“The purpose of the institution…”

Keeping on the theme of wider church gatherings this summer (Central District, Mennonite Church USA, Mennonite World Conference) …

My favorite book to read devotionally these days is The Experience of God: Icons of the Mystery by Raimon Panikkar.  Panikkar was the son of a Spanish Roman Catholic mother and Indian Hindu father, and became one of the world’s leading voices in interreligious dialogue, active up to his death in 2010 at age 91.

I usually read about a page or two a day (it’s dense) and Monday morning came across this lovely paragraph, about the nature of institutions:

We ought to recognize institutionalization as a constantly open process.  Only the conservative fossilization of established experiences ends in becoming an obstacle; of itself, institutionalization is a necessary human process.  We must see this sociological dimension as the crystallization or manifestation of an experience, that the experience is not exhausted or fixed in its structure, and that this structure makes it possible for others to have access to this experience.  The purpose of the institution is to make transparent the experience that established it.  But experience is incarnated in a human being who never stops changing and developing.  For that reason the institution ought to adapt itself in order to remain transparent in a perpetual process of transformation.  (emphasis mine)

To translate to non-religious institutions, it may work better to substitute “mission” for “experience.”  The establishing mission of a hospital is to heal.  The establishing mission of a university is to teach and explore knowledge.  Institutions are at their best when they “make transparent” their mission “in a perpetual process of transformation.”

The church also has a mission, but I find it quite helpful to follow Panikkar’s intuition of the church-as-institution as a manifestation of a founding experience.  For the Israelites it was the experience of exodus, of delivery from slavery, that initiated their peoplehood.  For Christians, it was the experience of the “Jesus event” as it has been called.  One can view the entirety of scripture as a sustained attempt at working out the implications of such experiences, of being caught up in the inexplicable overflowing Divine life.

It is frustrating that institutions so easily become focused on self-preservation rather than “making transparent the experience that established it.”  It is also a beautiful thing when institutions “make it possible for others to have access” to the transformative experience/mission for which it was established.

Some recent and upcoming examples of living gifts of institutions: This Sunday at CMC we will be blessing 150 comforters made in the past year, ready for MCC to distribute where most needed around the world.  This past weekend Central District Conference gave scholarships to six young adults who will be attending Mennonite World Conference in Harrisburg, PA.  In Kansas City delegates of MC USA congregations will be challenged to witness for peace in a nation now engaged in perpetual war.