Becoming One Under God – Theonomy rather than Autonomy or Heteronomy

As one meditates through Lent one reflects on realities one knew about, but which come alive anew. One such was Bp Robert Barron’s citing Paul Tillich’s analysis that peoples and nations alternate between heteronomy (when one’s life is determined by another person or group, such as a father in the family, a government in a nation, or law imposed on one) and autonomy (in which one’s life is determined by oneself). This alternation is often violent, such as when the colonists in what became the United States of America, resenting the order imposed on them by the colonial power, England – basically taxation both for the expenses of governing the colonies and for the benefit of England (many of the colonies were established as investments) staged a violent revolution and then in turn put down the Whiskey Rebellion against the taxes imposed by the new central government on the frontier makers of whiskey. One similarly sees this on the level of the family with the teenager who rebelled wishing to control their own family as they age and have children of their own. For Tillich and even more for Bp Barron the solution was theonomy in which people submit to the rule that stems from God, which is a rule of love in that it seeks the good of the other, not of the ruler. But it is true and principled and not liable to one’s own’s desires. As long as one is run by one’s own desires, there is fragmentation in society and chaos is one’s life – we need to be ordered by another, but the other to be acceptable must be recognized as ordering out of love, which is precisely the nature of God, both internally and externally towards whatever he has created. In other words, good social order requires conversion of heart.

The second element in my reflections was Luke 11:14-23, the demonized boy, who was in chaos, for the demonic is characterized by akatastasia(Greek), i.e. instability. The degree of organization is like that among orcs in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, for they jostle together and even fight as they jog along in companies, kept in order by the whips of those who rule them. The tongue is, in this respect, demonic, for it is a restless evil in Jas 3:8, or, as the person of divided loyalties, unstable (Jas 1:8). The divisive pseudo-wisdom of Jas 3:14 – 16 is indeed unstable (akatastasiaagain), but it is also “demonic.” It is no wonder that in his call to repentance in the next chapter James calls for submission to God and resistance to “the devil” (Jas 4:7). In the case of the boy, once the demonic is expelled the boy is integrated and able to integrate into society. It is interesting to note that Jesus relates the expulsion of such spirits to prayer (and in some manuscripts “fasting” – but the two go together in that fasting is a “no” to this age while prayer is an alignment of the self under God), Lenten disciplines, which align one under God and return one to submission to him.

This relates to the present state of the world, which was well-described in the latest work of Robert Cardinal Sarah, The Day is Far Spent(which will come out in English in September) as described in a recent interview. The West in general (and I would add the USA especially) is in the grip of its passions, or, one could say, a radical autonomy. Thus there is a tendency to impose heteronomy on others, for only a strong power can bring the forces of autonomy to (temporary) heel, which Cardinal Sarah sees as Western imperialism trying to force its (corrupt) values on Africa or, we could add, the desire to use the heteronomous power of government to impose behavior and values on those in society– without conversion of heart – which is why Cardinal Sarah opposes the elements of the social agenda of those who would turn the Church into a social force rather than a spiritual force. He has already called for a return to this spiritual core (a core that draws from the deeper reality of God) in his work The Power of Silence.

This also fits with what Bowen Theory observes that the more anxious, more passion driven, undifferentiated selves are chaotic forces in society, while the true leaders are the less anxious, more thinking, differentiated selves. As Edwin Friedman pointed out in Failure of Nerve(posthumous work after his 1996 death that draws upon his earlier work), the emotionally driven society is what we see in the USA. And he would surely underline that today from a President who goes by his “gut feelings” rather than studies, analyses and reports (and that is what he says he does, although others concur) to an opposition that calls in highly emotional scare headlines for the rising up of “the people” to “demand” this or that. One is not surprised to see writers suggesting that the election of 2020 could bring about a type of revolution.

The solution is hardly in Protestantism, for at a time when the various principalities were asserting their own autonomy against the heteronomy of the Holy Roman Empire, the various Reformers proclaimed a type of autonomy in the principle of sola scriptura. Of course, autonomy was only taken so far, for when the peasants rebelled, Luther was all for the use of the forces of the state to ruthlessly impose heteronomy. Unfortunately, the Church did need reform, and we see it in its championing of the suppression of various reform movements by the Holy Roman Empire (which was indeed threatened). Meanwhile, the various principalities used the various reform movements to give religious sanction to their own aspirations of independence. Martyrs were numerous on both sides. But that also meant that Reformation was an infelicitous title, for while it may have started that way, in the end there was no reform but only a fractured revolution with the parts hating one another almost as much as they hated Rome (and more when Rome became less of a threat). The reform came, but it came in the Council of Trent that in fact codified into Church law 76 of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses. But the genie of akatastasiawas already out of the bottle, for now there are 20,000 to 30,000 Protestant denominations (and does this count the many independent churches and house churches?) of every stripe of theology and often factions within the various denominations, factions that ultimately cannot be contained.

At times the Catholic Church has joined some Protestants in trying to use the state to control the autonomy of individuals as in their joint efforts at suppressing abortion. Laudable as the goal is, the means are not the conversion of hearts to a divine order, but an attempt to impose a heteronomy on the destructive autonomy of some, which will in turn lead to the breaking out of a new revolution against that heteronomy, for there will be abuses that will get publicized. The state, of course, is often vary willing to use this desire for state control to gain support for its wider agenda, an agenda that splits the very groups it is using. Thus those desiring health care that would lower the appalling rate of maternal and infant mortality in the USA and those who read their scripture as welcoming the immigrant and especially the refugee are often suppressed, or the attempt is made to suppress them, especially in the evangelical world, because that would give the group less traction with the state, which does not have those other items on its agenda. It is, instead, using the agenda agreed upon to suppress the liberal parts of Protestantism and those parts of society which are happy to side with it. The real god of the state is Mammon (although it is not afraid to give some deference to Mars and especially to Aphrodite – we see this in the numerous scandals infecting both state and church). There seems to be a new division between the various states (with the West, or parts of it, being the new factor in the division), and the battle could get violent. My concern is not the akatastasia, for that is to be expected in an emotionally driven society, but that the Church (and the multitude of ecclesial communities) is far from peaceful and far from a force for peace in that it is participating in the various sides. (I will not discuss how this state of affairs has changed in my lifetime, but simply note that there are reasons that Trinity Evangelical Divinity School spawned what would become the Sojourners community and not a religious community of the right.)

The need, then, is for the Church to be the Church and use the tools of the Church. That is, it should display the opposite of akatastasiain its unity. It should show that it can make peace among waring groups. It should live its contrast-lifestyle, the lifestyle of life under theonomy, rather than trying to impose it by force on others. In the Roman Empire there was abortion and the exposure of infants and all the moral vices that we find today. The Church speaks about them, but mostly to reject such lifestyles for Christians. That is the pre-conversion life. Now the Christian is reborn. And the Church lived love for others, adopting the exposed infants, giving up their negative practices, and helping the poor, the immigrant, the widow, and the orphan, as scripture says, which in part made them an attractive alternative to the society around them and its deities. And the Church did this through proclaiming the power of conversion of heart, of coming under the love-theonomy of God, seen in the upside-down world of the death of their God breaking the power of evil and leading to the establishment of their new community with its new future. Furthermore, the change was visible now in the holy lives (and often holy deaths) of its leaders (whether they were leaders in the hierarchal sense or leaders by their moral example, for some saints never had positions in the church, much less positions in society). That, I argue, is the way forward for the Church, although without divine intervention it is unlikely that we can do much about society collapsing around us. We might, however, be in a position to pick up the pieces as it collapses and after it collapses, whether it collapses into a new heteronomy, a type of dictatorship, whether of the right or the left, or autonomous chaos.


About Peter H. Davids

I am a retired Director of Clergy Formation for the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St Peter, a retired professor, and an active Catholic priest (and former Episcopal priest for 34 years), writer, and editor. I am also a husband, father, and grandfather.
This entry was posted in Brothers and Sisters of Charity Reflections, Ministry, Political theology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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