The Question of Referent

Questions of Referent (Aliveness)—adapted from Cultural Maturity: A Guidebook for the Future


The pertinent Question of Referent is where we must start when addressing any question from a culturally mature perspective. Without cultural guideposts to direct us, we must get at what matters more directly, more bare-boned, separate from its cultural trappings. Questions of Referent are also what we must continually come back to, refer to as we make our way. Creative Systems Theory often refers to them more informally as questions of “aliveness.” They ask about what choices are ultimately most life-enhancing. Here we find the first of CST’s Whole System Pattering Concepts.

The importance of making such bare-boned distinctions is most easily grasped with new questions we face as individuals. Some examples: Effective moral decision-making today involves more than just thinking through more options. It requires getting more directly at what makes a choice moral. Likewise, rewarding life as a man or a woman requires not just a willingness to question past gender dictates, but also a new and deeper relationship to ourselves as gendered beings. Similarly, engaging love at all usefully, today, certainly requires rethinking assumptions and allowing the possibility of new options, but it demands also a deeper and more direct appreciation for the needs that love fulfills (companionship, parental cooperation, intimate bonds, and the rest). And in a related way, thinking about identity today requires not just that we challenge past cultural expectation, but also that we bring a much more multifaceted picture of what creates worth to the internal conversation.

We can put the Question of referent task in terms of responsibility. Cultural Maturity’s changes make us newly responsible for the truths on which we humans base our decisions. Every kind of responsibility, today, has become a double responsibility. Along with being responsible for our actions, we have become newly responsible for determining just what acting responsibly means.

The most immediate contributor to Cultural Maturity’s responsibility-twice-over imperative is that loss of cultural guideposts. Previous to now, religious, political, and scientific certainties have shielded us from magnitudes of responsibility that before would have been impossible to endure. The greater responsibility that comes with surrendering traditional absolutes can no longer be escaped. It is also becoming something that less and less needs to be escaped. But that is only a first step. Such responsibility-twice-over must be about more than just a loss of past rules. To say only that decisions are now “our call” abdicates responsibility’s challenge. The needed double responsibility requires not just that we choose between more options, but that we think in new and deeper ways about what it means to have an option.  Cultural Maturity’s cognitive changes make this possible.

One consequence is that we need to think about needed new distinctions in two different ways that at first might seem almost opposite. When we address Questions of Referent we get at what most matters stripped of usual assumptions. And, at once, we address truth in all its aspects, as a whole-ball-of-wax entirety. Aliveness represents a fully systemic measure. Note that how I’ve worded the personal decision-making examples above reflects this that to past thinking might seen a contradictory task. From Cultural Maturity’s more systemic vantage, it becomes the common sense.

Addressing significance in this at once more bare-boned and more encompassing manner is just as pertinent when it comes to collective challenges as it is with more personal concerns. The importance of rethinking the bottom-line truths of particular domains provides particularly good example. With any new chapter in culture’s story, primary realms of activity acquire new defining truths. But the diminishing of culture’s past parental influence combined with the need for more full and complex understanding means that future answers can, and must, be more consciously embracing—at once more direct and more systemically complete—than those of times past.

The field of medicine makes good example. Modern medicine’s bottom-line measure has been to defeat death and disease. Today this measure is incompatible with an affordable and sustainable approach to health care. But there is also a more ultimately significant conclusion. Our modern measure of success for health care is in itself partial, and, in the end, inadequate. Beyond maturity’s threshold, our measures must be more encompassing. They must somehow acknowledge quality of life along with the fact of life; psychological, social, and spiritual aspects of health and healing in addition to the purely physical; and, not just individual health but also larger societal well-being. Health care’s new yardstick must addresses health itself—in the fullest, most complete sense. In the end, that means not just health care as we think about it in our time, but at least a bit, also more fundamentally.

In a related way, education’s future depends not just on rethinking educational policy, but on thinking in more encompassing terms about what education is ultimately about. We tend to take education’s purpose for granted—assume it to be obvious and unchanging. But at various times in culture’s story that purpose has taken very different expression. In the future, education must manifest that purpose in ways that are more conscious and encompassing.

Modern “classroom” education had its origins in the need to provide the universal literacy necessary to democratic governance and the industrial revolution, and toward this end has served us well. But education able to support and teach culturally mature capacities will require a more complete definition. The essential tasks ahead for our species require learnings incompatible with education’s past definition.

An example: With modern public education, we’ve taken great care to keep moral concerns out of the classroom—part of the separation of church and state. Yet any kind of healthy future will require of all of us that we confront increasingly complex ethical questions. And there is more. Shortly, we will look at how Cultural Maturity’s threshold makes questions of every sort moral/ethical concerns. For future education to serve us, it must make learning to address such concerns core curriculum. Doing so requires a more complete picture of learning and more embracing bottom-line measures for educational success. While most specifically more embracing refers to the demands of education in our time. But at least a bit, too, it refers in embracing in an even more encompassing sense. Moral decision-making was explicitly “core curriculum” with medieval monastic education. Our need today for a more complete measure of educational success is explicitly not about going backwards. But it is about asking with big-picture perspective of a whole new sort.

We can think of the concept of Cultural Maturity as an attempt to provide an answer to our most overarching contemporary Questions of Referent. Our times ask: What in the future must be our big-picture guide for making decisions, the measure we ultimately use to determine our choices? The concept of Cultural Maturity proposes that the answer is Cultural Maturity itself. Any act or idea consistent with the realization of Cultural Maturity becomes “true” in this now most essential sense. Culturally mature truth is about better addressing what most matters right here and right now. And always a bit, too, it is about stepping back and affirming the human story as a whole.

In times past, addressing truths in such a stripped-down—yet also more embracing—manner would have seemed, if not nonsensical, certainly dangerous, an all-too-slippery-slope enterprise. Today we have no choice. The multi-layered new responsibilities on which the future depends require it. We need to get accustomed to always starting our action with such fundamental discernments. We also need always to incorporate such determinations into our conceptual approaches.