The foundation of obedience is authority. All true authority is ultimately divine. It is either immediately divine or, if vested proximately in men, it is derived from that of God. Authority is ordained to good, common or private. Of a number of possibilities of achieving this good, authority determines and proposes the one that is to be realized. The will of authority is expressed in Law, which is the binding rule of human action. Law, moreover, must be understood to include not only that which is written or externally manifest, but also that which the authoritative will of the Creator has implanted in the structure of created being, natural or supernatural. The adaptation of an individual's will to the authoritative will expressed in Law is obedience. By its act, the object or content of the legislator's determination is freely adopted by the obedient will and becomes a principle of initiative and action leading to the effect intended by the legislator. The subject who obeys embraces the possibility of action that the will of authority has determined should be realized. He accepts it as commanded, and renounces conflicting possibilities. Thus does he render to authority what is its due, namely, submission. A stable readiness to such submission is the virtue of obedience. This, with respect to certain determined objects, can be confirmed by vow.
Obedience in Judeo-Christian History
A special value was attributed to obedience in both Old and New Testaments, and in later Christian history this received further emphasis through the development of the concept of religious obedience.
Old Testament. In the Old Testament, obedience to the authority of Yahweh was exercised within terms of the Covenant, whose content was embraced by the formula: "You shall be my people, and I shall be your God" (Jer 11.4; Hos 2.25; Jer 7.23; 24.7). Under the Covenant, the people assumed the obligation of fulfilling the Law. This, according to the broader concept of Deuteronomy and the Psalms, was the summit of divine revelation, considered as a norm of life. Thus the Law was the foundation of religion, of ethics, and, because of the theocratic constitution of the people, of civil life in Israel (1 Sm8.7–9; 10.19). Hence the insistence upon a knowledge of the Law, and upon conformity of life to its demands (Ex 13.8–9; Dt 33.10; Lv 10,11; Hos 4.6; Prv 19.16; Sir 19.17; 21.11; Wis 6.18). Psalm 119 is a canticle of praise of the beauty and blessing of the Law, which is no insupportable yoke laid upon the shoulders of men (cf. Acts 15.10), but refreshment to the soul, joy to the heart, and light to the eyes (Ps 19.8–9); it is sweeter than honey (Ps 119.103); it is the theme of the song of the people in their place of exile (ibid. v. 54). Just as the lot of the first parents depended upon the command of Yahweh (Gn2.16–17), so the efficacy of the Covenant and the promises attached to it depended upon the obedience of the people to the Law (Ex 19.5; Jer 11.2–5). For this reason Yahweh watched jealously over its fulfillment (Ex 20.5; Dt 28.15–19; Jer 11.2–5). Obedience is worth more than sacrifice (1 Sm 15.22; Eccl 4.12).
Obedience to Yahweh included obedience to the civil authority, which derived its power from God (Wis6.13). The king was chosen by God (Dt 17.14; 1 Sm 8.22;10.1; 10.24; 16.13; 2 Sm 7.18); he was the son of God (2 Sm 7.14); he was helped by God (2 Sm 7.3); was anointed by Yahweh (1 Sm 24.10; Ps 89.39); was sacrosanct (1 Sm 24.10; 2 Sm 1.14); and was to be feared as Yahweh Himself (Prv 24.21).
New Testament. The Israel of God of the New Testament is the Church-Bride (Gal 6.16), subject to Christ, her Spouse (Eph 5.21–24). Christians here upon Earth are pilgrims (Heb 11.13), seeking their own country (ibid. v.14), obedient to the first leader of their journey, Christ (Heb 2.10; 12.2), and to their superiors in the Church (Heb 13.7). The Father, raising Christ from the dead, "put him above every Principality, and Power and Virtue and Domination … and all things he made subject under his feet, and him he gave as head over all the Church, which indeed is his body" (Eph 1.20–23). Aggregation to this body is effected by baptism (1 Cor 12.13; Rom 6.3–11; Col 2.12), by which the Christian is made a "new creation" (Gal 6.15), who ought to walk in a newness of life (Rom 6.4), living in "obedience to faith" (Rom 1.5, 16.26), living not to himself but to God (Rom 5.11, 14.7–8), under the "new covenant" (Mt 26.28; 2 Cor 3.6), under the new commandment of charity (Jn 13.34). As an all-embracing principle, this commandment contains in itself virtually the whole content of the Christian life (Mt 22.40); it includes the fulfillment of the other commandments (Gal 5.14); it sums them up (Rom 13.9); it is the fulfillment of the Law (Rom 13.10). Thus the whole of the New Testament also is, by the commandment of charity, reducible to obedience.
From the very beginning of the New Testament, in its center, which is Christ, it was permeated with obedience by the determination of the Incarnate Word to do the will of the Father (Heb 10.5–7). This purpose, hidden although present from the first instant of the Incarnation, continued through the whole life of Christ. To Him the doing of His Father's will was His food (Jn 4.34); that others might live by the same nourishment He taught them to pray, "Thy will be done" (Mt 6.10), and whoever does this will is His brother and sister and mother (Mt 12.50). This readiness to obey the Father is especially and vividly manifest in His Passion (Lk 22.42). The work of the life of Christ is a work done in obedience to the will of the Father (Jn 17.4). St. Paul expresses the obedience of Christ's life in these words: "He humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even to death on a cross" (Phil2.8).
In the New Testament, as well as in the Old, obedience to God includes obedience to human authority, since true human authority is from God. When the Pharisees asked whether it was lawful to give tribute to Caesar, by His answer—"Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" (Mt 22.21)— He acknowledges the rights of civil authority so long as this does not violate the rights of God (cf. Acts 4.19; Dn3.18). According to His words to Pilate—"Thou wouldst have no power at all over me were it not given thee from above" (Jn 19.11)—God Himself grants civil authority its power, and the lot of Christ depended upon this divine grant. According to St. Paul, "Let everyone be subject to the higher authorities, for there exists no authority except from God, and those who exist have been appointed by God. Therefore who resists the authority resists the ordinance of God" (Rom 13.1–2). Since the following verses discuss rulers who are a terror not to the good but to the evil, commending the good and as God's ministers carrying the sword to execute wrath on those who do evil, it is evident that St. Paul is speaking of civil authority that does not abuse its rights. To such authority obedience must be rendered not only because of fear of punishment, but also for conscience's sake (ibid. v. 5). The same holds true for the relationship of Christians toward the Roman tax-gatherers (vv. 6–7). According to St. Peter, the faithful must subject themselves not only to supreme but to subordinate rulers for the sake of God (1 Pt 2.13–14). If the passages in Revelation concerning the adoration of the beast and its image (13.12–17; 14.9–11; 16.2; 20.4) are understood as referring to the Roman emperor, they do not express an attitude of hostility toward civil authority as such, but toward the paying of divine honors to the emperor. The freedom of the children of God was not to be made a pretext for rebellion against civil authority, for this freedom supposes full subjection to the will of God and to those who hold their authority from Him (Gal5.13; Rom 6.18). Slaves were to obey their masters as they would Christ (Eph 6.5), not only the good and moderate ones, but the severe as well; harsh and unjust treatment they were to endure after the example of Christ (1 Pt 2.18–23). In marriage the woman was to be subject to the authority of the man (1 Cor 11.3; Eph 5.22–23; 1 Pt3.1) as to that of the Lord (Eph 5.22), or "as is becoming in the Lord" (Col 3.18). The authority of the husband, however, should be exercised without harshness (Col3.19; Eph 5.25–29). Children were to be subject to the authority of their parents (Col 3.20) in the Lord (Eph 6.1). Obedience to parents is a condition of happiness (Mt 15.4; 19.19) and is acceptable to God (Col 3.20; 1 Tm5.4). But Christ ought to be loved more than one's parents (Mt 10.37). The authority of parents ought to be used without undue severity (Col 3.21). All human authority, in fact, ought to be exercised after the example of Christ's, who did not come to be served but to serve (Mk 10.45), and He made Himself the servant of His Disciples, although He was their Master and Lord (Jn 13.13–16). In the Christian community authority is not to be distorted into despotism, but to be considered a service (Mk 10.42; Lk 22.25). "Let him who is greatest among you become as the youngest, and him who is chief as the servant" (Lk 22.26; Mk 10.43–45). This principle is true especially for the elders who ought to feed the flock of the Lord not under constraint, but willingly, according to God; nor yet for the sake of base gain, but eagerly; nor yet as lording it over their charges, but as becoming from the heart a pattern to the flock (1 Pt5.2–3).
Religious Obedience. From ordinary Christian obedience, founded on the doctrine of the New Testament, the idea of religious obedience gradually emerged. The first anchorites were not drawn to their hermitages with any formal intention of subjecting themselves to the yoke of obedience to any human superior, but rather by their desire to seek the sort of annihilation proclaimed in the Gospels and the self-denial demanded by Christ, and to fulfill the obligations undertaken in baptism to renounce Satan and the world. Nevertheless, confidence in some outstanding ascetic's experience in the spiritual life inclined many individuals to submit themselves to the direction of such a person. This submission was based less upon a juridically defined authority than upon a kind of spiritual paternity of a more or less charismatic nature. The subjection was freely undertaken, was revocable, was not confirmed by vow, nor did one subject himself for life. (Cf. I. Hausherr, Direction spirituelle en Orient autrefois [Orientalia Christiana Analecta 144; Rome 1955].) Associated with an individual's confidence in the greater experience of another was his distrust of his own disordered will; this made renunciation of this will and submission to the will of a spiritual father seem good. Submission of this kind was esteemed as a great virtue among the anchorites.
The solitude of the hermits, however, though relative, seemed to provide too little opportunity for the exercise of this virtue. It was partly to provide greater scope for it that the cenobitical way of life was introduced with its hierarchical structure. Among the cenobites a new value was found in submission. They aimed at securing the spiritual welfare not only of the individual but of the community as a whole as well. Submission in a monastery meant entering upon a cloistered life under the authority of an abbot whose power was determined by rule or constitutions. Obedience was now not only, not even primarily, based upon confidence in a person but upon a foundation of juridical obligation. Not the person but the office of the religious superior was the primary consideration. Together with humility, the enemy of pride—the original sin of man—obedience took an absolute character. It left no room for questioning or judgment where commands were concerned. Apart from the rule and the will of the superior, nothing was valued as holy or prudent. There was something primitive in this attitude. The concept of obedience needed to be humanized and to be based upon a less pessimistic view of nature. It would be mitigated in time, owing to the demands of the apostolate, by a greater adaptability, a greater respect for initiative, and a more refined sense of the personal dignity of the individual. Meanwhile, the motives underlying primitive asceticism were not without value. The love of Christ, the imitation of His obedience, the practice of humility, are at the heart of all religious life. (Cf. M. Olphe-Galliard, Histoire de l'obéissance religieuse: Des Pères du desert au cénobitisme de saint Basile et de saint Benoît, in L'Obéissance et la religieuse d'aujourd'hui [Paris 1951] 29–30.) As early as St. Augustine (Epist. 211) and St. Caesarius of Arles (Regula Sanctarum Virginum, ed. G. Morin, Florilegium Patristicum 34) there was insistence upon the use of discretion in the exercise of authority. "[Let the superior] be to all an example of good works; let her correct the unruly, strengthen the fainthearted, sustain the weak, bearing always in mind that she must render an account to God for them." Even more did St. Benedict in his Regula Monasteriorum (ed. B. Linderbauer, Florilegium Patristicum 17) strive to make provision against rigid authoritarianism and too great an insistence upon uniformity.
When religious, either as a community or as individuals, undertake missionary or cultural labors in the world, religious obedience must begin to keep in view not only the sanctification of the individual religious and the good of the community but also the demands of the apostolate. With religious engaged in work of this kind, obedience cannot ordinarily consist in doing only that which the rule or the superior commands. It would be unsuited to the apostolate, for the rule cannot make provision for all concrete circumstances, nor can a superior foresee them and by anticipatory commands chart the course to be followed in every particular case. There is frequent need for personal decision by the individual religious in accordance with the spirit of the rule and his general understanding of what his superior would want him to do. (See J. Loosen, "Gestaltwandel im religiösen Gehorsamsi-deal," Geist und Leben 24  196–209.)
The vow only gradually came to be annexed to the practice of religious obedience. The precise nature of the formula that was signed by the monks in Atripe is not known, for it has not come down to us in its entirety (J. Leipoldt, "Schenute von Atripe und die Entstehung des nationalen agyptischen Christentums," Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur 25.1  109, 195–196), but it seems to have been a true religious profession, made to God, and probably for the whole time a monk remained in the monastic state or in the monastery. There is no evidence in the part of the formula we possess, however, of a vow of religious obedience.
St. Basil seems to have exacted from those seeking admission to the cenobitic life in his monasteries a declaration, at least implicit, of obedience (Regulae brevius tractatae 1–2; Patrologia Graeca 31:1081–84). The violation of obedience was a "theft and sacrilege" (Basil, De renunt. saec. 4; Patrologia Graeca 31:633). But there is no proof of the existence of a special vow of obedience. (See D. Amand, L'Ascèse monastique de saint Basile, [Maredsous, Belg. 1949] 324–335.) Without doubt, however, the vow of obedience is contained in St. Benedict's Regula Monasteriorum: "Taken to the oratory, before all let him make the promise of stability and of conversion of life and of obedience in the presence of God and his saints" (ch. 58).
In Christianity, obedience is the concrete realization of the fundamental commitment to God to which the Christian is obliged by the fact of his baptism. By baptism he is, ontologically speaking, holy—or, in other words, consecrated through Christ to God. In correspondence with this ontological state, he ought to live not for himself but for God. But to live for God is to fulfill His will, which is the will of Supreme Authority. The will of God can be known in concrete situations by applying to them the norms of divine positive law and of natural law, and by the actual enlightenment of the Holy Spirit. Just as the whole life of Christ was one of obedience, so also should be the whole life of the Christian, since it is the formal or at least implicit fulfillment of God's authoritative will. This obedience is acceptable to God because it is realized in virtue of the obedience of Christ through the Holy Spirit who shapes the obedience of Christians, whom He moves, to the image of the obedience of Christ.
The principal divine law of Christian life is the commandment of charity. Its fulfillment is, implicitly at least, obedience as well as charity. It is obedient charity. (See B. Häring, Das Heilige und das Gute [Karilling vor Munchen 1950] 284–290.) This obedience is as extensive as charity itself. The commandment, as the ultimate end of the Christian life, is confined by no limits. It can be said that so much love is of precept, and that what exceeds the limits of precept is a matter of counsel. Yet everyone is commanded to love God as much as he can (Thomas Aquinas, C. retrah. relig. ingress. 6; cf. Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 184.3). The power to fulfill this commandment is the theological virtue of charity. To the limitlessness of the command there corresponds a limitlessness in the internal dynamism of the virtue. It is a universal love of benevolence that admits no limits to its desire to do good to the one who is beloved. This desire, by its own inner dynamism, with the universal laws of morality before it, as these are seen with the inner illumination necessary to grasp their relevance to a present situation, seeks to express itself. For this expression, acts are necessary. These, of themselves, may be only of counsel, but they are performed, when they are necessary to the life of charity, as though they were of precept, and this because of the preceptive character of charity itself. This life of obedient charity, although it might at times be explicitly renewed, need not, however, be continuously self-conscious. When the Christian living in the state of grace does not think explicitly of God and does not move toward Him with explicit acts of charity, but conducts himself in accordance with Christian standards, his will, controlling his actions, is perfected and informed by charity, and his charity is activated, implicitly at least, in all his virtuous action. (See Thomas Aquinas, In 3 sent. 184.108.40.206.)
Besides the law of charity there are other divine laws, each with its own content. To each there corresponds a proper fulfillment that implicitly or explicitly involves obedience. The chastity of the Christian, for example, is obedient chastity. Obedience does not take anything away from the proper nature of the virtues that it includes, any more than charity—which intrinsically informs obedience and the other virtues included in it— destroys the proper nature of those virtues or the specific distinction between them.
Obedience and Human Law. Since every human law must be included under divine law, and since human authority, whether ecclesiastical or civil, is a participation of divine authority, obedience to human law, if we consider it objectively, is ultimately given to God and in its origin is determined by charity, of which it is an expression. The direct object of the obligation of human law is indicated in the law itself. Indirectly, the law obliges one to use the means necessary for its fulfillment, to procure materials necessary for its observance, to avoid setting up obstacles, without sufficient reason, that would prevent the observance of the law, and to remove such obstacles as have been set up without sufficient reason. Human law, as preceptive, obliges to the act of obedience and to the acts of whatever other virtues may be involved in obedience. The obligation is in proportion to the importance of the object of the law to common or private welfare. The object has importance either on its own account, or dependently upon circumstances or upon the end for the sake of which the law was made. Proper fulfillment of the law supposes true interpretation of it and right application to the particular cases in which it is to be observed. In a concrete case one does not proceed simply in accordance with the words of the law, but rather in accordance with its true meaning, giving the reality of the concrete case due consideration. It belongs to epikeia, as St. Thomas said, "to moderate … the observance of the words of the law" (Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 120.2 ad 3). And epikeia is the more important part of justice (Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 120.2 ad 1).
Obedience and Personal Responsibility. True obedience is not a robotlike activity produced entirely by the external impulse coming from the superior. It is a personal act elicited by the subject himself, who in obedience adapts his will to the will of the superior, and it is ultimately the subject who moves himself to act. The possibility that a superior could command something objectively sinful requires the subject, even in his obedience, to keep clearheaded and to remain capable of independent thought. To obey without moral certainty of the lawfulness of what is commanded would be immoral. In his own conscience, the subject remains responsible for whatever he does even when he acts under obedience. The fact that a thing is commanded does not take away responsibility from the subject. His theoretical or speculative judgment regarding the morality of what is commanded is governed per se by the objective light of truth, not by the mind of the superior. A commanded action does not become good because the superior thinks it good, for the superior is not the cause of truth. Acting in accordance with its nature and subjecting itself to truth, the mind of the subject, even when it is in disagreement with the mind of the superior, is obedient: it yields its obedience to Him who created the intellect to act in this way, and who is the Supreme Superior.
When the morality of what is commanded is not evident, reverence, piety, and the supernatural context of the virtue of obedience will incline the speculative judgment of the subject to agreement with his superior. When the speculative judgment of the subject has no cause to see compliance as immoral, the practical judgment, which governs the doing of what is commanded, must submit itself to the command of legitimate authority acting within its proper limits. This is so even when the subject knows, from a speculative point of view, that the situation could be better dealt with otherwise, or even that the superior's command proceeds from malice. (See F. Suárez, De religione Societatis Iesu, lib. 4, cap. 15.) Ordinarily no long process of reasoning is required to establish the legitimacy of a command, for the supernatural enlightenment with which God assists the Christian suffices to facilitate judgment and protect him against harmful error. On the other hand, it must not be assumed that the subject's own judgment, as opposed to that of his superior, is something necessarily inordinate or worthy of contempt. The intellect, which judges, is by no means completely corrupt by reason of original sin. Indeed, in spite of the consequences of original sin, it is elevated by faith and may well be aided by the gifts of wisdom, knowledge, and understanding. Caution, however, is necessary, for self-interest or a morbidly hypercritical spirit can dull the intellect's capacity to discern the legitimacy of a concrete command.
Obedience, therefore, does not exist for the purpose of lessening personal activity. Ultimately, even under obedience, a subject must seek the will of the Father by passing judgment upon the lawfulness of a concrete command, by personally accepting and fulfilling it, and in the fulfillment, through his own initiative, determining and realizing the necessary details undefined in the command itself.
From the fact that the superior participates in the authority of God, it does not follow that a subject, faced with a concrete command, must conduct himself as he does in accepting a matter of faith, in which he simply accepts revealed truth, relying only on the authority of God revealing. The subject ought indeed to believe that all legitimate human authority is from God, because this is a revealed truth. But he cannot accept on faith that any concrete command is legitimate, for that is something about which God has revealed nothing. The legitimacy cannot be discerned except by the personal effort of the subject, and only after this is manifest can the subject know that the concrete command expresses the will of God.
Superior and Subject. The superior who commands ought to be himself obedient even while he commands. He owes obedience to God. No one who is in command is only a superior; he is at the same time—and primarily—a subject. The whole end of obedience demands submission on the part of both subject and superior. Moreover, just as there is for the subject, simply because he is a subject, no guarantee of his right fulfillment of commands, so the superior, simply because he has legitimate authority, is not guaranteed the right use of his authority. Before God, superior and subject are redeemed children of the Father, seeking to do His will. It is the superior's duty to seek this by commanding according to the will of God; it is the subject's duty to seek it in fulfilling the legitimate commands according to the will of God. Not only is the subject to see Christ in his superior, but the superior must also see Christ in his subject, for the subject is a member of the Mystical Body of Christ. Because the superior's authority is derived from Christ, the subject has additional reason to see Christ in his superior. By the fulfillment of a legitimate command, he ought to minister to the life of the Body of Christ, and in the same way the superior in his exercise of authority should minister to that same life. But it must not be thought that God binds, moves, and illuminates the Christian to the doing of His will only through the commands of a human superior. Such an opinion is contrary to ecclesiastical tradition concerning the immediate guidance of the Holy Spirit, and it contradicts the historical fact that the life of the Church has been influenced again and again by ideas and movements that did not have their origin in obedience to a human superior but that came immediately from God.
Although the end of obedience requires obedience of both subject and superior, and although both are equal as Christians, nevertheless superior and subject, as such, do not stand on the same level. God who leads men not only immediately but also through men, by granting a participation in His authority to the superior, places him over the subject, and He gives to the superior, within the limits of his authority, the office of commanding, and He gives the subject the duty of carrying out the commands of his superior. Every effort to lower the superior within the proper ambit of his authority to the level of the subject is damaging to the essence of obedience. Such efforts cause the idea of authority and hence of true superiority to be lost to sight, and obedience fades into a dialogue that has no real power to bind the subject but leaves him free to determine for himself what he ought and what he ought not to do.
There is a certain dialectical tension between the need of obedience and the need of liberty. The goal of educating in obedience is to effect a synthesis of both elements, or, in other words, a free obedience, which will be a capacity, partly acquired and partly infused, to recognize and understand and to carry out with personal decision and a sense of responsibility the orders given by one in authority.
Orders, commands, or prohibitions that are well chosen develop respect for authority. There should be a progressive unfolding of the meaning and content of the superior's commands so that infantile forms of submission give way to others determined by objective values, particularly by religious values, which can more easily provide a solid basis for ready and free obedience.
Deviations. Distortions of obedience consist of an obsequious submission rooted in a variety of undesirable causes: egoistic ambition; a weakness with regard to the regulation of one's own life, so that obedience becomes a refuge of a person unable to make decisions or unwilling to assume responsibility; a pathological need that a person may have for a hero to admire and worship; or want of courage, or, seen from another point of view, fear of a servile kind. Genuine obedience to the will of the Father carries with it not only the submission of one's will to the command of a superior, but also, when there is abuse of authority, prudent and firm opposition.
See Also: counsels, evangelical; freedom; freedom, spiritual; piety, familial.
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[k. v. truhlar]
OBEDIENCE consists in the act of voluntary submission to an authority. Religious obedience, the subject of this article, is therefore the voluntary submission to a specifically religious authority, and its different forms correspond to differences in the types and levels of such authority. In many world religions, authority rests with a single principle, being, or god, and religious obedience is accordingly due to an all-embracing law or to the divine will. But even in these cases, where there is clearly a single and absolute source of authority, the obligation of obedience may be expressed on a variety of levels. Thus in Hinduism, for instance, obedience to the Laws of Manu is enjoined upon all, but at the individual level a disciple's obedience to his guru, or, at a corporate level, to the rules of his sect, religious establishment, or maṭha may be equally or even more important.
Obedience in Christianity can similarly be seen as extending from the general principles of the Decalogue, through the observance of the rules of the church or monastery, to the individual's obedience of his own immediate ecclesiastical superior. In Islam, obedience may extend from the observance of the sharī'ah, to the rules of one's ṭarīqah, and finally to obeying one's spiritual mentor or pīr. Likewise in Buddhism, apart from the moral precepts, the corporate rules of the saṃgha are to be observed by the monks and nuns, and even though Buddhism generally places less emphasis on the unique master-disciple relationship common in Hinduism, even here each novitiate is assigned initially to an individual elder.
Differences in the forms of religious association will also result in different forms of obedience. In religions that continue to be organized along the lines of natural kinship groups, religious obedience will often be a simple extension of one's normal obligations to one's family. Thus in Confucianism the filial relationship becomes paradigmatic for obedience of all kinds. But even when natural forms of association are left behind, obedience may continue to be understood metaphorically in terms of spiritual parentage. In the mystical traditions of several religions, including Christianity, the spiritual mentor is often compared to a father. Each individual, or even the religious community as a whole, may be visualized as undergoing a period of religious tutelage that requires the unquestioning obedience of a child. In many cases, the rite of religious initiation closely parallels that of birth and is often considered a kind of rebirth. Just as children are not supposed to disobey, so the neophytes undergoing initiation or puberty rites must behave humbly, obeying their instructors and accepting arbitrary punishment without complaint. Here one thinks of the obedience that Zen monks owe to their rōshi.
With the spiritual coming-of-age of an individual or a community, as in the biological parallel of growth during adolescence, obedience becomes more problematic, and at times even self-defeating. One encounters both the problem of disobedience and the more subtle problem of the conflict between the "spirit" and the "letter." The latter problem is illustrated by the Christian attitude toward Jewish law and by the Buddhist rejection of the cumbersome Hindu codes of conduct. More enlightened approaches emerge at the individual level in which disobedience becomes a higher form of obedience. Thus the Hindu religious leader Rāmānuja (eleventh century ce) disobeyed his master by making public formerly esoteric doctrines of salvation in order that all might be saved. Such "disobedient" transcendence of the conventional letter of the law is will illustrated by a Zen master's response to his disciple, who one evening questioned the propriety of his master's carrying a lady across a flooded rivulet that morning because it infringed the Vinaya rule against touching women: "I left her on the bank in the morning," he replied, "and you are still carrying her!" Similarly the Chinese sage Mengzi (Mencius) held that a man who would not pull his drowning sister-in-law out of a river, for fear of disobeying the rule that she not be touched, is no better than a wolf.
The appropriateness of obedience, or indeed the very question of what constitutes obedience in a given situation, cannot always be mechanically ascertained. Nevertheless, the consequences of disobedience cannot simply be dismissed. According to the Tibetan tradition, Mi la ras pa (Milarepa) had to suffer the consequences of disobeying his master's orders to the full, which were designed to wear out his karman. Thus although theoretically and retrospectively one may speak of enlightened disobedience, it presents difficulties in practical terms.
Another important issue in relation to obedience pertains to the conflict of different laws or values within a single tradition. This conflict was clearly recognized by the Hindu tradition, which sought to deal with it by relegating such conflicting norms to different historical epochs. The dharma appropriate to one age, it was held, may not be appropriate to another. But even without introducing this historical dimension, such conflict may be recognized as part of the essential tension present within a tradition at any given time, the tension, once again, between the "spirit" and the "letter." The recognition of this tension is exemplified by Confucius's remark to the duke, who had praised the rectitude of a son in testifying against his father in a case of theft: "The honest men of my country are different from this. The father covers up for his son, the son covers up for his father—and there is honesty in that too." The case is similar with Islam, which requires unquestioning obedience to the Qurʾān, but at the same time provides for ittiḥād.
A closely related issue is that of law and freedom; how much freedom is to be allowed in the interpretation of the law? Is obedience to the law compatible with a relative freedom in its interpretation? Or does true obedience require a "rigorist" reading of the letter of the law, with the interpreter being allowed only the absolute minimum of freedom? This issue has been particularly important in the Christian tradition, where a broad range of positions has been defined.
The importance of obedience in religious life is undoubtedly due in part to its importance for the successful operation of family, society, and polity in general. However, obedience also functions as a specifically religious virtue. The triple vows of poverty, chastity, and cenobitic obedience in the context of Christian monasticism offer a possible example of such specifically religious obedience. However, all forms of cenobitic monasticism, as distinguished from the eremitic, involve rules necessary to the maintenance of a community and may therefore merely reflect the need for the maintenance of order. No such reductionistic explanation is possible, however, in the practice of spiritual and ascetic disciplines. Here obedience has an exclusively religious goal, as an essential precondition of spiritual knowledge. Thus when a Greek king wished to learn the wisdom of India from the gymnosophists, the first thing required of him was obedience: "No one coming in the drapery of European clothes—cavalry cloak and broad-brimmed hat and top-boots, such as Macedonians wore—could learn their wisdom. To do that he must strip naked and learn to sit on the hot stones beside them." Obedience may however play a role at the end of the path as well, if it is understood spiritually as surrender. In this sense it constitutes the annihilation of the individual ego which constitutes the last obstacle to the plenary experience. According to the modern Hindu mystic, Ramaṇa Maharshi (1879–1950): "The disciple surrenders himself to the master. That means there is no vestige of individuality retained by the discipline. If the surrender is complete all sense of individuality is lost and there is thus no cause for misery. The eternal being is only happiness, that is revealed" (Talks with Sri Ramaṇa Maharshi, 1984, p. 318). Thus while obedience is the necessary prerequisite for entry upon the spiritual path, it is also in a sense the goal. This is particularly clear in the case of Islam, which literally means "surrender." Here man is viewed as having his final end outside himself, in the transcendence of the divine. True peace is accordingly to be found only in surrender, in true and total obedience to the divine will.
Majumdar, R. C., ed., The Age of Imperial Unity. Bombay, 1951.
Schuon, Frithjof. Islam and the Perennial Philosophy. Translated by J. Peter Hobson. London, 1976.
Smith, Huston. The Religions of Man. New York, 1958.
Talks with Sri Ramaṇa Maharshi. 7th ed. Tiruvannamalai, India, 1984.
Turner, Victor. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Chicago, 1969.
Zaehner, R.C., ed. The Concise Encyclopedia of Living Faiths. 2d ed. New York, 1971.
Arvind Sharma (1987 and 2005)
o·be·di·ence / ōˈbēdēəns/ • n. compliance with someone's wishes or orders or acknowledgment of their authority: unquestioning obedience to the commander in chief. ∎ submission to a law or rule: obedience to moral standards. ∎ observance of a monastic rule: vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.PHRASES: in obedience to in accordance with: the Communist Party supported sanctions, in obedience to Soviet policy.