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Learning to love institutions in an age of individualism

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In the wake of rapid globalization and widespread consolidation, many have grown weary of human institutions, whether in business, religion, politics, or beyond. Threatened by their structure and slowness, we have tended to detach ourselves, opting instead for more “organic” approaches to human interaction.

These “bottom-up” countermeasures surely have their value and necessity, but our modern resistance has also created a certain societal vacuum. Indeed, as our culture continues to fragment—increasingly defined by social isolation and public distrust—it is the places with stable institutions that tend to hold their own against waves of economic disruption and moral decay.

The struggle, then, is to find the “both-and” in all this: a framework that allows us to embrace the promise of spunky cultural entrepreneurship even as we take care to cultivate our more formalized institutions.

I’m reminded of a 2011 essay by Jonathan Chaplin for Comment Magazine, in which he critiques our postmodern aversion to institutions, reminding us that—properly understood and properly tended—they are foundational to all else.

“A credible twenty-first century Christian voice on the theme of economy and hope needs to affirm loving institutions as key building blocks in any constructive response to our current economic and political malaise,” Chaplin argues. “…I also propose that Christians need to reckon with the fact that all institutions are in some sense faith-based, and that Christians should be unapologetic both about working to shape existing institutions from within according to their own vision of hope or, where necessary, founding their own institutions.”

To fully inhabit these institutions, however, we need to transcend our present-day aversion, taking the best elements of our skepticism and infusing them into actual transformation rather than petty escapism.

Chaplin distills the modern narrative as follows:

Institutions, so the story goes, are the classic instruments of social control generated by “modernity.” Shaped according to the imperatives of instrumental rationality and bureaucratic efficiency, they serve the interests of oppressive global capital—entrenching economic inequality, stifling human creativity, and suppressing dissent. They march toward their hegemonic goals regardless of the welfare of the people they purportedly exist to serve—those whom they promised to liberate from the supposed bondage, ignorance, and squalor of preindustrial society.

But many critics now observe that modernity and its leading institutional bridgeheads are beginning to teeter. They point to deep fault lines appearing on the smooth surface of institutional bureaucracies and to new social formations emerging in the wings. To many people, the cumulative and interconnected failures of modernity—economic, political, environmental, and spiritual—seem to herald the decline of institutions and the arrival of new models of social interaction rooted in open, dynamic relational networks. These networks, it is said, are flexible enough to adapt to ever-changing contexts, and spacious enough to allow human beings to continually redefine their identities and projects and to realize greater freedom and authenticity.

Again, many of these supposed “replacements” are beneficial. The “open, dynamic relational networks” of the modern globalized economy are, indeed, occupied by real human relationships. They bring tremendous innovation and dynamism, not to mention new modes of human collaboration and fellowship. They inspire creativity and diversity and reward authenticity in new and exciting ways. In terms of basic economic growth and prosperity, they are also more than a little promising.

But these networks are not, after all, replacements, and to think of them as such is to presume that all the positive fruits we’ve experienced have burst forth without anything moving beneath or throughout.

If we fail to recognize the foundations of our prosperity, we are sure to lose them. Those who ought to bring moral perspective and spiritual authority will give way to individualist ambivalence. Those who desperately long for human relationships and community that looks beyond mere utility and pleasure will find themselves in a desert of sorts. We will still have “networks,” and we will still have “institutions,” but both will be hollowed out, whether due to distortion or basic neglect.

In business, for example, we see tremendous opportunity to bring a distinctively Christian vision to areas of calling, vocation, and economic action. Through a proper perspective, these also have institutional implications, whether for how we innovate, how we organize relationships, how we serve our customers, how we hire and manage and compensate, and so on.

Using the Grameen Bank’s microfinance revolution as an example of non-religious institutional innovation, Chaplin notes the value that could be brought if Christians brought their perspective in similar ways. “Fleshing this out further will require that we imagine models of what normative business corporations within a globalizing twenty-first century would actually look like,” he writes. “And we won’t get such models if we only continue to indulge in perpetual deconstructive critique. Instead, we need to take up (again, we won’t be the first) the difficult, slow, unostentatious—and often unremarked upon—task of constructive institutional thinking and institution-(re)building.”

To do so, however, will require that we actually understand the value of civil society and the modes of application through which we might engage and transform it. We need to understand that action through institutions can be “bottom-up,” after all.

It doesn’t just require action. It requires stewardship, as Chaplin explains:

Christians who aspire to transform institutions will certainly require great gifts of courage, imagination, and innovation. Yet at the same time, they will also need to rediscover the deep veins of traditional Christian insight into the nature and purposes of institutions in order then to critically re-appropriate and rearticulate such insight for the radically new challenges of globalizing twenty-first-century societies. As the Brazos Press strapline puts it, they’ll need to find ways of bringing “the tradition alive.” And “the tradition” must be read to include not just the intellectual tradition but also the legacy of the practical witness of the saints. Here I mean not just those whom the church has officially venerated as such, but all faithful believers from all walks of life and all ages who have left behind durable, concrete institutional embodiments of love—schools, hospitals, political movements, and yes, business enterprises—that can still speak to and inspire us today as we seek to be faithful witnesses to the gospel in the challenging context of a globalizing but fragile twenty-first-century world.

In our modern context, we’d do well to remember the ways in the past and present that many faithful peoples have and continue to embrace this task, wherever they set their hearts and hands. It a requires a more robust cultural imagination among Christians, one through which we have the wisdom and discernment to trail-blaze the space between the isolating social network and the bloated institutional bureaucracy. It will require the wisdom and initiative to build and take care of foundations that endure—not according to the rationalism of man, but according to the law of love and liberty.

As a modern people, we love to be skeptical of systems and structures of any shape or size. Yet the key to maintaining a truly free people and a truly free society may just be found in preserving the middle layers of civil society that often inspire constraint.

Image: Public Domain

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Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Foundation for Economic Education, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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