I’m presently reading the excellent history of the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason by Charles Freeman. I have much to say about the matters discussed in the book, but for the moment, I’ll confine myself to one tangential but shockingly blunt tidbit.
Toward the end of the chapter on “The Ascetic Odyssey,” Freeman observes that “one can never know whether one is truly saved” in Christianity because “there is no way to judge objectively just how guilty one is in the eyes of God.” Consequently, “the only true way to secure a rest from tension on earth is to escape completely from the exercise of moral responsibility; here the ‘virtue’ of obedience becomes crucial.” He then quotes the first paragraph of the following passage from an account of moral responsibility in the life of a Jesuit monk found in William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience:
One of the great consolations of the monastic life,” says a Jesuit authority, “is the assurance we have that in obeying we can commit no fault. The Superior may commit a fault in commanding you to do this thing or that, but you are certain that you commit no fault so long as you obey, because God will only ask you if you have duly performed what orders you received, and if you can furnish a clear account in that respect, you are absolved entirely. Whether the things you did were opportune, or whether there were not something better that might have been done, these are questions not asked of you, but rather of your Superior. The moment what you did was done obediently, God wipes it out of your account, and charges it to the Superior. So that Saint Jerome well exclaimed, in celebrating the advantages of obedience, ‘Oh, sovereign liberty! Oh, holy and blessed security by which one become almost impeccable!’
“Saint John Climachus is of the same sentiment when he calls obedience an excuse before God. In fact, when God asks why you have done this or that, and you reply, it is because I was so ordered by my Superiors, God will ask for no other excuse. As a passenger in a good vessel with a good pilot need give himself no farther concern, but may go to sleep in peace, because the pilot has charge over all, and ‘watches for him’; so a religious person who lives under the yoke of obedience goes to heaven as if while sleeping, that is, while leaning entirely on the conduct of his Superiors, who are the pilots of his vessel, and keep watch for him continually. It is no small thing, of a truth, to be able to cross the stormy sea of life on the shoulders and in the arms of another, yet that is just the grace which God accords to those who live under the yoke of obedience. Their Superior bears all their burdens… A certain grave doctor said that he would rather spend his life in picking up straws by obedience, than by his own responsible choice busy himself with the loftiest works of charity, because one is certain of following the will of God in whatever one may do from obedience, but never certain in the same degree of anything which we may do of our own proper movement.” (Alfonso Rodriguez, S. J.: Pratique de la Perfection Chretienne, Part iii., Treatise v., ch. x.)
After quoting the first paragraph, Freeman concludes the chapter with the apt comment: “Here, the abdication of the power to think for oneself is complete.” Exactly.