“I don’t trust myself to form my own theology or polity. The institution isn’t infallible but fallible people like me need to submit to it” – E. Peterson
Recently a pastor and acquaintance posted this quote on Facebook.
This quote makes me uncomfortable. The word “submit,” especially when referencing an institution. Maybe it is living in Germany where, for good historical reasons, people are especially wary of institutional power over individuals and of any thing that reeks of authoritarianism (we remember Pogram-Nacht tomorrow and will be at the place where a local synagogue in our town was destroyed, while many well-intentioned people submitted to the authorities, religious and political, by remaining silent). But I also think that as a woman I am learning to value and trust my own opinion and instincts in matters religious and personal more deeply as I get old, even though I know I am also fallible. I will not willingly relinquish to any institution my own need and responsibility to wrestle with the truth myself, to engage deeply with theological ideas or ideas about church polity and how it needs to be reformed, even or especially to the church (and I am minister, so this is sometimes tough, because that institution is also my employer!). In fact, I think that it is my own God-given responsibility as an adult to cultivate my conscience and pay attention to it, with guidance from the voices of the “saints” through time and today. Not believing I have all the answers but also not deferring too quickly to “how things are” in theology or polity. Of course, I am willing to be held accountable by the community of believers as a community if that is what Peterson is getting at but I am not giving away what I have finally learned to claim: my own story, my experience, my opinions, my voice.
I had a professor in seminary in the States (Stanley Hauerwas) who, on the first day of his intro to ethics class famously stated “You don’t have minds worth making up!” He was trying to criticize the extreme individualism of our society which focuses entirely on choice and which yields people who believe life is about picking and choosing what one likes, whether theologies or cars. He argued that this mindset has profoundly shaped us so that we unconsciously adopt the values of our democratic, market-driven, sometimes militaristic society without realizing that those were the values to which we adhered. We constantly believe we are making choices when in fact, we are following the scripts we have been given, he argued. Fair enough. And yet… I can agree with the critique but not his conclusions.
Because his response seemed to be that the church was the place where I needed to be reshaped into a new person and that translated in practice to a more or less uncritical following of the church and expectation that the church should dictate my choices instead. Or at least I saw a number of fellow students, especially doctoral students, seemingly follow this path. They seemed to believe there was one coherent tradition historically that was reliable, one reliable form of authority now which could be trusted. But it seems to me that this naive trust in a fallible institution with a messy history was precisely the kind of authoritarian view of church power that led to our current situation in the first place. We can’t simply go back to some mythical time when the church knows best, and when church authorities tell me what to believe and what to do as the solution to the problem of individualism, pluralism, fragmentation. I do believe the church can be a place where we tell stories about God and the world, where we learn to practice virtue and embody justice, where we act out liberation and cultivate hope. It must be a collaborative community, a transformative community, not an authoritarian or exclusive one. But the goal is not to lose our minds but to re-make them again, to let them be renewed – together.