Monday, November 21, 2011

Penn State, the Church, and the New Testament

Listening to the recent Penn State University scandal in the headlines of the news I see a familiar old pattern. Institutions take on a life of their own and will vigorously defend any perceived threats to their continued existence. Most of us understand and believe this. Even though this force of institutionalization may be subtle and subdued, it is very powerful. This certainly applies to the Church – both early and current.
Based on what's appearing in the news concerning Coach Sandusky and the alleged child molestations, head coach Joe Paterno and Penn State University's management merely sent initial reports up the chain of command  (and thus off their plate?). Little else was done, or followed up on, which is against the law. [The law states that the first actions, in cases of suspected child abuse, are to call the police and child protective services] Why would they not do that? Perhaps the coaches and PSU officials thought the scandal would embarrass or tarnish PSU's image and reputation. Bad press might follow. Alumni contributions might flag. Sports recruiting might suffer. On and on. These kinds of potential consequences are very scary to those in power who had allowed their personal identity to blur into the institution of Penn State.
I'm not simply judging Penn State from the vantage point of 20/20 hindsight, but to remind me of the power of institutionalization. To the extent I remain oblivious to the institutions and cultural mores I use to define myself is the extent I remain stuck in my ego-based perceptions and my ego's belief that it's really in control.
I spent a significant amount of time in my book explaining how the early Church, as it began to be institutionalized, focused on the documents/writings that became more and more important to include as the powers-that-be were finalizing the NT contents. What were these documents/writings? Those that supported the growing embryonic church and its focus on appropriate organizational structure, theological doctrine, male dominance, and social mores. I even concluded that the power of institutionalization is an underlying force in the New Testament that needs to be recognized and acknowledged in order to understand its content.
When we look back on the past decade or so, we see the power of institutionalization in the Roman Catholic Church as they attempted to deal with priests that horribly abused their power and influence with young boys and men. The Church's first response? Keep it from the public. Keep it hidden. Keep those contributions coming in. Hope and pray that it will magically go away. In short, protect the institution. Same with Penn State.
It is rather normal that, after a while, your security (job, salary, bonus, retirement), your identity (your house, car, neighborhood, investments, eateries, vacation destinations) and your self-worth become confused with the institution you work with/for. A threat to the institution can become a threat to your self-image (your ego's definition of who you are). Slowly, your concept of self and your institutional position have melded into one. Consequently, your initial response/reaction to a threat is to defend, deny, or minimize – for the sake of the institution. Under these circumstances, the lure of institutional identification dulls our awareness of our Spiritual Nature.
In addition to institutional identification, the same process can be documented for identification with race, with nationalism/patriotism, with economic class. For example, I'm white, I'm middle class, I'm a college graduate, I'm an American, I'm politically independent, etc. All these attributes are often used to define my die-hard concept of self to the detriment of the conscious awareness of my True Self. My Ego really believes it's in control and must do/believe certain things in order to save my soul/spirit that's somewhere inside me. For me, that's a BIG step backward on my spiritual journey.
However, if I am already a loved/accepted spirit simply having a human experience right now, it is easier (but not easy!) to keep my True Self separate from the institution from which I trade effort for pay/image/self-definition or from limiting concepts of nationalism, political persuasion, or perceived economic standing.
I really do try to keep my True Self separate from my varied social attributes. But to try it I must maintain awareness of my True spiritual nature. My acute awareness of my True Self must not be dulled by the lure of all forms of institutionalization.
Thanks for listening and, as always, it's okay to forward this, if you choose.
Don

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