Why Institutions Matter – Pt. 1

Michael Metzger

Did you enjoy your morning shower? Down a hot cup of coffee? If you didn’t think twice about your routine, you owe it to institutions. They make rituals routine. Now, if you think every person in the world ought to be able to enjoy a warm shower, you know why institutions matter. They matter so much, we’ve written The Clapham Institute Manifesto.

Run your shower water backwards. If it was warm, your water heater was working. Water heaters tend to be more reliable in the US because they have to meet the Standards of Safety set by the Underwriters Laboratories. The heater also had to be installed by a certified electrician. Water pipes were installed by a certified plumber and checked by a qualified inspector. Water mains installed by licensed builders connected your home to a network. Their work had to be certified. But that’s not all.

Hot water requires reliable electricity – generated, stored, and distributed to your home. Electricity is drawn from raw materials that have to be located and extracted. This requires overlapping networks of engineers and drillers using certified equipment that transport these materials by trucks, trains, and ships. But there’s more.

I love rinsing out my mouth in the shower. When I travel overseas, I don’t do this. Rinsing my mouth requires safe water. This requires overlapping networks of institutions that extract, purify, store, distribute, and recycle water. But that’s not all. You also need rule of law.

If a water heater malfunctions under warranty in a First World country, you have recourse. In other parts of the world, no rule of law exists. Although altruistic individuals might construct wells, roaming vigilantes – fearing no recourse from enfeebled law enforcement officials or an ineffective court system – routinely destroy them. The rule of law must overlap with institutions. A simple shower requires overlapping networks of organizations – and we haven’t even mentioned additional networks such as zoning and financing. Enough already. What does this have to do with the church? Everything.

The Great Commandment
Love God and love your neighbor – the two great commands given to faith communities. How do we love our neighbors? Loving them means willing good for them. Loving your neighbor means seeking their wellbeing. If, for example, you think taking a warm shower is good, loving your neighbor means making a world where they are able to take a warm shower every morning. Doing this is willing good for them – not just wishing for a better world. It is making a world where people experience shalom. What’s shalom?

Shalom
The mandate to Abram was that “all people on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen. 12:3), shalom. But how does shalom work? When the Jews went into Babylonian exile, they were told to build homes, plant gardens, get married, raise families – you know, ordinary stuff – and “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jer. 29). The Jews’ flourishing came only as they promoted flourishing among their captors’ culture and in their institutions such as family, agriculture, and business.

Think about that for a moment.

Shalom is seeking the wellbeing of others, not just within the community of faith, but to all. It is seeking and promoting human flourishing, even in pagan Babylon. Human flourishing was making better homes and gardens – and businesses. Translated in our present day, shalom means faith communities flourish to the degree that culture-shaping institutions in the wider world flourish. How does that work?

The Jews had a template that Babylonian institutions could adopt: ought-is-can-will. It’s a definition of reality that makes businesses prosper. Since ought-is-can-will is reality, this template still applies today. Take, for example, our financial institutions. They’ve been making the news recently. What might this template mean for, say, T. Rowe Price?

If T. Rowe Price conducts its business, as it ought to, with its products, people, and policies, then people are flourishing, shalom. Remember, however, that shalom means faith communities also flourish to the degree that T. Rowe Price is flourishing in this definition of reality. Faith doesn’t flourish if it operates only in “religious” organizations.

The converse is therefore true. If T. Rowe Price does not conduct its business, as it ought to, then shalom means faith communities are also not flourishing. Think about that for a moment. This is radical – faith communities measuring their success by the degree to which public companies and communities are flourishing inside a biblical definition of reality. Shalom is at the root of our faith, since radical means “from the root.”

Shalom is how faith communities love their neighbors. But why would T. Rowe Price adopt a culture informed by a biblical definition of reality? They probably wouldn’t – unless believers saw it as their job description. That’s Part Two of The Clapham Institute Manifesto, “Why Institutions Matter” – published next Monday.

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8 thoughts on “Why Institutions Matter – Pt. 1”

  1. Granted, part II is yet to come, but as this stands, I don’t think you’ve accounted for the “is” part of your “ought, is, can, will” translation of the creation, fall, redemption, consummation gospel. I think that this impacts your converse argument that “If T. Rowe Price does not conduct its business, as it ought to, then shalom means faith communities are also not flourishing.”

    And it’s probably just a function of my re-reading Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, but your [admittedly brief] description of “Shalom” sounds a lot like a looter’s dream, where those who long for a better world are enslaved to those who don’t care.

    These are important hurdles to overcome in order to make your very important argument that it DOES matter what is happening in our institutions, and we must busy ourselves in that arena. What is the motivation, however, for a money-god institution [such as T. Rowe Price] to act in accordance with the Biblical mandate of “ought”?

    Oh, and the “rule of law” has been shown not to be enough. . . .

    I’ve been struggling with this problem for several years now. I look forward to your ideas on the matter!

  2. Shalom is the social and organizational result of people and institutions embodying a healthy conscience and an accurate assessment of human nature and reality.

    Wisdom is a reality-based phenomenon. Wisdom leads to flourishing.

    Frederick Buechner once pointed out, “The Bible is not first of all a book of moral truth. I would call it instead a book of truth about the way life is. Those strange old scriptures present life as having been ordered in a certain way, with certain laws as inextricably built into it as the law of gravity is built into the physical universe. When Jesus says that whoever would save his life will lose it and whoever loses his life will save it, surely he is not making a statement about how, morally speaking, life ought to be. Rather, he is making a statement about how life is.”

    Loving our neighbor thus requires us working together for an accurate assessment of reality. It is only here that all will flourish.

  3. I was really digging the backwards trip through the showerhead–showing the importance of institutiions. (You left out the universities that educate the civil engineers who design the pipes). But the jump from warm showers to T. Rowe Price really threw me. Marble’s comment about “money-god” is stark, but not inappropriate. Are there large corporate financial companies whose main interest is the well being of their neighbor? Who is their neighbor? Which raises another question, namely, whether big companies like T. Rowe Price are the right scale for shalom to take place? I think it is actually much easier to seek shalom at the scale of the local bank or credit union than at the scale of a multinational corporation. But that’s just a hunch.

  4. What is your basis for saying that “the converse is true”?

    Just because it is stated in Jeremiah that the flourishing of companies and communities leads to the flourishing of faith communities, it does not follow from that alone that the converse is true (which would be that UNLESS companies and communities flourish, faith communities WILL NOT flourish).

    Overall, I think that my biggest concern (which I’m sure will be addressed in your next email, making all these growing-pains-messages obselete) is that flourishing really needs to be defined. Maybe a company thinks that as long as they flourish, then everyone else will too as well (not just themselves!). Big problems would come in if the company pursues its own flourishing by maximizing their profit no matter the cost to the public or their competitors, now having the justification that they just need to do well and then others will therefore do well too. In fact, others would not do well if they did not.

  5. The good news is that this is a 7-part series and I have your interest! Every question to date will be tackled in the upcoming weeks, I promise. Then we’ll really mix it up!

  6. Mike,

    Thanks for this post looking forward to reading parts 2-7. Here is one thought- As you lay out the manifesto don’t become too clear, loosing the mystery of it all. Make sure you continue to SHOW us as you TELL us lest we fall into the very thing we are working so hard against- the overt literalness that many faith communities fall into. As you know all too well, clear doesn’t always equal reality to someone’s plausibility structure. Woo us into the narrative don’t just dictate the instruction manual.

    joey

  7. Hi mp: Yes, we’ll address your concerns. Thanks for the good questions… I invite them. As for your questioning whether the converse is true, I think it is. If others are not flourishing, and flourishing is willing their good (not simply wanting it for them or wishing for it) and willing good for others is part of loving our neighbors, then it is hard for me to imagine our faith flourishing if we’re not loving our neighbors. I’m simply suggesting that faith does not flourish in autonomy – autonomy being a uniquely American infatuation. Nor does our faith flourish solely in religious settings (this is pietistic run amok) unless it can flourish in the midst of not loving our neighbors. I for one have grave misgivings about such a stance. But we’ll keep considering differing views!

  8. Joey: I appreciate your concerns – thanks. One comment: clarity is not the big problem. One cannot be “too clear” on many important matters, as I’m sure your wife enjoys great and exacting clarity regarding your commitment to her. I think you are cautioning against a mechanistic approach to reality that is common to faith communities. The tension in scripture seems to be the mysterious elements and the fact that we are responsible for concrete realities. We are to be clearly doing something, believing something, and being responsible for making some concrete things – even though we “know in part.” Faith communities often seem to simply yak, yak, yak about “being,” or something…

    Your point about “literalism” seems to be a confusion of categories. Literalism has historically been held in tension with allegory – both esteemed in the scripture.

    Finally, you make a great point about plausibility structures. Reality however is reality is reality. There are no “realities” (“what’s true for me,” etc), only perceptions of one reality (which God sees clearly). Scripture seems to make clear that anyone’s lack of clarity is due to at least two factors. We were created as finite beings to perceive reality through our conscience. As finite beings, we “know in part.” Therefore, we cannot be completely clear on many matters and there are mysteries. That’s great… if our conscience is clean. Since we are fallen, an impaired conscience however has a flawed “take” on reality.

    I’m thrilled that your “in the game” and posing very good questions.

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