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8.1.03

Submission to the will of God is a common theme in a lot of religious thinking. The purpose of human life, in this conception, is becoming an agent of God's plan, surrendering individual desires for a higher purpose. Expressions of this general idea can range from the strict and comprehensive code of conduct seen in Orthodox Judaism to the ego-destruction of Buddhism. Assuming there is a God, this seems to make perfect sense -- if there is an omniscient and benevolent force out there, it would be illogical hubris to think you know better than it does. And submission fits nicely with the "free will" explanation for the existence of evil -- humans are given free will and thus are able to choose between rejecting and accepting God's perfect plan for the world.

To many people this is an appealing possibility. Katie, an atheist fascinated by faith, states it well:
From whence comes my envy of the faithful, and what is it really? I think it must be wrapped up in the appeal of submission. Isn't that what "Islam" means, roughly sort of? The passage from TSV [The Satanic Verses] even brings the sexual element into the submission of faith (in the command to open and in the apparition of the divine as "tentacles of light"). Art also requires submission, as argued by the Salon article I read that worried about a new tyranny of personal preference in art that could ultimately lead to choose your own adventure style movies, rather than submission to the vision of the artist. Maybe the appeal of faith for me would be like the appeal of art, except the truth you try to yield to wouldn't be some fleeting piece of it, but It, essential.

A survey in the Onion A.V. Club a few months ago asked entertainers to say whether or not they thought there was a god. Most of the secular humanist types in the onion article were saying that the hardest thing to do was to believe that you were responsible for yourself, but for those of us who were raised to be rationalists, that's not hard at all. The idea that there is no God and I make my meaning is my broccoli and tofu. Something would be miraculous about being able to know one thing and yet believe the opposite, to make yourself bend to an idea rather than constructing the idea yourself...


Submission can, seemingly paradoxically, be liberating. In an article about Paganism, Peter Jensen, Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, told the Sydney Morning Herald "The Christian religion says there's one god. He rules the world, and our business as human beings is to put ourselves under His rule and that's where true freedom is found and particularly the freedom to serve others." While he took a lot of flak from the folks on Witchvox for that comment, and I can't vouch for what he meant by it, there is a sense in which submission can bring freedom. It lifts a burden of responsibility from the submitter's shoulders, assuring him or her of being on the right track.

Of course, many people find the notion of submission repulsive. It sounds quite a bit like slavery. Being at one with a greater power means giving up your individual identity. And it seems at odds with the idea of free will -- why would God give us free will in order that we could give it up?

I prefer to think of the relationship between God and people as being like jazz performance. A jazz chart, unlike a classical chart, is underdetermined. The composer gives a skeleton of the piece, but there is a great deal of leeway for improvisation. Nothing dictates what the soloist has to play. Yet there is still a framework, chords and rhythms that the soloist has to work with, so that a jam session doesn't turn into a meaningless cacophony of people all playing their own thing. While there are bad solos, there is no one ideal lick. The composer builds in uncertainty about how it will sound, and the band starts playing with similar uncertainty. Thus the musicians can submit to a plan without giving up their freedom and their individual perspectives.

God doesn't want to dictate our every move. He wants to give us a framework and see what we'll do with it.

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