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I Don’t Go in for Hierarchy

I’ve been reading the first few chapters of Touching Heaven the last few days. There’s something in it that sticks in my craw.

In a word, it’s hierarchy.

So, first, some context: the book is about Orthodox Christianity, written by a guy who grew up Protestant and later (I assume) converted to Orthodoxy, spent some time with some Russian monks. A lot of what he says is good to my ear: the role of mystery, the way the liturgy makes faith tangible, the pitfalls of a faith that exists only in the vacuum of the mind or the pages of books, the startling experience of God in one’s practice. I like that he puts more importance on silently reciting the Jesus prayer while gardening than on the attempt to climb the rungs of church leadership.

The thing I get stuck on is his description of submission. He says, in lots of places and ways, that one must give up one’s perspective, absorb the church’s; give up one’s reasoning and accept the text’s. I understand the phenomenon he’s talking about – the difference between life and life abundant, as he puts it. I know the power of opening yourself, giving yourself to a thing, and being transformed. The problem is that I don’t trust the institution of the church (or the Scriptures, or the traditions of the fathers) to the extent that I would ever turn off my own judgment, shut off my capacity to test the water. Yes, submission is a powerful, potent choice. It can transform you and remake your world: it is incredibly dangerous.

It’s not that I don’t think the church, the canon and the traditions aren’t to be trusted or followed. It’s not that there aren’t times where you should defer to them. It’s that I reject the dichotomy: either give up your perspective for theirs, or remain locked in a prison of self-importance. I don’t ever automatically accept another’s perspective in place of my own, whoever they are – neighbor, bishop or Father Abraham. “The sheep know the sound of my voice,” Jesus said. I am constantly listening, constantly asking, “Is this the voice of the shepherd I’m hearing?” If not, I’m not going with them. I trust my ability to discern this. I don’t care who it is, or who they’re calling themselves (even if they’ve got Jesus’s beard and cloak and sandals). If I decide (and it is my decision) that what I’m hearing is the stranger’s voice, I’m staying put.

Jesus himself acknowledged that this is something that sheep do, and should do. If a thief comes to the fold in the night and says, “Hey sheep, I’m Abraham. I’m Thomas Aquinas. I’m Paster Jim. I’m Jesus. I’m God the Father,” or whoever else you like – if they say, “Sheep, Jesus sent me to instruct you to do such and such” – in the end it’s up to the sheep to exercise their judgement, to evaluate the voice, and then to choose.

Is it the shepherd? The sheep decide. That is not the “submission” I hear in Oliver’s words. It’s not the submission I’ve heard taught in church.

I think that to give up your faculty for evaluation – any of your faculties, really – is foolhardy. To stick your foot into boiling water and refuse to listen when your skin screams stop – well, one might say, if the source is trustworthy, they wouldn’t ask you to do that. True. Still, I’m always going to be listening to my skin too.

Because trustworthy sources aren’t always so. Think of the many people who quelled their misgivings around the football man recently convicted of molesting all those children, because they thought it couldn’t be, he would never, he was trustworthy. Think of the preacher who pressures a wife to go back to her abusive husband. Think of the Inquisition; think of Manifest Destiny and the kidnapping of Native American children. It’s not that you shouldn’t ever trust an authority; it’s that you shouldn’t turn off your own thoughts and instincts when you do.

The more I think of it, though, the more I believe that my way – my faith, my practice – involves no hierarchy at all. Tell me the truth and I will listen. If I am wrong, I will deal with that. Believe me, I will chew and digest an accusation no matter how much it offends me, to get to the hidden nutrients, if any. But I will spit out the bones. And if the whole thing is useless cardboard I will pass it out the other side in my poop, but the fact is, I know how to self-examine. I know how to bend, to turn and flex. I do it often. I just don’t need a hierarchical voice to make me do right. I use no hierarchical voice on my son, either. I don’t expect obedience. I expect, and give, respect: for people’s boundaries and my own, people’s wishes and my own, people’s insights and my own – and when there’s conflict between one thing and another, I try to find the cleanest way through.

If the church is fundamentally opposed to a body of thinking, sensing sheep, then it’s being lazy.

In any case, I submit to the Way, not to the road which leads in its direction but is built by human hands. So I will consider the wisdom of the church and suspend my doubt, give it a chance to form a whole that’s larger and more integral than I had thought to imagine; I will take the words of the canon into me, chew, suck, ruminate; I will adopt the practices of tradition and learn the stories. If that is submission, then yes, I will submit – but in the end, I reserve the responsibility to choose. If a thing is true, I’ll accept; if not, I will not. Either way, I don’t think you can call that “obedience.” If, in the end, it’s not the shepherd? I won’t go. My love will be shown in challenge, not submission. The hierarchy has no authority that we do not grant it – and for my part, I see no reason to grant it.

UPDATE. A friend of mine read this post and found it really disturbing. There is a rich and deep tradition of Christian obedience which is not only worthwhile, but saving, and it seemed to her that I was throwing this out wholescale. In case anyone else happens to come away from the above with the same conclusion, I want to include my response to her concerns, below.

The transformation of saying yes is powerful. The reason I’m uncomfortable with calling that obedience is the amount of value I place on the moment wherein the person recognizes the nature of the situation and chooses to respond to it. If I recognize it’s God talking and so decide to listen, great – but if it turns out the voice is coming from some kind of imposter and I decide not to listen, great. Listening is based on trust. You trust those who are trustworthy. God is trustworthy; we know this. But if in some sick parallel universe God weren’t trustworthy, what I’m saying is that I wouldn’t listen. And if that contingency exists, even in a nonexistent universe, I don’t think you can call it obedience in this universe either – because the choice still belongs to me, even though the invitation be always trustworthy and my answer be always yes. I believe that any choice – any choice at all – is based in self-possession; otherwise it’s not choice.

It’s not that I’m placing less value on trust, or seeing less goodness or trustworthiness in God; it’s that to me obedience seems to be an abnegation of self-possession, in which you do what you’re told no matter what else you think about it or what the consequences might be – you defer your own judgment and accept whatever may come. I would describe the rules of the military as obedience: you obey your commander no matter what; it has to do with role, not relationship. You obey because they’re your commander; that’s their role: they have authority over you.

That’s what I meant in [this blog post] when I said that even if Jesus himself were to ask me to do something, if it wasn’t the voice of the shepherd I wouldn’t do it. I’m not saying Jesus doesn’t ever ask you to do crazy-hard things that you don’t understand, which make you look foolish to others; all that’s good, and we say yes to it anyway, because we trust. What I’m saying is that as sheep, we have a responsibility to discern whether or not it is in fact the shepherd – that responsibility, that ability to discern, that possession of choice, is ours. Which is why I don’t care who tells me it’s Jesus, or how Jesus-like the guy looks – as a sheep that belongs to this flock, I know without a doubt the difference between the real shepherd and the intruding thief, and I’m not about to go with the thief. And if that choice belongs to me – if the final judgment call is mine – I just don’t feel that’s obedience. If you reserve the right to say no without any guilt or obligation, how is that obedience?

In other words, the fact that we’re talking about perfect goodness – the fact that the person asking to be followed is perfectly good and trustworthy – is, in my view, accidental to the conversation. If it weren’t perfect goodness then I wouldn’t follow; because it is, I do. But the choice to follow or not belongs to me, and to me, I don’t think that makes it less beautiful… I think, more.

One thing I have moved away from is the assumption (which I had absorbed over the years from various church voices) that as a sheep I am unable to discern. I grant that in a given situation, I might be unable to discern what to do, where to go, how to save myself – but I am absolutely able to discern who to trust. And I follow that “who” not because I have an obligation to follow, but because I love and trust that person. I guess you could say it’s both – for example the soldier who obeys the commander, but also loves and trusts that commander. I respect that – I see beauty in that too. That’s just not the conversation I’m currently having with the world, or the shepherd.

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