A few unorthodox observations

I am no longer interested in establishing who is right and who is wrong, or guidelines for determining who is in and who is out. I am only interested in getting closer to the Truth—or, if you prefer, learning how to live in increasing harmony with God’s economy.

This is one reason why I am fascinated by the growing controversy over Pope Francis. I have no dog in the fight over the future of the Roman Catholic church, and probably couldn’t be much further away from Francis on matters of ecclesiology. But I think he is correct in pointing out Christendom’s ongoing failures, and the resulting discomfort in some circles indicates that he is turning over some interesting rocks.

No one has changed my mind more about how to read the Bible than Andrew Perriman. Somehow he has persuaded me that the Bible speaks much less comprehensively to Christians than the conventional wisdom tells us—and at the same time it has deeper, richer meaning to offer, if only we will read its stories on their own terms intead of universalizing its lessons. How he managed to take away all the old comforts, and yet leave me more comfortable, is a magic act I haven’t yet figured out.

A bit more than a year after rediscovering Dallas Willard, I’m more convinced than ever that our proper goal is not behaving properly, but becoming the kind of person to whom proper behavior is second nature. I’ve known this for much more than a year, but Willard is the one who crystallized the thought and filled in the details for me.

I suppose this idea is neglected or outright rejected because the alternative—telling people how to behave, and expecting/exhorting them to such behavior through dint of sheer willpower—is what keeps teachers and pastors employed. If instead we only allowed/expected them to help us become fully Christian, and judged their performance by the results—well, who could pass such a test? I’m willing to raise my children this way, and to be judged based on the results in their lives. No one I know seems to be interested in putting me (or anyone else) to such a test in their own lives—and perhaps that’s just as well.

One nice thing about being an anarchist, Christian or otherwise, is that consistency allows you to believe that others are wrong but insists that you not impose your own correctness on them. Limiting, but also liberating.

12 thoughts on “A few unorthodox observations

  1. Are you really an anarchist? Isn’t anarchy always a temporary situation between one form of government or another?

  2. Angela,

    I don’t champion the idea, but as long as we’re agreed on the definition I’ll own up to being a Christian anarchist. To me it’s a matter of rejecting the validity of human authority. Which isn’t to say you don’t have to deal with it! And deal with it in a Christian manner to boot. But that is different than endorsing it.

    Tolstoy is the best-known Christian anarchist, and can even be thought of as founding the idea, though it has its roots in Anabaptism and earlier pacifistic strains of the faith. My hero Jacques Ellul was a modern-day example. Some helpful books on the topic are Anarchy and Christianity by Ellul, Christian Anarchy by Vernard Eller, and Christian Archy by Dave Black.

    To answer your second question, I prefer to view governments as wrong-headed (and, unfortunately, extremely long-lived) interludes between times when men and women take direct personal responsibility for their behavior in this world, e.g. during the time of the Judges. As bad as things sometimes were in that interval, the only acknowledged king was God. And then the children of Israel got tired of the situation and demanded a human king—or, as God rightly recognized, rejected him as King.

    Just to be clear, I submit (i.e. yield) to plenty of external authorities other than God, but only as a pragmatic matter. God alone commands my obedience.

  3. Maybe I am not clear on the situation during the time of the Judges, but it seems to me that there was some authority (the Judges) who were responsible for helping the people to rightly apply the law that God had given them. Would that not be government?

  4. Angela,

    I’m basing my idea of that time on Judges 21:25, “In those days Israel had no king, everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” I’m sure the judges were a great help in fine-tuning one’s eyesight!

  5. I hope that I am not belaboring a point here, but do you think that the Judges had no power to enforce, or punish those who disregarded the law which God had given them?

  6. Angela,

    You aren’t belaboring it at all, anarchy is a weird and foreign concept if you haven’t previously entertained it.

    I think a plain reading of the phrase “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” suggest that there was no forcible imposition of authority—the only “enforcement” power I can envision which would be consistent with that is persuasion, namely persuading all parties that the judge’s verdict was right.

    Such a thing is hard to imagine in this day and age, but I think that most premodern cultures, absent the intervention of a king (through his soldiers and other officials), had to operate largely on such a principle. I’m thinking of something like the village in The Seven Samurai, which surely had internal issues of justice to deal with—none of which the Imperial authorities would have been interested in, as long as they paid their taxes. They dealt with them among themselves using consensus and social pressure, and when a really difficult situation arose they went to the village elder … to ask his advice … which they grudgingly followed, not liking it but acknowledging his wisdom.

    I am not a Bible scholar so I may be wrong (and would happy to be corrected), but I don’t recall anywhere in the book of Judges how a particular judge’s verdicts were carried out. And I don’t think Israel’s demand for a king stemmed from a desire to switch to a different form of government—how could it have been much different if the judges had enforcement power?—but because they were sick and tired of the uncertainty and personal demands that anarchy imposed on them. Something like people’s desire to find a good, authoritative church to guide and form them, rather than just getting on with the business of developing solid Christian character in themselves!

  7. The ideal, of course, is for our behavior and our hearts to line up perfectly, as they did with Jesus. But there’s so much failure to do so on both sides of the spectrum that it calls for what Pope Francis calls “pastoral solutions.” Which means, naturally, what do you do when you’re dealing with a very imperfect situation and are trying to love other people. Sure, there are moral rules, and I don’t think anyone is saying that divorce is good, but Pope Francis isn’t in any situation to set an example by excommunicating the likes of King Henry VIII, and we all know how that turned out anyway.

    I’d say he’s in the situation of a lot of parents of adult children, writ large. They may be making mistakes (whether they are breaking the Ten Commandments or not) that you as an older adult know are likely to have painful consequences, but there’s still a relationship, and you know that heartfelt connection is your best chance of improving it. Also, as an older adult, you now see your unintended role in having created the problem. So how do you foster that connection and healing? Like you, I’d one’s best chance is to live it, fully, every single day.

  8. Laura,

    Pastoral solutions—I like it! And I like this:

    there’s still a relationship, and you know that heartfelt connection is your best chance of improving it. Also, as an older adult, you now see your unintended role in having created the problem. So how do you foster that connection and healing?

    I’ve been able to take a lot of comfort from the mishmash of Zen, anarchy, and agrarianism my outlook has taken on exactly because it reduces my role in the world to one of heartfelt connection. I see ever more clearly how the law of unintended consequences has operated in my own life, for good and ill. Things I’ve done have had effects, but often not the intended ones. Almost always when I tried to bring something about I would have been better off sticking to my knitting—doing justice, loving mercy, walking humbly. Anarchism is for me the congealed version of this truth.

    Likewise, Zen is for me the recognition that God made this world for a certain kind of person, one who behaves in a certain way, and all our woes stem from behaving in ways that aren’t aligned with His economy. But it is also the recognition that the economy already exists, it is not something we need to bring about through our own efforts. Rather we need to get on with discerning it and then bringing ourselves into ever closer harmony with it.

    And agrarianism? It’s the “tend your garden” metaphor, the idea that we can plant and water but not give the growth. What little power we have is properly exercised in creating an environment where others can flourish—which always involves leaving them about their own flourishing, and sometimes involves adjusting our own understanding of what it means to flourish. Looking back over our family history, I can say that for most of it I’ve invested myself in enabling the others to flourish, by clearing obstacles and adjusting our circumstances and learning how the world works, and by being an example of someone devoted to those things. I can’t take credit for the flourishing that resulted—or blame for the lack of it. I can take credit for setting the stage well in some situations and the blame for doing it badly in others, but it’s such an uncertain and indeterminate process that I can’t take any pride or shame in it, only satisfaction to the extent that in a given situation I did the best I knew how at the time.

  9. Angela,

    This blog post takes a brief look at the book of Judges from an anarchist perspective. I only just stumbled across the website and so I don’t mean this as an endorsement (I certainly didn’t expect to see Ellen White cited!), but the writer makes a decent case that the judges had no enforcement power.

  10. One thing I appreciate about acknowledges of the postmodern condition in theological writings generally is that they seem to me to correspond more strongly to my own increasingly fragmented perception of reality. I think one of the problems of teachers is not so much that they exhort, but rather that they insist on logical consistency. A lot of life is not logically consistent; it’s context driven; either the contexts conflict or we don’t see how they connect. To put it in terms of one of Pope Francis’ current problems — most of the time, people should be encouraged to work out their problems and stay together and they should be aware that this will require greater sacrifices of them than they may want to make. However, sometimes, they are not able to stay together, and in these cases they should not be condemned, either. The problem is always telling which individuals are in which group …

  11. To decide which individuals are in which group is what the annulment process is supposed to do. It has its own problems, especially bureaucracy, but the point is that if there is a problem that makes the marriage totally unworkable, likely it was present in some form from the start. I’m not here to debate that, just provide an explanation that not everyone may be aware of.

  12. I understand that (I’m a scholar of church history), but I think that’s part of the problem, frankly — the notion that the process should tell you who is eligible. To be perfectly discerning, G-d would have to conduct the process.

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