One of the reasons I enjoy reading books like Yuval Levin’s work on institutions is because I believe in them. I was formed by them. And I’ve been wounded by them (as have we all). While I live far from my family, I have done my best to invest in at least one family around me. I have spent many years “investing” in the institution of education. And I have spent many, many years caring about the institution of the church. I want these things to work. I hope these things survive. And I know that when they thrive, I can thrive. But I also know that when they are weakened that I am diminished.
At the end of A Time to Build, Levin writes about the core of “the rootedness and responsibility of the member and the partner and the worker and the owner and the citizen.” “There is a word for this,” he asserts. “The word is devotion.” This, Levin asserts, points to the idea of callings reflected in love and sacrifice. Levin continues:
Younger Americans especially seem hungry for these kings of callings. But they often don’t see that what they seek is already within reach. They are confronted mostly with models of dissent and rejection. Even our traditionalists are dissenters– wondering out loud if their inheritance is just a burden, and if maybe our way of life has failed. We lack a grammar and vocabulary for articulating what we are for. It’s easy to be fashionable rebels. It’s harder to remind ourselves why our core commitments are worthwhile. That is the kind of case that institutionalism now involves, and why it is so crucial.
“Younger Americans” is the main concern, of course. They seem to have known nothing but the failure of institutions. But what about those of us who have been shaped well by institutions but now find ourselves strangers in them, lost somewhere between expectation and reality? What about those of us who are “insiders” who actually feel like “outsiders”? Perhaps those on the “inside” think that such a position is impossible? Levin continues:
There is reason to think that renewal is possible, because the hunger for it is evident in the very symptoms of decline around us now. The fact our dissatisfaction should send us searching for signs of that hunger. But these signs might not be quite what we expect . . .
To be able to spot this hunger and yearning, we do need some idea of what we are looking for. Or rather, we must consider what some angry and dejected fellow citizens might want but will not ask for by name.
It’s that last line that gets me: the idea of the dejected wanting what it will not ask for by name. Some of us, of course, have been taught “to grin and bear it” when it comes to our place in institutions that we love but cannot seem to change. I think a number of us find that to be true in the church.
One of the best examples of this odd balance between devotion and dissent popped up over at Rod Dreher’s blog during the Christmas season. In a post titled “Church Without Community,” Dreher reprinted a long email from a young man who had been formed by what sounds like is a long-term good experience with the Evangelical church: years in church, attended Christian primary-middle-high school, went to an Evangelical college, spent a year in the mission field, and now attending a conservative Evangelical seminary and an SBC church. For all intents and purposes, he should be so well-formed that he fits right in. And yet the post articulates a discontent that many would write off as pitiful complaint. More telling that the post itself, though, are the many comments left by readers of the blog (and Dreher really does have a great collection of readers). The whole things is worth a good, nonjudgmental read.
What is the balance, then, between devotion, discontent, and dissent? The young man in the blog post obviously wants to be devoted to the institution of the church. And he’s obviously discontent in a way that is easy to articulate on paper (or online) but might be hard to navigate in day-to-day living. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, this is not a guy who just wants to spend his time kicking the can further down the road.
If Levin is correct, and I think he is, how do those of us devoted but silent in our discontent find a way to communicate that doesn’t sound like easily-dismissed complaint or whining? Who is there to ask the questions? Who has been formed or shaped to do that kind of work? And what do you do if the people and the mechanism just aren’t there?
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Over the next few days, I’m hoping to do some reflecting on Andrew Root’s The Relational Pastor. I think he has some suggestions that can be beneficial, even if it’s just a matter of the “grammar and vocabulary” that Levin mentions.
I highly recommend Levin’s A Time to Build. It starts, builds, and ends well. He paints good, sobering pictures, and provides answers that can open doors to good conversations. You can order the book here. You can read Levin’s thoughts on the intersection of institutions as mold or as platforms here in a recent piece for The Atlantic, too.