Why Institutions Matter – Pt. 3

Michael Metzger

Believers are called to love their neighbors. Loving others means willing their wellbeing. Willing the wellbeing of others is shalom. Shalom is helping others flourish. To a large degree, people flourish inside institutions. Institutions shape culture, and culture shapes habits. Here’s Part Three of The Clapham Institute Manifesto: “Why Institutions Matter.”

Institutions Shape Habits
Neuroscience findings reveal that human beings unconsciously process thousands of signals throughout the day. They come from institutions such as media, our workplaces, music, advertising, neighborhoods, and so forth. Humans however only have the capacity to be conscious of a handful of these impulses at any given moment. We are, in other words, unconscious of most of the cultural influences that impel us. As finite beings, we don’t have the bandwidth to consciously process all the data simultaneously. This is how God intended us to live. Scientists call this biological process habituation.

People, for example, can’t smell their breath but can detect bad breath in others. Habituation is an unconscious sensory accommodation helping us sift through new stimuli while keeping the background systems operating. For instance, a short time after you got dressed, the stimulus that clothing created disappeared from your nervous system. You became unaware of it. Habituation keeps us sane by desensitizing us. Culture is whatever is habituated. Habituation comes from institutions, like marriage.

God instituted heterosexual, monogamous, faithful, fruitful marriage for human flourishing. Our mandate was to cultivate institutions that would promote this vision. The point was to make good marriage habitual through institutions furthering this vision. Then, like warm showers, we wouldn’t give it much thought. However, since we did fall, many of today’s culture-shaping institutions promote instead “alternative lifestyles.” The biblical vision for marriage is no longer habitual in the wider world.

Shalom is the result of culture-shaping institutions taking the Bible’s definition of reality seriously. But not all institutions are equal.

Center and Periphery
There are two types of cultural institutions – those in the center and those on the periphery. Toyota is at the center of worldwide car culture. When they talk, people pay attention. When they produce, people buy. Tesla, on the other hand, is on the periphery. What – you’re unfamiliar with Tesla? Exactly. They make electric cars, but Tesla is a fringe player at this point in car culture. Organizations like Toyota are closer to the center and are more “reality defining” and influential.

In the broader world, institutions closer to the center include media, upper echelon educational institutions, sports, entertainment, and the workplace. Periphery institutions matter too – they simply exert less cultural influence. They would include our neighborhoods, local schools and organizations, and some faith communities.

Whoa. This distinction between center and periphery turns off some believers.

Americans don’t like this distinction, since it sounds very undemocratic. Egalitarian populism, however, is based on a false view of reality. We’d do well to remember these words from C.S. Lewis: “Equality has no place in the world of the mind. Beauty is not democratic; she reveals herself more to the few than to the many, more to the persistent and disciplined seekers than to the careless. Virtue is not democratic; she is achieved by those who pursue her more hotly than most men. Truth is not democratic; she demands special talents and special industry in those to whom she gives her favors. Political democracy is doomed if it tries to extend its demands for equality into these higher spheres. Ethical, intellectual, or aesthetic democracy is death.”

Because of the Great Commandment, all believers are called to love their neighbor through shalom. Shalom is promoting human flourishing. Because of the Cultural Mandate, all believers have dominion. They are to make culture – ideas, images, institutions, and items – that create the individualized and collective habits. But not all believers have the same degree of dominion.

This is what Paul meant when he wrote, “Eagerly desire the greater gifts” (1 Cor. 12:31). This is a collective prayer, not an individual aspiration. Everyone has an important role in the whole even while they recognize that there are others whose role is more visible and crucial to the whole (i.e., apostles, prophets, and teachers).

Not everyone has access to central institutions, but everyone has a sphere of influence and potential access to the institutions that define that sphere of influence at whatever level. To recognize that there are central and peripheral institutions is only to recognize that individual influence is not uniformly the same. It is mediated. Even if we do not have the gifting or ability for such central spheres of influence, it does not mitigate recognizing that the wider society needs such individuals and that believers can work and pray for those who have the talent and access.

These are radical ideas. Shalom is at the root of our faith. Yet many modern faith communities don’t see the Cultural Mandate, shalom, and central institutions as being at the root of their mission. That’s an incorrect understanding of the church. We’ll see that in Part Four of The Clapham Institute Manifesto, “Why Institutions Matter” – published next Monday.


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  1. Mike, you pulled out all the stops on this one. The series is really picking up steam. Tesla has a mustang, don’t they? I just hope their business model catches, and that in the long term they focus on more than simply being the “cool electric sports car”. Good word about our brains. And good link to the institutions that shape the way we think without our even recognizing it. In some ways certain institutions beckon us to slavishly respond to stimuli in ways that are incoherent with our character and values. Yet others allure us to live the life that is oh so good, that we genuinely desire, but is just outside our grasp currently. Some are good, some are bad. It is sad that our churches largely respond in negative ways to the realization that in the grand scheme of things they lie closer to the periphery circle of culture-making institutions than they do to the center. If they would just be at peace with their identity and operate within that context, they would be very effective. The book mentioned in comments last week, Andy Crouch’s culture-making touches on how creating culture in periphery institutions can be very beneficial. You never know when one of the folks in your scope of reference on the periphery may be struck by how you make culture, and may go on to be one of the people in the center some day.

    Finally, but probably least important, this is one of the fullest, most honest, heartfelt arguments that our society ought to cling tightly to marriage between a man and woman and other institutions historically cultivated by the church.

  2. We all have our assigned gifts, talents, and callings. We have our assigned “sentry post” as John Calvin described it.

    “The Lord bids each one of us in all life’s actions to look to his calling. For he knows with what great restlessness human nature flames, with what fickleness it is borne hither and thither, how its ambition longs to embrace various things at once. Therefore, lest through our stupidity and rashness everything be turned topsy-turvy, he has appointed duties for every man in his particular way of life. And so that no one may thoughtlessly transgress his limits, he has named these various kinds of living, ‘callings.’ Therefore, each individual has his own kind of living assigned to him by the Lord as a sort of sentry post so that he may not heedlessly wander about throughout life.”

    To embrace the periphery is to embrace victimhood.

    Kyle is absolutely correct to note that the American church functions on the periphery of cultural influence. But to resign oneself to the periphery, to accept this state, or to in anyway condone it as a strategy is an abdication of our responsibility to our neighbor. It is a vision for continued irrelevance. For the sake of human flourishing and the common good we are called individually and collectively to bigger things.

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