No Authority Relieves Us of the Responsibility of Thought and Agency

In Japan the inclination to submit to authority, to maintain the harmony of the group, to not presume to have an opinion, has produced a series of dangerous cults, not the least of which was the Emperor cult which mobilized the nation in WWII.  I witnessed the recruiting efforts of Aum Shinrikyo, the most famous post War cult, in Shinjuku (a sound truck and dancing girls singing the “wondrous” name of their leader). The founder, Shoko Asahara, was able to gather followers from among graduates of elite universities and he formed his own shadow government and ministries in preparation for eventual takeover of Japan. In 1995 Aum chemists produced sarin gas used to kill passengers on the subway, for which (among other crimes and murders) Asahara and some 12 followers were executed last year. In every culture crowds will gather around a charismatic authority – whether emperor, pope, president, or cult leader. The willingness to acquiesce one’s agency to these figures, I have presumed, is counter to the manner in which the authority of Christ is exercised. I have been surprised by the turn of millennials to various forms of authoritarianism, not just in the megachurch but the many turning to Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, ascending hierarchies, and a seeming willingness to relinquish healthy notions of individual agency.

I am completely sympathetic to a rejection of the woefully inadequate, ignorant, theologically misdirected, business model, that prevails in the typical local church body, to say nothing of seminaries and Bible colleges. We know precisely what it is to have the crudest of intellects, the morally suspect, the theologically illiterate, presume to rate our spirituality (literally, a formalized weapon used against us). Young preacher’s lives and careers are regularly destroyed by elders and leaders who have no notion of the personal and theological responsibility shepherds should bear. I understand the impetus to escape this callow and cavalier excuse for spiritual leadership.

The answer, however, may not be to entrust ourselves to contemporary High-Church bishops (vested as they sometimes are with Lordships, powers of war, powers to re-legislate scriptural authority, power to redefine biblical notions of sexuality, and powers to dictate orthodoxy and thought) and presume that the contemporary office resembles the humble office of the New Testament. While there must certainly be “good bishops,” the notion that one can selectively eliminate the bad (the unorthodox, the semi-Christian) misses that choosing your bishop is not an alternative and certainly not an alternative to individual agency and thought.

The reaction to autonomous individualism, perhaps characteristic of us baby boomers, seems to have swung the pendulum in the opposite direction toward notions that the Church relieves one of having to engage, study, reason, and presume individual responsibility for corporate action. Bishops, popes, hierarchy, may offer certain forms of security (not the least of which is job security) but the trade off should not be a truncated sense of personal responsibility.

Paul, in offering his “opinion” (which in I Co 7:6,25,40 he makes clear several times over is simply that) on marriage and singleness invites us into his reasoning process which stands as an open and continuing invitation as to how we are to balance reason, authority, and individual circumstance. Opinions may vary but there is no question that having an opinion is what Paul calls us to in persuading us of his opinion. Outside of the Church slaves, women, and social outcasts, were not presumed to have agency or to be persons in the full sense of the term and certainly were not considered worthy of having opinions. The no male nor female, no slave nor free, no Jew nor Gentile, polity of the Church means that all are equally persons. Even if human slavery and the necessities of gender and social status are determinative of identity outside of the Church, Paul makes it clear that in the Church it is “as if not” (7:29-31). Authority, even of the apostolic kind, invites and encourages the blossoming of a full humanity which is not autonomous individualism but neither is it a relinquishment of a fully formed life of the mind.

Paul is certainly willing to speak a “command” from God but he provides another crucial consideration for making moral judgments: “in view of the present necessity” (I Co 7:26). That necessity, as he makes clear, is one that takes the individual and her needs into account and only the individual is able to make a final determination (or form an opinion as Paul himself has done) as to how to coordinate the various criteria Paul poses. The individual’s situation and desires (under control or not), apostolic authority, and advancement of the Church and Kingdom are all part of the issues Paul suggests for consideration in determining whether to marry or remain single.  Individual determination of this sort was far from the norm of the day.

At the same time, Paul turns the Corinthians’ Gnostic inclinations back to the realities of embodiment, to the reality of the human sexual drive (“husbands and wives need to satisfy one another’s desires”), and continually tells them to take stock of their needs and desires and to balance this with the mission of Christ. Paul’s mode of reasoning, letter writing, discussion, draws all to the table so as to set forth his argument.  Certainly he is an authority, but he does not exercise this authority like a monarch or dictator but more like a guide sending fellow travelers down a path he knows.  This sort of authority presumes we too must know the way so as to go on. This truth is not simply acknowledged but absorbed, such that it becomes transformative.

Paul’s opinion in I Co 7, based on the idea that the Parousia or second coming is about to occur compels us to also account for our “present necessity,” a 2000-year delay in Christ’s return. Our own moral reasoning cannot elide the altered circumstance and contingencies we face. This is not a rejection of the authority of Paul but it is to follow the direction in which his authority points us: apostolic authority, through the guidance of the Spirit, calls us not to relinquish agency but to develop it and exercise it. Like the Bereans we are to search the Scriptures and confirm for ourselves, with all the contingencies of being human, the truth (Acts 17:11). Thinking is certainly not an unaided activity but exercise of the mind cannot be hired out.

 

 

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

3 thoughts on “No Authority Relieves Us of the Responsibility of Thought and Agency”

  1. This reminds me of a chapter of Hauerwas’ Work of Theology, in which he deals heavily with McIntyre’s claim that to give away one’s agency (to be “under orders” such that one claims one is not responsible for what one does because they are under orders) is to give up on being “human.”