Meeting Nelson in Egypt
Weekly Edgework #102 - July 10, 2006

Institutionalism and Faith

“The corruption of the best is the worst.” Aristotle, Aquinas and Shakespeare all agree. The latter says, “Sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds; Lilies that fester smell worse than weeds.” (Ivan Illich)

In a four-part interview series conducted by CBC entitled, The Corruption of Christianity, Ivan Illich makes the impassioned assertion that the institutionalization of Christianity has debased it in profound ways. I think those of us who have become used to seeing Christianity through institutional eyes would do well to hear him out – especially those who make their living by keeping Christian institutions alive. Unfortunately, however, those with vested interests in maintaining the status quo seldom reflect deeply on the foundations upon which their own welfare rests.

There is no question that Jesus voluntarily stood apart from, and was ultimately excluded from, the major institutions of his day. Religious leaders were incensed on the one hand that this would-be-prophet chose to ignore the standard notions of religiosity their institutions had prescribed. And on the other that he regularly exposed their selfish ambitions to maintain their positions of prominence and power within their establishment. And to the dismay of even his disciples, Jesus did not overtly take up the Jewish struggle against the effective and deadly political institutions of the Roman occupation. Instead he healed the centurion’s daughter and side-stepped the issue by proclaiming that his kingdom was not of this world.

On another front, Jesus appeared to play fast and loose even with institutionalized family structures. It is no secret that on more than one occasion Jesus’ brothers were embarrassed by him because he departed from his prescribed role as eldest son in the family. Once when he was told that his family was looking for him, he asked the enigmatic question of who his family was anyway. On another occasion when a would-be-follower declared his intention to follow him, Jesus told him to let the dead bury the dead – hardly a family-friendly value. It seems that Jesus understood the corruptibility of family systems.

It has been easy for us to suggest that Jesus stood over-against these religious, political and familial institutions because in that context those specific traditions had been corrupted. It is argued that Jesus is not opposed to institutions as such, but only the ones that block the advance of God’s kingdom. The assumption behind such thinking is, of course, that our institutions are unadulterated – that we have not fallen into the institutional traps like institutions had during the time of Christ. Illich thinks that such thinking misses the point. He suggests that Jesus did not allow himself to be defined in terms of the standard notions of institutions around him because he saw too clearly the presence of their power to corrupt.

When Illich then moves on to discuss the nature of the early church, he sees anything but an institution in the conventional sense. Early believers somehow picked up on the notion that the Jesus movement did not fit standard societal molds. What was flowering among them were communities of an entirely new kind.

They were animated by a spirit of contrition and the idea of reform. Reform had the idea of the mercy of the other, who will forgive me my betrayal instead of demanding a righteous satisfaction in payment for the wrong committed against me. Mutual forgiveness meant they now depended on one another. Depending on another depends on faith. It goes beyond intelligence and involves trust. Knowledge based on trust is more fundamental than anything I can know by reason. Him who I trust is God, not you – but it rubs off on my relationship to you.

Unfortunately, says Illich, somewhere in the fourth century – when Christianity was accepted by Roman authorities as normative – the church fell prey to the ravages of institutionalism. To illustrate this movement, he describes what happened to the Christian notion of charity.

It was customary for early Christians to have an extra mattress in every home in case Jesus, in the form of a stranger, would knock at their door. This form of behavior is without precedence. However, when bishops got the same positions as magistrates they could establish organizations or corporations. The first was that of a hostel to take in a class of people who didn’t have a home. Now it became the task of the institution to take in the homeless people. No wonder that during the same year a great church father exclaimed that these things should not be created. “They are assigning the duty to behave this way to an institution, and Christians will lose the habit of being prepared in every home for the homeless.

And so began the movement to assign Christian virtues to the institutions created by the church. After a while it became quite possible, and even logical, to distance oneself almost entirely from on-the-ground discipleship by paying to keep religious institutions alive and relevant. And it seems to me that during the last three or four centuries, modernism has simplified and facilitated this abdication of personal responsibility to innumerable institutions. That is not to say that no good can come from institutionalized forms of Christianity. But we would all do well to reflect on what they have done to our understandings about being “in the way of Christ.”

I have spent most of my life expressing my commitment to Christ in the context of church institutions. In recent years I have also had the good fortune of being squeezed out of them and onto the ground. It has been quite an adjustment to be a disciple based in my home, on my street and in my community – instead of institutions that demanded more energy than I had to give. I know a lot of good people whose lives continue to be wrapped up in their institutional assignments. But from where I sit today I can also see more clearly how institutions can become vehicles by which believers can distance themselves from a hands-on faith where the rubber hits the road.

I think that the contemporary church should rethink its love affair with institutionalism. Could it be, as Ivan Illich suggests, that we are missing the boat?