How to renew a vocabulary of reverence
(part one)

04.13.04 | 4 Comments

| Part one | Part two | Part three | Part four |

I see a three part process to renewing any “vocabulary of reverence.” Three parts, but not three steps. Any point of the process is a legitimate starting point. Any point of the process is a legitimate ending point (if it’s fair to say you can finish this process.) There will be false starts and double-backs, to be sure. At times we may even need to work on more than one part of the process at the same time.

For the academically inclined, the process derives from Foucault’s notion of “technologies of the self” and ethicist Alisdair MacIntyre’s understanding of virtue. (I might take some time to outline both author’s thoughts in the future.)

Before we get to the three parts, it’s worth saying that this process is always particular, always learned, and always historically enacted. Particular because some somebody (or several somebodies) is going through the process with their own personal history, their thoughts and feelings, their faults and graces, and their body. It is learned initially in the battle for authentic individuality and social acceptance in adolescence, but when previous resolutions of the process no longer satisfy it usually needs to be relearned (with some measure of struggle). To say it is historically enacted is to say that is never pure, never ideal. It is also to say that while the particular forms it may take will be unique, they are always enacted in conversation with those who have gone before.

The process’ three parts are (a) self-subjection to a community of authority (b) through particular self-formational practices (c) toward some chosen story of purpose. It can be undertaken by individually or by communities, intentionally or accidentally, systematically or spontaneously. Each of the three steps carries with it an evaluative question intended to focus our engagement with its core issues.

(A) Self-subjection to a community of authority. There are two words here that may disturb my fellow UUs—(self-)subjection and authority. I’ll try and explain both of them.

If it’s true that this process is historically enacted, then it follows that our ideas, however unique, are always already conversations with others, most of whom have gone before us. This “cloud of witnesses” is our community of authority. The civil rights movement is one such community of authority. The Society of Jesus is another. Punk music is yet another. Communities of authority vary widely in the self-subjegation they expect of their conversation partners. Some will be more egalitarian, recognizing members as equal partners. Others will take a nurturing role, growing their members into fuller communion. Still others will expect obedience.

The community of authority phase is best entered into when participants acknowledge the nature of the community’s authority and what it expects of its conversation partners. Here the participant asks if the community’s expectations of its conversation partners is worthwhile and healthy, that is, whether it expect too much or too little, whether it is commensurable with the participant’s own values, whether the community both receives and delivers accountability. In all likelihood, any community of authority we look into will be a mixed bag. With that in mind, we may choose to enter into partial relationship with it, hoping to glean what we judge to be good and avoid what we judge to be bad.

We will always have more than one community of authority. Some will be quite small—a circle of friends or family–and others will be massively large—modernity or the human family. We deceive ourselves if we think we can completely choose our communities of authority. We are born into many—our family of origin, for example—and others we have no choice but to relate to—Christianity, the West, the Enlightenment. What we can do is be more intentional and more informed in how we try to shape our relationships with these communities.

It is precisely this intentionality of relationship that I refer to with “self-subjection.” This does not have to mean a wallowing, self-abnegation relationship (although some communities of authority expect just that). “Subjection” at its root refers to the self, so that the term “self-subjection” is perhaps redundant. As I’m using it, I mean that the self’s relationship to its communities of authority helps define that self. Guilt, or grace, by association, so to speak. We are not just known by the company we keep but also know ourselves by the company we choose to keep.

Evaluative question: Which of your communities of authority’s traditions, stories, and habits are most evocative? Looking deeply into our communities of authority can be stagnating. The point is not to simply catalogue them. What about them calls us to excellence? Or leads us into vice? And what is it about them that does so?


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