Obedience and the Christian Life

There is no way around it: the Christian’s life is to be one of obedience. “Let him who has ears to hear, hear,” says Jesus. That does not mean that we are beholden only to God, under our own understanding of who God is and what He wants from us. God in His mercy does not abandon us to our vagaries. He chooses to save persons through persons, says Saint Edith Stein, recommending, for progress in the spiritual life, that we seek a director, and heed the person’s advice; and this wisdom holds even for people who by the grace of God have advanced beyond where their directors are. Jesus did not found a club of like-minded individuals. He founded a Church, and said to Peter and the apostles, “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” If men reject you, said Jesus, they reject Him.

Nor must we obey only in spiritual matters. “Be subject to the authorities,” says Saint Paul, “because all authority is of God.” Even in our personal dealings with one another, in matters outside of the purview of the State or the supervision of pastors and bishops, we should cultivate the virtue of obedience. “Let there be subordination among you,” says Paul.

That sounds strange to modern ears. We hug ourselves for being independent, thinking for ourselves, following our dreams, obeying the voice within, and so forth. A lot of nonsense. Observe how we live. We allow, without a whimper, encroachments upon political liberties far beyond anything ever imagined by the amiable George III. We allow “experts” to tell us how to dress, what to eat, how to discipline children, what they should be taught in school, what toothpaste to use, how often we should evacuate our bowels, what prayers we may say in public places, whom we may insult with impunity and whom we must not refrain from praising, and so forth. We suffer meekly the imposition of laws that no legislator has ever read, adding daily tonnage to a vast mass without structure, small portions of which surpass the capacity of any citizen to comprehend. The whole of contemporary sales, polling, politicking, and schooling would collapse in a cloud of dust, like a big rotten mushroom, if we really were the independent thinkers and leaders we say we are.

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Far be it from me to urge “leadership” upon poor suffering mankind. Thanks be to God, true leaders are rare. Leadership is not a virtue so much as a heavy duty that certain few people must accept, often against their inclinations. What’s more, if you are moved by an obvious passion to lead others, that may be ambition, in Latin literally a going round and round to canvas for votes, and ambition was considered, by both the pagan Romans and the early Christians, to be a disreputable and dangerous vice. That view persisted into the modern era. “But Brutus says that Caesar was ambitious,” says Shakespeare’s Mark Antony to the crowds, knowing well that ambition alone would justify the assassination, and therefore slyly suggesting that the truly ambitious men were Brutus and Cassius.

If it’s true that few men are meant to lead, it’s also true that everyone, even leaders, must obey. Let’s not fool ourselves. We obey the Lord who commands only what is good for us and forbids only what is harmful to us, and whose law sets us free, or obey the lord of the darkness below, whose boastful non serviam is the primal lie; who tempts us with license, to imprison us forever. We obey, or we obey. There is no third choice.

Here I hear the objection, “You are recommending blind obedience! What of those German soldiers who obeyed Hitler?” It’s the newest of fallacies, this argumentum ad Adolphum. Show the most superficial resemblance to something that happened under the Nazis, call it evil, lift your nose in the air, and walk off stage. One might as well swear off driving cars because Hitler built the Autobahn, or kick Rover because Hitler liked dogs, or eviscerate the army because Hitler started a war, or never march in public because Hitler loved a parade. I’ve never heard, by the way, of anyone swearing off fornication because Hitler had his Eva Braun.

True obedience is not blind; it is keen of hearing. That’s what the Latin word oboedire means: to hear what is spoken to you, to heed it, to take it into yourself and make it yours. “Faith comes by hearing,” says Saint Paul, and he means more than advertising. He means listening, hearing, heeding. Really to hear the words of Jesus are to keep them, as a treasure within; as the Psalmist meditates upon the law of the Lord as he lies upon his bed at night. A man without someone worthy of obedience is a wanderer in a trackless forest, wherein nothing he sees or hears can guide him in the way to go. Perhaps that’s why the one man whose faith causes Jesus astonishment is not a thinker, or an ambitious fellow, but a centurion—a sergeant, who lives a life of obeying and being obeyed. “I too am a man under authority,” he says.

Yet problems can arise when your superior commands one thing, and you wish to do another. We must obey God and not men, the apostles say. “And I will place within them as a guide / My umpire Conscience,” says the Father in Milton’s Paradise Lost, and the conscience too, that stern monitor, must be heard. What then?

In this article and several to follow, I’d like to look at kinds of difficulties posed by the virtue of obedience. The first: what should we do when the authority commands us to do what we recognize as good, but we wish instead to do something we believe is better?

Let me give an example. Suppose the father tells his son to go down to the sheepfold to mend a fence, which has been battered by a storm. The son prepares to do just that, but when he arrives, he notices that the storm has washed out the land under a portion of the fence at the back of the pen, leaving a gully through which animals can get in and out. He can’t call his father. He says, “I’ll do what my father would surely want me to do first. I’m going to pile up those boulders to seal off the gully.”

Is he disobeying? Far from it. Is he deferring his obedience to a more opportune time? No, not even that. He’s taken his father’s command and made it his own. He has heard. He does not presume to be wiser than his father. He doesn’t say, “My father wants this farm to bear fruit, and I know better how that is to be done.” In other words, he does not dismiss the father’s authority. Instead, he allows that authority to be a fount of increase in his own heart and mind. He becomes his father’s delegate. It is precisely because he is really obedient that he does what his father would do, if he himself were there. Notice that the more obedient you are—the more your ears are open to the desire of the legitimate superior—the freer you are; you are like the good son, exercising your initiative under and by means of your father’s authority.

But suppose the son does deny the father’s authority in principle. He doesn’t say that what the father desires is bad. He has no qualms of conscience on that score. Instead he feels the urging of independence, of ambition, of a desire to be out from under the father’s rule. Or maybe he is simply inattentive, and in love with his own thoughts. In any case, he wants not to fulfill his father’s intent but to replace it with something he deems better. So instead of repairing the fence, he hangs about the marketplace dickering with the merchants for a good price on the wool to be harvested.

Even if he comes back with a fine deal, he has disobeyed, and has done more harm than good, since he has undermined the very principle upon which the farm is run. Such disobedience may appear to “work” once in a while, in the short run, but the immediate personal and spiritual harm is to sever the son from the father; the father will not trust the son, and the son does not respect the father. There is a way which appears good to a man, says Solomon. It leads to destruction.

Suppose a magisterial document from an ecumenical council were to specify that, for liturgical music, the pipe organ holds pride of place, and that the laity ought to be taught the Church’s great heritage of chant. Suppose also that the document encourages composers and musicians to work with a range of “new” instruments, in concord both with the culture and with the sacred purpose of the Mass. It is clear what the document means. We can “hear” it by humble reception. It is not really so difficult, since there is no contradiction between learning ancient music and being guided by that same ancient music to compose new music fit for the liturgy, even if one employs instruments that had not been employed before.

Now suppose that a son of the Church, call him Heedless, says, “Finally, we may compose as we please. They don’t really mean what they say about the organ and chant. What I want will be better anyway, and I’ll point to that last sentence if I raise any hackles.” Heedless admits there is nothing wrong with the old music; it is not a sin to play it; he could obey; but he marches to the beat of a Different Drummer.

I don’t write in jest. If obedience—hearing—brings understanding, as Jesus says, then sin is the earwax of the soul. The children of Israel are never condemned for listening too closely, or being too humble, or not setting forth in New Directions. “All they like sheep have gone astray,” says Isaiah. They have ears, but they do not hear. Jesus recommends otherwise.

Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from “Delivery of the Keys to St. Peter” painted by Pietro Perugino in the Sistine Chapel in 1481-82.


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