In his Op-Ed piece, "What Life Asks of Us," David Brooks defends the importance of institutions as bestowers of meaning in life. He critiques the hubris of unchecked individualism that believes that our lives only have meaning if we ourselves create that meaning. Inspired by Hugh Helco's book On Thinking Institutionally, Brooks champions the worth of institutions:
As we go through life, we travel through institutions — first family and school, then the institutions of a profession or a craft. Each of these institutions comes with certain rules and obligations that tell us how to do what we’re supposed to do....In the process of absorbing the rules of the institutions we inhabit, we become who we are. New generations don’t invent institutional practices. These practices are passed down and evolve. So the institutionalist has a deep reverence for those who came before and built up the rules that he has temporarily taken delivery of. “In taking delivery,” Heclo writes, “institutionalists see themselves as debtors who owe something, not creditors to whom something is owed.”
This is not to say that institutions should be immune to critique or rebellion, nor does it mean that individualism, curiosity, and self-determination are inherently bad. Brooks does, however, want to criticize the hubris and greed that result from unchecked individualism. The luxury of shaking our foundations and questioning our institutions exists precisely because those foundations and institutions exist in the first place. Or, as one commenter on the Brooks piece puts it, "One can't 'think outside the box' in any meaningful way without the 'box.'"

I think that Brooks is urging us to something deeper, however, beyond simply valuing the institution as the necessary precursor to the rebellion of individualism. Brooks is asking us to consider the value of institutions themselves - he is asking us to reinvigorate the value of deference. I have explored this subject before: Teaching Faith Not Baggage and The Cost of Reinventing Worship, however this is a topic is not limited to questions of faith and the church. The fundamental question here is basic: How do we reconcile our individual values and desires with the values and desires that formed us?

I suspect that respect and humility are the key to this balancing act. Wayne Miller, bishop of the metro-Chicago synod of the ELCA, points to this in his post, "Significance," which recounts his initial thoughts upon visiting the Holy Land:
"So what is it," I wondered, "that has made this land so significant?"

Then I knew that what makes this land holy has nothing whatsoever to do with the land itself. What makes the Holy Land holy is the long and rich HISTORY of what God has done here, what God is doing here, and what God hopes to do here as an "ensign to the nations" of who God is, and what God is up to in this world.

Very few of us, in the United States have any frame of reference to connect us to this sense of history. We are a culture more in love with making history than living within it. In fact we mostly don't think there is any history of any
significance at all unless we ourselves have made it. I wonder, how many times in the last 3 months I have heard newscasters in the USA speak of current events in our nation as having "historic significance." How could we even know what historic significance is?

Being here demands a bit more humility, I think. In fact it is hard to walk these old stone streets filled with small outdoor markets, not unlike the ones frequented by the prophets of Israel as they railed against the merchants who put their thumbs on the scales to cheat the poor out of a few ounces of sesame seed... not unlike the ones Jesus passed by in the short days between Palm Sunday and Good Friday... it is hard to be in a place like this without feeling incredibly small, and without feeling the ordinary cares of my personal life, my work, my neighborhood, reduced to the
minuscule proportions of having no significance at all.
Taking a cue from this reflection, the way to strike a balance between our individual values and institutional values is to have enough self-awareness to know when to swell and when to diminish. The balance is a matter of deference, of realizing when our own individual interests should take center stage and when they need to fade into the background. Or, to get a bit hokey and clever here, I think about the phrase "Standing on the shoulder of giants." We want to create meaning, to impact history, to have the luxury of defining ourselves, to indulge in the trendy work of rejecting institutions and foundations. We want to reach higher and farther, but if in doing so we completely rid ourselves of the giants, then we find ourselves even closer to the ground than we had begun.

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