Archive for April, 2011

28
Apr
11

What is an Institution?

I’m thinking through the relationship between institution and charism right now, and one of the more frustrating aspects of the debate is the lack of consensus regarding the meaning of the word “institution.”

Some authors don’t bother to define the term at all, but seem to assume a certain common sense understanding of institution.  My problem with this is that the “common sense” understanding of institution in our contemporary context is typically very negative.  People today are very skeptical of institutions of all kinds, and religious institutions are no exception.   While I’m aware that some institutions can be terribly repressive, twisted, and dangerous, I don’t think these tendencies are inherent in institutions per se.

Then there are some who do take the time to define institution in such a way that it tends toward a negative characterization, because they frame institutions primarily as agents of control and coercion.

Gotthold Hasenhüttl was an influential voice in the mid twentieth century, cited authoritatively by people like Hans Küng and Leonardo Boff (who were, in turn, very influential at the popular level).  Hasenhüttl defines institutions as follows:

“An institution is a changeable, but permanent, product of purposive social role behaviour which subjects the individual to obligations, gives him formal authority and possesses legal sanctions.” [from “The Church as Institution,” in The Church as Institution (New York: Herder and Herder, 1974), 15]

He goes on to describe institutions as “instruments of power,” and calls upon the church to reinvent itself and work towards “the institutionalization of freedom [from] domination (an-archy)” (17-18).

In Boff, this translates to a playing off of “the institution” versus “the community,” arguing that the former must serve the latter:

“We refer to the organization of this community with its hierarchy, sacred powers, dogmas, rites, canons, and traditions…The institution does not exist for itself but in service to the community of faith.” [Church, Charism and Power, 48]

I think these definitions of institution are too narrow.   Institutions aren’t simply agents of control with formal laws and coercive power. They exist on a continuum which is much broader and more ambiguous than these perspectives imply.

In this broader understanding, which takes its inspiration primarily from Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality, institutions are simply stable patterns of social interaction. They could be huge governmental agencies or international businesses, but they could also be a recurring encounter between two persons.   All social interactions are subject to habituation, and when interactions between persons are habituated over time they become institutionalized – that is, they become stable patterns of social interaction.

Berger and Luckmann’s definition is as follows:

“Institutionalization occurs whenever there is a reciprocal typification of habitualized actions by types of actors. Put differently, any such typification is an institution.” [The Social Construction of Reality, 54]

There are, of course, many nuances to their account which I won’t address here, and some of them may not sit well some Christians.   But their insights have been taken up and incorporated into some theological accounts of ecclesial institutions, such as Miroslav Volf’s After our Likeness, and George Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine.

The point of adopting this perspective is to underscore the fact that social life is inescapably institutional, and therefore the Christian life (because it is inherently social) is inescapably institutional.

“The essential sociality of salvation implies the essential institutionality of the church. The question is not whether the church is an institution, but rather what kind of institution it is.” Volf, After Our Likeness, 235.

In other words, there never was and never will be a “non-institutional” church.   The fact that the church has certain institutional features does not mean that it has compromised or fallen from a primitive state of charismatic freedom.   From a Christian perspective, rather, ecclesial institutions are no threat to true personhood and freedom, but are divinely-ordered means of grace through which our true personhood and freedom is restored through incorporation into the body of Christ. Christian fellowship, worship, ministry, sacraments, and the proclamation of the word are institutions which confront us as a verbum externum. This point is brought out well by Lindbeck in his comparison of religion to a cultural-linguistic system:

“To become a Christian involves learning the story of Israel and of Jesus well enough to interpret and experience oneself and one’s world in its terms.  A religion is above all an external word, a verbum externum, that molds and shapes the self and its world, rather than an expression or thematization of a preexisting self or of preconceptual experience.” Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine, 34.

Ecclesial institutions are stable patterns of human interaction in the church through which the Spirit calls us to be conformed to Christ. They are certainly open to abuse and distortion, but this is not because they are institutions, but because they are patterns of interaction among people who are redeemed by Christ, but who continue to struggle with sin.

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19
Apr
11

Handel’s Israel in Egypt: As Good as the Messiah?

I love Handel’s music, and his oratorio Israel in Egypt has become a big favourite of mine.   I think it deserves to be as well known as the Messiah, though I’m sure that will never happen.  As with the Messiah, the text is entirely based on scripture – the first part drawing upon Exodus and Psalms 78, 105, and 106, and the second part based entirely on Exodus 15.

Anyone who can make “He spake the word, and there came all manner of flies” sound this wonderful is an absolute genius.

I’ve collected a few excerpts here from YouTube, for you listening pleasure.   What do you think – is it as good as the Messiah?

*****

He spake the word, and there came all manner of flies and lice in all quarters.
He spake; and the locusts came without number, and devoured the fruits of the ground.
Psalm 105:31, 34, 35

*****

But as for His people, He led them forth like sheep:
He brought them out with silver and gold; there was not one feeble person among their tribes.
Psalm 78:52; Psalm 105:37

*****

The Lord is my strength and my song; He is become my salvation.
Exodus 15:2

*****

And with the blast of Thy nostrils the waters were gathered together, the floods stood upright as an heap, and the depths were congealed in the heart of the sea.
Exodus 15:8

*****

Thou didst blow with the wind, the sea covered them; they sank as lead in the mighty waters.
Exodus 15:10

[couldn’t find an orchestral version on YouTube, but this one by Jasmine Haghighatian with piano accompaniment is nice]

*****

The Lord shall reign for ever and ever.
(Exodus 15: 18)

And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances. And Miriam answered them: —
(Exodus 15: 20, 21)

Sing ye to the Lord, for He hath triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider hath He thrown into the sea.
(Exodus 15: 21)

15
Apr
11

Notes on Being “Missional” and the Church’s Particularity

Lately I’ve been thinking about the meaning of being “missional” as it relates to the church’s peculiarity as a community.  Often I hear people portraying the church’s communal life as the enemy of missional living, as if these were polar opposites.   On the other hand, the older evangelical “seeker-sensitive” paradigm was premised on the idea of removing any barriers to “belonging” by avoiding any kind of in-house Christian language.   Both of these trajectories are problematic.

The church is a particular, visible, historically continuous people, and so its mission must include the incorporation of persons into the visible, historical fellowship. It is not simply about “adapting” the gospel (as an idea or principle) in new contexts, though there must be some cultural adaptation as the church moves through time and space. The primary direction is not that of adapting an idea to the culture, but about adopting people into the community of faith, which is the bearer of the apostolic gospel.

Mission therefore is not simply about proclamation, but also about catechesis. Becoming a Christian is about learning a new language and a new way of life. The particularities of Christian practice and the inherited language of the faith cannot be stripped away in the name of cultural relevance.  If, in the effort to be seeker-sensitive, we always seek  to use language and practices that a non-believer would understand,  what kind of formation are the Christians in our own communities receiving?  However, we can assume that speaking in ways that are culturally relevant will be more important in the early days of a person’s “incorporation” into the church.

The church’s corporate life (worship, teaching, fellowship, mutual service) cannot be separated and played off against its missionary character. Sometimes discussions about being “missional” tend to devalue the “internal” life of the church, and emphasize the sending out of the church almost exclusively. The result is that the particularity of the church’s corporate life is watered down.

The church is missional precisely as a distinct people. The church exists for the world precisely as a distinct people. The two are not opposed. A Christian life is an ecclesial life, and this is a distinct, peculiar way of life, embodied in the historical people of God. In other words, the church is a community in mission (see Phil Needham’s book).

The church is both a means and an end (Newbigin, The Household of God). It is not merely a pragmatic instrument, as if the real goal is evangelization (or social transformation or some other goal) and the church is simply the tool for achieving this. Because it is also a foretaste of the coming kingdom, it is an end in its own right.

In short, the gospel is not simply an idea, but a story which must be embodied by a people. This requires that the people of God have a strong community life, complete with a unique language, and unique practices which are not easily disentangled from the gospel itself.  In other words, to take up Barth’s categories, the Spirit’s work includes not only the sending of the Christian community, but also its gathering and upbuilding.

05
Apr
11

Ecclesial homelessness

Some comments here from Stanley Hauerwas on “ecclesial homelessness,” an increasingly familiar situation for many people today.   What he means by describing himself as “ecclesially homeless” is that he isn’t clearly rooted in one particular Christian tradition.   As he says here, he considers himself to be a Methodist.  But, as he accounts in his memoir, he has attended a variety of churches over the years, including a Catholic church while he taught at Notre Dame, and the Anglican church where he worships today (and where his wife, a Methodist pastor, serves on the pastoral staff).   Here are his thoughts, from a Christianity Today interview last Fall:

I call myself an ecclesial whore. I don’t know why God made some of us ecclesially homeless. I would like to think it has some ecumenical promise. Let me be clear: I am a Methodist. By that, I mean I think John Wesley was a recovery of Catholic Christianity through disciplined congregational life. Therefore, now that I am a communicant in the Church of the Holy Family [Episcopal Church], I understand myself still to be Methodist because I think the Episcopal Church is the embodiment of much that Wesley cared about. I think that’s true in much of Roman Catholicism. I don’t think any of us should look to Christian unity by thinking we can heal divisions of the past by some kind of artificial agreement. But by going forward, trying to live faithful to the charisms [gifts] within our ecclesial identifications, God hopefully will bring us into unity.

Hauerwas seems to suggest here that being Methodist doesn’t necessarily mean worshiping in a Methodist Church.   He can, as he says, live faithful to the charisms of his Methodist identity while being a communicant at Holy Family.

There are many today who find themselves in similar situations.  I personally know of Methodists worshiping at Presbyterian churches, Mennonites at Anglican churches, and Lutherans at Reformed churches.   I myself continue to identify as a Salvationist, though I presently worship at a Free Methodist church.

The lines of denominational demarcation are getting blurrier, but what does it all mean?  Are we entering a post-denominational landscape?  Do people even care about traditional differences of doctrine, worship, and polity, which were so divisive in the past?

With Hauerwas, I think this new situation has some ecumenical promise, although I also worry that it is due, at least in part, to cynical apathy regarding any kind of formal institutions.    The promising thing is that walls are coming down, and people are willing to worship, fellowship, and serve with people from another denominational background without thinking much about it.  In this sense, people on the ground are actually way ahead of their denominational institutions, which often remain relatively isolated.

The danger, of course, is that there are some real historical disagreements which should be aired out and discussed, rather than ignored through an easy ecumenism which treats differences as unimportant.

There’s something more to Hauerwas’ comment here, though, as it relates to the whole idea of ecclesial charisms.  He presumes that a Christian person can live out the charisms of one historic tradition while being part of a community that is based in another tradition (hence his status as a Methodist communicant in an Anglican parish).   I’m not sure how much he has thought about this, but it seems he presumes (as I am arguing in my dissertation) that charisms are personal, even when they are identified with a community like Methodism.

That is, properly speaking, the Methodist charisms are not borne by the Methodist community as a whole, but by the persons who call themselves Methodist.  The communal aspects of Methodism might encourage and cultivate those charisms, but at the end of the day, persons are the bearers of the diverse vocational charismata.

In that sense, it should be quite possible for a person to exercise one ecclesial charism in a context which is not normally identified with that charism.  Actually, I would say that this would make more sense than isolating large numbers of people with a particular charism from other parts of the church!

This is also why Methodism was intended in Wesley’s day to exist as a leaven in the Church of England, not as an independent church.   Though the Methodists were to have their own gatherings, which came in various forms, they were to remain within the church, worshiping alongside others in the C of E on Sundays, where the gifts that they brought could excite a renewal among the established structures.

This all might seem pretty far removed from the contemporary issue of “ecclesial homelessness,” but I think there could be a connection, and the changing denominational landscape of the twenty-first century just might make such a vision of the church more plausible than it was in the previous century.




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