Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Habits of the heart—individual AND institutional

David Naugle


August 6, 2010
by David Naugle

There has been a growing recognition recently among evangelical Christians of the part institutions play in culture and cultural change. One example is political philosopher Jonathan Chaplin, who in an April 2010 article titled “Loving Faithful Institutions” wrote that despite prevalent skepticism regarding institutions, and though “dynamic relational networks” are all the rage, “Christians … need to learn to love institutions again, and they won’t get very far in transforming society unless they do.”

Similarly, James Davison Hunter in his much-discussed volume To Change The World (Oxford 2010) has asserted that while ideas in the hearts and minds of individuals are very important, “without understanding the nature, workings, and power of the institutions in which those ideas are generated and managed, one only understands half of what is going on in a culture.” Thus Hunter states, “It is better to think of culture as a thing … manufactured not by lone individuals but rather by institutions and the elites who lead them.”

Is such an emphasis on institutions biblical? The word “institution” is rarely used in English translations of Scripture. For example, the New American Standard uses the word only once for the Greek expression anthropine ktisei in I Peter 2: 13-14.

Other biblical teachings, along with some sanctified, sociological human wisdom, will undoubtedly influence our understanding of the role of institutions in human life and cultural change. But one question keeps coming to my mind, and it is this: should the focus of Christians be on major and minor league institutions, or on grassroots individuals, as the swing factors in culture and cultural change? I keep coming back to the—“Well, of course, it’s both”—answer.

I would argue against an underestimation of the transforming power of a gospelled mind, heart and life. Consider Freddie the light-bulb changer. His job, faithfully executed, was to change the light bulbs on a campus and in classrooms where I once taught. He did not change culture in some grand way, but he did enable us to make our way across campus safely at night. He enabled us to conduct our classes in clean, well-lit places, rather than in darkness. He made no fuss. His work, as Martin Luther believed, was simply the “mask of God,” a humble person through whom God was secretly meeting genuine human needs in a modest manner. Freddie’s faith and love shaped his vocation and, in a sense, helped shape culture. Grassroots individuals do count in the overall scheme of things.

But what about the major and minor league institutions and the elites who lead them? Undoubtedly, there is an intrinsic, even organic kind of connection between leaders and their charges. Somehow, the traits of leaders become the traits of the groups of people they lead. The apothegm captures it: “As the leader, so the people.” Plato argued for something like this when he wrote that the city (or state) is the human soul writ large. The biblical reality of corporate solidarity is surely somehow at play in these social dynamics. Haven’t the ways and means of recent U.S. presidents influenced recent American society and politics? Don’t the leaders of your institution affect your institution’s general attitudes and culture? Of course, yes, to both questions.

Whether, then, as individuals like Freddie or as leader-led institutions both large and small, the swing factor in culture and cultural change can not be disconnected from the fundamental habits of either the individual or the institution, rooted and grounded in a set of loves, affections and desires. Make no mistake: individuals and institutions are not neutral. Such is each person or institution, as are its loves. And there is a right and wrong order to these loves, a proper ordo amoris.

—David Naugle, professor of philosophy, Dallas Baptist University, and author most recently of Reordered Love, Reordered Lives (Eerdmans, 2008)

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”