Monday 22 October 2012

Message from the President

Human beings act. They do things. They move and encounter things. Humans change things and are changed by them. But what about communities or institutions? Does it make sense to say that they act? Or are their acts first and foremost the acts of individuals who participate in the community or institution? Maybe the acts of individuals are also and at the same time the act of a community or institution, at any rate if that individual has been invested with the office of acting on behalf of it? How are communities or institutions actors, movers and shakers within our world, how are they difference makers? How are they like individual human actors and how are they not? These are the sorts of questions that have been turning around in my head these days.

You see, I currently serve on a PhD thesis committee at the Centre for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto. I was asked to provide a formal response to the PhD candidate’s (John Lorenc’s) presentation of his doctoral seminar. He is working on a late thirteenth-century Dominican John of Freiburg and his magnum opus, the Summa confessorum which title can be translated as A Comprehensive Guide to Confessors. John Lorenc finds the Marxist theories of Antonio Gramsci helpful in coming to terms with his thirteenth-century Dominican’s treatment of issues around usury, the practice of charging interest on loans. Something similar to the notion of interest (something licit) in contrast to usury (something illicit) was starting to emerge by John of Freiburg’s day, but suspicion of greed and other vices still hung heavy over any actual lending of money at interest. Such lending put one at spiritual risk, surely. In John’s day, this ambivalence was palpable; efforts were put into preserving the fact of interest in a form that made interest appear as something else, something that escaped the suspicions naturally attracted to lending at interest when it dared to travel under its own name. John Lorenc understands what is going on in John of Freiburg’s treatment of usury in terms of his societal role as “an organic intellectual.” In Gramsci’s theory, such figures operate in close association with economic classes and serve them by articulating their interests by means of which to form an aggregate of people into a class unity, an historical actor, by identifying for them a corporate economic and political interest and agenda. These classes in turn are the real agents of change in history, or so the story goes. Here again we see communities/institutions/classes as concrete historical actors in association with but also contrasting to individual human actors.

It strikes me that the processes by which individuals deliberate about what to do and then actually act to do one thing or another can help us understand how corporate entities deliberate and act, but only by analogy and only up to a point. One can press the analogy only so far, for a human being, unless he or she is suffering from multiple personality syndrome does not have distinct and irreducible actors together constituting the individual as deliberator and/or actor. Corporate entities like communities, institutions, or classes however have any number of actors who deliberate and act individually and corporately in and with respect to the life of the community, institution or class. The individuals are at one and the same time actors in their own right and part of a community or institution that can also be said to act in its own right.

So how does an institution deliberate and act? How does the institution ICS do that? If one of its actors is the God whom it would serve how does that come to expression in the communal life of the ICS? You can see that my academic obligation within the Centre for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto has sparked a stream of thought about ICS and its present circumstances. It must deliberate and act in the context of a transformed internal community. New leaders are being entrusted as office holders to give leadership to the institution in its life going forward. What will it think about? What will its members talk about? How will it solicit and respond to the guidance of the Holy Spirit in its deliberative processes of discernment? How do the individual actors form together an effective whole? On the cusp of an important change, in its first stages really, I wonder all these things with a palpable sense of anticipation. Anything can happen. Maybe these sorts of questions can focus my attention to these happenings in helpful ways. Whatever the case, discernment and the forging of a way forward in a new situation is definitely on the agenda. And, really, what fun! That is what I am going to focus the ICS portion of my prayer life on in the coming month. I invite you to join me as you will.

For the President,

Bob Sweetman