Religion and Institution

You’ve heard the claim a dozen times: “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” As a person who is particular about language, I tend always to want to ask: what the hell do you even MEAN?  Because, really, being “spiritual” is fundamentally just a condition of being human. Humans are “spiritual” in the sense that the function of our soul, our animus, transcends the realm of the merely natural.  If we want to stick with this somewhat traditional language, we can speak of all living things as having souls, but only of personal beings as having “spiritual souls.”

(This means the ninnies who like to taunt children by saying such things as “animals don’t have souls”  don’t know what the hell they’re talking about, either: they’re just jerks).

The implicit claim of the spiritual-but-not-religious crowd is one of superiority. They are deeper than the rest of us, freer; they’re not tied down to a set of rules, trapped in cavernous buildings where old men in robes mumble in ritualistic superstition.  Their spirituality is tied to love, kindness, puppies, and long walks on the beach at sunset.

However. Much as I enjoy making (gentle, I hope) fun of the spiritual-but-not-religious crowd, they do have a point.  There is, indeed, something about organized religion that can too often seem to suffocate the spirit, narrow the mind, and promote a severe case of boredom. I’ve often had to restrain myself from walking out of church: the constant homilies on how Muslims are badbadbad, while Christians are goodgoodgood get old; they’re petty; they’re also deeply historically inaccurate. Whatever arguments “we” want to use against Islam, we’d better make damn sure they can’t, at some point in history, be used against “us.” And here’s the thing: there is something deeply wrong with the situation, if I am sitting in church thinking of the many historical or logical inaccuracies in the sermon, when I ought to be thinking about my place in relation to the divine, the community, my call to holiness, the mystery of incarnation, the splendor of divine charity.

What the spiritual-but-not-religious folks are pointing to as a problem is not religion, really: it’s institutionalization. I have in mind the social critic Ivan Illich’s view of the danger of institution (whether political, educational, technological, or religious): that at a certain point, the institution takes on a life of its own, and lives only to serve and to sustain itself, indifferent to the needs of the person.

As I told my students recently: at some point in your life, you will be harmed, degraded, fired, or in some respect denied justice because the need of some institution to preserve itself was deemed more important than the demands of justice for the individual. And this may be done to you by an institution the mission of which is fundamentally “good.”

When religion becomes institutionalized, we end up with the problems of clericalism, abuse, bureaucracy, greed.  Bishops live high on the hog. Priests are “too busy” to talk to parishioners suffering from depression. Noisy children in the church are glared at. Dissent, even orthodox dissent, is never tolerated. We find that religious-run organizations find convenient excuses for not paying employees a just wage (take, for instance, Duquesne University’s “reasonable” explanations for why their abysmal treatment of adjunct professor Margaret Mary Vojtko whose sad death recently made national news, was a-okay). Marketing and PR are big. Humans become “resources.” Theology becomes apologetics. Worship is televised.

This is not to say that “organized religion” needs to be replaced with long walks on the beach, puppy kisses, etc. “Order” is a good thing, a necessary thing. Ritual, properly understood, involves an established form and balanced order according to which the human may approach the divine. It can also be a good check for keeping the noisy and egotistical in place (ritualistic worship services mean whichever Big Man considers himself the most Impressive Speaker has to just shut it and say Hail Marys with the hoi polloi).

We need to ditch institution, and in its place establish order. What’s the difference between the two?

Based on recent musings, here are a few distinctions. Feel free to add your own:

1. Order can be fluid. When the need of the moment alters, the order can be changed. Institution, however, is rigid and set in stone….or maybe concrete.

2. Order allows for freedom. Take dance, for instance: the more one learns of the order, the control, the discipline of the dance, the more free one is to do express the beauty of the form. Institution, however, denies freedom. It is characterized by a series of “shall nots” vs an instruction in “here’s how.”

3. Order tends towards community and communication. Language itself is orderly. Institution tends towards setting up power-structures and divisions, and its language is that of bureaucracy: that is, it lies.

4. Order always has time for beauty, for the pause, for the sudden surprising moment of inspiration. Institution is threatened by individual expression, and tends to punish any activity that happens outside the set protocol.

5. Order tends not to be fearful. When something bizarre or even painful happens, the impulse of order is to understand or heal. Institutions are fearful, because they must fight – “culture wars” anyone? – against anything that would hamper their power. The impulse of institution is to silence and eradicate.

6. Order is not threatened by dialogue with divergent groups. Institution has to protect itself by keeping the Outsider Out.

7. Order is necessary. Institution is soul-destroying.


About Rebecca Bratten Weiss

When I'm feeling optimistic about my life, I call myself a Renaissance woman; when I'm being realistic, though, I have to confess that I am no Pico della Mirandola girding my robes to debate the luminaries of the day, but rather an easily-distracted post-modern pro-life feminist environmentalist farmer and teacher, with too many theories and not enough discipline. Maybe that's okay, though: I've come to discover that academic rigor sometimes leaves no space for the kind of conversations in which philosophy really "happens." Or maybe this is just my excuse for preferring lively dialogue with friends over the drudgery of scholarship. Since I am busy raising a family and working several odd jobs, I don't have the time I need for genuine scholarship, anyway, but that doesn't mean philosophy takes a back seat or waits for me to get done with this phase of my life. Philosophy is at the heart of life. To be a thinking, questioning, valuing, doubting, believing, bodily creature - that's what it means to be human, after all. I have an eclectic religious background (Jewish, Evangelical Protestant, Catholic) - so, while I am now a practicing Roman Catholic I find myself more interested in building bridges of understanding with people from a variety of faith traditions, than in worrying about apologetics. I am fascinated by the different processes by which people try to figure it all out, this struggle called life. I am also fascinated by the ability of so many to ignore the struggle, to silence the conflicts of the human heart, whether by turning away from the "ultimate questions" - or by forcing overly easy answers to these questions. When it comes to matters of faith, I have moments of Nietzschean agnosticism, and moments of neo-classical Deism, and moments when I believe that beyond all the veils that lie across the faces of reality, there is a being who not only created the world and set things ticking, but also loves us. These moments of religious certainty are born not out of rationalism, nor any gifts of mystical insight, but just out of my stubborn existentialist refusal to think of a universe in which any person can live and die utterly unloved. That's why I have stuck it out with Christianity, fundamentally: the compelling image of a God who loved us so much he'd rather come down and walk among us in the mess and murk of human life and death than coerce us into perfection. If it weren't for this image of Jesus - if it were just the institution and the rituals and the apologetics and the authorities, I'd just say "to hell with it" and be a Zoroastrian.
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