I. Hard Stuff and Soft Stuff in Institutional Purpose

Driving and thinking yesterday, about all the institutions I am involved in, it seemed to me that our formal institutions are, perhaps without exception, fairly strongly devoted to preventing anything too creative or beneficial from happening in the particular areas of society in which they each have prominence.

This is not their primary function. Their primary function is to preserve or increase their key players’ own status, their institutional existence, power, etc. But that usually requires carefully preventing real creativity and progress.

I guess I’d have to say they are devoted to preventing “real creativity and progress” particularly as regards justice, equality, powerfully healthy relationships, personal motivation, personal freedom and development, full development of and releasing of employee or member potentials, etc. You know, the “soft” stuff. The hard stuff we seem pretty effective at developing.

For example, we have the technologies of war (hard stuff) rapidly advancing in complexity and power. But we don’t have the sense (soft stuff) to know when to use it, or the social-moral levers in place (more soft stuff) to control those who decide when and how to use it. The institutions of Administrative power, Congress, the media, etc., are fatally effective at protecting their powers and their independence from interference by the rest of us.

We learn the hard stuff in seminary. But you don’t learn to be a person, a friend, a Christian, or a pastor in seminary.

From what I understand, something similar has been happening to the Democratic Party over the last decade or so – preservation of the extant power centers as against serving the alleged purposes of the institution’s existence.

II. Am I too cynical?

I think this is realism; but it does NOT mean there is no good being lived and achieved in the institutions all around us. We are alive because of our institutions!

But to me it means we must, with our institutions as with our personal lives, be in a mode of perpetually requiring accountability, perpetually practicing alertness, perpetually engendering vigor and reform. We have to rejoice and give credit where any credit is due. We have to be good-spirited agitators wherever we have or can develop a voice.

But it is a very, very serious issue. It was the institutions of the south that brought them the Civil War and a century (or more) of suffering the consequences. It was the institutions of Germany (including the churches) that brought them Hitler.

III. Anti-Democratic Institutions

Then today I read this. [Sheldon Wolin (“in the early 1980’s”) is quoted in 2004 by Edward T. Chambers.]

Every one of the country’s primary institutions

  • the business corporation,
  • the government bureaucracy,
  • the trade union,
  • the research and education industries,
  • the mass propaganda and entertainment media,
  • and the heatlh and welfare system –

is anti-democratic in spirit, design, and operation.

Each is hierarchical in structure,
authority oriented,
opposed in pirinciple to equal participation,
unaccountable to the citizenry,
elitist and managerial,
and disposed to concentrate increasing power in the hands of the few
and to reduce political life to administration.

While reading it I added “churches” in the margin. After the quote Chambers wrote, “Today we would add Wall Street, the so-called free market, and the U.S. economy.”

(“Reduce political life to administration” I take to mean using politics not to discuss and manage openly the big issues of our life together – which is the best function of politics – but to let the powers behind the curtain do that. Then politics becomes just the technical and absorbing practice of implementing their decisions and priorities. We end up being involved in administration and imagining ourselves to actually be free people running our lives and our society.)

It’s not that this problem never occured to me before; I’ve talked about it with a number of people over the last few years.

But you have to admit that it’s a particularly unpleasant and somewhat shocking line of thought. If institutions are deadly, that’s real bad news. After all, we live in and by institutions.

IV. Anti-God Institutions

But better minds than mine have faced this problem pretty explicitly over the centuries. A recent example is Dallas Willard in The Divine Conspiracy.

“Truthfully, it seems to be a general law of social/historical development that institutions tend to distort and destroy the central function that brought them into existence.”

Then he adds a quote from another source:

“We structure our churches and maintain them so as to shield us from God and to protect us from genuine religious experience.”

Our churches, and everything else. This is a problem for me. I believe in the value of institutions, even massive institutions. I am active in church, higher education, and the Democratic party. We just spent 12 days in a hospital in Omaha which was a very impressive immersion in serveral aspects of our national health care institutions. But these institutions as well as others are so often truly deadly – first morally, then when that has gone on too long, even physically.

V. Jesus and Institutions

And it doesn’t comfort me that Jesus was apparently on a deliberately chosen fast track to high honor and influence within the institution of rabbis/synagogues – a very prominent and powerful institution in his day. His candor, intelligence, love and holiness aborted that career path – smacked him into the cross – and changed history.

Now what kind of example is that? And what are we to make of it? Dare we follow it?