A former Lutheran pastor sharing thoughts on faith and life. Please join the conversation! I love your comments!

Monday, February 6, 2012

Shaking up the institution

I came across a really interesting article by Alexander Abian, a professor of mathematics at Iowa State University. He opens writing, "There is an eternal battle, struggle and clash between the two primordial Cosmic adversaries: the Space and the Mass." I mean, how can you not continue reading with a hook like that?! Abian points to a concrete example to explain his point. When a glass rod (mass) rubs on wool, negative and positive electric charges (space) are produced to attract each other and stop the rubbing process, or to maintain the pre-rubbing status quo.

Abian then makes an exciting leap, applying physics to human nature. Quoting now, "It is not unreasonable to attribute to any object some qualities which are generally attributed to animate species and, in particular, to human beings. After all, all objects (animate or inanimate) are built from the same basic particles: electrons, protons, neutrons, etc.

"Thus, it is not unreasonable to expect that the basic instincts of the animate species are shared (sometimes to the smallest and almost undetectable degree) by all objects, be them space, particles, galaxies, clusters of galaxies or even the entire Cosmos.

"I believe that the most basic instinct which motivates the behavior and actions of any object is the insatiable tendency to gain a 'feeling of security'.....

"The process of gaining a feeling of security by any object (animate or inanimate) manifests itself mainly through:
a) The tendency of maintaining the status quo
b) Reaction to provocation
c) The tendency of maintaining again (and not necessarily the previous) status quo

"With an anthropomorphic approach, one can say, that in any interaction or in any relationship between any two entities or objects (animate or inanimate), the tendency of gaining a feeling of security manifests itself through: imposition of one's presence and of one's will upon the other(s) will to power and the struggle for power."

There's a revealing story from the gospel of John (chapter 9) about a man born blind whom Jesus chooses to heal.....on the Sabbath. When the man returns to his home, his community is dumbfounded. His friends take him to the Pharisees looking for some explanation. The Jewish leaders proceed to interview the man in an attempt to figure out whether or not, based on these actions, Jesus is good or bad. He is acting outside of and independent of their institution, which poses a real threat to their authority and yet this formerly blind man can see - an act of healing difficult to label as anything but miraculously good. The healed man answers their questions openly and honestly, but gives all glory to Jesus. Frustrated, the leaders bring in the man's parents. The parents claim the son, but refuse to make any judgment on the act of healing. The leaders again interview the man, and finally, in a fit of impatience, the man basically says, "You idiots, only a man of God could have healed me and you know it!" With this, the leaders turn on the man. They accuse him of being Jesus' disciple, of being steeped in sin, and they drive him out of the village.

The maintenance of the status quo defines the work of an institution or an estabishment. In this gospel story we have a force of energy moving towards change, momentum, movement. We also have a force of energy bent on maintaining security through a rigid enforcement of the status quo. The energy straining towards change introduces provocation (i.e. the healed blind man) to the system. This in turn causes the institutional energy to gear up and impose its power in an effort to maintain status quo. The provocation bounces back and forth between these opposing energy forces before finally being drawn to the greater magnetic pull of the upstart force of energy. This is a scenario played out everyday in millions of elemental exchanges. It is also a dynamic occuring repeatedly in the gospels.

I don't know enough science to maintain an intelligent discourse here, so instead let's move towards a closer look at institutions, that unique force of energy governed by an insatiable desire for security.

What do we learn about institutions in this story from John? Quite a lot. First, they think for us. We stumble across this in the very second verse. When Jesus and his followers come across the blind man, the disciples ask Jesus if it was the blind man who had sinned or his parents. What a bizarre question. But the religious institution of the time had so efficiently taught these men how to think about those afflicted with physical or emotional maladies, they probably didn't even realize their thoughts weren't their own. This institutional rule is made even more explicit in verse 24 when the religious institution tells the formerly blind man exactly what he is to believe. "We know Jesus is a sinner, do you hear. So save your praises for God."

In exchange for doing all the hard work of thinking for us, institutions then demand in return, a strict allegiance. There isn't a whole lot of room for fence sitting in an institution. You are either in or out. The blind man has to choose. He will either embrace the institution and turn his back on Jesus. Or he will embrace Jesus and turn his back on the institution. He cannot embrace both.

Institutions also project a powerful illusion of security. And most of the time, so incredibly hungry are we for even an illusory sense of security, we're only too happy to swallow the bait. This healing scares the blind man's community. They don't understand what has happened. It seems like a good thing, but it's also an unknown and the unknown is threatening. So what do the blind man's buddies do? They haul him to the institution for safekeeping. And thus delivered, they can dust their hands off and go back to their lives with a sigh of relief, content to allow the institution to tell them what they should think about the whole affair.

How do institutions maintain such a convincing illusion of security? One of the keys is through rules and their rigid enforcement. This is true of any institution, but it must also be said that historical Judaism could teach us all a lot about making and maintaining rules.

One of my favorite novels is "The Source", by James Michener. The book, published in 1965, covered the span of Jewish history to that point in time and was set in Israel. Michener puts to words the ancient Jewish tradition of honoring rules.

"What was the Mishna? An adroit solution to a difficult religious problem. The wise men of Judaism had evolved the principle that at Sinai, God had handed Moses two sets of laws, one written on the tablets of stone and later transcribed word for word into the Torah, and a second of equal importance which had been whispered to Moses alone, the oral law, which provided specific elaboration of the Torah. For example, in the written book of Exodus, God said distinctly, 'Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy,' but He did not stipulate in writing what one must do to observe this commandment. It became the task of the rabbis, depending upon the oral law which God had given Moses, to clarify the commandment and make it specific.

"For the first fifteen hundred years this oral law had been carried only in the heads of scholars, but after the two Roman destructions of Judaea....a group of scholars had met in a small Galilean village.....to codify this inherited law. Thus they constructed what became known at the Mishna, which scholars were expected to know by heart. For example, an extention of the crisp Torah injunction not to work on Shabbat, the Mishna identified 39 principal kinds of labor which were forbidden. Sowing, reaping...baking...spinning...tying or untying knots....sewing two stitches....hunting a gazelle....writing two letters....lighting a fire....carrying anything from one domain into another.

"In this way the Mishna inspected each aspect of life and laid down the laws which bound Jews to their religion. What was the Gemara? When the completed Mishna had been used by Jews for only a short time they began to find that it was not specific enough; it prescribed 39 different kinds of work, but as new occupations evolved, new rulings were required. So the rabbis restudied each category, trying to spread its elastic words over the greatest possible number of occupations and hitting sometimes upon interpretations that were masterpieces of intellectual juggling.

"This extension would be known as the Gemara, and when their work was finished, after two and a half centuries of debate, the Mishna and the Gemara would coalesce to form the Talmud....It was this Talmud that provided the fence around the Torah, protecting God's law from unintentional trespass; God had said merely, 'Remember Shabbat,' but the rabbis had staked out their fence far from the actual Shabbat, defending the sacred day behind a multitude of laws."

So here we have Jesus doing the unthinkable. He has broken through the fence of Talmud and has brushed up against the law. He has trampled upon centuries of tradition, all in order to heal a man he could just as easily have healed on any other day of the week. Even worse, Jesus is inviting others to pass on in through the break in the fence to see the view from the inside. Not only has Jesus pulled away the curtain to reveal security's illusion, he has also seriously made the institution fear for its safety. And as Professor Abian observes, when security is threatened by provocation, the institution will fight furiously to regain an old or establish a new equilibrium that is even more earthquake proof than the last.

There's a flip side here too. At the same time institutions are at work making us feel safe, they are also closing us in, trapping us. We become imprisoned by the very laws which are supposed to keep us safe. And most often the most powerful laws are the unwritten ones. We see how the institution bound the blind man's parents. They were firmly ensconced members of the institutional community. They followed the rules like good Jewish people did. But those rules, in a way no one could have predicted, now cut them off from their son.

And here's another interesting twist. The text tells us that the object of fear for the parents has actually become the institution, the very establishment that is supposed to make them feel safe. "His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue." Isn't that interesting? And yet, unlimited and unchecked power in the hands of an institution is almost always a very scary proposition indeed.

A final observation about institutions....as they promise to see for us, to light our way, in truth, they blind us to truth. This is what Jesus is getting at in the final verses of the chapter. In The Message bible, Eugene Peterson translates verses 39-41 thus, "Jesus then said, 'I came into the world to bring everything into the clear light of day, making all the distinctions clear, so that those who have never seen will see, and those who have made a great pretense of seeing will be exposed as blind.' Some Pharisees overheard him and said, 'Does that mean you're calling us blind?' Jesus said, 'If you were really blind, you would be blameless, but since you claim to see everything so well, you're accountable for every fault and failure.'"

Have you ever purchased something in a store thinking it was one color only to get out into the parking lot and realize it's a different shade entirely? That's the difference between institutional light and God's light....literally.

Institutions shine their light with an agenda in mind. They have tunnel vision. They approach sight with a desire to see only that which will be of benefit to see. God's light, on the other hand, in its pure form is so bright it is almost blinding in its radiance and more than a little scary, just ask Saul. This brilliance lights everything in its path. Everything. Thankfully, we don't get to see God's pure light too often. Instead we're given a warm glow that, admittedly, isn't always easy to follow. Often we can only see a few steps in front of us.

So if institutions are so horrible, why do we put up with them? Because we need them, I suppose. We need some of the order and stability they provide. But institutions only work for us when they are working for us - not us for them. At core, this is the problem with our political institution, with our military institution, with our economic institution and with our religious institution. We work for them.

There are a number of movies about artificially intelligent beings who rise up to fight against their creators, humanity. This is nothing new. It's been happening since the first human community thought to make and empower an establishment.

God is all about moving on, we are all about maintaining. We have a higher allegiance to the rules of our institutions than we do to the teachings of Christ. We are as blind as the Pharisees so much of the time. We dither about, getting upset at anything that threatens our equilibrium, our status quo, our security.

Then there's Jesus, who sets himself against institutional power. As humans, we crave security. But this life doesn't offer us security. Institutions don't have any authentic security in their purse and honestly, God doesn't offer us much security either, at least not the kind we've developed a taste for. We're striving for the wrong thing. As soon as we recognize this, institutions lose their allure and we're able to detect a divine light illuminating our path. We may not be able to see very far ahead of us, but we'll at least be sure of the next few steps. And when we step into this Divine light, we become beacons of light ourselves, lighting the way for others, shaking up the status quo, provoking change.

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