Saturday, March 19, 2011

Are Hierarchies Intrinsically Oppressive?

On "Brother of John the Steadfast" recently there was a discussion of a Concordia Bronx professor who claimed that the orders of creation doctrine of historic Lutheranism was bad because hierarchies are intrinsically oppressive.  Let's bracket a number of issues that were brought up (why is a woman teaching theology in the Concordia system, why did she make the bizarre claim that the "orders of creation" are not really authentically Lutheran, when Luther scholars like Oswald Bayer and Werner Elert note that the concept is the center of Luther's theology, etc.) and focus instead on the question of whether or not social hierarchies are intrinsically oppressive or not.  

1. First, statement like "the orders of creation are bad, because hierarchies are bad" fails on several logical and theological levels.  Let's approach this from the perspective of the first use of the law understood in a broad sense of the law as a basis not just for coercion in the post-lapasarian world, but also its general use in creation prior to the Fall.  Logically, hierarchy comes with the the diversity of creation.  Creatures have different roles and this automatically creates hierarchy.  Parents are not children.  Not all citizen serve in government, etc.  Even if I call the TV repair man, I am in a sense subordinated to his superior judgments about TVs.  So, even if we abrogate some hierarchies (I personally think its good that Americans don't have a hereditary nobility for example, at least not officially!), this doesn't do away with hierarchy.  It's simply part of living in creation.  

This leads us into the theological question.  If diversity in creation (what Elert calls our "Fatedness" within the created orders) necessarily leads to hierarchy, then a rejection of hierarchy is a revolt against the Creator.  This of course was what the whole theology of Gnosticism was all about.  The Creator, as we recall, was evil.  Why was he evil?  Because he enfleshed people and oppressed them with evil hierarchs named "Archons."  Secretly, people were divine, but matter and the diversity of creation prevented them from living out their God-potential.  

Modern Americans think this way as well.  American live in a society that is extremely flexible, so they assume that people self-create by their actions (autopoesis).  We can be anything we put our minds to.  We have unlimited freedom.  But this ignores our created nature and therefore our determinacy.  If we are determinate, then we have only a certain amount of potential.  If we had unlimited potential, then we would be God!  Low and behold American run into this!  Hence the interest in therapy.  Though for people very serious problems counseling can be extremely helpful (I by no means wish to reject psychology!), most of the people who end up at the therapist in American culture don't really need it.  Rather, the sad-godlings who visit the therapist sob about the fact that the evil Archons of their parents or whoever have destroyed their divine potential.  Similarly, religions that Americans invent are always Gnostic- think Scientology and Mormonism.  Scientology is all about reaching your God-potential and overcoming the evil Galactic Lord Xenu's cruel plot to take away your success at acting (apparently, he plotted to make Mission Impossible 4 really bad!).

The point is this: Not only is it literally impossible not to have hierarchies from a practical perspective, but our human revolt against those hierarchies is a part of our divine ambition.  We do not wish to be God's determinate creatures, situated in our particular role in creation within the hierarchies of life.  Rather, we wish to have unlimited freedom, which would only be possible only if we were God.

2. Let's now approach the question from the perspective the second use of the law.  Are hierarchies oppressive?  For the fallen creature, under the accusation of the law, yes!  Our old nature will not submit to our role with the orders of creation and therefore the law threats and accuses us.  It says "you are not the creature that God demands, therefore you are condemned!"

The solution of all fallen humans, but particular American Gnostics who try to outright deny God's law.  They think that simply running around with their hands over their ears screaming "la, la, la, NO LAW!  la, la, la!" will somehow abrogate the law.  The law though, is everywhere.  The law of nature and hierarchy structures pervades everything we do.  Denying the law for the sake of freedom from the law cannot get ride of the law.  All it will do at best is either 1. Block out the law a little bit through self-delusion.  2.  Create a new law which will be equally oppressive.  

I see this second version of antinomianism in my students all the time.  I gave a paper a number of times which asked "What do you believe about yourself, God, and the world?"  One girl wrote: "I don't believe in God, I believe in myself."  Delightfully honest!  Next sentence: "I want to be a lawyer.  I know that when my life is finished, that I will look back on my accomplishments and feel satisfied!"  Great!  One problem: now that you are your own God, you still have to act in the world and so you have to justify yourself before your own eyes.  You want to be a lawyer?  You are enslaved to that law- you must justify yourself by accomplishing this thing!  Again, there is no freedom from the law, only a shift in the law.  It's just a different law.  You could very well fail, and then you would still be condemned.  Not only that, God will eventually get to you.  You will die, and then what will be of all your potential?

This can also be seen in the law's social use.  For example, in the ELCA, they have abandoned the hierarchy of men being the ones who are allowed to teach theology, just as they have abandoned the restriction on heretical persons teaching in their colleges and seminaries.  Why was this done?  For freedom from the authoritarianism and stodginess of the old-time restrictions on what counted as truth and what proper social roles were!  Result?  There's just a new hierarchy.  Now only women and heretics can get theology teaching jobs.  So in terms of hierarchies, what's the difference?  

The only abrogation of the oppression of the law is to be found in Christ- first by Christ dying for us and then with the old self-justifying person dying as well in baptism.  Through abrogation of the accusation of the law, we are renewed in the freedom to trust in God the creator and law-giver.  Through our renewal by faith, the inner person no longer has to fight against his or her role in the created hierarchy.  The new person in Christ has real freedom from the law and not just a muting or re-explanation of the law.  They no longer need to justify themselves against the law or the orders of creation to get freedom.  Whereas the old attempts at self-justification only masked the law, faith does away with it by receiving Christ's fulfillment of law.  Ultimately, the law's accusation never goes away except in its fulfillment.  It only morphs and therefore continues the law's oppression.  


  1. Bingo! Well-done. Keep on with the God-given, Christ-centered insights. I deeply appreciate them.