While working on my dissertation, oh that was a long time ago, I did some reading of “Conceptual Systems Theory.” This was a useful theory for understanding and explaining my research at the time. To my surprise it has also been helpful since then.

My overly simplistic description: the theory describes of how our thoughts, ideas, concepts, and understanding change in predictable ways over time and maturation. Our ability to think and understand moves from simple to complex, from rigid to more flexible, and from externally based to more internally based. For example:

  • bad and goodWe begin life thinking in concrete, dualistic terms: “this is good, that is bad.” Our assessment is usually based on what parents, teachers, and other authority figures have told us.
  • Life, however, has a way of forcing us to question that dichotomy. “Wait, this is not good in every situation, and that is not bad in every situation.”
  • Gradually we move into a more multiplistic way of thinking: “There is no way to tell, there is no ultimate good or bad. Many options are possible.” (Does this sound like teenage or early adult rebellion?)
  • That understanding can’t last long, so in the face of new experiences and the bigger world that comes with growing up, we develop a relativistic view: “Many possibilities may exist, but this one fits best for me.” Now we are into some adult thinking.
  • This relative view of things becomes increasingly subtle and internally based. We are able to rethink good and bad, for example, but based not on an external authority but on our own internal authority.
  • This is not a final stage. This process continues as we change and grow. At 67, I am surprised at how my ideas and beliefs continue to evolve.

To me, this explains how important the container is AND how limited the container is. The container is constructed of that external authority stuff; the rules, regulations, warnings, and judgments we needed in order to survive and make sense of our childhoods.

But it is crucial that we move beyond those things to a wisdom that is generated from within, that is authentic and personal.

From a biblical perspective, I think this is precisely what Jesus was referring to every time he contrasted his words with the words of the Law, “You have heard it said of old…but I say…” He never told people to dismiss the law, but he encouraged them to go beyond the written law and embrace a law that is inscribed in their heart.

That’s container and content stuff, and that’s where I will continue to spend the next few days.