We do not often reflect extensively on the nature of authority in the modern world; at least, we do not entertain public discourse about it. We cede authority to people all the time, however, and with alarming frequency in consumer environments or business settings. In most cases, we cede it to individuals who, or institutions which, are expert in a subject or topic; we also cede it to corporations which specialize in a certain kind of product, and who have a reputation for excellence in it.
We might leave matters on that meritocratic note, and banish further questions about authority from our mind. More than this could be quite disruptive. After all, there cannot be any institutional life without order, and there is no order without some kind of authority — but that should not stop us from seeking authority’s proper grounds, especially in a liberal environment where we are expected to be sufficiently cultured to have mature consciences which can responsibly dissent, on the basis of a higher principle, from the authorities who govern, or from the proposals of our fellow citizens. Finally, this should also extend into religious life and institutions.
While the following cannot claim comprehensiveness, it certainly aims at addressing universal concerns.
In a presentation on the research behind his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Dr. Robert Cialdini noted that one of the ways in which bids for compliance operate is for one to claim authority, that is, expertise. He cited the evaluation of a particular dentifrice (toothpaste) while shopping as an example: none of us has the time to properly educate ourselves about the chemical components of a good toothpaste, nor about the clinical research on oral and dental health in relation to it, so we look to see that this or that toothpaste has been approved by the American Dental Association before buying.
Regardless of whether one trusts the ADA (or any other institution), the kind of claim to authority being made is rather clear. We might call this an example of authority-as-expertise, of authority due to the proliferation of knowledge and the necessity of specialization. In the modern world, knowledge is so vast, the amount of investment needed for mastery so great, that it is inevitable that one will master only a small area relative to the whole of what is known. This requires the discernment of competent authorities to navigate options outside of one’s expertise. Trust in authorities is necessary, and one is obligated to place one’s trust as responsibly as one can (e.g., I was fine with MacDonalds food when I was younger, but now that I know what is in it, and I can see how it affects me physically and mentally, I no longer trust the franchise or similar franchises).
Authority does not work this way in military organizations. Authority in a military institution is an expedient ordered to the ends of the organization: without obedience and discipline, warfare and survival are impossible. The authority figures are not obeyed because their commands are good, and so merit one’s obedience: the authority figures are obeyed because without group cohesion and clear leadership and a tight, responsive body of soldiers, defeat is almost certain.
This model of authority is not about truth. It is about winning, and not dying. It is a means to certain outcomes that are thought desirable.
Authority within religious and theological matters, quite oddly, can often follow the military model rather than the expertise model, though the academic requirements for potential ordinands might suggest otherwise (there are practical skills, techniques, job training, which are/is required; this practical component is clearly a matter of expertise). All too often, the academic requirements involved in the ordination process, like the logic behind sectarian schooling, is simply one of the central means of manufacturing, solidifying, and ensuring consent to the confessional agenda of the institution, and to secure conformity with said institutions ritual and ethical practices. It is, in that case, the factory production of a certain identity, for the institution has an interest in perpetuating itself, and ministers are a way to do that. (The task of perpetuating institutions is not wrong, of course: hospitals have an interest in training doctors, because without them we have no hospitals, &c. The same can be said for religious institutions; there is nothing wrong with training clergy per se. Also, by “sectarian schooling” I do not simply mean “private schooling”, as there is more than one valid reason for opting out of the public education system.)
Scholasticism was a curious combination of both authority-as-expertise and authority-as-commanding-will, and continues to be. It assumes that authority must be expert, that authority requires expertise, and yet it assumed certain authorities as valid and non-questionable, and assumed the fundamental harmony of these authorities. It certainly leaned heavily on expertise, however. One of the criticisms that the early Scholastics leveled against the village and countryside bishops, who held official authority, was that they were uneducated, and incompetent to execute the duties of their office. Of course, the early Schools got their charters from the Pope, and so achieved some degree of independence from clerics who saw them as a threat, and finally they became a fixture at General Councils of the Western Church via their representatives, who would process in as a group, as would bishops, &c. Within a system which affirmed the fundamental harmony of its authorities, it is remarkable how many interpretive options erupted to harmonize them, and how closely and attentively the fundamental religious, theological and philosophical texts were usually read — authority was not submitted to blindly.
Renaissance Humanism generally saw ethics and the ethical consequences of a belief as the highest concern, as regulative of whether something ought to be taught — even above whether this-or-that teaching were true. Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466–1536) might be held up as a model for education and erudition as authoritative; public order, public knowledge, and “the sovereignty of the good” were regulative principles for him. It was on this ground that he criticized Martin Luther’s (1483–1546) teaching on God’s predestination of his chosen individuals to eternal salvation apart from their moral efforts: even if it were true, it would be bad for public morals (it would give the wicked no incentive to correct their behavior, &c.), and so should not be preached publicly. Such a model was more a matter of expertise than of political obedience of a military sort, though it was tempered with professions of submission to biblical authority and whatever teachings are agreed upon by the consent of good and holy persons, professions which we should treat as sincere, as they almost certainly were.
In contemporary Orthodoxy, much is made of experience. “It is the experience of God which is primary, and only then, after knowing God by experience, do the saints write about him”, I had an Orthodox with several advanced degrees say to me recently. (Of course, Orthodox curricula at the seminaries are not shaped around this.) Yet when there is doubt about the authority of this-or-that religious figure and his or her teaching, the experiences of such people are often –typically– tested against canonically-binding authoritative texts of some sort or another. (It is on this pretext that St. Augustine is often slighted amongst the modern Orthodox with the backhand-compliment title of “Blessed”, rather than the traditional “Saint” — Augustine is thought to vary from the overwhelming consensus of the Fathers on too many central points, and the Greek Fathers are thought to be largely harmonious, and not to be full of outliers like Augustine. Why the semi-proto-Barthianism and Origenistic elements in St. Gregory of Nyssa don’t get this same treatment is indicative of a kind of chauvinism and paternalism.) As these authoritative texts are interpreted by other authoritative texts and by allegedly enlightened saints, the arguments can quickly become hopelessly circular, so that in the end, the military model is the regulative one — what a bishop or a priest decides about how to resolve to arrange and relate conflicting or allegedly-conflicting authorities (to the degree that they are even familiar with the relevant range of material!) is what wins the day. Even this is local and tentative, to say nothing about the problems in beginning to think of how to address those judgments of priests, bishops and even synods which may quite conceivably be uneducated and demonstrably inexpert and incompetent. Assuming that this would never happen –likely on the ground that God would never allow it– seems to fall into the military model.
The military model seems to be the overwhelmingly prevalent one in religious communities. About a year ago I had an uncomfortable exchange with a priest I know. He would formerly bless me in a way that was plainly a blessing (i.e., he would quite distinctly make the sign of the cross upon me before placing his hand in mine), but then he started doing something that felt like a slow-on-approach, gentle handshake.
At first I could handle not being sure whether he was blessing me or just shaking my hand, but after about two weeks of this I began to feel uncomfortable. I didn’t know what the transition to semi-handshake would have meant, either (was this some symbol, some in-group/out-group gesture he was employing; that is, was he not blessing me because I hadn’t received the Eucharist in some time?), but as I did sincerely wish to receive a blessing, my discomfort grew. It was some weeks before I began playfully saying, with a smile, “I won’t let you go ’til you bless me!” (Gen 32)
He responded well to this, at first, and would give me a very clear (if somewhat exaggerated) blessing, with a big smile. I figured I was making my request clear in a non-confrontational way that honored his priesthood and playfully addressed the issue without blowing it up or introducing hostility. It also acknowledged our friendship, which I thought was more important.
Then, after one or two months of this, I did the same thing, and he blew up at me in front of a crowd of parishioners at his parish. “You know, you shouldn’t talk to a priest like that” and when I firmly held the line and tried to pacify the situation, to plead and explain to him that I was confused as to whether he was blessing me or shaking my hand, he reasserted, “Don’t tell me how to do my job!”, &c. He told me that an apology was in order. I insisted that I did nothing wrong, and refused to be bullied into an apology, especially when he pulled out the “you should really learn humility, and not tell priests how to bless you” card.
He later came to me within the next thirty minutes, with another priest to kind of be a mediator and a witness, and apologized for some things (I can’t remember what), but expected some minimal level apology from me for something (I also can’t remember what). I could acknowledge the sort of responsibility he asked me to own (somewhat marginal to the event in question, as I recall), and I was content with the amount of responsibility he was willing to own. I was able to meet him halfway, and the fact that he made this effort meant the world to me for our friendship.
However, he said something to me during this apology-exchange that troubled me. He said, “would you talk to the bishop that way?” and I replied, “no, because I’m not friends with him” and he replied in turn “if the bishop gave me his elbow when I asked for a blessing, I would not ask questions, I would simply kiss it”, and then, if memory serves, said something about how it’s not appropriate for laity to question clergy.
Of course, this is just clericalism, but behind it is a notion of authority that is deeply nihilistic and irrational, at odds with the functioning of ordinary conscience. This model of authority demands obedience from an obediant, but provides no way for the obediant to know why he or she must obey. It asserts that such-and-such persons should be obeyed, or such-and-such rules, but there is no way to affirm them in the face of criticism or alternative visions, except as an act of will — and an act of will is taken to legitimate them in such a system (e.g., “you may not see why this is important, or why things should be this way, but our leader is glorious and wise, and he/she told us that things must be such-and-such a way, and we should simply trust him or her”, &c). The act of understanding and the faculty of the mind/intellect are subservient to the faculty of the will and the act of willing in this model.
In this model of authority, it is imperative that one obeys authority because the authority figure occupies the proper office. There does not seem to be any room to question the authority; the individual does not have the competency to evaluate the authority by some higher criterion, such as the good, much less the fitness of other, competing, particular goods.
The religious fallout of this is an emphasis on the will as the primary faculty of humanity; the will of the authority must be met by obedience of the will of the individual. A major aspect of the problem of the human condition, in this model, is disobedience — the disobedience of the individual and the human race. There may be more or less tolerance for issues that override the will and draw it away from the commanded order of life –handicaps, for example, or diseases– but there is usually little awareness of the will’s relation to the mind or rather the intellect, and, further, there is usually little awareness for the will’s (or the mind’s or reason’s) relation to the emotions. In this model, obedience does not primarily enlighten the mind, but commands the will — unless the former is clumsily and incompatibly affirmed together with the latter (e.g., “It doesn’t matter how you feel, it doesn’t matter what you think or whether your conscience is inappropriately bothering you, you must simply bootstrap yourself to do such-and-such thing” –and then you will understand, if understanding is even important, &c.).
Moving from religion to theology: there is no sense that the good is universal and accessible to the conscience of each person; there is no sense that the good can be known by all; there is no sense that the good disposes all things as the things they are by being the natural unity of each and all (rather, the unity of each and all is, in this model, a will, a wholly contingent imposition); there is no sense that the will follows the intellect, no sense that the infirm and impaired intellect needs to be healed for the will to follow suit.
And here is the real theological fallout of this: God is here primarily taken as essentially Will; “revelation” is taken to mean, on the divine side of it, alleged truths which we cannot get on our own steam and cannot otherwise verify (yet which we are nonetheless obligated, for some reason, to believe), and, on the human side of it, directives which we must obey but which we cannot –and ought not– evaluate. That is to say, this leads to a theology of assertions.
Martin Luther says similar things: “a man must delight in assertions or he is no Christian”, particularly “those things which have been divinely transmitted to us” [Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation, ed. E. G. Rupp & P. S. Watson (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969), 105]. Human trust in the true promise, God’s Word of promise, is central here, and this trust is fierce and certain in Luther. The clarity and self-evident certainty of the promise for an individual believer leaves him or her no doubt, writes Luther. In response to Erasmus, Luther demands permission for Christians “to be assertors, to be devoted to assertions and delight in them, while you stick to your Skeptics and Academics till Christ calls you too. The Holy Spirit is no Skeptic, and it is not doubts or mere opinions that he has written on our hearts, but assertions more sure and certain than life itself and all experience.” [Ibid, 109] Indeed, “it is in the nature of faith not to be deceived”, and so it “is necessary for every individual Christian” to “judge[…] and discern with the greatest certainty the dogmas and opinions of all men”, although only for him or herself — this is not a public certainty [Ibid, 157-159]. It is, however, certainty — a certainty local to the subject. Indeed, Luther asks: “what is more miserable than uncertainty?” [Ibid, 108] This certainty is private for the one who trusts the divine promise. Expert exegetes and academically-trained preachers and teachers can, however, set forth the content of the divine message and Christian teaching with a defense that is public. The biblical text and the apostolic teaching, although transcendent and so not demonstrable, are nonetheless both clear, and can be publicly defended, leaving critics with no justification for any calumny that can justly compel the conscience, Luther argues. It is clear and defensible, even if it is, in the end, not dialectical, not demonstrable, and is rhetorical — though divine rhetoric.
God is effectively freedom in this model. Freedom, here, is to be whatever one will be, rather than the actualization of a nature; this radical freedom to be what one wishes is not a property of human individuals [Ibid, 143], who cannot always be sure of the outcome of their endeavors: “free choice is plainly a divine term, and can be properly applied to none but the Divine Majesty alone; for he alone can do and does […Ps 115:3…] whatever he pleases in heaven and on earth. If this is attributed to men, it is no more rightly attributed than if divinity itself also were attributed to them” [Ibid, 141]. Will, therefore, is the operation of this Divine and Infinite Freedom: “the will of God is effectual and cannot be hindered, since it is the power of the divine nature itself”. [Ibid, 119] and this Freedom determines all things in its Will: “all things stand or fall by the choice and authority of God, and all the earth should keep silence before the Lord” [Ibid, 135], as “we must not ask the reason for the divine will, but simply adore it” [Ibid, 137]. This Infinite Freedom, in his hidden will, “works life, death, and all in all”, though, according to his revealed will, he only wills and works life in his people according to his Word of promise [Ibid, 201]. If its freedom is terrifying, Luther does affirm that the divine will is immutable [Ibid, 119], and that this should be a consolation to those who believe the divine promises [Ibid, 122].
Luther asserts that God-in-himself is quite distinct from God-as-revealed: “we have to argue in one way about God or the will of God as preached, revealed, offered, and worshipped, and in another way about God as he is not preached, not revealed, not offered, not worshipped. To the extent, therefore, that God hides himself and wills to be unknown to us, it is no business of ours.” [Ibid, 200] The implication is that “God as he is preached” is concerned with one thing, while “God hidden in his majesty” can be something else entirely, for “there he has not bound himself by his word, but has kept himself free over all things.” [Ibid, 200]
In Luther, God is not the good, but unrestricted power and will, entirely beyond the comprehension of people (“Your thoughts about God are all too human” Luther tells Erasmus [Ibid, 125]); God is not “subjected to merits and laws and not allowed to make what he likes”; he is not “required to make what he ought”, for “the consideration of merits conflicts with the power and freedom [of God] to do what he pleases” [Ibid, 258]. As Infinite Freedom, God cannot be understood (he is free from form except in clothing himself in the Word of Promise [Ibid, 201]), but only trusted: “This is the highest degree of faith, to believe him merciful when he saves so few and damns so many, and to believe him righteous when by his own will he makes us necessarily damnable […] [i]f, then, I could by any means comprehend how this God can be merciful and just who displays so much wrath and iniquity, there would be no need of faith.” [Ibid, 138] This faith is a trust which is spontaneously generated in some when they hear the divine word, the word of promise, the true promise, which comes from without — again, an emphasis is here on the proper form of the rhetorical presentation of the promise, so that it might shine forth clearly, and might engender the response of faith. It names the goodness of God and the divine decisions from this response of trust.
Should we criticize God’s decisions, we would find that Luther would assert, in reply, that our ethical judgments here are expressions of our own self-interest, as we are fundamentally not motivated by the good, but are slaves to evil: were we to have “regard to equity”, we “would expostulate with God just as much when he crowns the unworthy as when he damns the undeserving.” [Ibid, 259] God’s goodness is beyond human goodness, beyond the standards of “Aristotle Ethics” (ca. BC 384–322) or of “Justinian’s” (AD 483–565) code of laws . [Ibid, 258] Ultimately, “he is unprincipled and unjust by human standards, but just and true by his own.” [Ibid, 259-260] Our minds have no access to this justice and goodness; it is beyond us, and it is simply for us to adore it, Luther says. It is difficult to see how this justice and goodness are really the form of the just and the good, which our intellect, purified, might see: justice and goodness are rather definitionally equivalent to whatever God wills, it seems, because of his asserted character.
In Luther, just as there is no good determining all things, but a Freedom and Will determining all things, there can be no discourse, ultimately, but only rhetoric, and the truth of what one asserts is only unclear to those who are damned [Ibid, 111, 167], to those who are slaves of Satan [Ibid, 140, 165, 167], and declaiming the clarity of the divine Word will ultimately leave one’s Satanic opponents with no real answer [Ibid, 163-165], and so unlike discourse and dialogue, this dividing and sorting assertion will cause a great destructive chaos and tumult [Ibid, 128-130], which will change and renew the world [Ibid, 129].
I once heard the priest I mentioned above deliver a sermon asserting, effectively, that the grounds of the Christian life were irrational. In that sermon, he compared obedience to the “contents” of “divine revelation” like consenting to work with Euclid’s axioms — “they cannot be proven”, he declared, “one merely takes them on faith.” The Christian life, he asserted, works with same kind of assumptions — one builds ones life upon “divine revelation”, just as a geometer builds upon Euclid’s axioms.
This gets Euclid wrong, first of all. (It also gets revelation wrong, but that is another post.) Euclid’s axioms are not irrational — they are not provable because they require no proof at all. They are true by definition. Now I understand that much of modern Lobachevskian geometry indicates that the principle “two parallel lines never meet” is not necessarily the case in fact, but it is also true that, regardless of the verity of the mathematical representations, there is still no way that one can visualize Lobachevskian space, in which this might be true, without modifying Euclidean space, in which it is. Euclidean axioms are not true by convention. They are true by necessity of the definitions involved. These axioms are not irrational, but self-evident because of the way that thought works. Euclidean thinking is our common, public way of thinking, and it is so deeply rooted that it cannot be called a convention, cannot be thought of something that is irrational or arbitrary or willed. Even the Lobachevskian system itself isn’t built on arbitrarily willed assumptions, but on public, rational arguments.
Clearly, saying that Euclidean axioms are irrational and simply “taken on faith” dovetails neatly with the very irrational authority structures listed above. It makes Euclid a precedent for a kind of non-public social-political system of groundless assertions whose verity one can never know. Their goodness can never really be perceived, except by those who are elevated as heroes or saints, and even their knowledge cannot ever, in this system, be public and rational. It is wholly private and irrational.
A friend of mine offered a similar apprehension about the good being public. He said that the good can be defined a number of ways, and that one could never compel anyone else to accept a definition of goodness. Any attempt to prove such a definition true results in an infinite regress. The problem, of course, for any Platonist is that the good is not a thing with a limit and so it cannot be defined; it is, rather, the ground of all finitions/limits and intelligibility. The good is the ground of the being and intelligibility of all things; in Plato, it is “the Sun of the Good”, and is effectively the One, and God, truly divine. This is a school opinion, but it does not ground itself on any external authority: it claims to be simply the way that everyone thinks about and perceives things always already anyways.
The good is public, and not asserted, and not determinate, but all-determining, and all things exist and are perceptible by it. All things are intelligible only insofar as they are one; they are only one insofar as they are each a harmony of parts. If the harmony breaks down, the unity (and so the being) of the object breaks down — so we see in organisms, for instance. Insofar as anything is a harmony, it is beautiful, and has some form of being, and is, to some degree, good (even if the mode of its being puts it at a discord with other beings who pursue the good appropriate to them). As noted, should the harmony break down too far, the parts unravel, and lose their common unitary context, and the unified thing is no more. What is good for any thing is for it to be unified according to the unity that it naturally has — what is good for any thing, or any one, is for it to achieve more integration, more internal (and thus external) harmonization, and for it to be more unitarily the one thing that it is. Our conscience registers what we ought to do, because the unity by which we exist, and by which we are perfected, is something we are innately connected to at all times. The conscience waxes and wanes with cultivation, but what is good is never something we are unable to know without being told. Evil in this model is either the conflict between two goods that have a degree of autonomy, a mode of activity that does not unify, but causes division and disharmony in the nature of the individual or the form of the whole, or else a privation, a lack, of unity, harmony, and so being. (Of course, the young Luther said that, were this true, then we could not then love the poor, as they are defined by a lack, and so cannot be known, since a deficit in being is a deficit in intelligibility. This strikes me as a form of rhetoric, rather than an argument, for according to common perception there is nothing that can be thought and perceived which lacks intelligibility, and so there is nothing that can be thought or perceived which lacks a degree of harmony and so beauty and so goodness. Do not the poor move us specifically because of the lack we perceive, the injustice we mind in them?)
Thus, goodness is not an idea with content, but the ground of perception and thought and intelligibility. This concern with advancing specific definitions about what is good, as opposed to the making public the grounds for making definitions in the first place and the horizon of all definition-making, is the first move into rhetoric, and leaving behind truth. When it is declared impossible, and definitions are held to anyway, the situation is even worse than rhetoric — then we are in the realm of military authority, as above.
The major frustration which the reader should have with this military model, and with Luther’s model, is the way that it seems shut down dialogue. Although Luther’s model is not simplistic, as is the fundamentalist motto, “God said it, that settles it”, there is something finally non-negotiable — although, in Luther’s model, the truth should be publicly defensible.
Luther fully embraced the Renaissance Humanist set of literary analytical tools to engage with the biblical text, and, like the Humanists, was not afraid of employing examples from classical literature to illustrate his point. There is an element of divine authority which, for Luther, was immediate and self-evident, having perfect subjective clarity; yet authority, for Luther, did involve an element of expertise, the Humanist expert handling of the biblical text, to gain a proper understanding through literary, grammatical and textual means, rather than philosophical, metaphysical and also dogmatic ones: the text must be interpreted properly according to the proper exegetical tools for the Word to be preached properly. But here, there is an artificial stop for critical scrutiny: the biblical text is the expression of the divine Word, which is the true promise of God, a pledge, seal and sign: faith, though subjective certainty, responds to this Word with a certainty which cannot be moved to doubt. This breaks down discourse: the world is thus reduced to those who are with us in believing this, and those who are against us. These political groups are cosmic, historical, and reach into the very decisions of God.
Truth is here allegedly common: Luther would say that in suffering disagreements, those who preach the Word convict the consciences of those who are enemies of the Word, so that they may be hostile, but will have nothing to say.
It is true that people cannot always resolve their disagreements. People disagree about everything under the sun: looking for common principles that are able to bring both parties to the table is as vital for social life as it is for the illumination and clarification of truth. What is troubling is the assumption that the universal is not some higher ground which both parties can and must seek, but the position of one of the two (or more) parties.
This permits invulnerable assumptions, which are toxic to anything public, and run swiftly towards the military model of authority. Against this, we all know that anything that is to be assumed must be self-evident; if it is not, it must be demonstrated, or else there must be a public reason offered for why those who are unpersuaded remain unpersuaded due to some lack on their part (e.g., the blind cannot be moved by the beauty of a sunset, &c.).
If an axiom is assumed, but not self-evident, and is then shielded from critical scrutiny, it cannot be advanced as having any authority. Likewise, if a figure in some office of authority claims to have authority without being vulnerable to correction on the grounds of what is public, that figure cannot claim to be on the side of good, apart from situations where expedience demands obedience for the sake of some clear and manifest good (e.g., obeying one’s superiors in a war zone to stay alive). Authority deals with truth, with what has determining power: what rightfully has determinacy is not evaluated based on who achieves victory in a sea of competing wills, so as to impose itself upon all, but is rather the setting-forth of what things are.
Authority must be on public grounds; being public, it is therefore rational. Pseudo-Dionysius (active ca. AD late 400’s–early 500’s) writes about “goodness –as unifying and authoritative divinity” [Divine Names IV.4, transl. John D. Jones]: the good is what has authority, and it has authority because it determines things as the things they are. It is not one voice among the many, but the ground of things’ intelligibility. The good is not a particular authoritative thing or text or person, but the light by which the goodness of any thing or text or command or person can be known. Goodness has authority: it is public, available to the conscience of each in principle, and does not require special assertion in order to be present and known (though it often does require speech, it is not guaranteed by any authority external to itself, and it is not itself external to anything at all). Every command, every appetite, every impulse, every habit, every religious rite, may disclose the good, but they are also each weighed by the light of the good. We are not left to blind obedience to one thing or another; we have consciences which are more or less functional, and which can become stronger through habit.
What is truly authoritative is what our consciences can know as good and beautiful, and which can publicly show itself as true. The other claims to authority are very concerning, indeed.