Surrender, Never Surrender
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Veteran’s Day (or Armistice Day) is coming up this week – the concept of surrender in war is not what I am talking about. But it looms over the conversation significantly no matter what I say. Today I wish to discuss the concept of Surrender from a religious perspective. Surrender is a topic that comes up in pretty much all the world’s major religions in one form or another. In many cases, surrender is integral.
In the Gospel of Luke (18:18-30) we hear Jesus exhort a young nobleman to ‘sell all you have, distribute it to he poor, and come follow me.’ Surrender everything and follow me. There’s an old spiritual that talks about how I’m gonna lay down this world and shoulder up my cross. Surrender the world and follow Jesus. But Jesus himself is shown having trouble with this. In all three synoptic gospels, just before being arrested Jesus goes to the garden of Gethsemane to pray saying ‘remove this cup from me, yet not my will but thy will be done.’ In Matthew’s Gospel he even says this prayer three times. Jesus is having a really hard time surrendering, but it is lifted up as a good and great virtue!
And beyond Christianity, the concept appears again and again. The Buddhist effort to release from attachment as described in the four noble truths is all about surrender. The point is to surrender the worldly things, to let go of attachments, so you may find yourself free to live a life of spirit. Buddhists do not surrender to the will of Buddha in any way comparable to the way Christians surrender to the will of God. Instead they follow the eightfold path that they may be free of attachments. Buddhists do not typically speak of this as ‘surrender,’ and if we think of surrender only as surrender to another’s will, then it does not fit. But that is not the only rendering of surrender. We can surrender our attachments; we can give up our clinging to things and expectations.
Perhaps this is a distinction that resonates as one of the basic differences between eastern and western religions. When we look, for example, at another western religion, we see that the word “Islam” in Arabic is literally translated as ‘submission’ or ‘surrender’ and is meant as submission to God. In western religious traditions the idea of surrender is wholly caught up in the idea of surrender to the will of God. Yet in the eastern religions, such as in Taoism where we read that ‘to yield is to overcome [and] to empty out is to be filled,’ (Tao Te Ching 22) it is clear that surrender is an act of liberation.
It is perhaps too much of a simplification to say that the west sees religious surrender as synonymous with the secular war-related concept of giving your freedom up to another’s will, to be captured and constrained. And the east sees religious surrender as the opposite: as an act of liberation, of freeing oneself from constrains. It is too simple to say the western religious traditions all see it one way and always only see it that one way, while the eastern religious traditions are the opposite.
But we can say there are two nearly opposing views of the concept of religious surrender. And for the sake of a simpler conversation I will say they are an eastern concept and a western concept
But what is being surrendered? I think in both concepts, both surrender as giving over your will to the will of something greater as well as surrender as liberating yourself from your attachments, the root of what you are surrendering might be best called your ego. Religion asks us to surrender our egos that we might have life and have it more abundantly.
But for all that surrender is a common and often central concept in religion we don’t talk about it much in Unitarian Universalist circles. Largely this is due to our having grown out protestant Christianity and we kept the protest going. Unitarians in particular, and Universalists in their own ways, were iconoclasts. We refused to worship anything that was a partial truth, anything that was set above the eternal. We held the Bible and all creeds and rituals as transient forms of religion but not the truth of religion. We held Jesus as human, not God. Only God is God.
The Transcendentalists such as Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott, and Henry David Thoreau were then iconoclasts within an iconoclastic tradition. The Transcendentalists were in effect saying, “Surrender? Why?” When Emerson wrote in his great essay Self-Reliance, “Trust yourself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” And in the Divinity School Address he admonishes, “Refuse all good models and dare to love God without mediator or veil.” He is in effect saying, ‘do not surrender to the precepts of another person’s notion.’ Do not surrender to the will of another, but go learn for yourself what your soul finds needful for true living. “When we can read God directly, the hour is too precious to be wasted in other men’s transcripts of their readings.” (American Scholar) And so, do not surrender yourself to them.
In our responsive reading this morning (#660) Thoreau proclaims the wish to live deliberately. “I wish to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” Does that sound like surrender? Does that sound like passive acceptance of another’s will? “I want to drive life into a corner,” he writes, so that he may learn of it and know if it be mean or sublime. This is the sentiment Unitarianism cut its teeth on. This is the precursor of the 1930’s Humanism that boldly declared itself through with superstition and supernatural theology. That declared not only was human nature not cosmically flawed but indeed the human endeavor shall progress onward and upward forever! To never practice resignation or surrender!
And before I get too carried away with this, let me pause and note a small section in Thoreau’s reading that speaks directly to this. He writes, “Nor do I wish to practice resignation, unless it is quite necessary.” When would it be necessary, according to Thoreau? I must admit I am not sure I can answer that with authority, but I do know that one of the prime examples of Thoreau’s life that is lifted up again and again was his willingness to spend a day in jail rather than pay taxes to support what his conscience told him was an unjust war. Certainly spending a night in jail is a form of surrender, of resignation. But it is resignation to the will of society and government but not a resignation of his conscience.
And this gets at the crux of the paradox for me. What some will call living a life of surrender; other will call living a life of fierce commitment. When, in this religious sense, I surrender – am I not at the same time, clinging fast to something? To surrender is not to quit. Indeed to surrender is to commit to something particular! It is to find that central and ultimate value in life worthy of your surrender and then to never surrender again.
Buddhist non-attachment does not say we no longer care or that we can ignore the world and everything in it. But by making a commitment to the elegant eightfold path, we can surrender everything else because everything else will fall into place. The Christian and Islamic calls to surrender my will to the will of God is not about never thinking for myself again, it is not about becoming a puppet or pawn for God’s power. But by making a commitment to live by God’s will in our lives, we can surrender everything else because everything else will fall into place. At least, that is what it seems as it would be like. I don’t know for certain because I am not a Buddhist and I am not a Christian.
I am a Unitarian Universalist. This does not mean I can just make up my own religious path willy-nilly on a whim because there are not creeds or rules to follow. But by making a commitment to live with integrity by the lights of my own conscience, I can surrender everything else because everything else will fall into place. To surrender and to never surrender are two sides of the same coin. Indeed, I cannot surrender until I have uncovered and made that ‘never-surrender’ commitment to a central and ultimate value in life worthy of my surrender. In this way, I can begin the work of letting go of my ego so as to have life and to have it more abundantly.
Perhaps this formula is more familiar in some other topics. Consider the phrase, “If you love something set it free.” There is more to that quote, but the gist of it is right there in that first phrase. You can surrender even what you love. For if it is true it will remain. I think it is easier to look at this from the example of relationships because we are so primed by our culture to notice relationships. All the books and TV shows and magazine articles about relationships makes it a very recognizable topic.
So consider relationships. Perhaps the most obvious one is the parent-child relationship when the child is becoming an adult. This is classic. The stereotypical parent will continue to treat the child as a child despite growth, creating tension in the relationship when the child wants to be treated like an adult. If you love something set it free. Let go. Is the pattern familiar to us?
I experienced the reverse of the pattern when I was in college. I remember trying to connect and relate to my father who was (and still is) a recovering alcoholic. It occurred to me that I was trying to have the relationship I’d lost with him when he left he house when I was four. We had each grown and changed and it finally dawned on me that I needed to give up on having the relationship I wanted to have with him so that I could have the actual relationship that was beginning to grow if I would only let it. I had to surrender by expectations.
Another popular expression is, “You’ll fall in love the minute you stop trying to find the perfect mate.” It is the same concept. Surrender your expectations of how things ought to be to discover what is actually there and likely has been all along.
So, the trick, I think, is to have as broad and transcendent a value to commit to. If your ‘never-surrender’ commitment is to this particular relationship, then you will have a lot of trouble when you grow or your partner grows or your children grow. But if your ‘never-surrender’ commitment is to Love, capital ‘L’ love, love that can be nurtured but never forced, love even at the highest level known as the transcendent power some call God, or at least love in the sense that you want what’s best for the other – then you have the freedom to surrender everything else to love.
In another chapter of the Tao Te Ching (number 76) we read:
A tree that is unbending is easily broken.
The hard and strong will fall.
The soft and yielding will overcome
And in a delightful parallel from within Judaism, we read: (The Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan XLI.III.1)
One should always be as soft as a reed
And not as tough as cedar
In the case of a reed, all the winds in the world
Can go on blowing against it but it sways with them
So that when the winds grow silent
It reverts and stands in place
But in the case of a cedar it will not stand in place
But when the south wind blows against it
It uproots the cedar and turns it over.
The reed is a natural example of surrender to the wind while having that ‘never-surrender’ commitment to ever remain in place through the strongest of winds. We can be as tenacious as the reed. But we’d best know just where we have planted ourselves. We can be strong and live with deep integrity, but we need not be unyielding or uncompromising. Better the bend in the wind, better to learn the art of surrender while holding fast with a fierce commitment to something of ultimate value and power.
Indeed, go drive life into a corner that you may learn both the mean and the sublime. Refuse all good models and exemplars and creeds and rituals, daring instead to love God without mediator or veil. Stand forth with only your conscience and conviction and say “Here I stand, I can do no other.” But notice what you bind yourself to and be ready to yield all else. For if the commitment you have made to Love or God or Life is true than steel yourself to surrender everything else and trust that all shall be well.
In a world without end, may it be so.