Black, White and Gray All Over…

Ruth Haley Barton writes in Sacred Rhythms that the “dualisms that are embedded in our religious traditions have create(d) a false separation between the spiritual realm and the physical realm, leaving us an ‘ambiguous legacy’ regarding our body.” Our world has become distracted by the illusion of pure black and white choices when in essence, much of our world is gray all over.

Think about our politics or theology or ideologies…very few things in life are truly a clear choice between black and white.  I am not saying clear relationships between problems and solutions do not exist.  Mechanical items break, math problems need solving, facts by definition bring clarity to cloudy situations; but most situations are in fact problematic in nature, which is more complex than a simple problem.

Problems imply clear solutions because of a minute, calculable number of variables which can be totally eliminated by a solution.   Problematic situations recognize not only the complexity of a situation, but also the ongoing shifts in situations and our need for an all-encompassing, evolving learning process.  For example, the economic status of this country will not be solved simply by the artificial solution of electing a Democrat or Republican; it must be addressed for its complex variables and worldviews and refrain from applying static solutions for an evolving reality.

Why do I bring all of this up?  Because poor health – no matter its form – is not a problem to be eradicated with a simple solution, whether its a sinner’s prayer or the newest diet pill.  Barton goes on to say we have a deep “need for learning how to receive the goodness of the body as part of our life in God that he pronounced good.”  This entails our sexuality, physicality, spirituality, and everything in between.

Sweeten that pot with the bombardment of competing worldviews, quick fix solutions, our pride and habits and that brings about a problematic situation that needs a fluid, evolving learning cycle that takes these variables into account.  So, what might help us sort through all of this? If problems are always shifting, how do we not always end up at square one: I believe an effective learning cycle runs in the grain of systems thinking.

There are a variety of system theories (living, open, closed, hard, soft, etc.), which are thoughtful modes of specifically organizing abstract thoughts in order to form principles for how one might approach a variety of situations, issues, and problems across a variety of disciplines. Now is not the time to unpack them all, but I do believe a soft systems approach to health provides the type of personal decision-making and accountability needed for a healthy lifestyle while also emphasizing the importance of group input as well.  Peter Checkland and John Poulter are soft system’s analysts and their acronym of LUMAS is helpful in thinking through an approach to a healthy lifestyle.

We, the (U)ser, must critically think through and recognize the reality of our current (S)ituation.  We then examine and appreciate the possible (M)ethodologies available for realistic implementation, tailor the (M) to our (S) and actually (A)pply them.  This in turn brings about an improved outlook upon reality and thus a new (S)ituation whereby we must again (L)earn what our next steps will be through the process.  This is Learning for a User by a Methodologically-informed Approach to a Situation.

I know what you are thinking, because I was there too. The first time I read this book, I couldn’t believe someone took the time to seemingly complicate a simple problem/solution relationship.  Now, the more I see people attempt “quick fix” solutions to debt problems or marital infidelities or the unhealthy pendulum swings of diets or pills, the more I realize a need for a plan.

This is a call to really think through our problems and not to simply react as we have always reacted. A solution that works in one situation might not serve us well in another, even though they appear to be the same. Different situations invariably have different variables.

So, what methodologies are out there?  How can we help each other tailor them to our life and apply them?  What is a healthy balance of gray in our life?  These are questions we are here to unpack and I hope to reflect on in the coming weeks.  After all, who doesn’t love watching a plan come together?



Barton, Ruth Haley.  Sacred Rhythms.  Downer’s Grove:  IVP.  2006, 81.

Checkland, Peter & John Poulter.  Learning for Action.  West Sussex, England:  2006, 20.

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