Introduction: What is Obedience?

Number 2.1       
July 2009      


Introduction: What Is Obedience?

By Franklin D. Tennyson

When we began our work for this journal, it was a very gradual process that demanded for us to lay aside our own theological theories and differences and focus primarily on the texts we had chosen to study. Many of those texts, while very relevant to the issue, did not make it into the journal. However, the ideas we encountered when discussing these particular scriptures did. We found that, for one, the very fact that we were discussing Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in order to divine some "truth" about obedience and what it means, meant that we first had to detach ourselves from the notion that the three traditions were far too separated to communicate. Moreover, once we accomplished that very first yet very necessary practice of scriptural reasoning, we were then able to turn to the three texts without prejudice. This newfound openness, however, did not make work easier for our group. As we discussed scripture and found new ideas, our old discoveries were replaced by our new discoveries, and consequently, our journal topics were affected and began to change accordingly. I think that the difficulty in discussing divine obedience is that in discussing it we are not merely positing ideas about some abstracted phenomenon; rather, we are discussing the very essence of God's relationship with man and how and why it works the way it does. We could not separate ourselves from these thoughts. To do so would nullify our work, for if a relationship is the interaction between two or more people and if God's interaction with man is contingent on the way in which man obeys, then it becomes obvious that mankind's obedience is at the very heart of his relationship with God. Therefore, considering this, we began our work with one question: Is obedience to God's law a limitation of human agency or a realization of human potential?

Much of our work for this journal issue is centered on this question, for it not only questions the purpose of obedience but also the nature of true obedience. When we brought up the first part of this question in our discussions, we considered why it might be that God's law seeks to limit human agency. We thought we found somewhat of an answer in Matthew 6:24, where it is written:

No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.

We considered the first auxiliary verb "can" to be most important because it does not say "should," as in "No one should serve two masters." Rather, it says that no one can, implying that it is impossible for a man to serve two masters. We then considered the next sentence where the contrary acts of love and hate are attributed to one's dedication, respectively, to its two masters. We believe this implies that, because one can only attribute contrary acts and emotions to these two masters then these two masters must be inherently different from one another. The verse then concludes with the affirmation that God and Money are two masters, neither of which can be served in the same way that the other is served. We understood one of the main ideas of this verse to be that mankind has two masters, God and Money (or rather God and earthly things), which means that man must then exist within two different dominions: the spiritual domain and the physical, earthly domain. Therefore, if man exists within two domains, which master should he serve? Christ advises in Matthew 6:33 to "seek first his kingdom and his righteousness" (meaning God's), denoting that devotion to God grants one the benefits of both worlds. However, what we derived the most from this verse was that it immediately established mankind's limitation and inferred that, because of this limitation, man must only serve God, he who can bestow upon creation all existent benefits.

In his article, Lance daSilva posits that the Ten Commandments discuss the ideas of Matthew 6:24 insofar as how they frame an earthly life in the context of its devotion to God but also in how they present a series of negations, things that mankind should not do. He views the Ten Commandments as affirming the first part of our original question (Is obedience limitation?), but he sees it primarily as a function of protection. Since man exists within two domains, the spiritual and the physical, he suggests that God's law limits our physical agency because it strives to teach us how to live on this earth and how to grow, despite living in this world, in our devotion to God. Lance then begins to liken this particular relationship, one in which the condition and growth of one is contingent on the guidance of another, to the dependency of a child on its parent. He feels that a parent's intervention in the life of their child is a way to protect the child and teach him about the new world that he is entering. Eventually this guidance becomes inherent in the child as it has perhaps become inherent in mankind through the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions.

Jason Jones picks up on this idea, alluding to the practical implications of obedience. Along with Lance, he writes that if a child's obedience to his parent is most necessary for preparing him for life then his obedience to God is most necessary in beginning his journey to understand God and know Him. Jason writes that the answer to our group's original question is both 'yes' and 'no,' believing that one’s adherence to God’s laws and limitations serve as a beginning to the full realization of His work and purpose in our lives. He views this knowledge of God's purpose as being analogous to the full enactment of human potential. Lance and Jason are not the only people in our group, however, to link knowledge with power and ignorance with dependency.

Mary Agnes Patterson posits that man's contingency on God derives from the relationship of his limited knowledge with God's complete knowledge. She writes that the Bible and the Qur'an do command one to obey God, but she believes more importantly that they command one to fear and love Him as well. For her, love, fear, and obedience are intrinsically connected, the love of God requiring a devotion to Him that is maintained through an understanding of His greatness and superiority. Obedience seems important to Mary Agnes because she believes that God reveals Himself through His law and that obedience to Him contains both a love and a fear that recognizes humanity's futility without Him.

Finally, Leah Goldman does not believe that obedience to God is the only way to realize oneself and one's potential. In our group discussions of disobedience (and its implications) she posits a number of ideas, namely that disobedience is simply innate to human nature. As she proposed her ideas we saw that disobedience was not necessarily abstracted from God's purpose for our lives. We began thinking that maybe our disobedience to God grants us even greater understand of our relationship with Him and that the consequences for disobedience result from our rejection of that purpose. Regardless, humanity has been charged with the responsibility of obeying, but to obey completely and most effectively, we must know why we obey and to what end.