The closing of St. Paul's College (cf. part 1 of this post) prompted some musings about the relatively short life span of almost all human organizations.
I cannot think of an organization that has survived longer than the Roman Catholic Church. Other long-surviving institutions (more than a few hundred years) include a handful of monarchies and aristocracies, a few universities, and perhaps a small number of others. No U.S. organization makes the cut for a shortlist of the longest-lived institutions and organizations. As a nation of immigrants who mostly pushed aside (or did worse) to Native Americans, our institutions and organizations are understandably newer than those found in many parts of Europe and Asia.
The second tier of long-lived institutions and organizations, say those that have survived more than a hundred years, is more diverse, including some nation states, religious groups, aristocratic/wealthy families, fraternal organizations, schools, and even businesses.
My involvement with long-lived institutions is probably unusual for an American. The college and seminary I attended are now both over two hundred years old. My grammar school and two of the parishes I served are one hundred and fifty years old or older. The two institutions in which I spend most of my working life – the Episcopal Church and the U.S. Navy – are both over two hundred years old.
Humans are frequently reluctant to embrace change. We Episcopalians like to tout our dependence upon tradition as an advantageous selling point.
Life has an inherent continuity. The new invariably emerges from the old. This is true physiologically as well as in terms of institutions and organizations. Human bodies consist of reused atoms. The atoms may have belonged to humans who lived before the current user of the atom, to another life form (animal, plant, or microbe), to an inanimate object (e.g., a rock), or, most likely, to several of the above multiple times. This reusing of atoms, both in larger assemblies (i.e., molecules) and in their smaller parts (e.g., an electron), is just one reason why any concept of resurrection in which God supposedly restores a human to his or her physical body is nonsensical (cf. Ethical Musings Resurrection).
The new that emerges from the old is many times unexpected. I'm confident, without knowing for certain, that the founder of St. Paul's College anticipated that the school would survive two or more centuries. Yet the school has shut its doors and the property, the last I knew, was for sale. Whether a purchaser occupies the campus or eventually razes it to make room for new construction or to prepare the land for agricultural use, new life will appear.
Some of St. Paul's faculty and staff will find employment in another field. Some will continue their commitment to education in a paid or volunteer capacity at another institution. Again, new life will emerge from the old.
St. Paul's graduates also represent a form of new life from the old, transformed by their education and experience, into someone different from the student who initially matriculated. Like stones thrown into a pond, the effects of that change ripple outwards from St. Paul's, the new emerging from the old.
The trend of people away from religious toward spiritual but not religious, or even to atheism, which North American and European opinion surveys consistently report, is not disturbing. Old forms of religion – like all other human institutions – will wither and die. If a greater power exists – and I believe one does, whom we conveniently call God – then the perishing of religion with its doctrines, rituals, and other elements will give rise to new formulations and expressions. Self-descriptions of being spiritual but not religious signal that the dying is underway and the birth pangs just beginning, but it is too soon to discern what will emerge.
Alternatively, the Roman Catholic Church has the truth (what it calls the deposit of faith). This explains why the Roman Catholic Church has outlasted all other human institutions and organizations. This does not explain why the number of Roman Catholics is declining in Europe and holding its own in the United States only because of immigrants.
Clinging insistently to old forms, ideas, and organizations is a losing game. The more organized matter and energy becomes, the greater potential for entropy. The same logically seems to hold true for relationships and ideas. The two essential building blocks, it seems to me, are the possibility of cultivating a relationship with God and learning to love others (this broadly construed to include the entire cosmos) as one's self.