Thursday, December 3, 2009

Questioning Authority

Okay. I have internet at home again, so I will be able to start regular blogging once more. Hopefully there are still some interested readers. Four months of involuntary hiatus can, I understand, diminish enthusiasm for regular readership and participation.

In any case, let's get things going with a bit of a bang. Authority takes on many forms: absolute, provisional, juridical, religious, etc. On St. Cynic, I deal almost exclusively with religious issues. Given that, let's take a look at the definition of religious authority, how it is expressed, enforced, and whether it is legitimate.

For example, Reformation theologians didn't subvert the notion of religious authority, they simply removed it from the hands of a highly corrupt papacy. Their emphasis -- at least in the Lutheran circles -- was on the freedom of the individual conscience to apply the moral standards, salvific message, and confessional doctrines of Scripture and the Book of Concord. Catholics charge that this is an abrogation from the papacy and the absolutist claim the Roman church had on Scripture, tradition, faith and morals. In both cases, each ecclesial communion based their claims on an absolutist sense of truth, and an assumed unerring interpretation of holy writ and tradition. In both cases, both factions viewed each other's 'authority' as illegitimate.

So, my question is, first, what is authority? And second, how can authority be properly expressed, enforced, and legitimized? Finally, do we even need religious authority; that is, is it essential?

What are your thoughts?

1 comment:

Edward said...

Here's a first shot:

Authority is a status. A status comes with attendant rights and duties. To say you have the authority to do something is to say you have the right to do it because of your status. When something goes wrong we want to "speak to the man in charge". We want to know who's responsible! "Who's in charge here?"

A status like this has a subjective ontology: it only exists because we recognize it. (Whereas rocks and trees exist whether or not we recognize them.)

A status is like money. Or, better, money is a status. It's a status we bestow upon otherwise (basically) valueless paper. We recognize these pieces of paper as money and for this very reason they are money. They are money because WE represent them as money. We officially declare them to money. We might have chosen something else to be money. If so, even though all the brute facts about the pieces of paper would be the same, they wouldn't be money. Still, it's an objective fact that they are money to us, even if I decide they aren't money to me. For a status, what counts is that WE recognize it. If I recognize a banana as a legal tender, a hell of a lot good it'll do me. What matters is that WE recognize it!

No brute facts about Barack Obama changed when he became president. What changed is that WE recognized his new status according to a set of rules the status of which we also recognized. (Or "they", as in Americans, did.)

Of course authority can arrise naturally, in slow steps. Imagine our plane crashed and five of us survived. You know first aid and how to survive in the wilderness, and so you spring into action and give us directions. The rest of us are city folk, scared shitless. Without stopping to officially bestow a status on you, we just start following your instructions. After while it's clear that, before we do anything, we always check with you. You've become our leader.