Thursday, June 21, 2007

Belief and Submission

I once heard a story about a 16th century Jesuit mission in Brazil. After a long interaction with the people and some individual conversions, the chief decided to become a Christian (presumably bringing with him the rest of the tribe). As part of the process, the chief met with the leader of the mission to be examined. The priest began asking doctrinal questions. He asked the chief, "How many natures does our Lord have?" The chief responded, "As many natures as you say he has, Father."

Setting aside the more obvious missiological issues surrounding such a tale, this story raises for me the question of the role of submission in belief. To what extent was the chief's answer the right one? To what extent is submission to authority an aspect of conversion and faith? To what extent does such submission include submission to authority of the church? Or, is such submission indicate a lack of genuineness? Does one who publicly submits to the beliefs of his or her church while at the same time questioning them lack integrity?

I don't have any full blown answers to these questions, though I have come to some existential peace about these matters in my own life. I am more interested in raising them for further reflection and discussion. So ...

Any thoughts?
What role should submission play in belief?
Specifically, what role should submission to one's church play in belief?
Does submission spoil belief?
Is belief possible without submission?


Shane said...

I'm not sure 'submission' is the relevant category under which to evaluate this problem. I think you are onto a really interesting question here, but I would want to reframe it a bit because I think it's more an epistemological question: who is obliged to believe what and on what grounds?

I'm inclined to hold that there are various levels of responsibility. In other words a layperson might have a certain responsibility to believe X and Y, but a bishop not only has to believe X and Y and Z, but also a, b, and c and know how to derive X, Y and Z from a, b, and c.

So let's suppose John is a layman and he is obliged to believe that Jesus is God. (This seems to be a pretty minimal obligation--John has to believe at least this if he is to be a Christian at all.) Now what are the grounds of that obligation? I think that's a more precise way of getting at our problem here.

I can only see two possible grounds for the obligation: the authority of the church or John's own religious experience. Now we should ask whether these two possible grounds are necessary conditions, sufficient conditions, necessary and sufficient conditions or necessary but insufficient conditions to oblige John's belief.

Now we have quite a tangled problem indeed! I'll have to stop a bit and think more on it before I want to hazard any opinions of my own.


JohnLDrury said...

Shane -- thanks for your careful reframing of the issue. I look forward to yours or and others' thoughts on the matter.

Andy said...

my two cents' worth:

I'm not sure the reframing actually helps the question. It may be an epistemological question that shane wishes to raise, but the waters seem more muddled. Mostly, it is not at all clear to me (or most Catholics) that religious experience and church authority are discreet or mutually exclusive. In fact, the apostolic office is for many a great instructor in true religion, the very vehicle of the Spirit's guidance.

Both the question and the reframing presuppose an autonomous believing subject. (Granted, even the Catholics flirt with this in their language of conscience.) But if Cyprian is right, then the church is the vehicle of salvation, and, we can add, salvation may in fact be the objective content of religious experience. So how do we separate church authority from the Spirit or religious experience or belief?

I haven't visited shane's blog yet, but I look forward to reading what he has to say. In the meantime, with the question of submission, we should examine the question of the subject. Is our "I" really so distinct from the Church's "We"? Is our believing subject discreet from the Church's believing subject?

JohnLDrury said...

Thanks Andy.

Who is believing?

Who is submitting?

Good questions.

JohnLDrury said...

I should note that this matter was intially raised for in the context of being examined for ordination. I didn't want to make it just about that and so kept that connection implicit. I might as well mention it now, though, in case that helps concretize the issue. How does one "submit" to their church's authority even as one takes hold of that same authority? Where do the lines of conformity and autonomy play out in this unique situation?

Anonymous said...

you also not only need to discuss submission, but recognise this is a secondary to the concepts of holding to the church (tenere) and adhering to its truths. only secondarily, when you cant see the point of something, do you submit to a teaching authority - when the adhering seems to be unwarranted (but not contradictory)

note these are operations of the will as well as the intellect, and the will can weave the intellect around - the interplay is there are moral responsibilities in addition to what you call epistemology.

Shane said...

I've written the first half of a longer response here. I'm sorry to just post a link but it is far too long for a comment box.

Thanks drulogion for raising a very pointed question!

Keith Drury said...

Thanks for the story. It is relevant to my the 20 year old ministry students I work with who imagine they have found the final answers in theology already and feel compelled to lecture their ordination committee on where the church has erred.

I was one of these 20 year olds once but having added 40 years to myself since, I have gone through several editions of answers to those questions I was so sure of at 20.

So, while the answer the chief gave may fall short of personal "faith" the attitude behind the answer is the "right attitude" whereever else it falls short.

teleia philia said...

Pardon the interruption by a stranger, but I happened across your blog last week and bookmarked it because I appreciate your insight.

I probably don't have much to add to your original question, just a different perspective on what our duty may be.

I think of Kierkegaard's "Fear and Trembling" in which he contrasts the ethical and the religious (represented by the tragic hero and the knight of faith).

The Chief's Hegelian response is one that represents a submission out of duty- not a passionate relation to the truth. The chief, according to Kierkegaard, was demonstrating that the ethical (submitting to authority) is the universal rather than relating to God with his own subjective passions.

This may be a stretch, or even an indication that I did not understand your question, but blindly submitting to an authority is placing the ethical above the religious... and I don't think God asks this of us.

Dan Morehead said...

It seems that all traditions must be both conservative, retaining something of that which has come before, and progressive, making sense of or modifying the received in the new contexts it faces or through encounters with other traditions.

In short, I think you must always live somewhere. The context and the beliefs which constitute it alway exercise authority to which one must submit. I think it would be unnecessary to see this submission as a choice, however. Perhaps in the case of conversion it is something farther away from the natural acceptance of necessary authority, which is to say linguistic authority.

Still, at the initial stages, one lacks the ability, skills and virtues to innovate or to be the progressive movement of that particular tradition. Submission is necessary insofar as the catechumen is not yet a saint.

One ultimately cannot know whether the chief's response was appropriate, since one cannot know his intentions or motivations; however, the submission which is necessary to enter a new tradition does not cripple belief.

Kari J said...

The obvious question: How does one prevent themselves from submitting to the wrong beliefs? If we submit to the christian tenets, then why would we not submit to other ideologies? (Examples of ways such submission has had extremely devastating results are plentiful.)

In my opinion, blind submission is dangerous. We use our reason in every situation, even to discuss this question on your blog. Many comments on this blog use reason even to defend submission. Why shouldn't we use our reason to question the very essence of our beliefs?

ben said...

I wonder if because God has chosen to use humanity as a vehicle of revelation, belief always involves submission.

What I mean, (and I allow that I might be missing the point here), is that because God has chosen to work through humanity (Christ and church), what we believe in comes primarily through human agents, thus our believing in one way is a submission to those used to reveal God. Now this submission might not mirror the submission of the chief in your story, (which seems more of a cultural response than a religious one), however, it still holds true.
When I decided to follow the way of Jesus of Nazareth I submitted myself to the teaching of the church, through its human agents, to learn what it meant to live this faith out.
So I guess I would say that submission comes with belief.

vanilla said...

Entangled in the seemingly straigtforward question is the underlying issue of whether (or not) the denominational conference/policy body has the Mind and Will of God in their deliberations and conclusions.

Can I be a faithful Christian and yet reject items in the discipline of the denomination? I think so. Can I be a member of the denomination and do thus? Not in good conscience; though when I discussed this with my pastors, one said he respected my decision not to join the church. The other said that the discipline was simply a "guideline"--whatever that means.
This is not theology but rather a practical application of the issue of submission to Christ versus submission to an earthly body of believers or its representatives.

ben said...

What does it look like to submit to Christ rather than submit to an "earthly body of believers"? Are we able to submit to Christ without submitting to his church? Jesus told his disciples that "as the Father has sent me, so I send you. Whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven, whatever you bind on earth..." You know the rest. If the church is the agent Jesus, the Body of Christ, in what way are to submit to Christ in submitting to the church?

vanilla said...

Ben, I take your point. Definition of "church" is essential here. By acceptance of God's grace through Jesus Christ we become a member of the Church, i.e. the body of Christ.

To submit to the discipline (leadership) of a corporation (denomination), that is to "join" a church, is not the same thing as submission to Christ.

In the broadest sense, and I infer this from your question, we need to submit ourselves in service to one another.