The Fragility of Religious Authority

I do not think we are the products of our era’s mode of thinking but rather that it influences us in ways that are sometimes quite subtle, particularly in our thinking about abstractions. Because we participate in so many cultures whose influences cancel each other out, the larger zeitgeist winds during most historical eras are the merest zephyr drifting through our virtual circle.

But at others they are a tornado carrying all into their swirling vortex. Such was the case in two instances that get short shrift in current thinking about intellectual history: the Protestant Reformation and its effect, the Enlightenment. The Reformation raged from 1517-1648 (1688 in Britain). The incessant civil, dynastic, and national wars rooted in conflicting dogma resulted in the gradual collapse of the power of authority as a warrant for truth and goodness claims, prompting the fervent search for alternative guarantors over the next 150 years. Steeped in the power of religious absolutism, the new champions of the Enlightenment and the budding sciences could offer nothing like its confidence and certainty. The philosophes were quite certain that this very certainty was to blame for the torrents of blood shed in the name of religious orthodoxy and vowed to produce warrants more universal if less confidently asserted; they championed reason and closely examined experience instead. Their quest was at least partially successful, for empirical science and logic are still the two most reliable justifications for our correspondence knowledge claims, though they have also seen their crises over the course of the twentieth century. These influences are reviewed at some length in my book, What Makes Anything True, Good, Beautiful? Challenges to Justification.

But, you might object, millions are still moved by religious authority, which they find decisive in forming their own schemas of knowledge and belief. Surely, the winds of culture have been unsuccessful in blowing away this great traditional warrant for truth and goodness. True enough. Many Americans, for instance, lack the historical literacy to appreciate the desperate incentive that drove our Founding Fathers toward history’s first formal separation of church and state. The Reformation furies were fresher for them than for us as was their need for replacement warrants for religious authority. Thus their reliance on the powers of universal reason in the formation of their new polity. As beneficiaries of that reason, we may choose to ignore their concerns but at our own peril. Religious absolutism in service to any faith does offer its warrant for morality, yet it inevitably brings with it the most vicious of conflicts. Why is that?

The Founding Fathers knew the answer to that question, and they chose the warrant of universal reason because, in the great tradition of Cartesian logic, they sought an alternative to the long and fruitless contention their forefathers had suffered through. They laid the blame for the ghastly wars of religion squarely at the feet of religious authority. Why did they do that?

Authority as a generalized warrant for correspondence truth is inherently weak. After all, an authority needs nothing to justify her truth and goodness claims other than the assent of the beneficiary of her efforts. I become an authority when you decide I am one. My claims do not require any of the stronger correspondence truth tests. I am not required to prove my truths through experiment or demonstrate them logically. I need not establish myself as an expert on the subjects upon which I am expounding. I do not even need to have any experience supporting my claims. Granted, authority frequently combines with all of these other supports to strengthen its hand. You might choose to grant me authority because I have my PhD in microbiology, or because you have been swayed by my arguments, or because I have developed skills in my subject over a lifetime of thoughtful effort, or because I have been there and done that. In each of these examples authority rides on the shoulders of more powerful correspondence warrants and is buttressed by them. But none of these is necessary for authority itself to power my claims. When the new kindergarten teacher walks into the classroom, the students are not given any reason to obey other than authority. When the policeman tells you to move along, nothing to see here, you accept his word because of his authority. Is your boss competent?

Granted, there are powerful pragmatic forces at work here. Do you want to see the principal, the inside of the jail cell, the back of the unemployment line? Institutions, including the family, the corporation, and civil society itself, use authority as a warrant because it lubricates the process of getting things done. But that in itself hardly makes the pronouncements of authorities true or good. Their pragmatic value cuts both ways. For every scout leader there is a bureaucratic hack. While modernists viewed authority with distrust and suspicion, postmodernists see it as inherently evil. They regard authorities as the perpetuators of institutionalized power, using sleight-of-hand to secure the willing obedience of those disadvantaged by the system. What is it about authority that carries such powerful antipathies?

For such a ubiquitous force, it is surprisingly fragile in practice. Everyone who has wielded it has felt that sickening sensation of the bubble about to pop: the moment when the “beneficiary” of authority—some would say its victim—withdraws her assent. The child who challenges the parent, the crowd surging toward the cordon of police, the laughing student in the last row. It doesn’t take very much to establish authority, and it doesn’t take much to destroy it. If the authority has coupled her warrant to other kinds of correspondence support, that is typically the remaining appeal. I tell you that this is true or good not only because I am an authority to you but also because…. I have experimental data. I can logically explain. I can appeal to my expertise. I have done this before. Or as the postmodernists charge, if no other warrant is available, authority can simply remove its glove and reveal the clenched fist of power. “Because I say so” is not only an admission of what might be called “justification bankruptcy,” it is also the goad to withdrawal of assent.

For that is all it takes. All it took, at least, in the bloody nightmare of the Reformation when peasants withdrew their assent from the German princes, when Calvinists seceded from their Lutheran brothers, when Henry VIII sneered at Pope Clement VII, when French Huguenots challenged Catherine de Medici, and on and on. As must happen in such cases, each withdrawal of allegiance prompted a new commitment to some other authority or some stronger correspondence warrant for truth and goodness. Over fifteen centuries, it came to be seen that the problem wasn’t so much the source of authority but the concept of authority itself, and so a kind of meta-withdrawal began. Authority itself lost its assent. From the mid seventeenth century onward, opponents to authority recognized what millennia of authoritarian control had not: the act of challenge dissolves the warrant of authority. It hardly matters what justification underwrites the challenge. Other sources of correspondence warrant can meet opposition head-on and contend within their own method of support. Experts, for instance, frequently disagree and have the means within their mode of support to reconcile their disagreements. But authority challenged is authority destroyed, and that may explain the intolerance its adherents demonstrate for dissent as well as the distrust those dissenters express.

Religious authority for simple truth claims, known as divine command, is complemented by religious absolutism for moral goodness claims. This absolutism is also warranted by the authority of sacred texts, tradition, or dogma. These traditionally powerful sources of truth and goodness boasted of a certainty their more modern successors, empiricism and reason, could never hope for. That made their Reformation collapse all the more cataclysmic. In a prior post, I examined a problem common to all truth claims rooted in revelation or insight: the catharsis thus generated produces a radical reorientation of the believer’s virtual circle, itself a unique possession of the believer. This kind of knowledge is necessarily private, yet it proclaims a truth about all of reality. This private-to-public warrant problem is nearly always settled by transmuting the cathartic experience — in religious terms called a conversion experience — into authority. In most religions, this change in justification is a second generation event as adherents who knew the holy man die off and sacred traditions and texts become the means of transmission. I doubt that religionists are overly concerned about the fragility of a purely authoritarian warrant at that moment. Even so, they seem to reach for more powerful justifications when available. Sometimes, as in Thomas Aquinas’s carefully presented five cosmological proofs for God’s existence, these other warrants successfully buttress the claims of authority. Sometimes, they conflict.

Two such examples that come readily to mind are Plato’s concerns about the nature of the gods in his dialogue The Euthyphro and the Book of Job.

 The Euthyphro poses an essential question: are laws good because the gods command them or do the gods command them because they are good? The phrasing itself points to the appeal to logical warrant. If the former is true as seemed to be the case with the Greek gods, then they might as well command their opposite and call that good. And that violates the logical consistency implied by the definition of the term “good.” If the latter, then the gods’ powers are not absolute, and what kind of god lacks omnipotence? That is another kind of logical puzzle. We see quite a different response in the Book of Job as Job’s chorus seeks to subject his unearned misery to logical scrutiny, earning a thunderous response from Jehovah that leaves no doubt that the author would answer Plato’s question quite definitively by setting Himself up as the arbiter of what qualifies as “good.” Yet this response isn’t quite satisfactory precisely because it causes us to question our own logical sense of the goodness of a deity who allows his devotees to be tortured for no better reason than to win a wager. So the story now faces a kind of impasse involving the conflict of two warrants: how to satisfy the logical expectations of a reader of the Bible who believes God commands what is good while still upholding His omnipotence? This is accomplished by the very neat trick of having the subtext of the story undermine the text. Yes, says the storyline, God’s will is the measure of all goodness, not your measly human reasoning. But, says the subtext, look how God rewarded Job for his fidelity: he is given a new wife, more land, sheep, children, and friends than before. See, reader, God is good in the way your reason tells you, despite the explicit rejection of that very reason in the divine peroration. In the story of Job, text and subtext twist and turn so that reason and authority may both be thought by the casual reader to support each other despite a deeper contradiction.  It is an odd effort.

In another example, The Book of Genesis gives us the story of Abraham, ordered by God to do just what Plato questioned: commit an act so obviously evil that no possible reasoning could justify it. Abraham is held as a paragon of obedience to authority because he obeys this outrageous command, yet once again reason is placated. See, it was only a test. God would not violate our own reasoning about goodness. Isaac is spared and Abraham is rewarded and his descendents number as many as the stars. Yet again, the text explicitly extols the authority warrant while the subtext attempts to appeal to our sense of reason in violation of the apparent message of the story.

From Adam and Eve to the Resurrection and from Dante to Milton to Kierkegaard, defenders of divine authority also appeal to a divine justice explicable by reason to give greater heft to that authority. Sometimes, the two conflict as clearly as Plato’s question in The Euthyphro and sometimes they blend almost seamlessly as Milton’s attempt to “justify the ways of God to Man.” Is there any way to determine which justification takes precedence?

Enter Immanuel Kant, whose answer to the question settles the issue definitively. To those who appeal to any authority as the final arbiter of what is true or good, Kant poses two simple questions. How do you know the authority’s commands are true? How do you know they are good? To those who open the holy book or appeal to the dogma or cite the tradition, one must ask the same question. Certainly, nothing in the authority is sufficient to justify the authority to one who has not yet embraced it. By the time we use it to justify our truth and goodness claims, we have already accepted it. But on what grounds? No matter how powerful we find it to be in answering all subsequent questions about truth and goodness, our initial examination and the weighing of its claim to be an authority must be based on some other kind of warrant. And though that warrant may also be simply another authority (“my parents told me it is true”) or some pragmatic reasoning, nonetheless, reasoning, however flawed, is still its root verification mode. Ultimately, any acceptance of authority cannot have originated in anything other than a logical examination of the authority’s truth or goodness. We accept the authority, we assent, because we find something in the authority logically convincing. Now that logic may well be the idiosyncratic reasoning of the virtual circle, meaning that our logical assent may not align with the universal reasoning exemplified in a geometry theorem. It hardly matters what counts as a fact to the coherentist. She believes because her belief aligns with her other accepted beliefs, by whatever standard of rigor she has embraced to avoid non-contradiction. Or perhaps the logic she appeals to is the kind of taut and universal reasoning Anselm applied to his ontological proof of God’s existence, in other words, the logical justification that so powerfully supports correspondence truth and goodness claims. Her logical commitment may be coherence or correspondence, personalized or universal, quirky or brilliant. It hardly matters because that commitment was made prior to her acceptance of the authority. Even if all subsequent decisions are entirely dictated by the authority, the initial acceptance that made them all possible was a logical commitment to value the authority as true and good. In that bright light, it becomes far easier to appreciate why the withdrawal of assent is so devastating to authority. It is the reversal of the logical commitment that gave authority its power to begin with.

This argument leads us toward the unavoidable conclusion that any claim to authority, and especially a religious claim, is open to logical analysis that supersedes the truth and goodness claims made by the authority. No authority contains within itself the means to resolve disputes concerning its warrant. Therefore, adherents defending the authority must either appeal to the universal logic that justified the authority to them initially or admit to a coherence-based acceptance and appeal to the trust or toleration of other disputants. This latter choice forces them to make no correspondence claims of the truth of their religious commitment. If it is coherence based, religionists’ faith must establish tolerance as a bastion of belief. If correspondence based, they must be prepared to use stronger correspondence warrants than authority in disputes because the presence of dispute itself has already dissolved authority as justification.

Until next week.

S. Del


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