Are Institutions Necessary?

Are the institutions of Christianity necessary? Churches? Creeds? Doctrines? Rituals? Sunday Mornings? Buildings? Schools? One might argue differently about the relative necessity of each of these. But it seems that the general mood today is for spirituality, but against institutions. "I believe in God. I just don't believe in organized religion." "I want to follow Jesus. But leave the church out of it."

Eugene Peterson has written the best couple of paragraphs against anti-institutionalism that I've read. After pointing out that Jesus often frequented the synagogues of Galilee and the temple of Jerusalem, Peterson argues that we will not "find much support in Jesus for the contemporary preference for the golf course as a place of worship over First Baptist Church."

Peterson continues:

The Christian life is like a tree; beginning underground and invisible in a root system embedded in dirt and millons of microorganisms. Nobody ever sees that depth-dimension of the tree's life, but neither does anyone doubt that it is there. The evidence of its life is in the leaves, immersed in the invisibilities of air and receiving life from above. What connects the roots in that soil that you can't see to the air above that you can't see is a thin, delicate membrane that girdles the trunk of the tree. That membrane is called the cambium, and the flow of life from roots to leaves goes through it. But neither do you see the cambium. It is covered with very visible but thoroughly dead bark. The rough, dead bark protects the hidden, delicate, living cambium. The life of the tree (roots, cambium, air) is invisible.

Religious institutions are to spiritual life what bark is to the cambium. What you see is dead bark but the dead bark protects the life. The more intimate and personal an activity is - sex or meals, for instance - the more likely we are to develop rituals and conventions to protect it from profanation or disease or destruction. The most intimate, personal, and intensely alive of all human activities is the life of the spirit, our worship and prayer and meditation, believing and obeying. But without the protection of ritual and doctrine and authority, Christian spirituality is vulnerable to reduction and desecration. It is also important to note that while the bark both hides and protects the cambium, it does not create it. The bark is dead. And neither do religious institutions create life - the life comes from invisibilities below and above, soil and air, all the operations of the Trinity.

To read more you'll have to get The Jesus Way for yourself.

Good stuff.

1 comment:

Tim said...

Great piece, I wish i had this quote last night. i was talking with some friends. trying to get to the same idea, but not able. Peterson is good for pictures like this.