Wednesday, May 23, 2007

A little more on "Submission"

These reflections are going to be piecemeal; I'm not able to get a systematic handle on how to treat the issue I raised earlier -- that of "submission." Here, I comment on some of the "back text" to the discussion.

I think modern people -- including Christians -- have trouble with any notion of submission, because the very idea of subordinating one's own will or thinking or action to that of an authority outside oneself is anathema to the modern mind. Now, I'm no philosopher; certainly you know that if you've read even one of my previous posts. And I'm not a theoretical theologian -- or even much of a theologian according to some of my friends. But this idea makes sense to me.

By "modern people" I mean those people who live in the "West" (I don't know how much influence modernity has in the so-called "East") who have been influenced by the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment, broadly construed, was an intellectual movement (originating about the 18th Century, I think), influenced by and influencing the development of scientific methods, that sought to subject all aspects of life to scrutiny -- and to scrutiny carried on in a particular way. It was a project to subject all truth claims to some kind of so-called objective or scientific verification. (You see the connection to science.) It was, at root, a negative reaction to all forms of tyranny -- whether over minds or bodies -- and so argued, in its fundamentals, that at base, the only judge of truth is observation.

In a crude form (because I am not a philosopher, remember), the Enlightenment said this: "I will not rely on anything that cannot be demonstrated. Unless I can confirm something with my own eyes and according to the rational terms of my own mind, I will not buy it. Since external authority is the antithesis of this approach to knowledge, I reject that external authority insofar as it denies me the ultimate authority to make my own decisions."

Now, much good came from the Enlightenment break-through: Science was able to assert the kind of independence that it needed to advance knowledge. (Yeah, I know: That thesis begs all kinds of questions about the ethics of scientific research and its results.) And without the Enlightenment, it is unlikely that we Lutherans would have come into being, for Luther benefited from the advances in humanities research and in academic freedom that were facilitated by the new attitude. The "great republics," including the US, have sprung from Enlightenment-enlightened political thinkers and activists.

But foundationally the Enlightenment is built on a self-contradiction. If we reify the Enlightenment, we have her saying to people: "Bow to no principle that arises from an authority outside yourself." But of course, that statement is itself a command coming from an authority outside the auditor. (I owe that insight to Stanley Hauerwas, who is frequently able to crystallize an idea with lucidity and a great Texan accent.) So the Enlightenment is an ideological position, built on an assertion of external authority, as strong as the Pope's or whoever's. (Thomas Kuhn makes that point in spades with respect to science in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions -- on of the most significant books for shaping how I think.)

Furthermore, the Enlightenment places the individual at the center of his or her own universe. In essence, the Enlightenment makes everyone his or her own god. If I am the master of all I consider, the judge of relevance and truth, then I am god, and no amount of revelation will change that. I must "think for myself"; "I'll be the judge of that."

We who read these words have all benefited from the Enlightenment, and we have all been warped by it. We are inclined to distrust external authority; we are inclined to resist pressure or influence (especially when we feel that it is being applied); we want to be self-determinative; we glory in activism and decry passivity; we hope to and appreciate "thinking for ourselves." I admit that I appreciate it, if somewhat grudgingly, when my fourteen-year-old daughter asserts herself to challenge my statement of fact or "questions authority" or decides to think for herself and not go along with the crowd. Thus for the benefits of the Enlightenment. If, as I contend, it has been a mixed blessing, it has contributed to the evolution of the human person.

There are, however, problems that inexorably arise -- especially in the context of Christian faith: To Enlightenment minds and hearts, talk of "submission" sounds like reversion to the Dark Ages of credulity, fideism, meekness, and Rover-like rolling over. We attach to the word overtones of self-denial (which properly understood, it is), dehumanization, powerlessness. (It need be neither of those, of course, as I intend to argue.)

I think such an attitude is especially evident in an essay in the Trelstad collection I mentioned earlier by Rosemary Carbine, "Contextualizing the Cross for the Sake of Subjectivity." She analyzes the cross from the standpoint of women's "resistance" to suffering. Carbine argues that such resistance, in various forms, is a requisite of women's becoming fully human. Liberation is living free from the imposition by others of suffering (which she doesn't really define, as far as I can see). Agency -- i.e., being active and not being passive or accepting -- is key to her understanding of what it means to be human.

And that seems to be common thinking in our time. We value taking independent stands with respect to church teachings and practices. We want to vindicate our "rights" in such things as sexual ethics, same-sex marriage and ordination, fetal research, and abortion -- to name only a few. We must be "true to ourselves" -- as though that identity is something we develop on our own or with others whom we select.

But absent from such thinking is an appreciation of the "place" of community -- because the individual is the subject of Enlightenment thinking -- and of legitimate authority -- because no external authority is legitimate if it frustrates my self-actualization. Absent, in other words, is knowledge of the Church.

The Church depends on a doctrine of revelation, on an understanding of truth that comes from outside ourselves: We do not discover the Gospel on our own, we do not understand Jesus outside the Church, we cannot interpret the Scriptures outside the community of faith. The Church is the repository of the Church's revelation, and to be Christian involves bending one's will and mind to that revelation. Now, it's not as severe as it sounds -- especially in these days when the Church and her "teachers" have had to learn how to deal with the Enlightenment context. But it is a harsh reality that Jesus is not whoever we want him to be. And the Good News has factual and specific content; it is not just any word that makes us feel better or less anxious or stronger. And properly to hear that word and be able to speak it to others, we must "submit" to that revelation.

As Christians, we are called to "obey" God, to submit to his ways and will. We are not encouraged to make our own way, to make our own decisions on the basis of our own principles, to live how we want. The second chapter of Genesis makes that abundantly clear, it seems to me. And the Sermon on the Mount speaks the same insight into the Christian context. And therein lies the key to "submission."

At its root, submission is nothing more than to respond to the Gospel. Philip Watson once characterized Luther's theology as "Let God be God." And to do so requires submission. To hear the Gospel, we must submit to its harsh word -- viz., that our attempts to live, to love, to worship are inadequate, wrong, and sinful. Only by letting God be God will we know the salvation that has been made for us. It is free for the taking, but it is expensive to us, because it costs us our Enlightenment-bolstered self-assertion -- as Bonhoeffer so brilliantly described in Discipleship.

But so to hear the Gospel is already to hear a counter-cultural message. For the culture is Enlightenment-formed, and it encourages the exact opposition of self-sacrifice. In the culture of the Enlightenment, self-assertion trumps -sacrifice, autodidacticism is superior to being taught, acting is more human than listening, asserting makes more sense than discerning.

And that's why it's so hard to read or hear talk about "submission." It seems somehow unnatural; it seems to encourage weakness (although read the writings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers and see just how much weakness was involved!). It sounds like what the tyrants always want: sheep who follow meekly lowing. Oh, we describe it in various ways. But fundamental to all of our objections is the pattern of thinking planted in our souls by the Enlightenment.

So having laid the blame where I want it to lie, I intend to say some things about what submission is NOT. Then, I hope to draw you out in some conversation about what differences this discussion will have for our lives of faith.


Steve M said...


The ironic part of modernist christianity is that it uses a secular methodology to "prove" something that, by definition, can't be proven. (I guess that's why it's called the mysteries of faith).

But modernism, while certainly present, isn't the problem. Post-modernism (which I hope you will tackle) is the philosophy that the Church will have to address.

So, on one hand we have modernist christians who try to "prove" faith using empirical means, and on the other hand, post-moderns who argue that there is no universal truth to anything; it's all experiential. What a mess.

Anonymous said...

"Post-modernism (which I hope you will tackle) is the philosophy that the Church will have to address."

I beg to respectfully disagree. The Church does not need to address post-modernism or even modernism. The Church just needs to be the Church, and let the moderns and the post-moderns find themselves in it. Otherwise the Church finds itself in submission to an ever- changing culture, and in submission to everything which the world calls "popular" or "appealing" at the moment - building itself upon the sand, no?


Steve M said...

I'm of two minds on this issue. I absolutely agree that the church shouldn't engage in a type of cultural chase. With the speed at which society changes these days it would be, at best, a lost cause. (I'm afraid to think what the 'at worst' scenario would be).

However, the church can't wall itself from the culture to which it is called to minister. Post-modernism has inculcated itself into society (both secular and religious) such that we can't just ignore it. Time and again, while reading "Cross Examinations" I noticed a decided post-modernist hermeneutic at odds with the concept of "submission" that you and Dwight speak of.

So, to the extent that a post-modern hermeneutic moves away from this concept of submission (which, btw, I really like), the church should (gently) correct it. I think the church does itself a disservice if it doesn't.

Anonymous said...

The Church does not wall itself off from the culture - it exists in the world, (but not of the world) for the salvation of all.

"So, to the extent that a post-modern hermeneutic moves away from this concept of submission (which, btw, I really like), the church should (gently) correct it."

I'm dying to know how the church should go about doing this...the horse has been out of the barn for over almost 1000 years.



Anonymous said...

I mean, almost 1000 years, not "over almost". (Check twice, hit enter once...)

Steve M said...

Well, post modern thought is certainly not 1000 years old; more like 40. But I get your drift.

What I'm arguing for is a delicate balance between two poles; with chasms on both sides. One pole we have churches trying to be culturally relevant, but in the process are co-opted by said culture to the point where they cease to be a church at all (I'm sure we can think of examples). The other pole we have churches "just being the church" --a kind of churchly club-- doing what they do because that's the way it's always been done. In the process they stop proclaiming the Good News and become tone deaf to the needs of the society in which they exist (One could look at mainline protestant churches attendance and wonder if this isn't why we are slowly dying).

Of the two, the former is, to my mind, more pernicious than the later; at least for moderate/liberal congregations. We too easily slide into post-modern thought wrt theology/doctrine and by doing so have denuded our teaching to the point that it's isn't perceptibly different than pop psychology or social ideology. It's at this point that we become irrelevant. It is also at this point that we should correct this tendency.

How? Well, Bonhoeffer is start.

Anonymous said...

Post modern thought certainly is not 1000 years old - but the thought process which led to it certainly is.

Both of the poles you describe are pernicious, and I'm not so sure that many of the churches you describe as "the churchly clubs" at one pole have stopped proclaiming the Good News - though some may have. I do think, tho, that many people would rather listen to the culture, however ungodly it is, than to the Church. This leads some to look to the church for self-affirmation, when that's really not what the church is about.


Anonymous said...

It is this:

"After Christ had completed his mission on earth, it still remained necessary for us to become sharers in the divine nature of the Word. ** We had to give up our own life and be so transformed that we would begin to live an entirely new kind of life that would be pleasing to God.**
-Cyril of Alexandria
(I'm such a clod with this blogging stuff that I cannot make the bold and italics features work, but if I could the portion between the ** is what I mean to emphasize).