The Paradox of Submission

BY TOMMY SCHACHT

This piece is part of syndicated series in collaboration with Yale Logos for Lent 2021. You can read the original piece at https://www.yalelogos.com/home/the-paradox-of-submission.

Lent is a season of penance. We seek to imitate Christ in the desert, in preparation for his Crucifixion and Resurrection. We seek mortification not out of pride or self-regard, but to better submit ourselves to God. 

I have always been emotionally attached to submission, even though it has become a bit of a dirty word in modern America. We really love freedom, which we understand to be little more than the autonomy of our wills. As a result, we are uncomfortable with relationships that might constrain this “freedom.” The relationship between student and teacher has become more collegial and collaborative. Social circles and organizations we belong to are reticent to oblige modification of our behavior and comportment. 

I have never desired such “freedom.” To me, submission to proper authority is a prerequisite for virtuous living. I submit to my parents who can rightly set dictates. I submit to my professors’ instruction not merely because of merit and expertise, but because that is their role over me. This instinct for deference was present prior to my baptism—how are we to live if we never submit to anyone? Am I supposed to deny the authority of my professor in class? Am I, the ten-year-old, supposed to tell my parents to buzz off when they tell me to eat my greens? It seems the most obvious thing in the world that to be human is to submit to authority; the only question is to whom do we ultimately submit? For me, this was the secular version of the idea that man is made to worship, and that if we do not have a God, we will end up inventing one. Now that I am a Christian, my predilection for deference has taken on a new force. Now I know there is a God who is owed my perfect submission; my response ought to be “yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). I have been struggling for a long time to ascertain what this submission actually entails. What does submitting to God actually look like?

For many Christians, the answer is fairly simple. They were raised in a church and were inculcated in the theology of that community. For them, religion is something passed down from generation to generation. This is noble, but it is not my experience. I come from an irreligious family, and I was baptised when I was 17. I was, in a way, forced into an evaluative stance; I was given no other option. I had to go about evaluating the different denominations and theologies, ascertaining which one seemed to accord with Scripture and reason. 

For many, having to evaluate may not seem like a problem. After all, this is the modus operandi of many Christian churches. One reads Scripture, and one comes to know Christ and His commandments. However, this is a deeply unsatisfying proposition for me. I do not feel at all confident in my capacity for reason. People have come to vastly different conclusions about everything, including Scriptural interpretation: just look at the Catholic and Protestant interpretations of “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” from John 6 for proof enough of that. [1] Catholics believe that the bread and wine in the Eucharist are transformed in essence into the Body and Blood of Christ, merely continuing to appear to be bread and wine. Some Protestants believe Christ is mystically present in the Lord’s Supper, while still others believe it to be merely a symbol to remember Christ’s Crucifixion. Given this substantive, lasting disagreement, it felt like a particular kind of arrogance to submit to the interpretive capacity of individuals not explicitly set apart for this purpose (After all, what authority did Luther have to remove books of Scripture? His doctorate of theology?), or even worse, myself. I was looking for a surer rock upon which to build my faith. 

Eventually, I found this rock in the Catholic Church. Here was an institution that not only welcomed deference, but required it. I could trust in something more than Luther’s brilliance as a surety that he was correct. Instead, I could point to the Apostolic Succession back to Peter. Indeed, if one looks at the early Church it seems that the episcopal polity preceded Scripture, and decided for the Church what Scripture contained (one might say that the Holy Spirit guided them only in that particular instance, but that seems like an oddly limited claim). If we look for the earliest example of what we know as the Bible being promulgated, it is arguably the Synod of Hippo Regius in 393, or the Latin Vulgate in 383 A.D. However, the Synod was a council of Bishops and the Vulgate was commissioned by Pope Damasus I; it seems that we accept the authority of Scripture by virtue of the bishops who approve them, not the other way around. By virtue of their ecclesiastical position, I could defer to the Church hierarchy, just as I would my parents, teachers, and government officials.

As nice as this setup is, there remains a trap I cannot escape: my will. After all, why am I Catholic? Because I believe in the authority of the Catholic Church. Why do I believe that? Because I have reasoned my way to my position. So I haven’t really avoided my problem at all! I still have to trust in myself to make the decision of who to trust. Me, even though one of my defining theological beliefs is in my inability to trust myself, which is the whole reason I need to submit in the first place. It is a vicious Catch-22: I need to submit to authority because I can’t trust myself, but I need to trust myself to decide who to submit to.

Alas, I have yet to solve this dilemma. It seems to be a burden that comes with living on this Earth with limited knowledge and original sin, that we can’t escape our reliance on our own will. Nevertheless, we must do our best to follow Scripture’s exhortation, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.” (Proverbs 3:5)

Tommy Schacht is a senior studying history at Yale.


[1]  Catholic.Lutheran. Reformed.

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