“Submission, obedience and other such terms have never been my favorite theological or spiritual concepts. Perhaps there is something of the spirit of Euripides in me. “The wisest men follow their own direction and listen to no prophet guiding them” (quoted by Anthony Storr in Feet of Clay). One of my favorite scenes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (a film I enjoy a lot) is the one where God tells King Arthur and the knights to “stop their groveling.”
Yet the notions of yielding, submitting, surrendering, obeying run throughout spiritual literature, especially theistic spiritual literature, including that of the Christian faith which is my tradition. Sometimes I ask myself if my resistance is little more than the spiritual recalcitrance of a rebellious soul who because of his stubbornness is missing out on some of the depths of relationship with God.
I struggle with the notions of obedience, submission, surrending, and yielding because of the abuse I have seen accompanying those concepts. Obedience to God seems to easily slide into obedience to God’s chosen leaders and history is rife with the horror stories of blind obedience. Think of the obedience given Adolph Hitler, Jim Jones, Charles Manson, David Koresh and others, and of the awful consequences of such blind following.
Surrender to God or to some abstract guiding principle is not only seductive but understandable and, in some instances, valuable. Surrender to a human guru is fraught with risk. Anthony Storr, Feet of Clay, 221-222.
Okay, so one can and should distinguish between obedience to God and obedience and submission to any human person. Christian faith even provides a solid foundation for resistance to blind obedience to any person as fully embodying the will of God. Even though this distinction is important and necessary, I confess that an uneasiness remains. Obedience, submission, yielding, surrender connote a complete self-abrogation to God. A God who demands utter, complete, blind obedience seems created in the image of emperors and dictators and I am uncomfortable with this.
This issue was recently raised for me again as I was listening to an audio CD of Thich Nhat Hahn – “Touching the Earth: meditations for compassion.” The CD was a free gift for subscribing to Ode magazine. The title sounds inviting enough, but Brother Thay discusses “the five prostrations,” “bowing down and surrendering to the earth.” That kind of language again brought to the fore these issues of obedience, submission, yielding, surrender. The five prostrations are: bowing in gratitude to ancestors in one’s family, to the ancestors in one’s spiritual family (and here Brother Thay included Buddha and Jesus), bowing in gratitude to the land and to all who helped make it available (including Chief Seattle, Thomas Jefferson, and Martin Luther King. Jr.), in gratitude and compassion bowing and pledging to transmit energy to those one loves, and, finally, in understanding and compassion bowing down to reconcile oneself with all those who have made one suffer. That is a lot of bowing and submitting and it sounds rather masochistic. Listening to Thich Nhat Hahn, though, a very different feeling came over me – not a closing off of self in order to submit to a power that was other but instead an awe, a reverence and an opening of the self. I had the feeling of openness to something that was part of me, though also other than me.
Listening, I also thought again of Paul Tillich, a theologian I encountered early in my seminary days and one with whose thought I have continued to engage fruitfully. Years ago, Tillich’s categories of theonomy, autonomy and heteronomy helped me deal with the language of obedience, submission, surrender and yielding - - - helped me incorporate that language into my own spiritual life in productive ways, though not without continuing unease. I often have to translate these ideas into other concepts.
Without getting into all the subtleties of Tillich’s theology, heteronomy implies a power from outside one, or outside of a cultural creation, that seeks to denigrate or even destroy the autonomy of that self or creation. Autonomy represents freedom from tradition and can again be applied to persons and to cultural creations. Theonomy “is the directedness of the self-creation of life under the dimension of the Spirit toward the ultimate in being and meaning” (Systematic Theology, III, p. 249). Tillich applies these concepts most consistently to culture. The original theonomous union is left behind by the rise of autonomous trends which necessarily lead to a reaction of the heteronomous element. Without the liberation of autonomy from the bondage to an “archaic,” mythologically founded theonomy, the culture could not develop its potentialities. Only after their liberation from the uniting myth and the theonomous state of consciousness can philosophy and the sciences, poetry and the other arts, appear. But if they achieve independence, they lose their transcendent foundation which gave them depth, unity, and ultimate meaning; and therefore, the reaction of heteronomy starts: the experience of the ultimate, as expressed in the religious tradition, reacts against the creations of an empty autonomy. (Systematic Theology, III, 251-252). I guess I am getting into the complexities of Tillich more than initially intended. The basic idea is that the Spirit can be experienced as a setting free (autonomy), and sometimes as a check against an empty autonomy (heteronomy), but is most fully present in a theonomy that encourages freedom and connection to the ultimate in being and meaning at the same time. That ultimate in being and meaning is not separate from one’s own being, though it is more than oneself. In simpler terms, I take all this to mean that God is not completely other and God desires and wills the human good in community, which includes my good. Not all my thoughts, desires, whims are the movement of God’s Spirit within me, but the movement of God’s Spirit within me is not completely different from my deepest hopes and dreams. This helps me understand why the language of obedience, submission, surrender and yielding does not come easy, and yet may still have a place, especially if I understand yielding to mean something more like openness to life and to reality.
Cracking open Tillich’s Systematic Theology, reminded me, too, of another influential theologian from my seminary days, Dorothee Soelle, and of her book, Beyond Mere Obedience. Soelle describes her book as “an attempt to work through the oppressive aspects of traditions of obedience I inherited in my national, religious, and sexual identity. Being a German, a Christian, and a woman I was brought up with three kinds of traditions that demanded obedience” (ix). Soelle makes good use of Erich Fromm’s helpful distinction between authoritarian religion and humanitarian religion. In authoritarian religion “God’s love and righteousness are less important than God’s power” (xiii). Humanitarian religion “operates with a force which springs from the inner life of the spirit. There is one creative power in God as well as in people.” (xii-xiii). Soelle poses a critical question. “Why do people worship a God whose supreme quality is power, not justice; whose interest lies in subjection, not in mutuality; who fears equality?” (xiv-xv). Soelle’s work is rich and thought-provoking. Here are some other helpful passages.
Selflessness is possible only where a particular level of self-awareness has been achieved. A person whose own capacity to love has been awakened, who has experienced so much happiness that it radiates from her, who has discovered her own identity; such a person is actually capable of acting sacrificially in particular situations. (38)
The conventional picture of Jesus has always placed his obedience and his self-denial in the foreground. But that phantasy which is born of fulfillment is a far better description of his life…. Should one consider the death of Jesus from the point of view of obedience alone, one would overlook the fact that selflessness and a readiness to live sacrificially are possible only when a person has come to himself and has reached the fullest level of personal freedom. (56, 57)
For Jesus “God” meant liberation, the unchaining of all powers which lie imprisoned in each of us, powers with which we too can perform miracles which are no less significant than those we are told Jesus himself performed. (64)
At the end of all this reflection I can again affirm that the language of spiritual teachers about obedience, submission, surrender and yielding has value, but only if critically appropriated. For me, that critical appropriation leads me away from these words themselves and toward the language of radical openness, an openness to God as Spirit at work in the world. When I am more open to that Spiritual Presence, I also find God’s Spirit at work in me, in my soul and spirit. This language of radical openness, coming through a critical process is also self-critical, for I know there are other voices contending inside of me, not just the voice of the Spirit and it is to those better angels of my nature that I need to pay attention and to yield.
Trying To Create Beauty,