Monday, April 14, 2014

Why Do Institutions Tie Us Up in Knots?

It happened again, this past week. I went to Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Writing. I was there to make a presentation with Christy Berghoef on how one goes about writing a spiritual memoir. We had fun. The seminar was well attended. People seemed to enjoy it.

Walking around campus afterward, however, I felt disquieted. I’m not sure I can pinpoint why. Maybe it was because I am very introverted. I don’t enjoy floating like a butterfly in a big crowd.

But some of my disquiet also had to do with my deep emotional attachment to Calvin College—and even more so, the Christian Reformed Church. Or rather, I should say my disquiet was rooted in no longer being attached to those institutions.

We all know the legal fiction that makes corporations—institutions like the church or its college or seminary—people. The law generally treats institutions as if they are persons. The law treats institutions as independent centers of will and action. They can earn profit, make donations, pay taxes, sue and be sued, and so on—even though they are not flesh and blood.

But there is actually more going on here than the necessary legal fiction. The truth is we often become deeply attached to institutions, just as we become attached to real people. Attachment to people is a basic human need. Adam needed a helper who could be a partner. Children are born pining for mothers. We need friends and community to thrive. And institutions, like people, can partly fulfill that need for attachment. Mostly through their human proxies, institutions love and nurture, accuse and forgive, embrace and reject. People are deeply affected by such actions and respond emotionally. Thus they often become deeply attached to their institutions.

Being back at Calvin disquieted me because it brought home with great emotional force the injury I’ve suffered by abandoning my lifelong attachment to the Christian Reformed Church.

The best analogy I can think of is a story that a former parishioner told me, years ago. This older person had been married for over thirty years but was abandoned by his wife. They divorced. They had no children. While married, they had also moved around a lot, often far from family and old friends, never putting down deep roots.

The parishioner told me that his thirty years of marriage now seemed, to him, a big black hole. There was no one to talk with, anymore, about those thirty years. No one could recall with him his mountaintop experiences or triumphs. No one would remember with him the pain or defeats that punctuated those years. Without anyone to speak to who was there those thirty years, it was almost as if they had never happened. “Sharing memories, good and bad, is how we process things,” this man said to me. “But I can’t process. It is as if someone imposed a press blackout on half my life. No one will ever know what happened.” He had become "unattached," as they say.

Now, I’m sure that leaving an institution behind isn’t as painful as leaving the one person you were daily and deeply attached to behind. Besides—I still have a spouse I’m happily married to, family is an important part of my life, and I’ve got many good friends of long-standing both inside and outside the Christian Reformed Church. Still, much of what I believed in and worked for in the Christian Reformed Church seems insubstantial now, thin and watery, like soup stock. Thinking back on it alone isn’t fulfilling. It makes the past thirty years seem, if not a great black hole, then at least a long excursus. An emotional loss.

Some readers will wonder, then, why I left. Why not—like a couple in crisis—get some counseling, work on the relationship, and repair what was going wrong? But here institutions are utterly unlike people. They cannot negotiate relational issues. Where people can engage in self-examination, change their habits or even their minds, confess sins and make promises to do better next time—institutions rarely do any of these things. When they try, only herculean and time-consuming effort will lead to change. There are, after all, bylaws to follow, creeds and confessions to uphold, and conflicting factions to balance and appease. I’m reminded of what a former Anglican Bishop of Edinburgh, Richard Holloway, wrote in his autobiography, Leaving Alexandria. “All institutions over-claim for themselves and end up believing more in their own existence than in the vision that propelled them into existence in the first place. This is particularly true of religious institutions. Religions may begin as vehicles of longing for mysteries beyond description, but they end up claiming exclusive descriptive rights to them” (p. 151).

My problem with the Christian Reformed Church—which I loved—is that I have changed my mind about those mysteries beyond description. And the church isn’t about to change its mind. The thing is, when potential change in a relationship can come only from one side, counseling and repair isn’t an option. The relationship is over.

Just so that no one misunderstands—I recognize that my new denomination, the United Church of Canada—is as hide-bound an institution as any other. This is especially true when it comes to its government and administration. The great difference, for me, is that the United Church is also institutionally committed to not “claiming exclusive rights” to any specific mystery, unless it is the mystery of loving neighbors (however imperfectly we actually succeed). Right now, the wide-open space my second church relationship allows me is also perfect for me.

But still, I was very sad at Calvin this past week. I’m reminded of something (a bit naughty) that my great-grandfather is reputed to have said, long after both of his wives had passed away. “When you remarry, you go to bed with your new wife. But you always sleep with your first love.”

Institution-wise, at least, I think I know what he meant.


  1. This is going to seem a strange comment, but your post, brought to mind a recent article in The Banner (I still read it even though I have also left the CRC and now with the United Church). The article was about how institutions, including the CRC, tend to see problems as requiring technical fixes rather than cultural change. I fully agree with your observation about religious institutions. Businesses and even public agencies can and do go through the heavy lifting of cultural change, but it seems far more difficult for churches, possibly because they have tied up ways of doing things (modalties) with life and death issues (eternal life and death at that). As you, I find this is less so in the United Church, and there is consequently more room for doing things differently. Then again, as I see the situation from the vantage point of my own pastoral charge, the United Church still acts in many ways to keep itself going even as large parts of itself are becoming anachronistic and even nonsensical to those outside of it. There is change happening but at present its pace appears to be than that of our declining relevance outside of the church.

    Perhaps your experience is instructive to those who fear change, or more precisely, who fear living through the experience of loss that comes with change. Perhaps it can help others to see that it is possible to find renewed life and hope and action in doing things different or allowing oneself to be different...especially, as you point out, we are not losing the people whom we love (I think in some ways, we may be able to love more). The great irony in all of this is, of course, that Christian churches have an inordinately difficult time accepting that new life is possible after the old is abandoned.

    (By the way, here is a link to the article in The Banner: You will see that you were mentioned in the comment section. I must say that I was rather tickled that your name was mentioned in relation to a comment I made :).

    1. Thanks Alyce. Read the article, which does make a helpful distinction between two kinds of change. Read the responses too. Still too close to leaving, I think, to be able to read those comments without my stomach getting all tied up in knots. As for Fishing, I loved it. Bold. Necessary. Visionary. Of course, it isn't going to be a panacea for all that ails the UCC. Most churches here will probably carry on much as before, even if it passes. But for some congregations (the one I serve?) this would be a great move. Thanks for your insight.

  2. John, as a continuing part of the CRC, I'm glad that we can still sleep together. You remain in our dreams. Affections cultivated over generations are not easily, or willingly, forgotten.

    1. Hey Bruce! Nice to hear from you. Indeed. Much affection still.

  3. Lovely post John. Thanks again for your honesty and transparency.

  4. As a lay person, grown up in the CRC and currently a member of the United Church, this post prompts me to offer a couple of personal observations.

    Though now theologically far removed from the CRC I nevertheless am quite aware that my current faith understanding owes much to the early CRC upbringing and experience. You just can't get away from it - and that is not all bad!

    My spouse's (many) siblings all continue to be solidly involved in the CRC but, sadly, tend to be reluctant to engage in any level of in-depth discussion relating to matters of faith. This is in sharp contrast to the study group that we have within our local UC. As you indicate, there is no shortage of folks in the UC that are reluctant to engage in any serious study, but those who do will do so with an open mind. We participate in a couple of study groups here and the experience has been most stimulating and worthwhile.

    Once again, enjoyed your reflections.


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