Sustaining Institutions over Time & Collective Identity

Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor recently wrote on “Political Identity and the Problem of Democratic Exclusion” for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Opinion page. He argues for the need for greater cohesion and unity among “the people” than is commonly found in our age:

“A modern democratic state demands a ‘people’ with a strong collective identity. Democracy obliges us to show much more solidarity and much more commitment to one another in our joint political project than was demanded by the hierarchical and authoritarian societies of yesteryears.”

When he says that “a modern democratic state demands,” he doesn’t have politically expressed demands in view. We’re modern, we’re individualists: we resist the power of the state to the degree that it comes between us and what we want. We value standing against the status quo and against all powers that would mold us, change us, or impinge on our personal freedom. So no, he is not claiming that the people are clamoring for this solidarity and commitment. As far as our expressed opinions go, we want exactly the opposite: more freedom.

The force of demand in this case is one of logical entailment. If we want to sustain a state that will maintain its integrity and accomplish what we want from a state, such a state will logically require this kind of a people.

Taylor is considering the role of the state; I want to think of this in terms of the church. Both  the traditional state and the traditional church were hierarchical and authoritarian. “Ordinary” people didn’t have much say in matters. There’s was not to reason why, but to simply get along the best they could given the constraints of the current authorities imposed on them. The advent of and increase in democracy means that all people, at least potentially, have a say in governance and institutional direction. In the past, if ordinary members of the body had views, those views were largely irrelevant. Now they matter.

I believe this is true not only for the state in which we live (the United States of America), but also for the United Methodist Church. Though we still complain from time to time about our hierarchies and exercises of episcopal power, the institution has become less hierarchical over time. The power of bishops has eroded. First the clergy, then the laity, came to own the church, to view it as an institution about which they had a say. Maintaining unity in the face of modern individualism and its leveling tendencies is proving very difficult. In Taylor’s analysis, state unity is harder so come by as collective identity is lost. Church unity, under the same cultural conditions, is equally hard to come by.

One way to handle this decline in collective identity has been the turn to normative doctrinal pluralism. This position, enacted in the 1972 Doctrinal Statement, shaped our collective identity around a loosely articulated method of talking about doctrine. We shared some “signposts,” some historical characters and documents to which we could point as being relevant once upon a time. We had the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” that suggested four points of departure one might take in producing one’s theology. Though the church turned from normative doctrinal pluralism with the 1988 Doctrinal Statement, it has remained the de facto position for many in the denomination.

Our age of highly (and variously!) educated clergy and lay leaders demands an ethos of encouraging all to “think for themselves.” Some still imagine limits on this thinking. It might be the 4th century creeds, the Reformation positions of the 16th century, or the Wesleyan documents of the 18th century that provide the limits on our “thinking for ourselves.” As good modern Americans, however, we chafe against these or any limits. We are educated and intelligent. We read the Bible for ourselves. We pray and develop ourselves spiritually. We are unwilling to listen pronouncements of the bishops (unless they agree with us), and the bishops know this. They avoid pronouncements and appoint (at some point) study commissions.

Collective identity, “Unity” as we enshrine in our institutional name, is hard to come by in our age. We have a love-hate relationship with it. We want it when it results in the enactment of The Right Thing; we don’t want it if it means submission to something we think The Wrong Thing. Yes, there’s that ugly word we thought we’d banished from American discourse – submission. I know the United Methodist Church doesn’t currently have it. I don’t know that we even want it.

What do you think?

This entry was posted in Charles Taylor, Culture, Current events, Doctrine, Ecclesiology, Politics, United Methodism and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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