On Thursday, February 23, 2012, I made the most difficult decision of my life: I formally withdrew from the candidacy process for ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). At least for the time being, I will not be the Reverend Aanestad VII.
I am thrilled that this decision frees me to more intentionally pursue work dedicated to utilizing the tools of interfaith dialogue as a way of building community around the celebration of diversity. Community development informed by the sharing and receiving of stories is a budding entrepreneurial dream of mine, and I cannot wait to continue to find ways of pursuing it.
Though I am incredibly excited about my future, the decision to pull out of ordination (at least for the time being) was an incredibly difficult one. The heart of the difficulty is rooted in a general struggle that we all face: how to resolve and live in the tension between the self and the community. We all must differentiate between the calling of our own path and the expectations of the systems and communities around us.
I must be careful to clarify here that the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and in fact some theologies of vocation would suggest that a community can and does serve to affirm the internal call of a person. That is to say that we can learn more about who we are and where our gifts best serve the world by listening to the feedback and affirmation of others.
There are instances, however, when this is simply not the case: communities advise without knowledge, recruit out of self-interest, speak out of their own anxieties and insecurities, and even manipulate out of fear of change or loss.
Paul Tillich drew on terms from classic Greek philosophy, naming this differentiation as occurring between autonomy (self as law) and heteronomy (other as law). He, in the company of other great thinkers, uses these terms as an invitation to look self-critically at the weight we place on the expectations and opinions of others and the inner hunches and passions we hold.
In more literary terms, this struggle is embodied in the fictional story of Lyra Belacqua. For those of you who are not yet familiar with the spunky heroine of the His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman, Lyra is a spirited, independent adolescent who finds herself in the midst of unethical institutions, deceptive adults, and disempowered youth who suffer atrocities at the hands of those in power. As her journey to uncover the truth about what is going on around her unfolds, she is challenged to understand and trust herself in almost unimaginable depth. Almost every person in authority lies to her, and she soon learns that the only person she can trust is herself.
To aid her on her task, Lyra comes into possession of an alethiometer, a small golden compass whose sole task is to tell the truth. The compass has dials that point to pictures in a seemingly chaotic fashion, and it is up to Lyra to decipher the alethiometer’s message of truth. Following a process similar to Jungian dream analysis, Lyra slowly begins to learn how to integrate the metaphorical meaning of the compass’s symbols with her intuitive hunches on how they relate to particular instances around her. In other words, Lyra develops her own internal language based on intuition and myth that helps her navigate a confusing world of deceit and misinformation.
Though Pullman would probably argue that Lyra's world teeming with evil and lies parallels the current church, I suspect that might be too harsh of an assessment. My decision to pursue work outside of ordination is not a negative response to the institutional church. Very rarely have I encountered individuals with religious authority who consciously manipulate and lie for personal gain - at least no more than people in other types of institutions. My point is not to condemn the church but instead is to call attention to a peculiarity of those who are drawn to work in it.
Many of us who are drawn to working in the church often place more emphasis on heteronomy - what others expect of us. We want to succeed, we want to help others, we want to do what others want us to do. This may not be true of everyone, but it has been true of enough people I have met in seminary to know that this piece warrants writing. At least anecdotally I can offer that a large reason why I stayed in the Master of Divinity degree for so long was because others expected and wanted me to, and, frankly, I really wanted to make them happy.
I do not think there is anything inherently wrong in heteronomy or wanting to make others happy, but there can be real danger when that drive comes at a cost to autonomy, or one’s ability to discern and pursue one’s calling in life.
In addition to wanting to please others by doing what they expect of you, I have discovered that the church has a deep-rooted mistrust of autonomy, which further complicates the balance between self and community that we must all learn how to strike.
Just as Lyra’s alethiometer poses a threat to the authorities of her world, so does our own intuition often pose a threat to the institutional church. Whether this is expressed in a theology of vocation that overly emphasizes the importance of community in call or a theology of sin that seeks to convict and kill the person and all her individuality, the mistrust of autonomy is prevalent.
Again, I do not seek to condemn the church or dissuade people from working in it. I only hope to highlight the additional difficulty that befalls those who feel called to work in the church and to encourage those who are perhaps a bit like me to feel more freedom in trusting their intuitions.
We would all be better served by more deeply connecting with our inner Lyra, and I truly believe the church will be a better institution for it.