Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Institutional Thinking

Our culture seems enamored of the achievements of youth. We see them hailed in newspaper articles and human interest featurettes, written up everywhere from websites to snack food bags. The basic framework of the story is fairly standard, with particulars mutable: some young man or woman sees or experiences a medical tragedy, or a community problem, or some other lamentable circumstance, and decides to Take Action. The Action taken might be raising funds, or directly assisting, or making some personal heroic effort (though it inevitably involves that most precious of modern activities: Raising Awareness.)

These Actions are lauded, since everyone agrees that Young People should be encouraged to do Good Things, but I've noticed that the actions by themselves are never enough. What garners most applause and attention is that the young person starts some group, or foundation, or initiative through which the Good Things take place. So it's not enough that young Johnny Smith wanted to help poor downtown youth so he went down and organized a weekend basketball tournament. What really matters is that Johnny founded the Poor Downtown Youths Basketball Organization to organize tournaments. Questions of how many others are involved with the PDYBO, or how effective its efforts are in addressing the problems of PDYs, are secondary to the fact that the organization was started, and its intentions were Very Good.

I've pondered this phenomenon and what it says about our day and age. To begin with, I'm sure I'm not the only one who wonders how long these organizations survive the departure or loss of interest of their founders. But to me the question of enduring effectiveness is less interesting than that of the initial interest, indeed almost obsession, with the founding of organizations. This seems to say much about where we place our trust these days.

It wasn't all that long ago that heroic people were held up for emulation. Young people were told of athletes or pioneers or scientists or whoever that accomplished notable feats. The young were assured that they, too, could attain greatness with enough effort, learning, courage, or whatever. But now that seems passé. In our time, The Hero seems to be mistrusted, almost deprecated. People are not to be trusted, for they will inevitably fail in some way.

In what, then, should we trust? The ready answer offered by our culture seems to be The Institution. Institutions are the essential entities, so it is the founding of them which is the Best Thing. Regardless of how compassionate Johnny might be, or how motivated he might be to help, that won't really matter until Johnny subordinates his compassion and motivation to an institution, with its boards and bylaws and policies. Only then will Johnny have done something truly notable.

Of course this is pure folly. Anyone with a shred of life experience knows that any institution is only as good as the people running it. At best an institution is a formalized wrapper to focus and coordinate the efforts of individuals. Why would anyone consider the wrapper more important than the contents?

I think part of it springs from the "leveling" mindset which C.S. Lewis describes so well in works such as Screwtape Proposes a Toast. Heroes are not just suspect because they might have feet of clay, but also (and probably primarily) because they show up everyone else. They are to be torn down, or encouraged to tear themselves down, in favor of impersonal entities which are nonthreatening and, above all, Fair.

While that's part of the answer, I think there's more. Another aspect seems to be the inversion of thinking expected from a materialistic culture. Again, Lewis - drawing on others - observed that the materialist sees the individual as the temporary and transient thing, while governments, corporations, and other institutions are more enduring. Those trusting God's revelation understand that everything of this world will pass away while human souls endure eternally.

While these are certainly major factors, I'm coming to believe that there's yet another motive behind this cultural attitude - a motive so subtle as to pass nearly unnoticed but more sinister than any. It is the oldest and most tempting of perversions: that of bowing down before the works of our own hands. Yes, the same phenomenon so wickedly denounced in the Bible - idolatry. But as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger pointed out in his book Introduction to Christianity, since the Incarnation the temptation to idolatry seems to have turned away from that of physical images such as described in Isaiah 44 and Wisdom 13 and more toward the worship of ideas. This can be seen from the heresies that threatened early Christianity to the varied forms of statism that plague modern times. The core is the same: man subjugating himself to something he has created, either a work of the hand or of the mind.

Small wonder the Hero himself is set aside in favor of the institution, to the point where the founding of the institution becomes the truly heroic work. In our hearts, we know that to honor a man is to honor something that was made by God. To make it worse, truly heroic men have this irritating habit of deprecating themselves, instead thanking all those who assisted and encouraged them, giving credit to other people, and even (gasp!) God Himself. It is far less embarrassing and humbling to honor an institution, and its founders indirectly through that.

Does this mean that to recognize Johnny and the PYDBO is to commit idolatry? Of course not - but I do think the obsession with the founding of organizations reflects an interesting and disturbing change in our mindset. To me, this change seems to have largely happened during my lifetime, which makes me wonder where things will go in the next 50 years.