Smith on Genesis 1 and Societal Institutions

by Nov 1, 2013Culture, Theology

4026.200I derived some real profit from this James K. A. Smith editorial and the entire issue of Comment in which it appeared. Read the issue on a single flight; very convenient. I’m not quite on Smith’s theological page—I’ve not read enough to discern exactly what page he’s on. But his comments about societal institutions were wise and, most importantly I think, biblical. Here’s a sample:

If you’re really passionate about fostering the common good, then you should resist anti-institutionalism. Because institutions are ways to love our neighbours. Institutions are durable, concrete structures that—when functioning well—cultivate all of creation’s potential toward what God desires: shalom, peace, goodness, justice, flourishing, delight. Institutions are the way we get a handle on concrete realities and address different aspects of creaturely existence. Institutions will sometimes be scaffolds to support the weak; sometimes they function as fences to protect the vulnerable; in other cases, institutions are the springboards that enable us to pursue new innovation. Even though they can become corrupt and stand in need of reform, institutions themselves are not the enemy.

Indeed, injustice is often bound up with the erosion of societal institutions. For example, Nicholas Kristof’s reporting from Africa constantly observes that tyrants and warlords flourish precisely in those places where their rogue armies are the only durable institutions, preying upon the absence of any other institutions that might resist.

The destruction of institutions actually makes room for injustice. You might say that the devil also believes in institutions, which is precisely why his minions are often so deviously patient and persistent in their goal of eroding them. You can imagine Screwtape writing to Wormwood with a key piece of advice: “Evil triumphs in just such a vacuum, so patiently chip away at the institutions of civil society. We’ll reap the rewards later.”

So we believe in institutions because we oppose injustice. But we fundamentally believe in institutions because we believe in the Scriptures and the cultural commission given to humanity in the Garden. To be fruitful and multiply is to begin—and inherit—the institution of the family. To cultivate creation is to fill the earth with institutional life that was begging to be unfurled—in museums and schools, in legislatures and libraries, in universities and unions. Institutions are durable, communal ways that we can act in concert with our neighbours to achieve penultimate goods. So instead of thinking about institutions as big, hulking, static behemoths, think of institutions as dynamic, social enactments. Try to imagine “institutions” as spheres of action. Institutions are not just something that we build; they’re something that we do.

To say “penultimate” is to say what the Bible does, that no human work in this world is permanent and that God’s glory is the only ultimate good. But it’s also to say that this sinking ship will be brought back to the surface and that its owner, the rightful captain (despite the rival claims of the mutineers), has told us to keep polishing the brass until he can retake and salvage the vessel.
And another clarification: I’m not saying that supporting societal institutions is the work of the institutional church; I don’t think Smith is, either. But the church’s mission—training disciples to do everything Jesus told them to do—will include training them to obey the creation mandate of Genesis 1 and, therefore, to support certain human institutions and work to erode others.

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