Institutions are one of those things we seem unable to do without, and yet we seem unable to do with them as well. For lawyers like me and non-lawyers alike, the death of Justice Ginsburg reminds us all how important an institution like the Supreme Court is, and yet how important competent and caring individuals are to populating our institutions.
Religious institutions are no different. In my role as your secretary I get to welcome new members, many of whom have stories ranging from the delightful to the infuriating about their former interactions with religious institutions. Indeed one conversation we have often had, even before RNA began and continuing today, was about all the baggage that the word “religious” carries – it almost screams “institution,” and not in the good sense of the word.
And yet, and yet, institutions are necessary, even organic. They arise from the very soil of human nature. We are a social species, and even in very small groups various institutions – broadly defined – arise quite naturally. And when you put us in a context other than the one we evolved in (which after all is the only context any of us lives in), the institutions become arguably more important, even while incubating obvious pathologies.
Right now institutions are on our mind in America not only because of the Supreme Court vacancy, but because of the looming election, and because we have had a four-year discussion about a concept I thought only lawyers cared about, namely “the rule of law.” What is THAT about, and how do we go about lifting up and honoring that which is obviously metaphorical? The rule of law is after all a shorthand phrase to capture whatever principles and institutions we humans can agree to, respect, and enforce. That is a hard task.
Here at the sprawling headquarters of Religious Naturalist Association we aren’t always aware that we are in the business of institution-building, because we are so small, and the human interactions so harmonious, that we don’t notice it. But little by little we build our community and the structures that support it, hoping against hope that we aren’t building in too many pitfalls for the future.
Recently we’ve put two more small planks into place, both of which Todd mentioned last month but which illustrate the institution-building aspect of our existence. First our Board was quick to clarify where we stand on matters of racial justice, see our Statement of Solidarity, which contrasts nicely with the church I still attend, which calls itself liberal but is loathe to make any stand whatsoever, lest someone be offended (Yuk!). Second, after 6 years of having only 3 formal officers, the Board recognized that Terry Findlay deserved whatever small recognition a title can give, so competently and carefully has he helped create our footprint in the world.
There is of course much more to be done. As a community of volunteers, we know that YOU have talents that could help us make sure what we build is stable and ready to withstand any institution’s natural tendencies toward pathology. We have new initiatives arising as we speak that may call on your expertise, and we always, always, are open to and wildly enthusiastic to hear any ideas you have for building out our foundations and the structures that will stand on them. So keep those cards and letters coming, and thank you for being part of something truly wonderful.