Questions About Authority

In my last post I sort of discussed the theoretical possibility of determining if a person is englightened or not. The problem is different, of course, depending on whether or not we are enlightened ourselves.

There was a passage from Anthony de Mello’s book Awareness that I wanted to quote, but couldn’t at the time because my copy was on loan to a friend. But I got it back and found the passage, and realised that what I wrote last week was really quite irrelevant.

Here is the passage:

Somebody came up to me with a question… He asked me, “Are you enlightened?” What do you think my answer was? What does it matter!

You want a better answer? My answer would be: “How would I know? How would you know? What does it matter?” (34)

If I were enlightened and you listened to me because I was enlightened, then you’re in big trouble. Are you ready to be brainwashed by someone who’s enlightened? You can be brainwashed by anybody, you know. What does it matter whether someone’s enlightened or not? But see, we want to lean on someone, don’t we? We want to lean on anybody we think has arrived. (35)
We’re used to relying on authorities in our day to life. It’s unavoidable. I lack the competence to diagnose my own illnesses, so I rely on a doctor. When I need legal advice, I go to a lawyer. Etc. But these people can be held accountable. Religious authorities, not so much.

Some people are quite content to confer authority on someone for no reason other than the fact that they hold a particular office – i.e., the pope, bishops, etc.[1]

We find very different models of authority in the New Testament, however. John P. Meier writes,
One aspect of Jesus’ family background was so obvious to his Jewish contemporaries that, as far as we know, neither he nor they ever commented on it during his lifetime. Yet this aspect has been so overlooked or misunderstood by later Christians that it needs to be emphasized. It is the simple fact that Jesus was born a Jewish layman, conducted his ministry as a Jewish layman, and died a Jewish layman. (Marginal 1.345)
Jesus had no “official” authority. And yet in the Gospel of Mark, we find a story about Jesus teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum. The people were “astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Mark 1.22). The scribes did have “official” authority, in a sense, since they were professional religious teachers.

With Paul we find the same thing. He strongly insists that his authority does not come from the "official" leaders of the church.

Br. David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, wrote this in a fascinating article about Jesus entitled “A Revolution of Authority”:

Jesus Christ brought a complete revolution of the understanding of authority. This is, I think, the Christian tradition’s most central insight and potentially its greatest contribution to spirituality in the world. It occurred in two ways. First, Jesus placed the authority of God, which was always seen as external, in the very hearts of his hearers. The core teaching of Jesus is not, “I am going to tell you all,” or anything like that. No, he presupposes you know it all. “Don't you know it? I'll remind you of it. You know it all.” This is his typical voice. This question opens many of the parables, “Who of you doesn't know this already?” It's not sufficiently emphasized nowadays in Christian teaching, but the moment you are alerted to it you see it. (online)

Jesus had authority precisely because he was persuasive. He understood that the ultimate norm by which we make judgments is always and unavoidably our self. Authentic authority does that.

As a religion teacher, I know that I have a lot more credibility with my students – and therefore greater authority – if I let them voice their doubts and challenge what I have to say, instead of insisting that they simply take my word for it. I also have more credibility if I admit when I’m wrong, or that I don’t know something (which I’ve had to do). And it seems to me to be self-evident that this is true for religious authority as well. So why does the Vatican act in exactly the opposite way, and why do so many people play along?


[1] I discussed the inevitably circular arguments used to support this model of authority in a previous post.

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