Premodern Authority

Major Contentions

  • When refined to an analysis of justification, religious authority underwrote all power relationships before the Protestant Reformation.
  • The fall of the western Roman Empire did not affect the caesero-papism that structured medieval life.
  • Modernist and postmodernist axioms of commitment distort historians’ views of the religious foundations of the era; the modernist axioms favor individual agency and universal reasoning; the postmodern presumes the former and replaces the latter with environmentally molded reasoning faculties.
  • We seek prophets of our own axioms in the premodern era, ignoring that their frame of reference was fundamentally distinct from our own.
  • To discover the beginnings of modernism requires first that we differentiate “modernism” in its intellectual, political, or literary sense, each of which takes us to a different era.
  • I choose 1517 because it marks the beginning of an uninterrrupted withdrawal of trust that continued unabated for half a millennium it was caused by the deficiencies of authority as a warrant.
  • Trust relies upon a surrender of rational and moral agency that, once conceded to authority, is quite resistant to challenge.
  • This resistance is reinforced in trusting religious authority because no act of severance to isolate the truth and goodness claims of the authority is possible, further increasing its resistance to interrogation and doubt.
  • But this resistance masks an inherent weakness, for authority as a warrant can offer no means to refute other challenges founded upon the same basis.
  • Once considered, these challenges definitionally require a resumption of agency by individuals, which axiomatically requires at least a temporary loss of trust even if only to reassign trust elsewhere; this weakness explains the violence typical of defenses of religious authority, for it cannot accept competition from other authority without eroding trust.
  • This cycle was repeated countless times in medieval life, and it might have succeeded in the Reformation also if not for Martin Luther’s core concept of a priesthood of all believers.
  • Luther confused the operations of belief and trust, allowing one to erode the other; over eight desperate generations of religious conflict and disruption of institutional norms, authority itself became suspect and was challenged by the axioms of modernism as admittedly more uncertain replacements for the composited truth and goodness claims of religious authority.
  • The operations of belief and trust now had to be analyzed by modernist axioms of commitment and were found to be so fundamentally distinct that the former could not be converted into the latter; the refusal to accept that finding is what distinguishes contemporary premodernists.
  • A product of the desperate search for alternative public warrants gradually produced empirical science, whose success is achieved by an act of severance in which the search for truth is procedurally isolated from the uses to which truth may be put, precisely the opposite of religious authority’s processes, a distinction that partially explains their mutual hostility.
  • Luther’s revolt mucked up the oil and water of justification, appealing both to revelation and to reason; his attempted solution was to use reason only after receiving revelation; this effort inevitably perverted both.
  • The U.S. government was founded upon separating religious belief from institutional authority; rather than taking the premodern view of formative association with authorities built upon a surrender of agency, modernism gradually assumed the axioms of individual experience and universal reason, which would allow informative relations with institutions that would prove mutually advantageous.

I have made much of the differences between the knowledge claims of modernists and postmodernists (see “Modernism and Its Discontents” and “Postmodernism Is Its Discontents” ). On occasion, I have referenced premodernists, and I have examined at some length the knowledge issues that characterized their outlook, but I have shunned an analysis of the era that embraced it. Even with a strict epistemological focus, there’s just too much to say. The situation becomes more manageable if one concentrates on the justification issues for knowledge claims, and these are my ongoing focus (see “What Counts as Justification?“). At their heart is the formidable knowledge crisis that forced the greatest thought revolution in our history: the collapse of authority as a consensual warrant for declarations about truth, goodness, and beauty. That collapse required an axiomatic reversal in response, which unsettles us still.

Histories of Western civilization typically draw a line at 476, the year of a fatal sack of Rome, and call that year the beginning of the Middle Ages. But that marker is a blurry one since Rome had been sacked twice already in the fifth century and since the eastern half of the old empire would continue for another thousand years. None of these momentous changes affected the absolute dominance of authority in either the old empire or those tribal regimes that had infiltrated it. All of them relied on a caesero-papism that unified tribe, state, and church under hereditary rule. So the pattern that persisted before and after Rome’s fall remained a fairly monolithic hierarchy. We don’t see it for what it was because our lens must always be modernist or postmodernist. Historians paint tribal or imperial challenges as purely political revolts — whose typology we can understand —  the most sustained of which were the competing claims of dynastic rulers. But their political power was only the superstructure, the visible sign of a much larger foundation built to maintain trust. Even at their most intemperate or contentious, they ruled “by the grace of God.” So from a justification standpoint, they differed little from religious authorities who also claimed secular rule under the same aegis. Challenges to the warrant of authority did appear, particularly after the 1200’s, but these were either brutally crushed (the infamous trial of Galileo comes to mind) or were themselves transformed into justifications by authority. Aristotle’s deductive method was enshrined as another buttress of Holy Writ by early universities in the thirteenth century, for example. This is both ironic and fascinating to me, for Aristotle’s methods were designed expressly to combat the power of authority in Athens. Surely, he saw the trial and execution of Socrates as a living example of the quick and sordid response of authority when threatened by any alternative mode of justification. Perhaps his admirers among medieval scholastics were excessively affected by the dominant conservative strain in the Judeo-Christian tradition, which explains Aristotle’s transformation from expert to near-saint in early universities. In any case this consensual acceptance of authority as warrant is the foundation of the premodern era lasting until 1517, the year of the Protestant Reformation.

Let us work backward from the more familiar to the less. The use of the term “modern” has been jealously claimed by intellectual, political, and literary historians. But they use the term to refer to different times and events, and focus on different behaviors. Intellectual historians see the Italian Renaissance of the fourteenth century as the beginning of modernism. By that standard, a generalized focus on human concerns rather than spiritual ones delineated modernism. Political historians mark the year 1776 or 1789 as the beginning of the modern nation state with its transformation of persons from subjects to citizens. To add to the fun, literary historians reference modern literature as that written between World War I and 1970, an era notable for its psychological focus and elegiac tone. More recent works are called postmodern, a term launched by university humanities departments (see “One Postmodern Sentence“). What they call modern literature mourns the aimlessness of a world without authority, whose near-total collapse followed World War I after half a millennium of conflict. What they call postmodern literature views the world through a different lens, that of the virtual circle; the tone is ironic (see “What Is the Virtual Circle?“). These terms are clearly understood within each academic discipline, but their vagaries of meaning can be confusing to the non-specialist who seeks a clear definition of “modern.” I will use the intellectual historian’s view of the term, but in focusing on justification issues, the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries  plowed the ground for the real revolution that was the Protestant revolt. This was far more than a shift in perspective or a new openness to the wonders of this world. These changes foretold an agonizingly slow shift in the axioms of commitment that allowed societies to employ new warrants for their declarations. Modernism was more than a shift in perspective. It was a revolution in the assumptions that allow perspectives to make sense to entire societies, and that began with Martin Luther’s revolt in 1517 (see “The Axioms of Moral Systems”).

That it took two centuries for authority as a warrant to dissolve its consensus is unsurprising, for the natural human response to a failure of trust is to seek out another and more reliable authority. The revolution that produced modernism was much more than that. Like the fall of classical civilization that necessitated a complete reliance on it, the fall of authority as reliable warrant resulted from centuries of hammer blows of crises, assaults upon the anvil of trust (see Modernism’s Midwives). Historical change usually involves a kind of mid-stream leap from one mode of thought to another presented by circumstance, but the Protestant Revolution could provide no substitute for authority as warrant and trust as its prerequisite axiom. This lack of alternatives explains both its desperation and its longevity, for it took nearly two centuries and thirty million deaths for modernism to be delivered. Events from 1517-1688 also put an exclamation point on authority’s fatal flaw: its inability to reconcile challenge within its own mode of justification. The trust that allows it to function as an arbiter of truth and goodness requires a prior forfeiture of rational and moral agency. If I trust you, I give up my own power to decide. In a single submission, I say that you are more capable of guiding me than I, after which I refuse to exercise my own agency. That surrender is deeply empowering to authority, for it forecloses doubt that would axiomatically signal a resumption of the power to decide.  Should another authority challenge yours, I have to find a way to deal with that explicit challenge to trust, but that duty requires that I first withdraw my trust, take back my own agency. This revocation instills doubt and diminishes the likelihood of future trust. Once I have resumed acting on my own agency, I then have to negotiate resubmitting it or retaining it. Trust no longer rules, and it is natural to ask what can. How can I arbitrate conflicting appeals of authorities seeking my trust? In the Reformation, this question assumed more than life-or-death significance, for the hundreds of competing sects and revelations, princes and prelates, doctrines and rebellions all based their appeals on trust to scripture and to God as the final arbiter with the afterlife suspended in the balance. Eight generations of religious authority had to arbitrate that impossible negotiation. And for a good portion of that span, no alternative to trust in authority could be adopted by a theoretically static social order built upon divine authority. Therefore, no axiom of rational or moral commitment could allow new warrants to take hold in the popular mind. This difficulty should help explain why it took the entire seventeenth century to midwife the painful birth of modernism, but we are unlikely to appreciate the difficulty inherent in that effort because the contemporary mind has been thoroughly delivered to different axioms that premodernists could not even imagine. Developing them took far too long and cost far too much.

The reason involves the nature of premodern commitment. Premodernists’ knowledge was decidedly gnostic at its source, so even those occasional premonitions that modernists find congenial to their own understanding were moved by other guiding assumptions. The essential quality of gnostic knowledge was its revelatory nature. For religious authority, revelation was always the fount of truth and morality, though it had to undergo a transformation to become a public moral arbiter (see “Knowledge, Trust, and Belief”).  Truth and goodness claims, though universal and correspondentist, must be transmitted privately to the receptive soul. But that is a problem, for this revelation is necessarily inaccessible to others.  Its essence is ineffable and non-conceptual (see “Religious Knowledge as Mobius Strip”). But to the believer, it is not only vital but also certain. And that must pose a problem, for one has to translate a non-conceptual, non-categorical, and intensely private bit of truth to others so as to prompt their own surrender to trust. There is only one way to do that: to establish authority, first personal, of the kind that characterizes relations of love, and only over a generation will that be converted to an institutional trust.. An initial commitment might make that possible, as Jesus proved with the apostles. That personal authority is cathartic for those who have not shared in the revelation, and it allows sects to form. An important change must occur once the religion’s founder passes away, for what was personal must now be institutionalized. Certain knowledge without justification is impossible to defend, so now personal authority must be transmuted into dogma, ritual, sacred texts and chosen leaders. That creates institutional authority, a very solid source of public consensus (see “Authority, Trust and Knowledge”). A secondary quality of gnostic knowledge is its indubitability, which follows naturally from the source of the transmission. God’s word is definitionally both true and good. A third quality was made plain in medieval Europe: a corporate social structure in which individuals communally submitted trust to some authority, equalizing their own social status as inferior to the authority they chose to trust. Modernist individualism and the agency it relies upon would have been incomprehensible to a medieval mind. A fourth quality magnifies all of authority’s strengths while also opening it to doubt: its dualism. Truth is hidden behind the façade of perceived reality and everyday perception, making the initial revelation the only reliable means of transmission and sacred traditions the only reliable means of interpretation. But that produces what seems to me an insoluble problem, for the institutional powers that safeguard the sacred flame must then reject other species of inner truths whose only flaw is their lack of a prior pedigree but which appeal to precisely the same initial warrant. This means that consensual public moral consensus must be protected against erosions of trust to defend the extant hierarchy of divine approval against heresy. Dissent is more than an exercise of autonomy. It threatens trust. This is the epistemological conundrum of institutional religious authority.

Because it is difficult for us to see beyond the horizon of contemporary axioms of commitment, we are unlikely to recognize either the strange nature of religious authority or its susceptibility to fracture. Historians since the Enlightenment have sought modernist axioms in premodern outlooks [postmodern historians are similarly seeking the hidden springs of class, racial, and feminist identity in the flow of past events as related by modernists] (see “The Calamity of the Human Sciences”). Modernists like to find the golden thread of their own knowledge theory in Hellenic philosophy, and it is true that universal reason was the key to the world of forms for Plato and mathematics the key to truth for Euclid. Still, inextricably bound to these modern values was the gnostic nature of the ideal and the hidden codes of the numerologists. Even Newton spent his last years seeking the coded schedule of the Last Judgment in the Bible. We long to see our own axioms validated by its prophets, but their world as strongly molded their thinking as ours does. I have already mentioned the fate of Aristotle once reclaimed from the Arabic by medieval thinkers. After a flurry of serious review, he was converted into merely another authority, known to all as “the Philosopher.” We like to separate the modern from the primitive, awarding to Democritus the awareness of atoms and to Marcus Aurelius our view of existential courage, but the current forms would have been abhorrent to those we praise as their first adherents. They invariably added the hidden world of their gods and professed their own inadequacy in interpreting truth and goodness without the gods’ assistance or the advice of the gods’ favorites.

One merely has to read Aquinas to see the superiority of authority to reason in this most Aristotelian of theologians. “Therefore, we must not attempt to prove what is of faith except by authority alone…” He acknowledges the private source of that authority, which by his day justified not only a faith but an entire political and social order, and trusts not only its divine source but a continuing sustenance.  “Inasmuch as its principles are obtained by revelation: thus we ought to believe on the authority of those to whom the revelation has been made. Nor does this take away from the dignity of this doctrine, for although the argument from authority based on human reason is the weakest, yet the argument from authority based on divine revelation is the strongest.” Without that trust, what strength remains? Even Socrates, that gadfly of Athenian authority and corrupter of youth, could only condemn the warrants of the Greek pantheon of gods on the grounds of contradiction and champion his own reasoning as a kind of divine inspiration, a breathing in of truth from the demiurge. But that inner voice invariably prompts heresy, new revelations opposing old authorities. It seems — unsurprisingly — God’s word can be interpreted differently by each soul. This variance alone necessitated unquestioned authority to arbitrate competing claims by lesser champions. But this demand produced its natural frustration too.  So long as warrants for truth and goodness sprouted in the soil of revelation and then transmuted into authority claiming correspondence truth, they must dispute all other authorities which must suppress all private dissenters (see Religion and Truth” and “Can Belief Be Knowledge?“).

But these faults line are recompensed by the power of public certainty. Revealed truth was reliable truth, at least to the those who trust in it. And its apparent solidity was increased by a peculiarity of religious authority that has been too little appreciated: the emulsion of its truth and goodness claims. When Moses came down from the mountain with his tablets, the incredible tale he told of revelation strained the credulity of his audience, yet the broken shards of those tablets ended in the most sacred sanctuary of the Jewish state. Why these and not some other relic? His audience, observing the shining light of his visage, were moved to accept his truth, but the tablets added their own value: the solid substance of the moral imperatives that truth contained. To accept truth implied accepting those categorical commandments that over time became the law of a whole people. This composite warranted truth and public morality by the same trust, which caused the first mature modernist thinker, Descartes, to observe that infidels might find the circularity of that reasoning grounds for rejecting it.

It was the project of modernism to attempt to reject it. The evolution of natural science has distilled the emulsion into separate processes: the first is a rational consideration of truth to warrant a subsequent and separate determination of possible goodness that opens to preference (see “Our Freedom Fetish”).    So long as authority remained undisputed, the emulsion of its truth and goodness claims seemed a solid enough support. Its strength was an illusion, though, as legitimate (meaning earning a similar level of trust) challenge to authority inevitably revealed. Historically, these alternatives could be suppressed so long as a higher authority could be appealed to for reassurance. Thus we see the purpose of the exalted titles of kings, emperors, pontiffs, patriarchs, and czars in the high Middle Ages. These hierarchies managed to resolve disputes among lesser authorities repeatedly. The Council of Nicea, the succession of the Carolingian Empire, and the resolution of the Babylonian Captivity are three widely-spaced examples.

This model served admirably until competing voices chipped away at the power of authority as structured in the feudal order in the High Middle Ages and then the Renaissance. Its power and stability was such that it resisted the competing claims of secular feudal lords, nascent bourgeois values, and hostile attacks by those revering other authorities on both eastern and western borders of Christiandom. Its unraveling was caused by the only force that could lever away the trust of the people of Europe: competing religious authority that challenged commitments of trust and stimulated reappropriation of rational agency. Initial attacks in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries by Jan Hus in Bohemia and John Wycliffe in England were suppressed with some loss of trust in those outlying lands, but in 1517 Martin Luther began what became the final assault on authority as warrant for truth claims. Of course, the inevitable irony was that from his point of view, he was only demanding a return to the original authority from which religion had long since strayed. His ninety-five theses rejected Catholic tradition in favor of Biblical literality. At least, that is what he professed. In actuality, he was advocating an impossible reversal of warrant: from authority to revelation, mirroring his own inspiration in that bell tower in Wittenberg. At least at first, Luther only demanded what believers from Adam to Abraham and from Noah to Paul had received: access to the directive voice of God imparting indubitable truth and goodness to the soul. In his famous response to Catholic officials at the Diet of Worms, he laid out his rejection of authority’s higher claim. “Unless I am convicted [convinced] of error by the testimony of Scripture or (since I put no trust in the unsupported authority of Pope or councils, since it is plain that they have often erred and often contradicted themselves) by manifest reasoning, I stand convicted by the Scriptures to which I have appealed, and my conscience is taken captive by God’s word. “ With this statement, Luther rejected all appeals to authority as a warrant. His stated appeal is to his own reason, and had he remained true to that warrant, Luther would have staked his claim to be the great prophet of modernity that his rebellion against authority presaged. But that was not to be.  In his copious later writings he explained a quirk in his thinking that invited chaos in. His reasoning — in his view all reasoning — must be rooted in the soil of Biblical authority else it would certainly err, would become for this Augustinian cleric a captive of the City of Man rather than the City of God. He had thought his broadside a plea for a transfer of trust from one authority to another, from Catholic hierarchy to Biblical literality. The next century would demonstrate how wrong that assessment would be because Luther’s revolutionary appeal to “the priesthood of all believers” would make every man his own pope.

Luther’s revolt had mucked up the oil and water of justification, appealing both to revelation and reason, the former infallible and the latter, as Luther himself would demonstrate, all too feeble. The combination would prove fatal to the one mode of justification he clearly rejected. Authority in the person of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and the Roman Pope Leo X would bring the hammer down, but the peculiar power structures of sixteenth century Germany allowed Luther to disseminate his arguments by means of the newly-invented printing press, and soon all of the Holy Roman Emperor’s domains were in flames. Luther’s response was, to say the least, ignoble. The Peasant’s Revolt was inspired by his own recipe for warrant: revelation upon which reason could operate. His admirers saw in the Scriptures God’s sanction for revolt as did petty princes and chartered townspeople. One hundred thousand died in this preview of the greater slaughter to follow. Luther’s response was bewilderment and outrage and “Against the Murdering,Thieving Hordes of Peasants,” a manifesto insisting that the revolution was not God-inspired and was anything but reasonable. His revelation was not theirs and so any reasoning built upon it could not be reconciled with others built on a different conception of God’s word. Yet isn’t it the nature of God’s word to be universal and correspondentist, “gospel truth” so to speak? The ambiguity of warrants can be traced to the erosion of the axiom of commitment that powered a thousand years of premodern social structure and law. The last word on this miserable era was said by the Holy Roman Emperor whose divine right Luther had challenged. Charles V, the most powerful man of his time, retired to a monastery with a final fling at the priest who had upended his world: “I only wish I had killed the man. ” And so it began.

As an object lesson in the centrality of warrant for truth and goodness claims, the Reformation era is unparalleled. From 1517 – 1688, civil strife, national conflict, dynastic struggle, and international war raged with barely a pause. Historians concentrate on the growth of secular rivals to dynastic and religious rule, but that is just another way of saying that dynastic and religious rule had forfeited the warrant of authority for their truth and goodness claims. What is striking is not the scope of the wars but their ferocity. It was not only nation against nation. It was neighbor against neighbor, each defending not only religious truth but religious authority as the source of all truth. It is literally inconceivable to the modern mind that all truth and goodness claims must be warranted by authority. Indeed, rejection of this notion is the very cause and definition of modernism. It is true that we still see this the sort of thing today: in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990’s and in the Middle East (see Which Clash of Civilizations?“). By their nature, these clashes are incomprehensible to the modern mind, not to mention the postmodern one. No surprise in that, for these twenty-first century bloodbaths are fought for the same reasons as those long-ago struggles of the Reformation: authority embraced as the highest warrant in conflict. The disputants might save themselves the struggle, for authority credibly challenged is authority destroyed. The Reformation proved that. Their efforts might be better served by seeking other and stronger justifications for their truth and goodness claims, ones that their opponents must consider rather than confront. If insisting on revering authority, in these correspondence issues they have no option but toleration of disagreement, for in rejecting the authority of their rivals, they dispute the reliability of their own, for its means of justification is identical.

In their ignorance of warrant, they make two fatal errors.

First, they attempt to prop up substitute authority for the authorities they saw fit to challenge. This is analogous to two children arguing in a schoolyard thinking that the one who screams louder must win. As authority is built upon trust, it cannot be forced and the existence of opposing voices either unsettles trust in one’s own grasp of truth or induces further entrenchment, the equivalent of putting one’s hands over one’s ears. What cannot occur is one authority forcing acceptance of another, for force is incompatible with the trust necessary to embrace authority. In today’s terms, Shiite and Sunni are unlikely to convince each other by referencing the Qur’an and the events following the Prophet’s death. Premodernists fail to see that trust cannot be forced, and their post-Reformation efforts to ignore that truth is what today fuels the suspicions of postmodernists who see abuses of power in every institutional setting. The modernist mind that disputes both premodernist and postmodernist views of authority had to formulate its axioms in the midst of the confusion, which explains why the process was so painful and lengthy.

The flood of religious immigrants to North America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was a tacit recognition of the failure of authority in heterogeneous environments, though of itself it could not find a replacement. The story of the Enlightenment is the story of its invention, a new reliance on new axioms of commitment: individual experience and universal reason. Where premodernists saw their relation with institutional authority as formative of their identity, modernists slow began to regard their interaction as informative of theirs, a process of mutual reasoning on private experience that would strengthen both the individuals involved in the process — only gradually to be known as citizens — and the institutions they valued.

The second error only magnified the first. Luther’s response at the Diet of Worms brilliantly illustrated the problem of assuming that personal revelation must precede and be immune to logical analysis. In his later writing, he made clear his judgment that reasoning can only extend rather than judge the truth of divine inspiration and “must begin with faith.” “Reason is a whore, the greatest enemy faith has,” he wrote. It is ironic that this argument was buttressed by Pope John Paul II in the encyclical “Fides et Ratio,” indicating that the relation of revelation to reason is one that religious authorities have yet to settle. Reason’s power derives from its ability to detect inconsistency, to turn its analytic light upon its own processes and in that painstaking effort, reveal fundamental errors of logic and evidence. Turn its light away from major premises and shine it only on conclusions and you have forfeited its power (see “The Tyranny of Rationality). But for the medieval mind, trained in the ways of authority that lack just this self-correcting feature, the hobbling effect of restraining reason’s power did not seem a problem. Predictably, Luther’s recipe produced an intergenerational disaster as prophet after prophet latched onto divine inspiration prompted by selective Scriptural interpretation and launched new Protestant sects. Second generation horrors magnified the problem as holy text, dogma, and ritual hardened under the institutional authority of later adherents. Europe divided into armed camps of screaming schoolyard bullies. Calvinists challenged Lutherans and in their turn were confronted by Shakers, Quakers, Mennonites, Anabaptists, and on and on. This continued for generations. I don’t have to tell you it continues in some places today. In terms of justification, it is sheer insanity.

Only this week I heard a respected regional government official pronounce the Bible as the font of all truth and goodness and as the inerrant guide to governmental action. Another guest mentioned the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution (1784) as refutation, but the first speaker merely referred him to the last sentence of the Mayflower Compact of 1620 (I assume he meant the first sentence, but that is not really the issue)! What happened between 1620 and 1784 is not only the key to explaining history’s first secular state (see “Theocracy and the Commandments”); it is also crucial to the desperate search for justification that made modernism necessary. The Pilgrims who signed the Mayflower Compact fled to America precisely because there could never be peace in Europe so long as different prophets attempted to combine Holy Writ and their own subsequent logical analysis of truth and goodness. While it is clear that this land was settled by devout Christians, the early colonial history on this side of the Atlantic mirrored the enmities shredding the far side of the ocean. By 1784, the framers of the Constitution were in-their-bones convinced of the error of these competing appeals to authority, and indeed their distrust of the British crown was in part stimulated by that conviction, which is the reason they instituted history’s first secular state. And as the Declaration of Independence makes crystal clear, their warrant for this new state would have to be built on some other foundation than either royal or religious authority (see “Foundations of the Law: An Appetizer). John Adams captured the mindset of the heirs to the Reformation well. “Touch a solemn truth in collision with the dogma of a sect, though capable of clearest proof, and you will soon find you have disturbed a nest, and he hornets will swarm about your legs and hands, and fly into your face and eyes.” Jefferson concurred with his political rival on this score. “Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned, yet we have not advanced one inch toward uniformity.” Jefferson was so proud of his 1777 Virginia Statutes of Religious Freedom that he had his authorship of that demand for religious liberty inscribed on his tombstone. It did not mention his presidency. Whenever I hear the carefully chosen claim that “the United States was founded as a Christian country” or “on Christian principles,” I must agree. Our citizenry were schooled in Christian morality and were deeply religious. That is proved by the first and second Great Awakenings of evangelism that swept the frontiers of the new nation. But we should be perpetually thankful that our founders left the bloody business of revelation and authority in the Old World and were wise enough to build the warrant for their truth and goodness claims on less contested, if less sanctified, grounds. Those grounds built the modern world, whose painful discovery of universal reason and closely examined experience as replacement axioms of commitment to trust in authority make the premodern world seem impossibly remote.

One thought on “Premodern Authority

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s