ICS WV Conference 2008 “Just Another Brick in the Wall”
A war-dead Daddy present only in photographs and memorabilia, an overprotective Mommy, and a school that chastises creative individuality in a lonely boy — in fact grinds individuality away — are “bricks in the wall” of non-relationship, of non-connection in the song “The Wall” by Pink Floyd. In this year’s ICS Worldview conference titled “Another Brick In The Wall” the question of how the institutionality of the church (or, the church in institutional form) is a foundational brick-in-the-wall barrier for younger generations and the unchurched was a major theme. Attendees learned that post-moderns view or experience church as just as non-relational as school and other aging modern institutions. And they profess to want relationship above all, yet don’t know how it exactly works well.
The day began with the worship band playing their rendition of the Pink Floyd song, and leading in worship. The conference’s opening prayer included a request that God give us a sense of “humble boldness” that would help us re-examine things.
Keynote Speaker Bob Sweetman had been dragged out of the halls of academe to share with a broader audience his insightful information on the subject. That was worthwhile. He gave a historical framework out of which we could understand the issues. He first got us thinking about two kinds of institutions: those that are aggressively expanding, massive, complex (so big we can’t find who’s responsible for what), uncaring (impersonal) yet unavoidable if you want to have the service they provide. He contrasted those with institutions which arise out of shared interests, where one’s participation in them make them what they are, such as volunteer organizations, mall culture, ethnic celebrations, neighbourhoods and family. We tend to be most suspicious of the first kind, which included big government, big labour, big academies of learning, and big, distant, church beurocracies. The second type of institution, which has a more organic feel to it, is fading away and leaving nostalgic memories that have an Amish charm to them, Sweetman told us.
He presented two theses. First that our Social Institutions and habitual arrangements are ill-fitted to life today. Second, that “our habits, practices and institutions were largely forged in a world we increasingly experience as past, to purposes we no longer remember or have become embarrassed about.” He pointed out that when those who operate within an institution experience this loss of understanding why it exists, the focus changes to preserving power, to preserving the institution. He had a difficult time saying this, because he professes to be someone who loves many of our old institutions.
He then defined two key words for us, preparation for hearing a chapter story of history. He said “Institutions preserve for us default patterns of social and cultural practices and so save energy… and preserve continuity from generation to generation.” They provide a “hardened consensus around rules for a particular functioning.” He helpfully encouraged us to consider what a blessing it is to not have to keep re-establishing the rules. A valuable example was a group of children in a playground who dialogue together make up a game and create rules for it. That set of rules becomes an institution for them, and once everyone knows them, the game can go well. The challenge, as came out in later discussion, is how to incorporate new children into the game, children who were not there to participate in institutionalizing the rules.
The second definition we were given was of Ideology, which Sweetman defined as a vision for all of life that was recognizable, just as we may observe a behaviour and say it is “typical CRC” because we know the ideology. Ideology can be drawn from many sources, such as religion, poetry, philosophy, science and folklore. Ideology is arranged and expressed as if deducted from a single guiding idea, such as a Marxist, capitalist or neo-Calvinist Ideology.
Sweetman led us through recent history, beginning in the time period he specializes in, the Middle Ages. He explained how that period was one in which the (Western) World changed from having had One Emperor and One Church to having multiples of both. Competition between rulers and churches became the norm. Human reason had sharpened, and attempts were being made by each Ideology in that competitive atmosphere to develop a total vision of life. By the 1850’s we had a world in which many differences existed side by side, said Sweetman.
In such an Ideological age, competitive institutions such as the Catholic and Protestant churches organized themselves to defend against ideological attack. We were told they were “coercive, to ensure solidarity internally” and were externally expansive, attacking in search of victory.
These institutional systems, said our instructor, were “saturated by and based on one common ideology” such as Communism, Catholicism, Liberal Capitalism and Calvinism. In the Netherlands of Europe this came to be called “Pillarization” where each ideology had it’s own institutional expressions in areas like politics and labour etc. Sweetman called this time, from 1850 to 1950, “The most sophisticated age of Ideology”
In the break that came at this point in the day, your writer spoke to someone who remembers seeing remnants of this Pillarized division as a boy in Europe. He reported that in his area there were three checkers (Dammen?) clubs and three chess clubs. One was Catholic, one was Protestant, and one was Public.
Twice that day three panelists were brought forward to share some thoughts and interact with what Bob Sweetman had said to that point, and the gathered were also given a chance to interact with the panelists. These panel interaction times were a very stimulating time, balancing lecture and interactivity very nicely.
We next heard “Post-Ideological Culture” explained. It was described by Prof Sweetman as “incredulous, sensitive to power and it’s abuses, and liquid in its outworking.” It found it’s strongest expression on the new Continent, where there was a sense that possibilities on the Frontier were unlimited, that it was a place “to construct one’s own life” freer from institutional constraint than in Europe. By the 1950’s the world had seen what extremes aggressive and expansive Ideologies could bring. There was also a loss of sense that we could find “an appropriate way to be human together.” Though the pillarized institutions remained, those in them began to lose touch with their purposes. Sweetman said “when the thought behind the old institution is lost, even in those in it, then it merely becomes about power.” The implication your writer heard there is that the institution begins to live to justify it’s own existence and to maintain it’s power. This behaviour then would increase scepticism towards institutions by those outside of them.
After lunch the question was put to us: “Does the church experience what we are talking about?” Do we ourselves recognize an ambivalence to institutions in our world today? Examples were shared of young people today for whom “everything they prize about the experience of church is about the people” and “everything they dislike about the experience of church is about the institution.”
As the Christian Reformed Church turns the corner heading into it’s 151st year, this question may well be the most important one to answer if the church is to have children and grandchildren.
*** switching from smmarizing to editorializing***
I am grateful to the ICS and Prof Sweetman not only for this opportunity to learn about the trends in society that shaped my own worldview, but also for putting this crucial question out to us. Over the course of the day I realized that my view of “the Wall” of institutional thinking was shaped by having grown up playing with Lego blocks. Any wall, or anything you built could be broken down and rebuilt in a different form using the same components. So I presume that is possible with institutions as well. Yet in my life I keep running up against an institution that acts as if the Wall called Reformed is fixed, permanent.
As was admitted in the discussions that day, fear is often our first response when confronted with the question of reforming the institution to fit our current cultural context. Our second response tends to be to want to defend the institution. All that most of us growing up in the Christian Reformed branch of the church universal in the last 50 years learned to say in such situations was written and shaped in the Ideological age we learned about at the conference. It was designed to defend against and attack the ‘outsiders’ and convince or coerce them into our view. When we try that technique today with those who were born in the last 30 years into the CRC, and especially with the unchurched–who might not even really have any idea who even Jesus is–we find that most of them don’t respond as we hope or expect. The key is that when we approach such questions ideologically we don’t build relationship, and authentic relationship is generally what those born since the 80’s in North America are looking for. It is also what our Discipler Jesus was good at. I want to learn more how to do it his way. I want to be part of breaking down the walls of institutionalism that keep us from relating authentically to each other and our Lord.
*** this next part is some thinking about the words of the song ***
Given what was learned that day, here’s what I hear in the song now.
Daddy flew across the ocean to defend his “Brittania” ideology against enemy ideology and died doing so, leaving a wife and son, and some memorabilia. But his ideologically driven war left a multiple vacuum in the boy’s life, a vacuum which became a brick wall that blocked him from relating well. Another set of bricks was his negative experiences in a school system a creative, lonely boy did not fit into, and which was in fact abusive and intent on forcefully indoctrinating it’s cultural perspective into children.
This person in fact gets caught up in the machinery of anti-ideology ideology, doing violence to himself and others in a system very much like the one his father went to fight. He lives “Comfortably Numb” and even more disconnected, longing for something authentic the child in him remembers. But he has become part of a system that keeps going, a show that must go on. He struggles to find a way out, a way of being a human with a soul again. His struggle gets him in trouble with the system.
His attempts to break down the wall and feel feelings are seen to be the culprit that have made this person cause turmoil for those around him.
The album leaves us with a picture of hearts trying to connect around, over, under or through the walls that exist. It is an encouraging picture for anyone walled in. It says there are people waiting to really love you outside the wall.
I am of the middle-aged generation. A Boomer. I believe something relational in my CRC ancestors died as they fought wars and battled to establish ideologies. An aspect of human relationship was lost in their regimental systems as they were implemented among us. My children’s generation have picked up on that somehow, and in a world that moves faster and faster and puts relationship-blocking bricks up faster than we can sometimes set them aside, my generation would do well to abandon the comfortable numbness of overly institutionalized “Churchianity” to pay attention, to focus on relationship, as Jesus did. We’ll have a good time then son, you know we’ll have a good time then.