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Challenging Institutions Through Dialogue: A Model for the Future

Responding to: What Can Past Reformations Teach Us about the Future?

By: Elisabeth Rain Kincaid

March 26, 2018

The explorations occasioned by the celebrations of the five-hundredth anniversary of the various European reformations have highlighted points of common experience between contemporary challenges and those which faced the reformers. One point of commonality has been the experience of confronting secularized institutional forces which outstripped the control of the church or even the nation. These developing institutions include the rise of the nation state, the growth of corporations operating across nations, and the rise of populist movements which seem beyond the control of those whose ideas sparked their rise. Charles V, despite being emperor of Spain, was unable to enforce laws intended to limit the exploitation of American Indians because of the economic power held by slave owners across the Atlantic. The German reformers became divided in how to respond to the Peasants’ Revolt, a violent populist motion. The Roman Catholic Church in England was not able to resist the Tudor bureaucracy’s seizure of the monasteries.

Considering the secularized institutions of our own day, whether political, commercial, or populist, it often seems as if they are equally irresistible. Even those who seem to be in control of the institution or are initiating their growth are often unprepared to control the powers which they have unleashed. For example, the concerns and questionings about the power of technology (specifically social media) arising out of Silicon Valley in response to the revelations about the use of social media to influence elections often seem as if those supposedly in control of the technology have no concept of how to control the power of what they have created. In the 2009 financial crisis, banks supposedly “too big to fail” crashed under the weight of their own complexity, something even those running them had no idea how to rein in or control.

Most of the voices rising out of the reformations often seem as if they were also borne upon the tide, unsure how to challenge these new powerful institutions. However, one thing that the reformations may offer to our contemporary world, confronted with these same challenges, is the power of paradigmatic example of those who did seek to challenge the unlimited power of these institutions. They were often unsuccessful in their challenges. However, their courage, their openness to full intellectual engagement in challenging these institutions, and sometimes even their charity, can provide examples for those considering how to respond to the challenges of these impersonal and apparently uncontrollable institutions today. Their examples may be particularly relevant to those working within universities, since many of these voices were formed within universities themselves, and lived lives committed to the pursuit of intellectual inquiry. 

First, challenges to these impersonal institutions requires a wholehearted commitment to the pursuit of justice, both for those near and far-away. Charles V’s “New Laws” challenged the power of the wealthy slave-holders in South America. They were inspired by the writings of the Dominican theologian de las Casas, and other theologians in the school of Salamanca, writing and advocating in Spain, thousands of miles across the ocean. These theologians appropriated older arguments concerning the dignity and freedom of the human to confront the challenges of the present day, even in the face of opposition from those with great economic power.    

Secondly, those working in universities, and more broadly engaged in the life of the mind, must continue to talk to each other, even across geographical, ideological, and religious boundaries. Although this individual communication may not be enough to overcome the power of institutions, it can provide pause and perspective even for those working within the institutions being challenged. James I did not release his Catholic subjects from the oath of obedience which he demanded from them, including a rejection of papal authority. However, the inter-European public dialogue with which he engaged with Robert Bellarmine and Francisco Suárez forced him to expose his ideas and claims to a wider audience. Instead of simply exercising the unquestioned power of the institutionalized nation, he was forced to justify his claims and to take responsibility for his claims and use of power. In our own world of “fake news,” sincere engagement among scholars, even those who disagree, can serve an important role in restraining the unquestioned powers of institutions.

Finally, those working in universities can model charity: both in listening and debating and in genuine care and concern for others. Commitment to the life of the mind and to challenging institutions does not mean the abandonment of care for the community and the individual. The Jesuit Peter Faber provides an example of this. In the midst of the heat of the German reformation, after his attendance at the Diet of Worms, where the political necessities of the German princes dealt a decisive blow to the Catholic cause, he was convinced to pray not only for the pope, but also for Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon, and even the sultan of Constantinople. Regardless of faith, those challenging the powers of these apparently limitless institutions could only benefit from adopting this same charitable regard.

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Challenging Institutions Through Dialogue: A Model for the Future