In Conclusion: Discipleship

This post is the third in a trilogy. I recommend reading parts one and two first.

As I said previously, I've come to understand Christianity as a way of life - the act of dying to yourself daily, taking up your cross, and following Jesus. The question, then, is whether it is possible for a person in my position to be a Christian. Can I truly be a disciple of Christ without accepting the Bible as my ultimate authority, the infallible word of God? Can Jesus be my Rabbi if I'm not certain exactly what he said?

There is, of course, a great inherent difficulty in trying to be a disciple of someone who lived two thousand years ago. We can't go directly to him for instruction and guidance, so we necessarily become disciples of Christ, as understood through the Bible. Or rather, Christ, as understood through the Bible, as understood through friends, parents, pastors, mentors, books, and culture.

This obstacle is insurmountable, but not fatal. We cannot reach back to Jesus himself, but we can get closer than we currently are. We cannot know the truth, but we can unmask delusions. We can do the best we can. We can take up our crosses and follow, even if we're not certain just what it is we're following.

I think there is inherent value in a life of discipleship, apart from the value of following Jesus specifically. Discipline is both a means and an end. But you can't be a disciple of your own values or morals or your own personal concept of God. To be a disciple you must have something outside of yourself to which you're totally dedicated and submissive. I, having no ultimate external authority, am unqualified.

I accept this as a necessary consequence of my choice. I can't have it both ways. I can pursue goodness, seek truth, develop self-control, love others, and even try to emulate Christ without an absolute authority. (It is, of course, possible to learn from someone without being fully devoted to them.) But I cannot call myself a disciple.

A couple years ago I read The Cost of Discipleship, and was struck by the assertion that "only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes." I know that faith without works is dead; could it be that works without faith are no better? Is faith somehow necessary for obedience? What kind of faith? Faith in what? What is it about Christ's call that makes obedience without faith impossible?

Recently I've realized that Bonhoeffer is not identifying some special feature of Christian discipleship, but merely stating a plain fact about the nature of obedience. True obedience is an act of faith; it is not possible to obey anyone except insofar as you trust them. The disciple may not want to follow, but he follows. He may not see why he should go this way, but he follows. He may be certain that this is entirely the wrong path, that he is headed for disaster, that another way would be safer, smoother, faster, but he follows. If I follow Christ only when it seems wise to me to do so, I am not really following him at all.

And so obedience requires an object. I cannot say, "I obey Christ" unless I can point to something and say, "and this is what I mean by 'Christ'." It is not necessary (nor is it possible) to know that the Word you follow is genuine – the very voice of God. But you must act as if it is. To follow, you must be willing to leave not only home, family, and fields, but society, morality, and reason. You must be willing to sacrifice anything and anyone.

The thought terrifies me. Who could ever make such a choice? What if the Christ I followed told me not to resist an evil person, or to sell everything I have? What if he told me that God orders genocides, or abandons his creations to eternal torment? Who could accept such teachings?

We’ve forgotten how dangerous obedience is. We remember that Isaac was spared, and forget that he was very nearly murdered. And how many others, when under the knife of another man's faith, have been so lucky? Divine voices, it seems, seldom recant.

I've said before that I want to pursue love first and foremost, and that I am a Christian only to the extent that Christianity spurs me toward this goal. I am a Christian second, and so not a Christian at all.

And yet.

The idea of surrendering myself entire, of dying not only to my appetites but to my hopes and ambitions, my beliefs and principles, even to my conscience, has a strange and persistent appeal.

If a Voice called me, could I resist? Would I not take up my fire and my knife and follow him?


Jeff said...

Stanley Hauerwas (a wonderful theologian, whom I think you would enjoy) talks about two kinds of stories. There is the story of modernity, which is the story that I have no story except for the story I gave to myself when I had no story (a bit of a tongue twister, I know). In other words, you are whatever you tell yourself you are -- or not quite: you've been told that you are whatever you tell yourself you are. The other story is the story of the Church, which is a story that you are narrated into, not one you tell for yourself. Hauerwas has a fairly strong ecclesiology on the whole (he's famous for saying, "If you have a flag at the front of your church, your salvation is in doubt" -- a bit of an agent provocateur), so it's sometimes difficult to figure out how it works itself out at an individual level. When I heard him give this talk where he distinguished between the two kinds of stories, I asked how it's possible to distinguish between (1) choosing for yourself the story into which you are narrated and (2) simply being narrated into it. That is, in a modern era, where the only story we have is the one we chose for ourselves when we had no story, how can we avoid simply "choosing" the story of the Church as our own story, all the while maintaining the agency and freedom that modernity purports to offer in its existential wager? How is it possible to find ourselves already narrated into a story, in which our only "choice" is to submit or resist? His response was: pain, suffering, and friendship. Which is to say that when we find ourselves accounted for in the story of the Church -- which is the same as the story of Jesus (for Hauerwas, at least) -- what we submit to or resist is a community, not an idea, an activity, or even an individual (divine or otherwise).

A little while ago I met Hauerwas while I was in North Carolina, and I asked him another question about the two stories. I asked how we could trust the story into which we are narrated; what if we're being duped, intentionally or not? He suggested that we can trust the story because of its complexity. At the time, I was a little disappointed with this response. In hindsight, though, I'm starting to understand it. The story that I chose for myself when I had no story can never have the kind of complexity that the story of the Church has -- the kind of complexity that F.W.J. Schelling calls "Life." My stories must be coherent and internally consistent. For example, my story about the History of the Church (at least growing up) was that it was a gradual whittling away of heterodoxy until we arrived at that pure and shining artifact called "Doctrine" -- probably I still think that way for the most part. But the story that the Church tells us is one where the only ground we have is a kind of "un-ground": orthodoxy as itself an agitated centre struggling to attain form. This story, then, is one which has already accounted for me, which I know myself to be narrated into because I discover in its agonizing struggle (epitomized, perhaps, by Christ's own struggle with God/Himself in Gethsemane) a reflection of my schizophrenic tendencies, my fragmentation, my desire for selfhood, and my utter inability to tell myself a story I can really and finally believe in.

Thanks for a great series of posts and lots of food for thought. God bless your time in B.C.

Jacob said...

Thanks Jeff. Interesting thoughts. I'll make a note to check out Hauerwas.

Jens said...

I'm not sure discipleship is an all or nothing, 100% thing. I think you can be a struggling disciple, a bad disciple, or something like that.

So are you done blogging now?

Jens said...

Also, remember that Christ is not "just" from 2,000 years ago- the whole point of Christianity (or one of the main part anyway) is that He's still around. I know the misgivings you have about interacting with an invisible God in this world- I have the same misgivings- but they're probably an integral part of being a disciple of Christ, especially if you don't have confidence in the written record of Christ as absolute truth.

Mike said...

I think in submitting to that voice, for myself, I remember that God is Love, and so by submitting to God I am able to love more completely, more perfectly, and in Christ we find out what perfect love is, which I don't believe we, as broken human beings, can find on our own.

Jacob said...

Jens: I certainly believe you can be a struggling disciple or a bad disciple (the original 12 weren't that great) but I don't think you can be a half-disciple. There's a difference between saying "I trust Jesus (or whoever) and try to follow him but I don't do a good job" and saying "I only follow Jesus when it makes sense and I want to."

The point of the distinction is not to determine who is or isn't a true disciple, but to recognize the difference between human frailty and free will. None of us can follow perfectly, but we each choose who (if anyone) to follow as best we can.


Presumably even Abraham had misgivings about following (what seemed to be) the voice of God; faith is only possible in the presence of doubt. The beginning of discipleship is a leap of faith that identifies something (a person, a book, a voice in your head) as, for all practical purposes, the voice of God (or Jesus) to you - the voice you will endeavor to follow no matter what.

So you could be a disciple of what Christians might call the prompting of the Holy Spirit, but only if that prompting was fairly clear and identifiable, and you were willing to commit to following whatever it might say, even if it seemed irrational or immoral. I've yet to identify any such prompting, aside from my own conscience, so it's not really an option for me.

Jacob said...

Mike: You make a good point. I think this is essentially what draws me to discipleship: the recognition that I'm not very good at understanding or pursuing love on my own. I'm sure I would be more successful if God were actively and tangibly guiding me.

The problem, of course, is that I can't be sure that whatever I might choose to follow is God, and so when it called me to do something that seemed to me distinctly unloving, it would be difficult for me to trust it.