Saturday, 14 July 2012


Monotheletism is the heresy that says there is just one will in Christ, the divine will. Why did people come to this view and what’s the problem with it? If there is in Christ just one Person then it seems reasonable to say that there is in Him just one will. This is how you know you are up against a person: you meet a will. What sense would it make to think of a person with two wills?

Wills clash, almost inevitably it seems. Again this is how you know there are two wills around, there is conflict, and this we do not find in Christ.

You will think immediately of Gethsemane: this, especially as recounted by Mark, supports the orthodox doctrine of two wills while excluding the doctrine of one will. There seems to be a clear conflict between what Jesus wants and what God wants. It is a dramatic episode, always repaying reflection, particularly in regard to what love means as a ‘union of wills’. The conflict is between natures rather than persons and the wills of Christ are attached to the natures.

My reason for speaking of these Christological heresies is to look at our way of living religious life, to see if the heresy manifests itself in how we are relating the divine and human aspects of our life. Religious obedience might seem to be about will, ‘the greatest sacrifice is that of one’s own will’: this is how some theologies and spiritualities speak. St Thomas Aquinas sees no need for any vow other than obedience because this is the most radical one of all, including all others. It is, after all, the obedience of Christ, an obedience learnt through suffering, that saves the world. The vowed religious follows Christ above all in obedience.

None of us will have any difficulty, I imagine, in the thought of being obedient to God or to Christ, even where such obedience involves suffering. Being obedient to other human beings: there’s the rub! It might seem then that obedience becomes, as Herbert McCabe puts it, ‘a necessary evil’, a mechanism for unlocking conflict: let yet another will intervene that we will all agree to go along with …

In a fairly well known lecture he gave on religious obedience, however, Herbert say it is about intellect rather than will, about understanding rather than power. The vow of obedience is about living in community (and so it is ultimately about understanding God). Superiors always stand for the community, he says, since none of them would be there except the community has asked them. Superiors are first under obedience, we can say, to the community that asks them to take on the task. An Irish Dominican, John Heuston, writing about religious obedience says it allows us to say to superiors ‘you would have no power over me if it had not been given you from below’.

Obedience is more about understanding than about will and is perfect when all have come to share one mind. The good of the community – which in the case of Dominicans is the mission of preaching the gospel – is sought together through an educational process in which the superior plays a central role. That’s still Herbert. And so is this: it is not so much communities that are made up of individuals as it is individuals that are made up of communities. Communities are ‘forms of love’, networks in which we find rather than lose ourselves.
This is not just liberal neo-Marxism. Thomas Aquinas says, on the virtue of obedience, that friendship makes us want and not want the same things (amicitia facit idem velle et nolle) and Augustine speaks of the gravity that accompanies love and draws it towards the good (amor meus pondus meum): I go after my love and am obedient to it, and I do not experience it as offensive to my will that it be overcome by the good.

We are people of our time and have become accustomed to speaking (and therefore thinking) as the world speaks (and thinks). So the language of ‘informed choice’, ‘autonomy’, and ‘rights over against one another’ finds its way also to us and inevitably colours our thinking about obedience and authority, freedom and power. Such things conspire with what Vincent McNabb calls ‘psychological reasons’ to make obedience difficult, pushing us back towards thinking that wills must clash and that only one will must prevail.
This is then a monotheletistic view of religious life and of Christian life instead of the alternative: a shared vision, a common task, a fraternal life, ultimately a union of wills in love.

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