Today we celebrate the Reformation, although some folk decline to honour this 16th century phenomenon since it resulted in the fracturing of the Western Catholic Church. Yet the term reformation did not begin with Martin Luther, nor did the propensity to right the direction of the church, that band of followers of Jesus that came to inhabit institutions of various guises. What might Reformation mean for today’s institutions within Christianity?
Some folks lament the institutional character of churches, noting that when movements become institutions the original vision of its founder is compromised. Interestingly, the atheist philosopher Alain de Botton, in Religion for Athiests addresses the institutionalization of religion alongside of a host of phenomena in a slightly different key. de Botton has a most interesting take on the kind of relationship that atheists can have with religion. He suggests that there are redeemable (my word!) aspects of religion that can hold truck with atheism: the marking of special time, the practice of ritual, etc. The establishment of institutions is one of these. He notes that religions do a good job of institutionalizing movements as a way to conserve ideas. He suggests that atheists could do the same. And in so doing, he invites us to revisit our understanding of institution.
An institution in this vision is a vehicle rather than an end in itself. I suppose theologians have always asserted this, but the daily life of the institution often betrays an aphorism that I repeat from time to time: institutions will always take care of institutions. I think this true, but this is not a reason not to harness an institution for a purpose that transcends it. The institution can pass along an idea, or in the case of Christianity, something bigger than an idea. It can pass along a vision of the Reign of God in ways that are allow us to critique the institution without the need to demolish it.
In a way, it feels a bit like COVID is demolishing the institutional church, although that really isn’t true. But it is, I think, utterly re-forming it as we turn on a dime to face new realities – or don’t and face institutional death. Of course, the institution will not want to die and will do what it can to live. The question is: can we use skillful means to manage these institutions in ways that reins them in for the purpose of the Reign in which these institutions finally find their end?