Believers are called to love their neighbors. Loving others means willing their wellbeing. Willing the wellbeing of others is shalom. Shalom is helping others flourish. To a large degree, people flourish inside institutions. Institutions shape culture, and culture shapes habits. Here’s Part Three of The Clapham Institute Manifesto: “Why Institutions Matter.”
Institutions Shape Habits
Neuroscience findings reveal that human beings unconsciously process thousands of signals throughout the day. They come from institutions such as media, our workplaces, music, advertising, neighborhoods, and so forth. Humans however only have the capacity to be conscious of a handful of these impulses at any given moment. We are, in other words, unconscious of most of the cultural influences that impel us. As finite beings, we don’t have the bandwidth to consciously process all the data simultaneously. This is how God intended us to live. Scientists call this biological process habituation.
People, for example, can’t smell their breath but can detect bad breath in others. Habituation is an unconscious sensory accommodation helping us sift through new stimuli while keeping the background systems operating. For instance, a short time after you got dressed, the stimulus that clothing created disappeared from your nervous system. You became unaware of it. Habituation keeps us sane by desensitizing us. Culture is whatever is habituated. Habituation comes from institutions, like marriage.
God instituted heterosexual, monogamous, faithful, fruitful marriage for human flourishing. Our mandate was to cultivate institutions that would promote this vision. The point was to make good marriage habitual through institutions furthering this vision. Then, like warm showers, we wouldn’t give it much thought. However, since we did fall, many of today’s culture-shaping institutions promote instead “alternative lifestyles.” The biblical vision for marriage is no longer habitual in the wider world.
Shalom is the result of culture-shaping institutions taking the Bible’s definition of reality seriously. But not all institutions are equal.
Center and Periphery
There are two types of cultural institutions – those in the center and those on the periphery. Toyota is at the center of worldwide car culture. When they talk, people pay attention. When they produce, people buy. Tesla, on the other hand, is on the periphery. What – you’re unfamiliar with Tesla? Exactly. They make electric cars, but Tesla is a fringe player at this point in car culture. Organizations like Toyota are closer to the center and are more “reality defining” and influential.
In the broader world, institutions closer to the center include media, upper echelon educational institutions, sports, entertainment, and the workplace. Periphery institutions matter too – they simply exert less cultural influence. They would include our neighborhoods, local schools and organizations, and some faith communities.
Whoa. This distinction between center and periphery turns off some believers.
Americans don’t like this distinction, since it sounds very undemocratic. Egalitarian populism, however, is based on a false view of reality. We’d do well to remember these words from C.S. Lewis: “Equality has no place in the world of the mind. Beauty is not democratic; she reveals herself more to the few than to the many, more to the persistent and disciplined seekers than to the careless. Virtue is not democratic; she is achieved by those who pursue her more hotly than most men. Truth is not democratic; she demands special talents and special industry in those to whom she gives her favors. Political democracy is doomed if it tries to extend its demands for equality into these higher spheres. Ethical, intellectual, or aesthetic democracy is death.”
Because of the Great Commandment, all believers are called to love their neighbor through shalom. Shalom is promoting human flourishing. Because of the Cultural Mandate, all believers have dominion. They are to make culture – ideas, images, institutions, and items – that create the individualized and collective habits. But not all believers have the same degree of dominion.
This is what Paul meant when he wrote, “Eagerly desire the greater gifts” (1 Cor. 12:31). This is a collective prayer, not an individual aspiration. Everyone has an important role in the whole even while they recognize that there are others whose role is more visible and crucial to the whole (i.e., apostles, prophets, and teachers).
Not everyone has access to central institutions, but everyone has a sphere of influence and potential access to the institutions that define that sphere of influence at whatever level. To recognize that there are central and peripheral institutions is only to recognize that individual influence is not uniformly the same. It is mediated. Even if we do not have the gifting or ability for such central spheres of influence, it does not mitigate recognizing that the wider society needs such individuals and that believers can work and pray for those who have the talent and access.
These are radical ideas. Shalom is at the root of our faith. Yet many modern faith communities don’t see the Cultural Mandate, shalom, and central institutions as being at the root of their mission. That’s an incorrect understanding of the church. We’ll see that in Part Four of The Clapham Institute Manifesto, “Why Institutions Matter” – published next Monday.