In Defense of Submission and Authority


The original unifying function of liturgy becomes lost if we begin to dehistoricize liturgy by shopping among the traditions. Like consumerist postmodern culture, the Emergent Church shops among traditions for forms of spirituality that are useful and pleasurable and incorporates them into general western, melange of religious items….

Just last week, we celebrated the one anniversary of the Occupy Movement. The movement, although not resulting in any permanent change, testified to the chaotic nature of our society and dysfunction of the capitalist order. These dissidents banded together and camped out in parks and public squares, speaking to their desire to reclaim a rightful place in the order of things. Interestingly, as many commentators noticed, the movement, which was a kind of anarchist collective of disparate political persuasions, began to organize procedures, voting, and appointed leaders. Despite the anti-authoritarian structure of the movement, these simple delegations of authority were seen as necessary and innocuous as they served the collective interest.  The hesitation to legitimate authority figures comes from a deep suspicion from the Left and postmodern culture of the idea of authority itself. This is an enlightenment disposition that had its uses in the past bourgeois revolutions, but now has become a cancer to collective organizing against relations of capital. We need to begin to think of authority as a process of submitting to group’s mission and creating collective existence, and less on allegiance to a messianic figure (no, Zizek is not going to tell how to fix the world). In order to get at this idea, I will examine the role of liturgy in creating the one body of Christ in church life.

First, liturgy creates a common language to unite us by our submission to a common structure. In response to an article in Virginia Quarterly Review about free-verse poetry, William Childress laments the dominance of the Allen Ginsberg-esque “nihilistic free verse oral diarrhea.” Childress believes that poets should seek to change the disorder and chaos of society by using formal structure as a form of protest:

A blind person can see that American society is in turmoil, with a fractured government and enormous debt. Both political parties are to blame—but shouldn’t poets be trying to change things instead of writing chaos-poetry or “woe is me” diaries? Who will read poetry when they can’t find a common bond in a poet’s writing? Who likes ruptured grammar, twisted syntax and what my grandpa called flapdoodle? There’s at least a partial consensus that free verse these days consists of a lot of bad writing. I forget who said, “Poets should learn to write before they try to write poetry.” Many of today’s poets don’t seem to realize that all writing is connected.

Childress is clearly onto something. Although formal structure became a sign of snobbishness, it originated as an attempt to create a common language to bridge the gap between the poet and the reader. And today, in our current state of chaos, we need a common language and formal poetry points to that vision of mutual relations. John Holloway likes to call these “cracks in capitalism,” places where we can see glimpses of a future of egalitarian, communal relations. A favorite example of his is the creation of a community garden in urban Athens. Locals retook an area of land and built a garden, where all share in the produce and no one claims ownership. Organic kale aside, the beauty of the garden is that it served as a laboratory to experiment with different forms of social relations. In the same way, liturgy used to serve as a method of connecting the layperson, who could not read the scripture for herself and minister who had access to the texts. After the protestant reformation(s) and as literacy rates grew, the priesthood of all believers began to challenge liturgy and opt for individualized prayer. The beautiful unifying principle function of liturgy was lost and it became another tyranny. In other words, liturgy in its original historical expression was a function of unity. Thus, liturgy is a tool, a means to a greater end: to create collective existence.

The original unifying function of liturgy is lost if we dehistoricize liturgy by gleaning bits from many traditions.  Like consumerist postmodern culture, the Emergent Church shops among traditions for forms of spirituality that are useful and incorporates them into general western, melange of religious items. Underneath this mentality is a John Hick-esque philosophy of pluralism that functions more like collecting Chinese trinkets after touring Asia than submitting to a Buddhist teacher. The problem is that the cynical shopping  removes the liturgical tradition from its historical context and then seeks to incorporate it into this western narrative of pluralism. Often tied to these traditions are understandings of authority and truth that the Emergent Church either denies or downplays in order to make the tradition more attractive to consumers. In the twentieth century, following Carl Schmitt’s book Political Theology, forms of secular theology began to emerge to explain political philosophy, elucidating complicated historical notions of sovereignty, freedom, and the law. Theodor Adorno, a Marxist of Frankfurt School, challenged these secular theologies. The problem with secular theology is that the theological assumptions which gave the terms significance initially are then denied by the secular theologian who continues to use the terms. The term, however, only is initially significant because of the original theological meaning. Without it, the term is an empty idol. Channeling Adorno, Zizek finds a similar problem in the children’s movie Kung Fu Panda:

If you ask me for really dangerous ideological films, for ideology at its purest, I’d say Kung Fu Panda. I saw it five times because my son likes it. The movie is extremely cynical in that you know they make fun of all this ideology, of Buddhism and these things, but the message is even though we know it is not true and we make fun, you have to believe in it. It’s this split of you know it’s not true but just make like you believe in it.

In the same way, the Emergent Church exploits liturgical traditions and ignores the authority and submission to tradition tied with these practices. In other words, what we have here is a stark example of the brutal cynicism of the consumer, taking the de-historicized object that has been given pluralist allegorical meaning, using Walter Benjamin’s understanding the allegorical object (see previous post: The Allegorization of Imperialism).

The solution to this problem is found in liturgy exercised under the authority of practitioners of the tradition. Recently, Mickey Mattox and A.G. Roeber published Changing Churches, in which they chronicle their movement from Lutheranism to the Orthodox Church and Roman Catholicism. In an interview about the book, the interviewer posed a question originally posed by Stanley Hauerwas:

When I was thinking about becoming Catholic, I talked to Stanley Hauerwas about it, and he raised a question I could not answer satisfactorily: would not such a move still be predicated on the notion of the autonomy and authority of the individual (“choice”) to decide matters of truth, the very problem, on a larger scale, that some see bedeviling Protestantism in general?

Mattox responds: “I would also say, paraphrasing Augustine a bit, that I would not have come into full communion if the Catholic Church had not moved me by its authority.” In other words, submission to authority is absolutely necessary to avoid the preponderance of individualism.

The process of speaking and responding in foreign words involves a submission to a general authority. Without this submission there can be no incorporation into the body of the church. In Galatians 3:28, Paul tells the believers that is no longer “Jew nor Greek, Male and Female, or Slave nor Free; all are one in Christ.” This passage is typically read as establishing equality among believers, but also means submitting one’s self to the totality. Liturgy then serves as nothing other than vanishing mediator that resolves the tension between the individual and the collective body: it creates a means to traverse the gap between the individual and the collective existence by forcing the body to act as one against it tendencies to deny unity through speaking differently. Indeed, individual expression is necessary and human beings are meant to be loved, to quote Giorgio Agamben: “The lover wants the loved one with all of its predicates, its being such as it is (The Coming Community, p. 3).” Nevertheless, that non-objectifying love must necessarily, in relationship with the other, give up some of its predicates–giving into the authority of the relationship over one’s life–in order to be in love, not merely reflect on the loved one. The relationship is mutual submission of some features of free existence in order to cohabit a sphere of life. Liturgy then in its structural form is the expression of submitting of love of community toward one another so that they might be one in Christ.

The notion of the individual is denial of the reality of social existence. For instance, the solitary of philosopher of the Kierkegaard persuasion that finds God through the existential and internal choice is enabled by social structure of human relations that allow bourgeois act of retreating to solitary confinement. In other words, we are bound up in human relations and there are only two forms of existence: alienation or submission. Alienation is the ideology of the last decade: culture wars, vulture capitalism feeding off crises and the poor, and disdain for organized bodies that even resemble authority (followed by the creation of the new authority, which simultaneously claims not be an authority, the non-denominational church). Then, there is submission to authority. Hopefully this article has been clear one point: liturgy, and all vanishing mediators, are not the locus of submission; the locus of submission is the collective existence. Submission and authority have got a bad rap these days and I think that any political movement worth its salt needs to reconfigure submission and authority in its philosophical thinking. The world is in a state of chaos and we need order. Not the order of individualism, but the true order to collective existence. Liturgy is a stepping stone to realizing this transformed life.

Before I finish, let me deflect a few criticisms. First, how am I not simply creating a new authoritarianism that like Radical Orthodoxy which translates into a kind neo-fascism? And by promoting the function of the vanishing mediator, am I not creating a new form of domination? I think that I avoid this trap by not specifying what the common language is, but by suggesting that the structure is needed. In the same way that Gramsci affirmed the need for a new hegemony and Benjamin still believed in the use of myth, the vanishing mediator is necessary. The real question is: is collective existence, mutual submission, a form authoritarianism in itself? Does it limit the free existence of the subject? In recent years, following trends in systematic theology after Moltmann, the trinity is often parsed in terms of  a social trinity: three equal subjects living in relationship. The term “participation” is used to describe their mutual existence. This understanding of the trinity is then used to describe the ideal of the life of community. However, the term participation is not appropriate for church life because it assumes the existence of the individual apart from the whole. John Zizioulas pointed out this is a vestige of the enlightenment: the idea that person can be understood apart from the social structure which produced that person. In fact, human beings do not in fact become person until they submit to the community. Before that they are merely individuals. In fact, I would take that further and argue that the notion of the individual is impossible because the notion of being separate from a totality is impossible. The term submission better points to the act of accepting the communal authority because one must put the false notion of existing apart from the community. In sum, then submission recognizes our collective existence and fights against this ontology of separateness.

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