Credit: <a href="">John Mueller</a> (<a href="">CC</a>).
Credit: John Mueller (CC).

Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Commentary: Institutional Trappings

Jul 2, 2009

The pragmatist William James distinguishes between "institutional" and "personal" forms of religion. Personal religion involves a sense of connection to an "ultimate concern," while institutional religion refers to the organizations that formalize a particular approach to religious experience. I find that most of my students understand the word religion to refer to some prepackaged, institutionalized system of faith and worship involving adherence to dogma and external authority. This understanding fails to consider entire dimensions of religious experience, including those found in the teachings of the institutional founders. The institutionalization of religion seems symptomatic of the human tendency to mistrust our own intuitions, which can result in an abdication of responsibility.

The word religion possibly derives from the Latin root "religio" meaning "to connect," consistent with William James's definition of personal religion as a sense of connection to an entity, a community, the natural world, or a more comprehensive sense of our own selfhood. The intuitions of history's great religious figures generally seem to emphasize this sense of connection, seen as a personal relationship with something larger than our narrow sense of self.

Paradoxically, one of the consequences of religious institutions is that they can serve more to separate than to connect. This is what I mean by "dis-religion." Socially, we risk disconnection from those who don't belong to the same institution. Ecologically, we disconnect from the natural world. We thus risk disconnection from ourselves, distrusting our own insight and moral judgment.

The word institution can refer to an organization established for the promotion of an object. Interestingly, the dictionary also defines institutional as characterized by the blandness and uniformity attributed to large organizations that serve many people. An institution can accommodate large numbers of people, and must be concerned with its own survival and maintenance as well as meeting the needs of its constituents.

These organizations can be likened to one-size-fits-all clothing. That is to say, they fit everyone more or less, but don't fit anyone perfectly. The rules must apply to everyone, regardless of individual differences. In order to maintain itself, every institution must assume uniformity. Resources must also be distributed so that the institution is sustained, which can conflict with the interests of its constituents. One defense of this is the utilitarian argument that the institutions need to survive in order to serve the largest number of people, even if in some cases they find themselves in conflict with religious concerns.

Religious institutions are traditions, which are always bound to historically defined perspectives. But some of these perspectives are no longer viable, such as those that contradict modern discoveries. The holy texts, as Galileo pointed out when he was accused of contradicting the Bible, were written for people whose attitudes were less sophisticated than his contemporaries. While the Catholic Church no longer insists that the sun travels around the Earth, it does still insist on other discredited artifacts of medieval culture.

But as attitudes on sexuality change and scientific knowledge continues to increase, philosophical trends have led to relativistic concepts of truth. We can no longer justify parochial, Newtonian notions of absolute right and wrong, involving self-righteous convictions of God being on our side. When people say, for instance, "God Bless America," I have to wonder what kind of God wouldn't bless everybody. This diminishes the idea of God, and can be traced more to egotism than theology.

If religious institutions aren't meeting the needs of their constituents, why do they remain so attractive to so many people? This may be more a psychological question than a philosophical one. Perhaps humans are a species of followers and lack confidence in our own insight. We need someone else to tell us what to think and believe. If someone else didn't say it, it isn't true; if someone else did say it, it is likely true; and if it is written down especially in the Book, it must be true. This might help explain the appeal of concepts like vicarious sin and redemption. Such doctrines suggest that we are hopeless sinners, but it is Adam's fault, not ours. We can be saved, but not by our own sacrifice, rather by the sacrifice of a redeemer, whether Christ or Amida Buddha.

This thinking can lead to dangerous attitudes. Once we forfeit responsibility for our own morality, we always have an excuse, which justifies behavior that is clearly immoral, such as exterminating a people, torturing prisoners, or chopping down rain forests. We find this attitude, in the Book of Joshua in the Hebrew scriptures, when the Hebrew people finally enter the so-called Promised Land. Of course, the land is already populated, but because they have been commanded by God through the prophets to claim this land as their own, they are justified in killing the indigenous inhabitants and destroying their cultures.

This pattern is then repeated throughout human history: during the Crusades, when the Spanish arrive in Central and South America, when the French and English arrive in North America, etc. We also find such divine justification for violent acts against those with whom we disagree in some of the more radical interpretations of the Islamic concept of jihad.

The idea of religion as an inherently idiosyncratic sense of connection to something larger than ourselves can be found in the works of the founders of the institutions. These institutions always begin with someone's private experience, and many of these original insights promote flexibility and non-judgmental attitudes, and, most importantly, not relying on the authority of an institutional body such as a church or priesthood. Somehow, however, all of the traditions have veered from their original trajectory and became exactly that which their founders rejected.

In the rabbinical accounts, Abraham's father was a maker of idols, and Abraham first asserts his faith in the God who comes to be known as Yahweh by smashing these statues. This literally iconoclastic act marks him as one who rebels against prevailing religious institutions in favor of a personal relationship with his God. The Abrahamic religion was not legalistic. There were no rules or codes of law, only this connection to God and nation–a sense of being a community chosen to serve as a vehicle for accomplishing God's historical ends.

Arguably, Judaism did not become an institution until the time of Moses, who provided the legal and ecclesiastical structure which informed the evolution of the Hebrew religion. It was supposedly during this time that the priesthood was established and the law strictly codified. But Abraham, the father of the Jewish religion, did not provide any such rigid structures. He experienced what I would call a real religio, an intimate and personal sense of connection.

Jesus, too, according to the Christian scriptures, was anti-institutional. He encouraged private rather than public prayer. He was a Jew who reacted against the priesthood, and recommended calling no man Father or Rabbi because there is only one Father, one Rabbi, one authority who resides in Heaven. He also seems anti-dogmatic; he repeatedly emphasized the spirit of the law over the letter of law. This is evident in his treatment of the Jewish law, such as his abolition of the dietary code because it is more important to consider what leaves one's mouth (what one says) than what enters it (what one eats). Jesus in the Christian Scriptures in general teaches that people's own sense of conviction is more important than their outward rank or membership in a particular club. It was left to Paul and the apostles to establish the Christian institution, the Church, which they justify in the name of the Christ or the King.

The establishment of the Buddhist tradition was based on a rejection of what came before. The Buddha rejected the unquestioned authority of the Vedic texts and priesthood. He taught not to take things on the word of others, no matter how authoritative they might claim to be, but rather to verify all teachings through personal meditative experience.

Even on his deathbed, the Buddha admonished his disciples to work out their own salvation with diligence. In the parable of the raft, attributed to the Buddha, we are shown that just as a raft, which is used to get from one side of a river to the other, should be discarded once it serves its purpose, the teaching of the Buddha is merely a means to an end, and should not be considered an end in itself. But similar to the development of the other religious institutions, successive generations and schisms within the sangha or community have created a number of "churches" with dogmas and hierarchical priesthoods, which could not be further from the intentions of the Buddha.

Despite problems when institutionalized, religion is important. It provides a grounding perspective, a sense of community, and a sense of order through ritual and centrality of belief. Even William James emphasized the pragmatic value of religious experience. The popularity of many so-called New Age movements and the proliferation of denominational schisms within the institutions indicate that more people are concerned about the inability of the available institutions to address their personal spiritual needs. My shirt is more likely to fit well if I have it custom-made than if I buy it off the rack.

Today, many members of religious institutions are breaking the rules of the institution while claiming the rights of membership. Catholics are avoiding confession and mass, getting divorced, having premarital sex, practicing birth control, and having abortions. Jews are working or driving on the Sabbath, disregarding the laws of Kashruth, celebrating Christmas, and intermarrying. In particular, Americans tend to believe that they have a right to their own opinion. But religious institutions are not democracies.

It's unclear to me why anyone would want to be a member of a group they don't agree with. If you don't agree, you have alternatives. You can find another club to join, or you can strike out on your own, independent of any club, just as one can be an athletic person without joining a team. But if you want to join a team, you must play by the rules.

It is difficult for people to take responsibility, in this case, for the expression of our spirituality, because many people don't trust their intuitions. But as many of the traditional founders say in one way or another, we must rely on ourselves to find the keys to the kingdom. Let us hope that we find it possible to reclaim confidence in our own insight and regain the responsibility and freedom that is our natural birthright.

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