Touching Heaven by John Oliver

I Don’t Go in for Hierarchy

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

In a word, it’s hierarchy.

The book is about Orthodox Christianity, written by John Oliver (not that John Oliver), who grew up Protestant and later converted. 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 that bothers me is how he talks about submission

He says, in lots of places and ways, that one must give up one’s perspective and 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 this either/or dichotomy he’s got going: either give up your perspective for theirs, or remain locked in a prison of self-importance. For one thing, I just don’t agree that it has to be a dichotomy. For another, it’s really dangerous.

Submission is a powerful, potent choice. It can transform you and remake your world. That’s true for better or worse, so if you’re going to do it, you’ve got to be careful. Sometimes it’s saving and necessary to take a leap of faith and follow, even when it makes no rational sense. But your capacity to test the water is also saving and necessary. For my part I can’t think of anything — church, canon or traditions — that I’d be willing to follow without also, at the same time, checking in with myself about whether it’s good or not, true or not. Deserving of my faith or not.

And the thing is, I trust myself to make that call.

In church, I grew up with this message

We were told that our perspective is flawed, that our judgement is inherently suspect. I grew up believing that the only voices you could trust as authoritative were to be found outside yourself, and that if ever your feelings conflicted with the doctrine, the problem was in you.

Sometimes that’s true. But sometimes it’s not. Sometimes, people are told to do things by their religious authorities that are scary-bad and abusive. So we need to keep our thoughts and feelings turned on, and when something inside says no, we need to listen to that, even when it flies in the face of authority.

Of course there’s the danger of erring on the flip side, of being wrong. It’s not that we should only ever listen to ourselves. An echo-chamber is no place to be. Sometimes the truth we need makes no sense from where we’re standing, so we have to leap. I’m not saying you should never do that, or that you should never trust anyone in a position of authority. I’m saying you shouldn’t turn off your thoughts and instincts if you do.

It’s our responsibility to evaluate when a leap is going to get us over a river, and when it’s going to send us off a cliff — so I don’t care who it is: neighbor, bishop or the Apostle Paul; I will never automatically accept another’s perspective in place of my own.

Jesus supported this. He respected his followers’ capacity to determine when to yield and when to balk. “The sheep know the sound of my voice,” he said. He said that any time someone enters the sheepfold, it’s up to the sheep to decide what to do. They can tell the difference between the shepherd and an imposter; they’re equipped for that. They’re capable of discerning that for themselves. And it’s their prerogative to do so.

This is worth saying twice: Jesus had faith in the sheep to make that calculation for themselves. Yet I have never been a member of a Christian organization (church or school) that trusted the individuals in its flock to be their own authority when it came to a question of faith.

Doing so is active work. It depends on you to trust yourself. More importantly, it depends on you to choose disobedience when obeying would contradict what you know in your gut to be good and right. It doesn’t matter which scripture, or which social obligation, or who a person is calling themselves, even if they’ve got Jesus’s beard and cloak and sandals. If you decide that what you’re hearing is a stranger’s voice, it’s up to you to tell them where they can put it.

If this is submission, I don’t think it’s the kind Oliver was talking about

This is not the submission I was taught in church. That’s okay. I don’t need to have been taught it in church to know that turning off your faculty for evaluation — any of your faculties, really — is reckless. To stick your foot in boiling water and refuse to listen when your skin screams stop

Of course one might say that if the source is trustworthy, they wouldn’t ask you to do that. Fine, but I’m going to be listening to my skin just the same.

Because trustworthy sources aren’t always so. Think of the many people who quelled their misgivings around the football man convicted of molesting all those children, because they thought it couldn’t be, he would never, he was trustworthy. Think of the pastor who pressures a woman to go back to her abusive husband. Think of the members of a community who follow a spiritual leader’s direction to ostracize a best friend because that friend has failed to toe the theological line. No community is immune to these things.

Is there a place for obedience in this picture?

For me, no. Obedience, as I understand it, means following directions no matter what you think or feel about them. Military servicemembers practice obedience. That practice of following orders without questioning them is part of what makes the military strong; it equips a disparate group of people to orchestrate their action for focused purposes in the fastest possible way.

Cooperation is a different process. Cooperation means that you take an active role in evaluating and accepting the directions you’re given, and that if you think or feel that they’re off somehow, you retain the right not to follow them. You retain that freedom: choosing not to follow isn’t wrong. If you refrain, you’re not guilty of anything.

As an organizational structure, hierarchy is a neutral value for me. I don’t think it’s the only possible way to organize. But I respect it. I respect those in positions of authority: their work has the potential to shape their character in some powerful ways, and when they rise to its challenges, they can cultivate wisdom and virtue. People who’ve cultivated those qualities are worth listening to.

But where hierarchy assumes the two-sided coin of authority and obedience, I have to step back. The more I consider it, the more I find that this is not my way.

Tell me the truth, and I will listen. When I’m wrong, I’ll deal with it. I’ll chew and digest what I hear no matter how unseemly it seems 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. Because I know how to self-examine. I know how to bend, to flex; I also know how to stand still. I don’t need a hierarchical voice to show me the way, or make me do right, because I’m already listening.

I use no hierarchical voice on my son, either. I don’t expect obedience from him. I expect from him, and give to him, respect: for people’s boundaries and our own, people’s wishes and our own, people’s insights and our own — and when there’s conflict between one thing and another, I try to search out the cleanest way through.

Asking someone to tune out their own voice and just accept what’s handed to them doesn’t strike me as good or necessary. If the church is fundamentally opposed to a body of thinking, sensing sheep, I call it lazy. The hierarchy has no authority that we do not grant it, and for my part, I see no reason to grant it. I think cooperation is enough. Taking accountability is enough. Loving the good and pursuing it is enough.

In any case, I submit to the Way, not to the road that leads in its direction but is built by human hands.

So — as to Oliver’s exhortations, I will consider the wisdom of the church, suspend my doubt and 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. In this respect, I will follow his advice and gladly.

But in the end? I reserve the right to decide if what I’m hearing is true or not. To accept it or not. I don’t think you can call that obedience. If, in the end, it’s not the shepherd? I won’t go. My love for the church will be shown in challenge, not consent.