In the misty Grecian past, philosophers imagined that the perceptible world was composed of five elements: earth, air, fire, water, and ether. Ether, or quintessence, was said to fill the realm in which the gods lived.
In our time, most people no longer build our understanding of things on four or five elements. But we do still work with dense, social structures and the ethereal hopes and ideals that motivate us to develop them.
Two of President Obama’s first campaign keywords were “hope” and “change.” He didn’t imagine the nation’s chief executive handing down either ideal to the rest of the country. Instead, he envisioned a nation of people “fired up and ready to go” in their own communities, people who claimed ownership of their nation enough to put matter behind their hopes and desires for change.
I think he knew then, though perhaps we did not, that putting the matter and mass of people and policy behind these dreams was the only way they could become real.
It’s the “ether” of our ideals that propels us to design, build, and maintain material forms in specific contexts across society. The customs our congregations express, the policies our organizational employees use and are judged by, the doctrines our denominations use to interpret the world of experience and the people in it—all of these things are structural components. Together they create the context that people live, work, and choose in. They are our tools, and they are also our container.
So when there are conflicts between our ideals and the structures that allow us to express them, structure wins. In a contest between what we hope for and what we’ve built for, what we’ve built will win. And if a group’s structural container isn’t large enough for its ideals, we’ll be able to trace that in the results it gets.
One community will talk about a “faithful and compassionate response” to difference while promoting rules and interpretations that block some categories of people from experiencing authentic and intimate relationship in families of their own. The community’s structural container isn’t large enough for their ideals.
Another community’s leader can speak of non-judgment and welcome for minoritized groups at the same time as, layers down the organizational chart, ministers who actively apply those values in their congregations and neighborhoods are censured or fired.
In cases like these, the structure that restricts and controls trumps the ideal that engages and receives, and this is to be expected because matter makes the difference.
Where we continue to invest our time, money, human resources, processes, and habits of interaction and attention are places where we’re structuring matter. These are places where the raw materials of life harden, where we gain stability and surety, and where we lose the ability or will to move.
But sometimes, our structures are built on top of people.