” Once we have struck on this elusive “elixir” of an integrated life, we can, so the promise goes, engage in a process of self-curating—a re-weaving of the ramifying threads of our lives into a unique tapestry of “me-ness.”
Four Steps Toward Reintegration
The Christian tradition has very different and deep traditions of wisdom on how, through the inner practices of prayer, contemplation, and other spiritual disciplines, our lives might become more “entire.” So here is the first, obvious step toward reintegration: restoring personal wholeness through drinking deeply of these practices of personal formation.
It’s true that such Christian practices are finding partial echoes today in, for example, the “mindfulness” movement; and these are bearing some fruit in people’s lives. Yet the objective of Christian practices is not to help us track down some primordial source of authenticity concealed inside ourselves but rather to orient our inner and then our outer lives toward that which lies beyond, undergirds, envelops, and alone heals and restores those selves: the love, and loving purposes, of God.
Moreover, as Smith argues, we will only be able cultivate such reintegrated, rightly desiring selves through glad participation in the transformative “liturgical” practices of the community of the church. That, then, is a second step toward reintegration.
Perhaps the church can again become a new, humbled, liberated “custodian” of possibilities of integration.
Such transformative personal and ecclesial practices will bear various fruits. One is that we will be better able to discern our own continuing disintegrations, and, beyond ourselves, those of our neighbours and societies. Another is that we will find the personal and communal resources to bear what, short of the eschaton, will always be significant experiences of disintegration—and bear them not “stoically,” but “patiently,” awaiting the full reintegration of our selves and the world in the new creation. Yet another is that we will discover deep reserves of energy for commitment to whatever moments of societal transformation God may make possible even now.
Perhaps the church can again become a new, humbled, liberated “custodian” of possibilities of integration. Now shorn—rightly—of the illicit and burdensome public privilege and power it enjoyed under “Christendom,” it has the prospect of nurturing an integrative societal vision within itself and then graciously making it available in deed and word to a fragmented society longing for wholeness.
My third and fourth steps toward reintegration explore what these intimations of wholeness might look like for the wider public realm.
The third step, then, is to ask what kinds of institutions would allow us to see our own contributions as oriented to some morally or spiritually meaningful purposes. They are, perhaps, more likely to be small- to medium-sized institutions, but need not be. A large energy corporation could be nudged in that direction—some are being. Even a presently unwieldy transnational entity like the European Union was originally founded on an explicit vision of peace, justice, and the common good—and could recover it again today.
We are more likely to see our institutional roles as meaningful if the institution itself is able to see itself, and speak lucidly of itself, as making a distinctive contribution to supplying some specifiable, socially needed good or service that truly enhances the prospects for fulfilled human lives.
The task of defining and sustaining an institutional purpose falls principally to an institution’s leadership, but a key objective should be to enable as many members as possible to grasp, own, and shape it themselves. To adapt Aristotelian language, if the “final cause”—the defining purpose—of the institution is clear, its “efficient causes”—the means by which it approaches that goal, will become more visible. Most of us, most of the time, are busy with some small aspect of some efficient cause, whether managing the database of a charitable body, attending to the finer points of engineering design, designing the parameters of a new curriculum, or cleaning a hospital floor. We all need better to envisage our routine daily tasks as contributing to some larger good.
The fourth step is to ask what sorts of inter-institutional collaborations are required if each institution is to act “always with a view to the common good.” What new “ties that bind” are needed if multiple, differentiated institutions are to engage in complementary and mutually supportive actions for the larger benefit of society?
These relationships must go beyond mere utilitarian “transactions.” While institutions proximately serve the common good just by fulfilling their own purposes well, they indirectly serve it by helping nurture a vibrant ecology of institutional collaboration in which all will thrive.
The third step is institution-specific, concerning the raison d’être of the institution—what socially valuable good or service is it committed to? The fourth is outward-facing and asks what the distinctive contribution of this institution is alongside many others—who are its “common-good partners”?
In some cases, the partnership may already exist or will be obvious. Many companies are involved in complex supply chains that may seem entirely functional but that, at best, can properly be seen as networks of mutual service, with the goal of supplying affordable, quality goods to meet genuine human needs. And companies with a common-good vision will not only recognize a trades union but respect it as an indispensable partner in the pursuit of socially valuable production, employment justice, and community enhancement. Local churches could consider using credit unions or community banks rather than large commercial institutions. Universities and colleges could offer resources to struggling local schools, and schools in turn could explore how they might make their students available for local social service.
Equally, harmful or unhealthily dependent collaborations will need to be avoided. At the micro level, for example, municipalities need to ensure they are not “captured” by powerful local commercial interests or minority (or majority) prejudices, while at the macro level, corrupting entanglements like the “military-industrial complex,” or the dependency of university science funding on Big Pharma, must be shunned.
Various notions in Christian social thought seek to capture this. Dooyeweerd speaks of the norm of “integration” to balance that of “differentiation. The Catholic principle of “subsidiarity” implies multiple, lateral relationships of mutual service among plural institutions, not only the vertical one involving the state. Both seek to capture the challenge of what Pierpaulo Donati calls “reciprocal solidarity”—a structural “gift relationship” in which institutions (like individuals) exchange complementary resources, supports, expertise, and networks (even competition) for the benefit of all.
Many other steps toward reintegration can be envisaged—if we have eyes to see and ears to hear. Once we have undergone the paradigm shift away from construing our selves and our institutions proprietorially as “ours,” toward regarding both as platforms for reciprocal solidarity, our imaginations will be freed to discern many more pathways by which we can honour the call of Genesis 2:18 that it is not good for human beings to be alone.