Nasty case of pathological autopoiesis?

Have you got one?!

It’s a posh term but it describes something we see in organisations from businesses to the Church – and it can be fatal! Autopoiesis refers to the ability that organisms have to reproduce themselves. This is a good thing (without it we wouldn’t be here!) – but if it gets out of control (becomes pathological) it can have the paradoxical effect of destroying life. E.g. cancer.

The term has a special meaning in the world of organisations and, posh as it may be, it refers to a phenomenon we see a lot. Organisations start with a clear sense of having a purpose in the world, whether it is to make widgets or end poverty. Over time, however, the organisation takes on a life of its own to the point where it becomes mostly interested in itself. If you’ve ever spent hours on the phone trying to get some sense out of customer service you will have experienced this. The organisation tells us and tells itself it is there to serve the customer but actually it is interested in itself, its systems, its convenience. Its computer says no. 

It is not just a kind of chronic self-centredness though. Pathological autopoiesis describes a state where the organisation can only see the world in its own terms. Its own sense of itself and desire to maintain itself looms so large in its vision that it sees and interprets the world in highly prejudiced ways. It can no longer see the truth about the world. It reads all the evidence through its own lens to an excessive degree. It forgets why it exists, it is just concerned that it continues to exist in its current form. Ironically enough its instinct for self-preservation makes it highly vulnerable. For businesses it spells big trouble, maybe death. Why did Kodak continue to persevere with film long past the point where it had become obvious that the future was digital? Pathological autopoiesis.

How do you get out of this? How do you avoid this fate? Well, one important way is to look back. By looking at our history we may be better able to understand and respond to our present.

I thought of all this after reading the famous story of Jesus’ remarkable encounter (you can find it in Matthew chapter 15, verses 21-28) with the Canaanite woman. I find it remarkable for two reasons. Firstly that Jesus engages with her at all. She is a woman and not a Jew – two overwhelming reasons why a faithful Jew should not talk to her. Secondly because he appears to learn something from the encounter with the outsider. He sees himself as sent to ‘the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ but he is, apparently, so struck by her faith that he grants her request and heals her daughter.

For us to fully understand how shocking and revolutionary this is we have to understand the back story, which concerns the way ancient Israel saw itself. The Jews were God’s chosen people, set apart, holy, a calling symbolised and expressed in elaborate law and ritual. The ancient Jews kept themselves apart to maintain their purity, to defeat compromise and subversion. So much of the Old Testament emphasises this. In Jesus’ time the nation was in dire straits, occupied by Rome. The response of many was to insist even more on an absolute adherence to the law and the rituals that distinguished Israel from the world. In other words, their instinct was to close down, not open up.

But the Jews had, perhaps, forgotten something. Had they forgotten why God called them in the first place? It was not to create an impenetrable holy society but to be a sign in the world – a sign that there is one God and that he is for us. God’s promise to Abraham was that he would be ‘the father of many nations’. All through the Old Testament there are also hints and reminders that God is interested in the world and that Israel carries a message for the whole world.

And then Jesus appears. His whole life is an implied or direct invitation to the ancient Jews to reorientate themselves, to question the assumptions that had governed their lives, to return to fundamentals, to see beyond the self-referential existence that had come to define them. The ministry of Jesus, with its focus on the Kingdom of God, has pretty clear implications: God is interested in the world; everyone is welcome in; God’s reign brings healing to the world, not to an inner circle. The Church has struggled to maintain this outlook, however.

It’s hard to unlearn deeply ingrained attitudes and the early Church had quite a struggle with some of this. The biggest issue in early Christianity was who was in and who was out. Was the Christian faith for Jews only, or could gentiles join? And then, if gentiles could join, did they have to become Jews first? After a while, the Church decided that the gentiles could be Christians without any such conditions. This was a change of extraordinary and far-reaching proportions and it is why the Church exists now.

Learning and unlearning is no easier for us. For example, I guess we in the Church know that the Church exists for everyone and we acknowledge that anyone may join us. But to what extent do we make that a practical possibility? The same factors are at work and the same kind of questions apply in organisations of all kinds. How much are we wed to a culture or activities we assume are fundamental? How much do we, without realising it, think first about preserving the organisation as is – how able are we to see ourselves as other see us? To what extent do we, quite unthinkingly, focus on preserving things as they are, for us, for our benefit? And to what extent have we remembered or understood that we are here to achieve something in the world, not simply to keep the organisation going for its own sake?

Healthy organisations spend time on the rediscovery of their purpose, possess a willingness to look out with fresh eyes, and perhaps, learn from the outsider – they open up the doors. Does yours?



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5 thoughts on “Nasty case of pathological autopoiesis?

  1. I like your article Keith–It is profound yet easily recognizable in the society with which we live today. Yes, it is important to look back, because in looking back we can identify the unifying thought, which solidified the Brand and made it successful, However over time we have allowed the Brand to become dualistic or fragmented within the institution–it has lost as it were the staying power to keep it going. Jesus was unititive that is why his Brand is still viable 2000 years on. ..

    • Thanks Carol – it is essential for us to keep going back to the ‘unifying thought’ and using that as the basis for a fresh look at what we are doing – and sometimes the impetus for that comes from the ‘outsider’ who says something that we find hard to deny yet clashes with our assumptions (beliefs). I do think Christians would be wise to ask harder questions of themselves when confronted by something that has a simple, human force (such as this plea for help) but which seems to contradict an article of ‘faith’

  2. My sermon of the day focussed on this, without the posh name. The crux for me in that difficult text is that the disciples, the Jews and Jesus himself had to change their minds and re-imagine things because they had to look again at what their primary purpose was. Purity rituals are fine if they serve to make people be pure and love God and others better – but not if they become gods in their own right. If Jesus could change his mind, as he seems to do, maybe we have to change our minds about a lot of things – women bishops, gay people . . . and I would sayt it’s not just about looking back, it’s about stepping back or to one side and looking in.

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