on institutions

What is wrong with institutions? Nothing in general. Also, it depends on what ideal the institution seeks to embody or propagate. “Institutionalization” can be, however, very problematic. Institutions tend to “flatten” all variations and localisms that do not totally conform to the defined ideal of the institution. That ideal is many times determined by the hegemonic dominance of one variation of an idea or polemic against positions deemed to be outside the ideal. When such ideals are then applied to local or individual circumstances, they tend to subvert or even do violence to local manifestations of culture, life, and thought.

What do you mean by “organic”? “Organic” manifestations of culture, thought, and life are ones that have emerged almost unconsciously over the course of millennia. Following Mircea Eliade, Carl Jung, Neoplatonism, and other sources, such patterns are really the primordial archetypes at the heart of human consciousness: manifestations of the divine vestiges in the soul itself. While these patterns are often corrupted with the passage of time and what in Christian thought is known as “original sin”, they are nevertheless the foundation of all philosophical thought, religious thought, the arts, and the hard sciences.

How is modernity “inorganic”? Modernity becomes “inorganic” when it seeks institutionalization as a goal in all aspects of life. Modern cosmological thinking can be best defined as the creation of a grid that can encompass and measure all things through the use of discursive reason. The purpose of this grid is to create information that can be manipulated to bring about ever more practical improvements in the material conditions of society. In this process, if a societal practice, belief, or symbol is deemed to be irrational or inefficient, it must be disposed of, no matter how old or venerable it has been in the history of a particular society. Such a process inevitably takes a “top-down” and not a “bottom-up” methodology in terms of organizing society. Gone are the sage and the elder, to be replaced by the expert and the technocrat.

….Why is this so bad? Inevitably, such a process uproots many aspects of ancient religiosity that have been past down to us as our patrimony. This is often done with the excuse that in order for the “essential” to be followed, the “accidental” elements must be de-emphasized, or disposed of altogether. In my opinion, there is nothing in this process that prevents religion from becoming a tool of totalitarian discourse. When the ideal becomes absolute, it has nothing by which it is judged. Any sort of novelty can be imposed, and where there is only novelty, there is no truth. That is because humans are traditional creatures, and tradition is the fountain of wisdom, since tradition is the life of God Himself.

What is to be done? Traditions and localisms must be preserved. No longer should we obsess over institutionalized or generalized forms of thought and action. By all means, they should be studied, but they should not be imposed as the absolute norm by which to judge local traditions. It is not so much an issue of complete resistance, but a re-establishment of balance. And we must realize again that the success of a given culture or society must not be judged strictly according to the rules of material gain. While human beings should always seek to improve themselves materially, they must also see that religious, cultural, and artistic creation is the true goal of human existence. This is the living and tangible manifestation of the contemplation of the absolute, who is God.

From here (H/T: Ochlophobist)

Institutionalization is not a new phenomenon.  It has been around for a long time (long before John T. Lewis memorably referred to it as “the bane of the Church”) and has worked its magic in many other contexts outside of the churches of Christ (the blogger who penned the words above is Roman Catholic).  The concern of the piece quoted above — that institutionalization tends to “flatten” all variations and localisms and that leads to the absolutizing of the ideal that it is being advanced in the name of — is one that has not been considered very much (as such) in discussions of institutionalism in the churches of Christ.  But it has important implications nonetheless.  We tend to think of institutionalism at work in the development of the “sponsoring church” arrangement or in the formation of the Herald of Truth.  The definition given above would also help us to see how it was at work, for example, in the change that occurred in how we conceived of the eldership in the mid-20th century (from spiritual leader and teacher to CEO and member of a board of directors).  We might also see it at work in doctrinal developments that we have tended to think of apart from the institutional question: the suppression of pacifism and opposition to Christian participation in human governments in “mainline” churches of Christ or the move away from the use of the female head covering in worship.  Both of these — for the modernizers in the churches in the period from, say, 1930-1960 — were unbearable forms of particularism that had to be gotten rid of in order for the churches to enter the 20th century and to capitalize on the religious boom in postwar America.  As Arturo puts it, “such a process [i.e. institutionalization] uproots many aspects of ancient religiosity that have been past down to us as our patrimony.”  In light of this tendency, it worse than naive to believe that the churches could have come through this process unscathed doctrinally.

There’s more that could be said — and what I’ve said above could probably be stated more clearly.  Have at it in the comment thread.


3 responses to “on institutions

  1. The problem with organizations/institutions is that they inevitably come to exist primarily for their own preservation and enrichment rather than for the purpose that they were ostensibly founded.

  2. Jeff,

    I think that’s right. Where that melds with Arturo’s point, I think, is that the very process of self-preservation inevitably leads to the distortion (or abandonment) of those founding principles. No better example can be found, perhaps, than Lipscomb University, where I’m currently pursuing a degree. The school, on many fronts, is a long way away from the ideals of David Lipscomb and James A. Harding. In truth, though, the transition that LU has undergone since its founding in 1891 is typical of most colleges and universities in America that were founded as “Christian institutions” (is that an oxymoron?). In order to gain accreditation and to grow in size (esp. in the years after WWII) certain changes had to be made and certain commitments had to be jettisoned along the way.

    Much more could be said.

  3. Personally I don’t find much difference between the terms institution and institutionalism and organism and organization.

    I think the bigger problem that Arturo presents is Modernism’s tendency “to create information that can be manipulated to bring about ever more practical improvements in the material conditions of society”. This, I believe, is the heart of restorationism.

    The Roman Catholic Church had it own bout of this with the suppression of the traditional Roman Mass (with it’s accumulated “localisms”) and the promulgation of the New Mass, the result of Catholic scholarly restoration effort into “original” sources.

    One way of putting this may be: institutions at the service of modernism = bad

    institutions at the service of tradition = good

    Its not institutions per se that are bad, but institutions in the service of wrong headed ideals.

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