This article is a revised version of James Brink’s inaugural lecture as Junior Fellow at the Work Research Foundation, delivered in September 2004.
In 1986, an Italian man named Carlo Petrini started a culinary rebellion. Tired of our fast food culture, he decided that the goal of eating was not efficiency but satisfaction. Over the next few years, the Slow Food movement that he began spread to numerous countries as people caught on to the idea that food has meaning, that it is not simply a fuel for the bodily machine. In this light, it is clear that our meals should receive the care, the attention, and above all the time that will make them social, aesthetic, and sensory delights.
Good food takes time. It takes an understanding that food fits within a framework of biological needs, artistic sensibilities and social relationships. Food has meaning. Does this mean efficiency should never be a concern? Of course not—our lives must be a balance of many things, efficiency included.
The Slow Food movement is an example of the kind of civil disobedience in which we should be engaged. This civil disobedience is not towards the governing authorities, but towards a fast and easy society that demands we do everything as efficiently as possible. By going through the right training, it says, by buying the most up-to-date equipment, we too can be superworkers, superparents, or even superrelaxers. Many Christians, of course, have seen the idols that our society is building in the realms of sports, politics, and entertainment and so they begin to create training programs and to sell books that will turn Christians into super world-changers. We want cultural change to happen as quickly and neatly as your local Starbucks barista draws a shot of espresso.
My argument is that, in order to accomplish a reformation, in order to change the world, we need to build institutions. A thorough-going reformation takes time. Perhaps it takes a long time. It took a generation to build Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario (my alma mater) to the point it is at now. It took a generation before the Work Research Foundation acquired the staff, resources, and networks to do the quality work it is doing now. Even building one “genius” takes a concerted ten year effort, as research cited in the most recent issue of the Walrus suggests. A reformation will not be accomplished by sending out a wave of independent and unconnected worldview commandos into the world to take back the ground we’ve lost in the so-called culture war. Let’s admit it: not too many of our culture-war volleys have been very effective.
The June 2004 issue of Comment contained a review by Eric Jacobsen of the work of James Howard Kunstler. Jacobsen and Kunstler are both critics of the way our communities have been shaped by an excess of individualism and commercial convenience. Jacobsen writes:
In our pursuit of mass consumption and commodious leisure among an increasingly prosperous and mobile culture, we haveforgotten the importance of the public realm to our democratic aspirations, and we have forgotten the essential role that neighborhood plays in the shaping of human community.
The automobile takes a lot of flak from Jacobsen because of the way it has isolated us from those immediately next to us, and reshaped our structures to cater to individual mobility.
So is Jacobsen saying that it’s bad to consume? Or to take our leisure? Or is he saying we should scrap our automobiles? No, he is not saying any of those things. What Jacobsen is lamenting is the way those things have unfolded to reflect an individualized view of a society that has, as he says, “forgotten the connections that used to [and should] link us” to other people and our history.
As a result, our developments lack respect for the work of past generations, or concern for future generations. We live in the moment, and put up so-called “fulfillment centers” that fulfill our desires rather than our purposes.
At the Work Research Foundation, we believe that only God is sovereign, and that to make any one institution the be-all and end-all of economics, politics, or culture as a whole is to make an idol of that institution. As a result, we stand for civil society and a plurality of associations and social institutions. We argue that the nature of those institutions needs to be carefully protected, mostly by a participatory and vigilant membership. We can build a strong society and a vibrant democracy only if people believe that their words and deeds mean something.
One of the consequences of this idea is a deep-rooted opposition to sphere creep, or the subtle invasion of one sphere of society by another. Thus, while we keenly support a market economy, we equally keenly oppose the expansion of market values to areas of life where those values are inappropriate. And while we believe that government has a positive task in its own sphere of responsibility, we oppose the expansion of government into areas where it has no proper authority.
Civil society, that kaleidoscope of human associations that stands between the individual and the state, is breaking down in North America. And as this intermediate culture breaks down, we find we are losing a shared sense of purpose arising out of shared experience, and a shared sense of justice that shines with clarity only as we rub shoulders with injustice. In effect, our common humanity is fracturing into a spectrum of interests, colorful in and of themselves, but with very few points of convergence.
Civil society is a big place. There are a multitude of institutions that belong neither to the government nor to the individual. These associations, many of which are in disrepair, fill vital social functions. What troubles many people is that the state has failed to allow enough space for these institutions to flourish, while we as individuals have failed to fulfill our primary duty to these institutions. Our duty is to ask the question, “What kind of community do we want to build?”
A good cultural offensive must be strategic: it must be planned, backed with adequate resources, and carried out as a concerted effort. The fact that we are on a pilgrimage to the new earth does not mean that we walk the road alone. We often consider ourselves hermits, just trying to make Christ relevant in the wilderness of our own lives. The picture we should have in mind is that of the opening scene in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, where pilgrims seem to fill the roads, from every shire gathering to Canterbury in an England touched by spring. They cluster in groups formed either by happenstance, common roots, or shared interests—but all have Canterbury as their ultimate goal.
In the same way, our generation needs to forsake the individualism that has characterized modernity and build institutions that will refresh public life and resist the sphere creep of economics and politics. As you pursue your various callings, you will become the best judge of what institutional structures will best meet the needs of society.
Here’s what I suggest you do: Be courageous enough to have a passion. And approach it in very intentional ways. Find a way to be mentored in your passion. Dream with friends and family.
Volunteer yourself—nothing will help you resist the lie that the only good work is paid work like doing something that you love for free. Volunteer experiences also build institutional attachments, help you focus on practical needs in society, and teach you what works and what doesn’t when it comes to addressing those needs.
If you dare, start your own institution that addresses a specific need. This includes joining a group of fellow-founders. The key point is to experience the rush that comes from cultivating an organization from seed to sapling. Once you volunteer or start an organization, connect with others who, in some way, share your goals.
Finally, balance your life. If institution-building takes generations, you’re in it for the long haul. You will run dry if you never take the time for a pint with your friends. Some say a lack of balance in life is what drives the children of institution-builders to disengage themselves from the project. Don’t let that happen to you.
In sum, I urge you to take your civic responsibility seriously. As we’ve seen, that can take many shapes. Building a civil society does not mean you need to become a public servant. It does mean you need to think about how your calling—that is to say, the responsibilities you are called to fulfill right now—can serve the public. It means you need to commit to strengthening the institutions of society. Most of us are already part of more than one: families, churches, businesses, labour groups, schools, volunteer organizations. How will you fulfill your duties of care and your responsibility to seek justice within and around your own spheres of influence?