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Senior Correspondent

There are plenty of reasons why more and more of us are not only suspicious of our social institutions, but also downright hostile. Schools, churches, courts, governments, banks have all let us down. It often seems a better path to go it alone without having to carry the burden of seemingly useless institutional baggage. 

Some weeks ago, in a series on what is happening in the religious world, I discussed what I think lies under the statement by the increasing masses who claim to be “spiritual but not religious.”

I received a swarm of responses attempting to define what that appellation meant. They all boiled down to an affirmation that one can live an inner life of some profound richness and personal stability without getting anywhere near a church. While I find resonance with that notion, it is not the whole story. 

I can bring into my house a bundle of lovely blooms cut from the roots that nourished them into being. But in a few days they will wilt, and they will never reproduce.

Let me borrow from a sermon preached in the small costal village of Blue Hill, Maine, by the pastor of the Congregational church, Rob McCall.

"When I look at this 170-year-old building … I ask, 'Why did that long-ago generation build so carefully and laboriously with these huge beams and posts, carefully carved plates and pegs, and beautiful panels and moldings?' … The answer is, they built it for others they would never know."

McCall cites another event that took place in the same year the church was built, 1844. A so-called prophet named William Miller took a group to the top of a mountain to meditate while they awaited the imminent end of the world.

"They built no churches or food pantries or social agencies. They founded no schools or universities. They denied the future. They were just fixated on taking care of themselves in a desperately perilous society. When the world did not end they came back down, disappointed and disillusioned."

Today’s spiritual but not religious are not modern Millerites, but their quest leaves no heritage, no structures — good or despised. It is all perfectly interior. It is the self, not the society, which is the focus. As comfortable as the journey seems, that sort of ship leaves no wake. Whatever of value it might create, it provides no beams and posts, no carefully carved plates and pegs, no beautiful panels and moldings.

Perhaps a better example can be found in those who deeply enrich their inner lives, and then turn outward to deal with the problems that can only be identified, let alone addressed, by our fragile institutions.

There may be more justice outside the courts, more education outside the schools, more righteousness outside the church, more democracy outside the government.

But sometimes you just need to hold your nose and wade into the morass institutions create. Without them we may only have self-defined anarchy and the collapse of social order.

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