Thursday, 28 February 2019

The obedience of Christians

I downplay obedience on this blog, and deliberately. Obedience is a virtue in childhood with respect to parents - but this blog isn't for children.

Obedience is the choice to substitute another will for our own, because that other will is better than ours, and because we judge our-selves incapable of agency. But that is Not our ultimate goal as spiritual persons; at most it is a means to the end of agency.

Obedience is not, therefore, a general virtue - it all depends... As an adult, there needs to be an embrace of responsibility, and the personal exercise of discernment. If you can discern an individual or an institution to whom you judge obedience to be due; then it can be a good thing - at least for a while, or under particular circumstances (such as illness, or disability).

But if not? If we do Not judge the authority of any other human person or institution to be superior to our own? If, on the contrary, we regard them to be corrupt?...

And that is precisely our cultural situation. We live in uniquely degraded times, and obedience to institutions is a short route to the extremity evil. Obedience to a superior individual who also loves you makes sense, if any such can be found - but there aren't many.


Obedience to God is therefore, for us - here and now - a direct matter. Most of us cannot (in all honesty, and with the greatest possible consideration) identify any person or group whom we would trust above our-selves to represent God to us. We cannot, should-not, rely on the Goodness of intermediaries, our-selves being obedient to them. We need to reserve our discernment against a possible attempt to corrupt us.


At least that is my situation. I spent several years trying to find a church (or even just a spiritual adviser - one single man) to whom I could be obedient; but my deepest intuitions warned me off all actual available options. There were people from whom I learned - none to whom I dared risk obedience.

Such is the pace and scope of corruption of our time and place that I would find it hard to recommend obedience as a path to anyone, even when it comes to children in the best churches with the best track-records (parents need to stand guard, as back-stops). I fear that all of them are acutely vulnerable to corruption, even in the short term of a few years - and for this we must be prepared.


Instead of obedience in the traditional Christian fashion (as of a monk to Abbot, priest to Bishop, layman to Priest); I would recommend the same attitude as we adopt to a teacher of a skill or discipline when we are learning. We obey our piano teacher, or the doctor teaching us medicine - but only up to a point, and within a restricted scope.

I would go so far as to state that obedience, in its traditional sense, is neither achievable nor achieved in this era. Many of the people who argue the primacy of obedience from a stance of traditional Christian (or any other) religious practice, I simply don't believe practice obedience in that spirit that it used to be practiced. Although I would not confront them, in my heart I doubt their truthfulness when they say they do live by obedience. Whatever they actually do, it is something else than obedience.


All this cannot be helped. Indeed it is overall-good, because necessary.

(It is indeed a harsh lesson, is modern society; but only because our culture refused to learn the easy lessons. Until after the lesson has been learned, by each of us as individuals and society at large, that harshness will only escalate.) 

I think of obedience in terms of the evolutionary-development of consciousness. We are now, like it or not - but we ought to like it - trying to develop from spiritual adolescence to adulthood. That is our unavoidable task; because we cannot become children again - and to remain stuck in the phase of adolescence is fatal: look around...

Some traits that were virtues in a child, like spiritual obedience, are not virtues in an adult

9 comments:

Michael Dyer said...

That's something that I've pondered. The number of people I trust to guide my spiritual life is vanishingly small and I've learned that the hard way. I think there might be something to the virtue of obedience, but only in those areas where someone has a righteous authority over you (bosses at work regarding work matters, parents regarding parental matters, military personnel, etc.). There are times when you really should obey because the greater good demands it, but those areas are extremely limited.

Paradoxically Christianity is the world's most individualistic religion; it's the one where you are supposed to defy literally everyone if there's a conflict between what you perceive to be God's direction and anything that gets in the way of that. You will be judged alone for your own deeds.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Michael - "Christianity is the world's most individualistic religion" - That's how I see it, but not as a paradox, from a persepctive centred-on and derived-from the Fourth Gospel.

I think that Christianity went wrong, and goes wrong, and distorts intelf into contradiction; when this individualism is overwhelmed by the primary requirement for obedience that is actually characteristic of the ancestral and descendant monotheisms (Judaism and Islam).

It was the divine person of Jesus that made the difference. It was Jesus who substituted the virtue of Love and the practice of faith in him, for obedience to the law of priestly authority.

Francis Berger said...

A much needed post and discussion.

That's how I have begun to see attending church. Though it contains tangible value for me personally, I have come to view it supplementary to my Christianity. On its own, it is not enough. The bulk of the work, learning, and joy inherent in Christianity resides firmly within my individual self.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Francis - I originally intended to be Anglo, Roman or Orthodox Catholic - and was very influenced by the Orthodox monk Seraphim Rose who was an American convert to the Russian Orthodox church overseas. But he stated firmly that the tradition had been broken by the Russian Revolution and the events it triggered; and it was no longer possible (or desirable) to give the kind of obedience to a spiritual Father that had been normal before 1917; and that even the most devoutly orthodox of Orthodox needed to regard their spiritual advisers as teachers - with discernment. I realised, on reflection, that this reality had a devastating effect on the possibility of being a traditional Christian: in fact it was impossible. Then I reflected that God would not leave modern Men bereft of guidance; and that this further implied that all Men (past present and future) *must* be able to recieve the guidance they need. And indeed this is what Jesus said wrt the Holy Ghost, in the Fourth Gospel.

Unknown said...

Some “Christian” institutions (so-called) also tend to use the idea of obedience as virtue to justify or ignore the shady behavior of people in authority. Even if the spiritual authority figures don’t act like real Christians at all in the way they treat others, they sure like to use certain Bible verses against any sinner who speaks up...just like the Pharisees. Though obedience to God is virtuous, and as Michael Dyer mentioned we need to follow the everyday “rules” of society, in some circumstances obedience leads to enabling and even defending evil authorities....

William Wildblood said...

The primary obedience must surely be obedience to the voice of our own soul. It's true that if we are not correctly oriented to that voice, and none of us are perfectly oriented, then we might need external direction, but if we are to be real sons and daughters of God then we do eventually have to take off the training wheels.

Bruce said...

Only God is allowed absolute obedience which seems to be what you are talking about.
Nevertheless, there is value for a Christian in cultivating the habit/virtue of (discerning) obedience.
You focus on the theme of love from the 4th gospel. They (obedience and love) are not entirely separable. Jesus tells us if we love him we will obey him and rather than being told to love their husbands, wives are told to obey their husbands (because the two are not mutually exclusive) and in the context of proper-authority/heirachy to love is to obey (with some discernment of course). Christians are told to obey secular authorities, etc. Of course, we always discern but didn’t mean to imply otherwise in my original comment.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Bruce - There is a way of living that was traditionally conceptualised in terms of laws/ rules and obedience to them. It is that conceptualisation which it has become impossible to believe, in the way that people used-to.

We cannot (and I mean that literally) conceptualise reality as being organised in terms of laws - therefore we cannot see the Christian life in *that* sense of obedience.

Furthermore, this wrongly describes what God wants from us. I think we can be sure of this, from looking at how God designed us, and designed the world - it is not done such that obedience is possible.

Therefore, God wants something (or some things) as prioirities, above obedience - and these are (roughly) love and repentance.

Bruce said...

I guess you didn’t say that obedience is worthless and I didn’t say it’s everything so maybe we don’t disagree.

I don’t know how to rank virtues but your ranking seems reasonable. Love ranks higher but the highest love involves acts of the will so doesn’t the practice of the virtue of obedience influence this love?

Love often involves doing things we don’t want to or things that are against our interests. I would think that the virtue of obedience would condition us such that these acts would come more naturally.