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More like a chair than a dog
What is an institution?
Though the features of institutional frailty and dissatisfaction are well rehearsed, less discussed is what I might call the “metaphysics” of an institution: what they are, or were, before they failed. Insofar as what is poorly understood will be poorly treated- the symptom of a disease better addressed as it is more fully known- I will turn to briefly fill this gap with a theological consideration of what institutions are.
In theological terms, all life that is made by God belongs to the realm of creatures. Creatures are whatever life that exists that is not God.
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Though humans often get the chief interest of “that which God made”, the sentient biological world falls within the domain of creaturely life. Flora and fauna as well as the animal world belong within the “creaturely” realm, though they are not themselves “creatures”. That creatures possess life intrinsic to them is what makes them creatures. To say that the life of creatures is intrinsic means that without life they are not what they are. It does not mean that their life is necessary or self-generated. Rather the second feature of creaturely life is that life is granted to a creature by God, through the processes of reproduction that Christian theology would claim originate in God’s design.
It would seem that plants are not creatures. This is because we often attribute to creatureliness designations of sentience and responsiveness as well as “soulishness” (perhaps more to this later). For our purposes, at least, plants are creatures because life is theirs, naturally but not necessarily. Without life plants are not what they are, but without a given-ness of life in creation, plants could not exist. (There is some very interesting literature on a form of “sentience” within plants, but this sort of argument is not required for our definition of creatures).
Are any other realities “creatures”?
Thank you for asking. Yes, there are at least two realities that might fall under creaturely life- one that certainly exists and one that may exist.
The first is angels. Angels are created beings that exist as full spiritual creatures. We know less than we might like about angelic beings, but they do function within the Biblical text as harbingers and reminders of God’s presence, provision, and judgment. For the purposes of anthropology, angels remind us that the spiritual life is granted to creatures and that a form of life with God is proper to creatures.
The second is aliens. Aliens are seldom considered by theologians, but I think they should be! The chief questions with aliens are of course hypothetical ones, but they set in relief a few proper claims about creaturely life. The first is what God made when God made whatever God made. The second is what God’s intent for restoring the cosmos was and is.
First, God’s creation extends to the cosmos and all of the life that inhabits it, both what we know and what we don’t. Put another way, the designation of “creature” intends to say more about God than it does about us. This means that humans in discovering things do not name them “creatures”, God in making them did. So God may have indeed created life, even extra-terrestrial life, that we do not know of or have not discovered yet. Such life would indeed be “creaturely life”. Second, insofar as the cosmos is included in some way under God’s plans for restoration, aliens would in some way be included in God’s plan for “making all things new”.
Were you to find an alien, should you baptize it? I am actually quite serious about this question. The answer, for the time being, is no. This question revolves around what aliens are and whether God’s covenant with Abraham extends to them. Are they more like infants or like dogs? If they navigated that space craft to earth using their own powers of engineering, there’s a good chance aliens might be capable of participating in fellowship with God in a way akin to human creatures. Keep in mind that baptism, however, is not based on capacity but on God’s covenant with Abraham and coming generations. So, aliens may for this reason not be candidates for baptism, if they are not included under this covenantal form. Perhaps another form of blessing, like what Anglicans offer to animals, might suffice. I suppose if you find an alien, the best thing you should do is call me immediately, before you baptize it, at which point I will form a committee to investigate the matter.
Now to the issue addressed above, institutions.
Perhaps the most basic definition one could grant an institution is a “collective of people with a shared goal”. Even this may be a bit grand, if families could be called institutions, insofar as a “shared goal” is not a necessary component of a family life (though it benefits a family greatly!). Certainly institutions share a goal or vision, at least functionally even if the vision is poorly defined.
Institutions, unlike creatures, originate with a human idea. In fact the origin story of an institution often becomes part of its lore- witness the often-embellished accounts of large tech companies that began in garages. With such an origin story, their non-creaturely status is confirmed. Some person, the founder, started this reality- it was not divinely made.
Creaturely identity, however, in Christian theology grants the creature a set of distinctives over against non-creatures. Take for our example the two realities I named above in the title- a dog and a chair.
Dogs are creatures insofar as their species life was initiated by God. Insofar as dogs are creatures, their life is not-self generated. Neither is it initiated by a human person. Even the act of “breeding” a dog relies on biological realities that are proper to the dog and not within human control.
The dog also has an orientation. To be a dog is to participate in “dog-ness”. Some dogs may be deemed more fluent at this than others, but all dogs are identifiably thus insofar as they share a set of characteristics- quadrupeds all, these mammals are vertebrates that eat a non-vegetarian diet (unless domesticated) and have limited, though in some cases proficient, non-verbal communication.
Insofar as dogs are creatures, they exist within the class of realities that will be redeemed. They do not sin, but their lives are affected by the fallenness of creation and will be caught up in the renewal that comes when all creation is restored. To this end, they may share in the life eternal, though their share in it will be a full restoration of dog-ness and not a total renovation of it- dogs will not become humans in the life to come (I know you were wondering). Life is proper to them; without life, they cease to be dogs.
(Though this may be an issue for another post, sin is a reality that affects the entirety of the biological world but can only be perpetrated by humans. Dogs can be bad dogs but they are not sinful or evil dogs.)
Now to chairs. Chairs are not creatures. Chairs are fashioned from matter at the intent of a human creature. They exist to further and facilitate creaturely life. But chairs have no life in them, not even by analogy.
We may not speak about chairs being redeemed. This is so laughable as to be obvious. They may be repaired or restored, but categories of agency, sin, and redemption are not proper to them.
Now to institutions. With the preponderance of hand wringing regarding institutional frailty, many have failed to query what kind of life an institution has. Some have even come quite close to attributing agency to institutions.
Institutions are, however, not a species participating in a class of created life in the ways previously defined. They are not creatures. They are vehicles into which creatures order their actions. Insofar as they do not have life proper to them, they cannot sin, nor can they be redeemed.
This becomes confusing for at least two reasons. First, institutions unlike chairs do seem to possess a form of “life” that extends beyond them. The life of an institution is larger and its impact greater than the individual who formed it. This “amplifying effect” is easily confused for life itself. But institutions are not creatures, nor are they alive. All of this language is used analogically to speak of the way institutions serve as hosts for life. Without creatures inhabiting institutions, however, they would die. They are a shell that provides, for a time, a means to amplify the creative work of creatures. But institutions do not live.
For this reason, moral agency is not attributable to institutions. Just as a chair cannot “do harm”, so an institution cannot “sin”. It can fail, most certainly, and it can harm others insofar as its failure impinges on creaturely flourishing. But attributing things like sin to an institution suggests that it has the potential for a form of life with God that it does not have.
None of this should serve to further reinforce the prejudice of the “individual” over the “collective" that is common in much Western thought. Indeed, baptism itself serves to baptize individuals into a form of life with God, the church, that makes an individual no longer a solitary one. Institutions can be a mode of creaturely flourishing and are in this way a critical part of the created order.
A final question, which is why do institutions seem to have an agency to do harm that exceeds their status as “not-creatures”? The best answer for this is because they, like the pigs at Gerasene, can be possessed. But I’ll leave you with that thought for another day.
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