The Verbal Dynamics of Spiritual Cousins, or, The Trouble with Talking Theologically

Nothing’s lost. Or else: all is translation / And every bit of us is lost in […]

Zach Williams / 6.20.11

Nothing’s lost. Or else: all is translation / And every bit of us is lost in it.

James Merrill, “Lost in Translation”

A Simple Conversation

It may be more strenuous to discuss theology with my theological cousin than with another with whom I have only a passing ideological kinship. Language simultaneously hides, reveals, and obscures differences in theological priority or emphasis that, though logically subtle, yield immense differences in the style, tone, and attitude of daily living. Recently, I spoke with a minister about the difficulty I have had with committing to a church, or engaging with a Christian community—“being intentional,” as they often call it. I told him:

“I have a hard time going to church. I grew up in churches that hammered me with obligations, and I default to thinking about church as a harsh place, and I easily think of compelled religious practice as a requirement for God’s approval. I don’t default to thinking about church as an enjoyable or inviting place.”

“I understand,” he responds, compassionately. “A lot of churches focus so much on moral responsibility that they overwhelm the central importance of the gospel.”

“Exactly! It’s like you can get in the door freely, but after that you have to work, work, work to get ‘closer to God.’”

“That is certainly no good. Grace should always be the top priority of any Christian community, its laser focus. It is grace and not any of your effort at all that allows you to become holy.”

“Well, I would think one is holy as soon as he had received grace. I’ve more recently been assured that ‘getting closer to God,’ so to speak, entails little more than passivity and transparency.”

“True, that is true. But God is constantly conforming you to Christ’s image. And by the knowledge that you are loved regardless of what you do, by the fact that you have received grace through the Holy Spirit, you can join God in conforming yourself to that image. It’s your union with Christ that allows you to enter community intentionally and do other good works.”

“That sounds like an awfully tiring task. And I so easily revert to thinking that I must go to church for God to love me.”

“You don’t need to think that way. You obey every day, I bet. You treat your friends well, you read your Bible. You’ve been given the tools to obey. When you run up against a command you have a hard time obeying, you should simply repent and believe in God’s grace. Then you can obey. That obedience strengthens your faith. Doing good works—like being in a church community—becomes a way of learning submission, rather than a condition of God’s favor.”

“Submission? Oh, I don’t believe in submission.”

I don’t believe in submission. The denial is a general one. It may address any number of the presuppositions behind the statement from my minister friend. As the tree limb splits into branches, the logical possibilities arch in several directions. Perhaps the minister has heard me make an ethical judgment about submission. He understood me as saying that submission is not an ethical good, that it is an improper and immoral posture and inconsistent with the Good. By way of analogy, one could change the object, e.g. “I don’t believe in kicking dogs” or “I don’t believe in executing murderers.” The minister hears me reject the object as a desirable end. Perhaps he hears me reject the Bible’s injunctions as a template for the good life or even God as a worthy master.

Or perhaps the minister has heard me reject the existence of submission as a concept. Understood this way, I have said that the transaction he terms “submission” never happens, that one who appears to defer his will to that of another always acts upon some hidden, egotistical principle. I therefore think of submission as I think of the unicorn, the fountain of youth, and the perpetual motion machine.

Pinky Perdue

This sense is not the meaning I intended either. Of course there is a phenomenon rightly described as submission; any fool knows it, whether or not he sees it as a holy act. Daily I submit to the reality that, today at least, I must sit at a desk, research the law, and speak with attorneys in order to pay my rent, buy food, and feed my beagle. I submit to this reality because it is, in many bad times, better than the alternatives. There are even a few commands from God to which I can submit. I’ve never murdered. But then again I haven’t found myself with much desire to murder.

Perhaps the minister heard me contend that I have no faith in submission, that it is not within my grasp, or, yet again, that I do not “believe in” it as a primary, actuating principle with any hope for return. In this way submission is like the air I breathe: it comes and goes whether I am happy or sad, angry or forgiving, hungry or full. I do not call upon air. I do not labor or strive to have it enter my lungs. Air’s function is a by-product of my humanity—and, so long as I have functioning lungs, an unfailing, trustworthy by-product, at that. When submission is like air, my actuating principles are the prerogatives of life—waking up, brushing my teeth, shaking my friend’s hand, telling God about my despair, drinking my coffee (lots of it). I can trust air so long as my lungs work. My actuating principle is not breathing air, because I simply have too little faith in my own ability to teach myself to breathe properly. So it is with submission: I’ve no faith in it as an actuating principle, because I have too little faith in my control of the required tools. When it comes to those commands that give me trouble, submission is the unicorn.

I don’t believe in submission—in the latter sense. It appears like a minor difference, one that I frankly find grindingly difficult to excavate from the language when in conversation with my theological cousin; but one that makes an immense difference in the attitudes in which my cousin and I approach the day. We walk with different postures. So even though my cousin and I are close–the blood of close relations runs through our veins–we feel far apart.

Nonetheless, my cousin is my friend. We share the blood of relations. He must be my friend. I ought to somehow remember that he is my friend.

subscribe to the Mockingbird newsletter


One response to “The Verbal Dynamics of Spiritual Cousins, or, The Trouble with Talking Theologically”

  1. William C says:

    Please mine this vein. Oh, please, please mine this vein.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *