Jonny has written again defending the ‘in and out’ stance he wants to take with institutional forms… And though it often seems to be falling on deaf ears, I want to support this view too! Jonny wrote a response to my posts reflecting on whether those who had been involved in the Emerging Church movement had retreated to institutions more recently, calling it ‘romantic tosh‘, and has now responded to an article in the Guardian (which was partly an overview of Other) in which Theo Hobson wrote:
We must simply dump all that ghastly old baggage, of bishops and buildings, rules and power, and start a new sort of Christian cultural presence.
I had to laugh when I read this, as I knew that it would cause a stir to say the least. I don’t, however, think that support for this view can be found in my book – at least I hope not.
That said, I do have very serious questions about institutions, and I feel that a critique of them is both valid and timely. My experience is that (naturally) those who want to defend them are those who have invested most heavily in them. I’m reading Zizek’s new book Living in the End Times, and he has a good section in the introduction (which he expanded upon in a talk I went to last week) in which he talks about our relationship to ideologies.
I wonder if this might be a helpful perspective (not a totally complete view) of part of what an institution is: it is a people collected formally around an ideology. Zizek draws on Paul, and does a loose translation of Ephesians 6:
“Our struggle is not against actual corrupt individuals, but against those in power in general, against their authority, against the global order and the ideological mystification which sustains it.“
It is this aspect of ideological mystification that I think it troubling for all large institutions. It is this that allowed the paedophile priest scandal to carry on for so long, and be covered up so deeply. That is an extreme example, but makes the point perfectly: institutions mystify ideologies and this can both sustain and excuse behaviour which would otherwise be immediately taken as unacceptable. Zizek made this point about Stalinist Russia: people carried out terrible actions precisely because they were involved in an absolute ideology: once the absolute was removed their cover was taken and they had to take responsibility for what they had actually done as individuals.
I’m well aware that institutions are everywhere, in all sorts of softer and harder forms, and all sorts of sizes. But this shouldn’t stop us from reflecting on them carefully. It is not unfaithful to do so, it is right and healthy.