Saturday, December 20, 2008

Contemplations in Theology: #4

This is my controversial fourth "Contemplation in Theology." Most commentators took issue with my reading of Ephesians 5:23-28, on the issue of headship and marriage. I explored this issue and this passage in greater depth in my "Commentary on Scripture: Ephesians", which can be found here.
~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~

I have recently taken to describing myself as a medievalist, and I'm often asked what that term means. It is far too involved for a simple answer to do it justice; that's why I started this series of notes. But here is a useful definition.

As a medievalist, I think, I feel, I believe in terms of hierarchies.

I am a rationalist; when I was younger, I would have described myself as an analytic philosopher if it were not for the strange looks I received. I think in terms of definitions, categories, discrete ideas and concepts. But categories in isolation are not sufficient; they must be placed in relation to one another.

This is the principle of hierarchy: placing things--ideas, functions, virtues, people--in relation to each other, identifying them by what is above, below, and beside them.

Man was created for the worship of God, for fellowship with others, and for stewardship of Nature. This is a hierarchy.

In marriage, Ephesians 5:23-28 outlines another hierarchy: "For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church.... Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.... Husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies."

It would be fatal to stop at verse 24, to merely apply this command to women. It is preceded by a call for the entire Church to submit to one another; it is succeeded by a call for husbands to give themselves up and practice sacrificial love.

Hierarchy is not a static or rigid structure; it is essentially dynamic and flexible. There are different hierarchies operating even on the same things, if we are measuring for different qualities.

Hierarchy is not a linear relationship; it is fundamentally circular. It is not so concerned with authority and subservience as it is with understanding things in their proper relations, in their appointed places.

Hierarchy is not a uni-directional principle; it is necessarily reciprocal. By this I do not mean that if A is above, then B is below. True reciprocity means that if we place A above B in one respect, we must place A below B in another. It all depends on the scale we use.

Nothing can be more pernicious than a simplistic understanding of hierarchy: that is at the root of sexism, racism, Social Darwinism, imperialism--the great cultural sins of recent Western history. In fact, it may well be said that ignorance of hierarchy is the root of error. For, if we do not understand ideas (or worse, we understand them, but fail to understand the relation and interaction between them), how can we know Truth?

More pointedly, however, I believe that sin itself is fundamentally a rejection of hierarchy.

This ought to be self-evident in one sense, for sin--as an act of rebellion against God--is a rejection of the hierarchy of loyalty. But there is another truth to be found. In "Out of the Silent Planet," C.S. Lewis notes that Weston was corrupted by elevating the virtue of "love for humanity" to an inordinate level, to where it took precedent over any other virtue. Likewise, greed elevates the love of money--material necessities, security--out of proportion; gluttony elevates the love of food--material luxuries, comfort. Virtue is corrupted when it is taken out of the hierarchy; thus, sin is essentially a re-ordering of the hierarchy.

Earlier I wrote that error is more convincing to the degree that it contains elements of truth. Likewise, I believe, sin is more pervasive and dangerous to the degree that it incorporates elements of virtue.

The desire for intimacy and sexual satisfaction is undeniably a virtue--it has an entire book devoted to it (Song of Songs), and is often described in parallel to Christ's relationship to his Church. When the sexual desire is elevated out of proportion, it becomes the sin of lust. And this is why lust is so pernicious an issue: the greater the virtue that is perverted, the greater the sin that it becomes.

But I am called to write of something I cannot fully understand. Hierarchy does not merely help us identify the roots of error and sin. Hierarchy is itself the foundation of virtue.

Just as the greatest sin is in rejecting or replacing the hierarchy instituted by God, so the greatest and most all-encompassing virtue is in desiring one's proper place in the order of God's Creation.

I desire to submit myself before God, demonstrating with love, loyalty, word and deed my worship of the One Who Is. I desire to enter in fellowship with others, loving my neighbor as myself, as befitting equals. I desire to submit myself to those above me, in proportion to their prerogative; I desire to exercise my own authority with care and charity. I desire to acquit myself in stewardship of that and those under my care.

I am a man perpetually restless. I am not content; I am always searching for what I can do, what I ought to do. I yearn for rest. And if this were truly my desire--to be as I ought, to think as I ought, to live as God made me to live--would I not find my place there? Thus did the stoics and ancients speak of resting in God, of contentment, of peace.

Forgive my selfish prayer: may the peace of God weigh on me.

No comments:

Post a Comment