The Fragility of Religious Authority


  • The Protestant Reformation produced an axiomatic rejection of religious authority as the ultimate guarantor of all truth, goodness, and beauty claims.
  • Over a century and a half of violent religious conflict, the premodernist axiom of trust in authority was dissolved, and modernist axioms of individual experience and universal reason were formed and warranted.
  • From its beginnings, modernism disdained claims to certainty and required rational sanction of persons’ interactions with institutional authority.
  • Religious authority survives more as nostalgia than as a viable public source of moral consensus.
  • This eclipse has been accelerated by the hostility of postmodernism to traditional institutions in general and religious authority in particular.
  • Postmodern rejection of uses of power has affected all contemporary interpretations of institutional authority, but this influence has most clearly scrambled premodern conceptions of trust.
  • Premodern cultures relied upon corporate hierarchies that established and balanced customary mutual obligations of all parties, considering institutional authority to be formative of individual identity.
  • Modernism had to renegotiate this relationship for all correspondence truth claims, settling upon a universal reasoning faculty as a source of public consensus, at least in issues of goods of utility, even in the face of individuated experience; consequently, it viewed interactions with institutional authority as mutually informative.
  • This effort failed in part because moral and political theorists failed to grasp the axiomatic revolution as it began and so considered moral consensus to be beyond the capacity of moral reasoning; this admission was formalized as social contract theory.
  • A second contributing factor to modernism’s failure was the persistence of institutional authority — and religious authority particularly — to exercise its prerogatives even when confronted by modernist axioms that fundamentally refuted its right to do so; the hypocrisies that resulted gradually produced a complete rejection of institutional authority and the efficacy of universal reasoning, all branded as abuses of power.
  • These hypocrisies reached the crisis point at the beginning of the twentieth century, characterized by sustained moral conflict that continues today.
  • Religious authority continues to seek trust, but is unlikely to be granted it in Western cultures.
  • The collapse of institutional authority has diminished trust in personal authority also, producing an oscillation of trust and suspicion in familial relationships.
  • The cost to public moral consensus has been very high, for no moral appeal comparable to religious authority has emerged.
  • A major reason religious authority was so conducive to moral consensus was its emulsion of truth and goodness declarations wherein truth claims were warranted by divine goodness and moral claims by divine truth; this interlocking relationship proved highly conducive to trust and resistant to doubt.
  • This same emulsion necessarily characterizes religious belief, which frequently is mistaken for trust in contemporary religious practice but which can provide no public consensus.
  • The mistaken association of trust and belief was confused by the proliferation of sectarianism during the Protestant Reformation, during which private religious belief often was transmuted into orthodoxy over several generations and thereby appealed to trust and surrender of agency.
  • But the widespread sectarianism of the Reformation religious wars proposed too many competing authorities all appealing to the same divine command, which proved highly corrosive to all trust, and also threatening to belief.
  • Roman Catholicism from the time of Aquinas had considered religious authority irrefutable, and in the face of Reformation, Catholics doubled down on authority at the Council of Trent.
  • In the face of continued erosions of trust, Catholics gradually assumed a modernist approach to authority, though it was necessarily confused by a demand for trust in papal authority.
  • Martin Luther, who began the modernist march toward individual rational agency, eventually rejected reason itself as a source of truth and goodness in the face of the heretical chaos he had begun.
  • In seeking to trust the Bible alone as the source of divine authority, Protestantism set up an impossible conflict between belief and trust, for a “priesthood of all believers” unleashes the desires of the believer in conceptualizing Scripture, forcing the very individual preferences that Biblical narratives unfailingly condemn.
  • Plato presents the dilemma of interpreting divine command in his dialogue Euthyphro but is unable to resolve it.
  • Scripture explicitly condemns just the kind of individual interpretations of divine intent that Protestantism recommends, for example, in the Book of Job, which argues for complete submission to God’s authority.
  • The conflict is not one of truth but of agency, for if reason affirms authority, it does so on the basis of its own judgment rather than on a surrender to trust, and this sanction is far less stable and far more prone to revocation than trust.
  • Similarly, if believers mistake their commitments for trust, they will see no reason why their convictions should not be universalized; they will likely be intolerant of differing beliefs as well as distrustful of authorities that dispute their private convictions, and this extends today to secular beliefs as well.

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 concepts. In eras of public consensus, the effects are less tsunami than tidal flow for most persons who navigate the requirements of the various cultures to which they belong with little turbulence.  Because we participate in so many cultures whose influences wash each other out, the larger zeitgeist flow during most historical eras is but the mildest current drifting through our preferential freedom. But when public consensus collapses, persons are forced to find their way through cataracts of dispute. Such was the case for a single crisis in two historical eras that get snipped apart in current thinking about intellectual history: the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment. The Reformation raged from 1517-1648 (1688 in Britain). The incessant civil, dynastic, and national wars justified by conflicting dogma resulted in the gradual collapse of the power of a sole consensual warrant for truth and goodness claims, a catastrophe to that age we cannot appreciate because we now rely on other sources of justification. Modernism rejected authority as a public warrant in favor of universal reason and individual experience, and though that process seems tragically slow in retrospect as it only was completed at the turn of the twentieth century, it was in the last analysis a complete shift of assumptions about public claims to truth and beauty. (see “The Axioms of Moral Systems”). This in itself is a loss to us because it deprives us of clear view of medievalism so deeply grounded in authority that it could find no other foundation and thereby made even more desperate and dangerous for authority’s collapse, prompting the fervent search for alternative guarantors over the following centuries. Steeped in the shredding of consensus that had destroyed religious absolutism, the new champions of the Enlightenment (1670-1800) and the budding sciences could offer nothing like its confidence. Thinkers of that day were convinced that this delusion of certainty was to blame for the torrents of blood shed in the name of religious orthodoxy and vowed to produce warrants for their truth and goodness claims more universal if less confidently asserted. Their justifications rooted rational and moral agency in individuals and subjected their public claims to dangerous new axioms of public commitment instead (see “Modernism’s Midwives”). Their quest was partially successful, for empirical science and expertise 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 (see The Limits of Empirical Science”).

But, you might object, millions are still moved by religious authority, which they find decisive in forming their own schemas of knowledge and belief. It seems the tides of culture have been unsuccessful in washing away this great traditional warrant for truth and goodness. There’s some truth in that charge, though less than defenders of religious authority might wish. Private belief still powers religious commitment, it is true, but public morality founders upon a lack of trust in authority. Many Americans, for instance, lack the historical literacy to appreciate the desperate incentive that drove the United States’ founders toward history’s first formal separation of church and state (see “Belief in the Public Square). 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. Contemporary notions of authority today are pale shadows of their former power as persons bring the constant alarms of reason to an active process of sanction. As beneficiaries of that effort, we may choose to ignore the doubts that led to the American republic 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 does it do that?

The founders knew the answer to that question, and they chose the warrant of universal reason only because 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?

To answer such questions requires greater clarity on terminology and the nature of moral warrant. Authority as a verification for public declarations of truth or goodness is based on the beneficiary’s trust. Of what does that consist? What are the initial requirements for persons to grant it? Is it granted on the basis of a belief, in which case we might see trust as a  component of belief implying a private warrant, or is it something different? Can an authority compel obedience, and if so, how could it be accurate to think the hierarchical relationship as based on trust rather than naked power? When the boss orders her underlings to comply with her orders, isn’t she exercising her authority over them? Does this kind of relationship differ in any significant way from the kind the Catholic Church claimed over Martin Luther in at the Diet of Worms?

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. Let us first clarify the simple power dynamic at work if only because postmodernists so often get it wrong. They see any hierarchy as inherently exploitative of individual agency, and view the exercise of power as proof (see “Postmodernism Is Its Discontents”). As we allow our own experience to guide us, we find they have a point. We are swimming in hierarchies. Their pragmatic value cuts both ways. For every inspiring teacher, there is a bureaucratic hack. Both good and bad cops carry the gun and the badge. By its very nature, by the ease with which power is sliced, diced, and distributed in institutions, authority remains a feature of contemporary culture. But its shadow always follows it: an invariable suspicion. While modernists view institutional, meaning public, authority with some distrust, postmodernists see it as inherently evil. They regard authorities as the agents of well-disguised and ruthless power, using sleight-of-hand to secure the willing obedience of those disadvantaged by the system. They regard institutional power that so relies on authority to be inherently corrupt because it perpetuates current inequality by enshrining unjust disparities of power. Their suspicions are entirely understandable in light of the long and slow decline of traditional institutions that only definitively and finally collapsed around the time of World War I and only after continually assaulting modernism throughout its long history (see “Modernism and Its Discontents”). But their view of the relation of power and authority is fundamentally mistaken. When hierarchies impose power from above rather than seek approval from below, they destroy the trust that is authority’s only proof of truth and goodness. Respecting the badge and fearing the gun are two different kinds of inducements to obedience, and though power always accompanies the exercise of authority, when it is exercised by virtue of the beneficiary’s trust, it is welcomed rather than resented.

This is to say that power, even hierarchical power, is not synonymous with authority. When imposed from above, its reach is carefully calibrated and either granted or resisted by the moral agency of the “beneficiary” in the transaction. Both sides exercise agency, both sides define the limits of their interaction in a kind of contractual sense, always open to review, revision, or revocation. Persons who feel exploited certainly do not trust their masters, and gauge impingements on their freedom with excruciating precision. This is a completely different kind of relationship from the pre-modern vision of authority, which was based on a consensual trust. Pre-modernists lived in traditional corporate hierarchies that established customary duties of all parties. Persons would not imagine challenging these hereditary and fixed social functions in which each side acknowledged what was ultimately a divine command to mutual responsibility for the common welfare. This was the medievalism Marx romanticized at the dawn of the industrial revolution, one fixed in trust. Persons viewed institutional authority as formative of public morality in this legally static society. When modernism was forced by the collapse of trust in institutional authority to find new forms of social structures and legitimize them by individual consent, it sought an informative role for relationships not based upon trust. Individuals inspected traditional social structures and interacted with them, granting them their active loyalty in a provisional and ultimately thoughtful act of endowment always subject to active review and revocation. Locke’s vision of the social contract as a perennially reviewed public interaction captures the modernist view perfectly. But authority continued to demand its traditional fealty, continued to seek to form persons’ social identity rather than bow to their agency as modernism required. Authority was viewed with suspicion, it is true, but also as a legitimate contender for at least a modicum of public trust at least in part because religious authorities continued to exert moral influence and in part because no equal source of public cohesion emerged from the modernist axioms of commitment. But this impossible effort to both retain and surrender individual agency tainted the efforts to find public moral warrants, eventually producing the postmodern demand to reject authority in toto. Twentieth century cultural tides regarded interactions with institutions as performative opportunities to demonstrate superiority to their power structures, to reject their pleas for trust, and strengthen individual power against what postmodernists saw as coercion (see ‘Freedom, Antihero, and Zeitgeist”).

If the difference among these views is not clear, consider the fundamental distinction between healthy familial hierarchies as representative of pre-modernist traditions and employee/employer interactions in today’s corporations as typifying modernist approaches. Both exercise power, but only the properly functioning familial unit exemplifies trust. The relation between employer and employee is quite different, its claim-rights clearly enumerated and its duties subject to the ongoing inspection of both sides. Today, institutions seek sanction rather than trust, which is a defining difference between traditional authority and its weakling inheritor.This distinction would be far easier for us to see if institutions had clearly embraced the rational and moral agency that modernism had carved out for individuals and had actively sought the loyalty of participants rather than imperiously demand their trust as a holdover of divine right (see “The Victorian Rift”). This abuse of power produced hypocrisies so entwined in institutions that it took most of the twentieth century for them to be fully appreciated. They tainted modernist axioms with a suspicion that postmodernism eagerly stokes with endless charges of hypocrisy.  To envision the postmodern view, consider the thousands of movie antiheroes who buck “the system” so that they can “play by their own rules.” This association of authority with abuse of power only further distances us from what is already an impossibly faint vision: adults granting authority to religious power as a willing act of trust. Consider that this voluntary surrender of rational and moral agency was the defining characteristic of medieval life. Every truth and goodness claim  embraced by every person in Western life was ultimately traceable to this willing submission of trust.

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 whose truths I assert. I do not even need to have any experience supporting my claims: authority may be established on nothing firmer than a simple assent, a surrender of rational agency to trust (see “Knowledge, Trust, and Belief). Granted, it frequently combines with all of these other supports to strengthen its hand. You might choose to grant me authority because I have mastered empirical studies applicable to the issue, or because you have been swayed by my expertise, or because I have developed competence over a lifetime of thoughtful effort, or just because I have been there and done that once or twice (see “What Counts as Justification?). In each of these examples, authority rides on the shoulders of more powerful correspondence warrants and is buttressed by them. The weakest of these builds authority on a trust laid in undistilled experience, a thin thread from which to weave truth and goodness claims, but one at least subject to the tests of correspondence judgment. My trust in you is initially based on some aspect of my experience arbitrated by my own reasoning. Something in that experience prompts me to transfer moral agency to you, my reasoning informing me that you will exercise that responsibility more in my interest than I will.  In all such cases, should that reasoning be reversed and trust evaporate, the other warrants would remain as strong. But reasoning in any of its correspondence forms is not necessary to power authority’s claims and is necessarily foreclosed by the forfeiture of agency that characterizes granting trust to another. That surrender requires only a transfer of moral agency to an accepted power. When the new kindergarten teacher walks into the classroom, the students are not given any reason to obey other than their nearly instant trust in her authority. When the police officer tells you to move along, nothing to see here, you accept her word solely because of her authority.

For such a ubiquitous force, it is surprisingly fragile in practice. Everyone in contemporary life 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 appeal to my expertise. I can competently explain. 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. It should be noted that this withdrawal reverses the initial act that granted trust, revoking the surrender of rational agency and reclaiming it. Remember that trust is authority’s only grip on the willing assent of its beneficiary, so losing it is not only simple but also utterly destructive of authority’s real power.

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 (see “Premodern Authority). Institutional authority fractured. Personal authority collapsed in an orgy of blood. Trust was violated and belief that might in time renew it was challenged and then withdrawn. As must happen initially when authority guarantees goodness, each withdrawal of allegiance prompted a new commitment to some other authority or some stronger combined warrant for truth and goodness, often built upon the spongy grounds of resubmitting trust or granted by a desperation to commit to belief. But that process is in itself corrosive. Every guarantor of truth and goodness was challenged. Every challenger was challenged yet again, not for some brief span of crisis but for entire lifetimes. And everywhere the same appeal: “this is God’s will.” But every claim violated others voiced with equal fervor, every plea for belief or trust countermanded in the next year or the next moment, all the while every traditional institution falling into impotence. Over eight generations, 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 monopoly of power 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 justification to reconcile their disagreements. We can become more competent in our reasoning, search for better evidence, rerun an experience. But for believers, authority doubted is authority destroyed, and that may explain the intolerance it demonstrates for dissent as well as the distrust those dissenters express. In this light, it is little wonder that the first of the Ten Commandments makes crystal clear that God suffers no competing authority. In the nightmare of the Reformation, religious authority suffered a seemingly endless train of them.

Religious authority for simple truth claims, known as divine command, is the sole and sufficient foundation for moral goodness claims based on their truth. Truth and goodness claims stem from a single root of authority. The truth of God’s omnipotence also justifies the moral goodness of the Ten Commandments. This hermeticism lends to both kinds of claims an incomparable guarantee of reliability. I trust the Apostle Paul’s Epistles to tell me necessary truths about God’s nature and equally vital means to do God’s will. The truth of Holy Writ underwrites its morality and vice versa.This combined truth and goodness claim is delivered through the authority of sacred texts, tradition, or dogma. They boasted of a certainty their more modern successors, experience and reason, could never hope for because they combined what judgment must sever: the separate acts of first determining truth and from that determination then choosing the good (see “Truth and Goodness Do a Dance”). This emulsion of truth and goodness initially combines truth and goodness claims into a single determination based on desire, the signature of belief. The act of belief assumes a certainty about the truth claim and simultaneously grants a mirroring certainty to the goodness claim alloyed with it. The believer is so moved by her desire for goodness that she fails to exercise the rational capacity to first determine the truth that is the means to the goodness that she seeks.   It is this blending that alloys beliefs with a counterfeit of knowledge of the true and a connective sense of certainty of the good that true knowledge can never provide. But this initial indulgence of belief, which is invariably a private kind of commitment, nearly always transmutes over time into a public support. The believer over time can offer to a disinterested listener real reasons for her trust. Her beliefs have sustained her, have conduced to trust, have gone from private desire to publicly demonstrable reasons. Trust has been granted to religious authority. This is how a private morality becomes a public one. So long as authority itself goes unchallenged, the weakness of its warrant remains unexamined. Of course, medievalism had been rife with dispute, but the public guarantors for the claims of the disputants had always been other authority, better authority, authority more worthy of trust or more conducive to desire. The axiom that powered trust remained monolithic except on the borders of Western Christendom and even there the Muslim or Orthodox variant of religious faith required nothing more than a transfer of trust, its justification just another divine command. That all changed with Luther and the Protestant revolt.The first century of Reformation conflict seemed a slow motion nightmare as wholesale slaughter sorted out its authoritarian appeals. This only made the Reformation collapse all the more cataclysmic in the long term. The catastrophe was magnified by a problem common to all truth claims rooted in revelation or insight that provoke belief to challenge established institutions: the personal catharsis thus generated produces a radical reorientation of the believer’s worldview composed of equal parts indubitability, urgency, and ineffability  (see “Religion and Truth”). This catharsis is necessarily private, yet it proclaims a truth about all of reality. This private-to-public warrant problem is nearly always settled over generations by transmuting the cathartic experience — in religious terms called a conversion experience –– into a competing 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. But these appeals to the differing warrants of authority and reasoning are dangerously mixed because they must contain whiffs of desire that are fundamentally incompatible with the dispassionate, ratiocinative requirements for judgment. Even if trust is carefully cultivated in preference to belief, the two warrants must prove incompatible because authority appropriates the moral agency that judgment requires of the thinker.

No contemporary reader of the Summa Theologica can fail to be struck by Aquinas’s meticulous reasoning and fine discrimination of opposing argumentation. It is the most consummately rational defense of religious belief ever written. But something else is even more striking about the argument Aquinas makes: he uses the authority of Catholic saints and fathers as equal to and even superior to his most careful reasoning, mingling his trust in their inerrant authority with his careful logical analysis. He clearly sees no reason to distinguish the two warrants’ reliability or complementarity, particularly since he sees their justifications as entirely congruent. He explicitly acknowledges that the supernatural truths given through authority must be superior to the natural ones reasoning delivers. And when viewed from the perspective of belief and its burdens of desire, that view seems entirely correct, particularly since his efforts generally reconcile the two warrants to his own satisfaction.

But that satisfaction requires some glosses. First, authorities even before the Reformation crisis advanced differing truths. The Dominican Thomas Aquinas would hardly be expected to cite the many heretical or apocryphal authorities who were expelled from Roman Catholic ranks over the centuries, and he was careful enough in his choice of quotation and attribution to avoid similar conflicts even among canonical authorities within his own tradition, but had he done so, we might wonder on what grounds trust might be granted to one or the other. On what grounds does one transfer authority? What shifts a commitment of trust? Can it be anything other than the reasoning faculty of the thinker who withdraws trust from one source in order to transfer it to another? But at its best, such trust is woven of the fine threads of limited private experience, and it is likely to be tinged with belief, itself a product of desire. So a commitment to one authority over another must be considered at best the most elastic of public warrants once challenge is considered, often leading to the reappropriation of agency so as to navigate competing authorities or resubmit belief.  Of course, this was just the issue that plagued the generations of heretics, visionaries, and martyrs beginning with Martin Luther in 1517 who proudly proclaimed their own beliefs against the tradition Aquinas had defended. This only becomes a problem when such claims are said to be rational, are projected as correspondence knowledge that disputes other claims supported by the same trust. Unlike Aquinas’s own submission to authority in his construction of the Summa, these appeals to trust disputed each other and so required rational agents to take back what had been surrendered. This realization calls Aquinas’s attempted reconciliation of reason and Catholic authority into doubt. The reader wonders whether he could be said to have retained his rational agency when he had surrendered it to the authorities whom he professed to trust over his own reason.

Many glaring abuses had plagued Catholicism in Aquinas’s day.  His refusal to interrogate his own trust avoided the inevitable relocation of moral agency that must follow any such interrogation, a kind of unbestowal based on reasoning about experience and therefore an appropriation of moral agency. Aquinas opens the door to that fundamental act of modernism by making explicit the claim that Roman Catholic authority was conformable to reasoning, but he stepped back from an appropriation of moral autonomy that would only begin with Luther. And this says something about the nature of trust in authority.  Aquinas’s reasoning was impeccable. Even the structure of the Summa is a concession to rationality, with its explicit presentation of claim, counterclaim, and judgment. But nowhere does one find authority itself presented as such a claim; nowhere is it put in the docket and examined as a warrant in itself. Nowhere does Thomas subject his own trust in authority to his own reason. Had he done so, he would have wrought a revolution in his own thinking, one that might have aborted the coming chaos of authority in crisis. For that kind of challenge to authority does not question the truth or goodness of the claim it warrants but rather the nature of the warrant itself, thereby revoking the trust that made allegiance possible and relocating moral agency from the authority to the mind that now judges truth and goodness in terms of its own reason and experience. This revolutionary appropriation of power changes the truth or goodness claim radically, though as a declaration it will seem literally identical.

First, the relocation of agency is irrevocable for that authority, meaning even a resubmission to authority cannot be as complete. One need not trust the product of one’s own judgment, for she cannot both relinquish her reasoning power and employ it as preference. Secondly, it separates the truth claim from the goodness claims that follow, subjecting both to separate rational judgment. That reduces confidence by postponing the employment of desire to the second determination made after an exercise of judgment.  You tell me you hold something in your hand. Once I pry your fingers apart to see for myself, I no longer can resort to the trust that might have provoked me to accept your claim without peeking.  I cannot unsee what my own reasoned experience has made manifest. I cannot give back the trust I have revoked in favor of my own judgment. Having seen what you hold, I incorporate this knowledge into a consequent determination of preference. The act of severance that isolates determination of truth from what should be a consideration of goodness dependent upon it simply cannot occur when belief taints the initial determination of truth or when rational agency has been surrendered to trust (see “The Act of Severance”). Should I be convinced of what I formerly accepted on trust, I now accept it by my judgment rather than your authority. But this retention of agency changes the game, for in accepting the act of severance, I have also enabled cracks of doubt to affect my considerations. I have now embraced the possibility of error in asserting truth, error in determining the goods that assertion might identify, and error in the order of preference by which I seek them. So this affirmation of truth determined by reason must always be provisional only, justified by a preponderance of the evidence. It is therefore far from certain. It differs from authority not only in the locus of agency but also in the strength and durability of its commitments.

Natural freedom then frames the goodness choices that derive from that determination (see “Our Freedom Fetish”). At that point, preferential freedom seeks them as goods to be gained (see “The Essential Transcendental Argument“). Desire is thus employed not in determinations of truth but in the preferences that such determinations present to our reason and in proper judgment; desire is imparted by some moral means of preference that is also rational. These judgments are necessarily uncertain.  Authority may claim incorrigibility and trust may grant it, but reason can make no such claim. Any parent can remember that moment when her child first questioned her omniscience. The questioning alone is sufficient to raise doubt and dissolve trust, and once dissolved, only reasoning can provisionally renew assent, but it must do so on its own terms and by its own agency rather than by a surrender to authority. The granting of trust may be a marginally rational act of surrender of agency, but the revocation of trust must prove to be a lasting one because doubt itself is a reappropriation of moral judgment by the thinker, and a second surrender of that judgment to trust is less complete than the first. Subsequent expressions of doubt continue to lower the odds on trust. This was the generational story of the Reformation.

In his famous response to the Diet of Worms in 1519, Luther explained that his own reversal of trust had arisen from the egregious anomalies he had outlined in his famous Ninety-Five Theses, inconsistencies and violations of reason so heinous that they provoked the pious Augustinian to revolt. The essential relocation of moral agency from authority to individual reason is nowhere more clearly and painfully evident than in Martin Luther’s own experience in the Reformation. It is clear because of our modern perspective. It was painful because he and the Reformation generations that followed him could not have that perspective.

When Luther heroically confronted the Diet of Worms in 1521, he spoke forcefully against what he saw as a perverted authority. “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason-for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves-I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. God help me. Amen.” But nearly fifty years later, in the midst of the tempest he had summoned, he sang a different tune.

            Reason is the Devil’s greatest whore; by nature and manner of being she is a noxious whore; she is a prostitute, the Devil’s appointed whore eaten by scab and leprosy who ought to be trodden under foot and destroyed, she and her wisdom… Throw dung in her face to make her ugly. She is and she ought to be drowned in baptism. She would deserve, the wretch, to be banished to the filthiest place in the house, to the closets.

That same captive conscience that had employed reason to show how authorities had “erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves” was entirely rejected in the most picturesque language by the man who had first summoned authority to the bar of individual moral agency. In turning from one authority, popes and traditions, to another, scripture, Luther assumed a purity of knowledge that individual belief in its dangerous dance with desire could never produce, one that saw personal revelation in a state of constant revolution against even newly-established authority (see “A Problem with Sacred Texts”). His utter rejection of the reasoning that had stimulated his own appropriation of rational agency was both a recognition of its fallibility and a regret for what had become an irreversible transfer of power, one that was firing his entire world into chaos. Later waves of religious revolution would make matters worse, for though Protestantism from its beginnings championed individual revelation and Biblical authority to make every man a pope, its governmental structures continued in those darkest hours of struggle to found all civil authority in God. The lawyer John Calvin, who guided Geneva to a theocracy, framed the chain of command starkly. “We must obey our princes who are set over us, but when they rise against God they must be put down and held of no more account than worn out shoes….The princes are so intoxicated and bewitched that they think the world was made for them. When they seek to tear God from his throne, can they be respected? When we disobey princes to obey him we do no wrong.”

But who is qualified to decide which prince — or anyone else, for that matter — obeys God and which offends? Calvin captured the conundrum by urging the traditional deferral to the downward delegation of power. “…let us remember it is not for us to remedy these evils; for us it remains only to implore the aid of God in whose hands are the hearts of kings and changes of kingdoms.”

Luther and Calvin’s bipolar responses to the crisis of religious authority only underscore the question that has haunted the modern axiom of individual reason that they only intermittently embraced: how could private rational agency hope to justify God’s commands, much less to replace them as the source of moral consensus (see Tao and the Myth of Religious Return“)?

The question had been asked before, but since authority could brook no serious challenge to assent without fracturing, no alternative had arisen to ease the Reformation terrors. We see more formal explorations of the issue in two famous examples that do rationally interrogate divine authority. In the first, Plato’s  dialogue The Euthyphro, he raises but does not resolve a doubt about divine goodness. The Athenian authorities settled that doubt with a death sentence for corrupting Athenian youth and disrespecting the gods. The second example from the Book of Job issues an even more direct condemnation, not for challenging God’s goodness but for the sin of claiming moral agency in itself. This turns out to be a motif in Biblical narratives that begins with Genesis.

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 because their will must be subordinate to some moral principle, and what kind of god lacks omnipotence? That is another kind of logical puzzle. Plato thus exposes a potential distance between the gods’ power and their morality requiring rational arbitration by believers who must therefore revoke their unquestioning acceptance of divine command and with it the gods’ authority. That is offense enough, but he further raises an apparent anomaly in the nature of divine omnipotence itself that implies a standard of goodness to which even the gods must submit. As a footnote, it is worth mentioning that Aquinas resolves this dilemma in the Summa. Unfortunately, he resolves it on the authority of the doctors of the Church. And so, cue Luther.

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 trusts that 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 story line, God’s will is the measure of all goodness and not subject to the vagaries of human reasoning. The narrative emphasizes the inadequacies of merely human judgment in favor of divine command.  The language is stentorian, august, and clarion-clear. Just as we see Aquinas stifle the operation of his own reasoning in obeisance to authority, so too do we see the reader accepting the lessons of Job. Yet just in case that trust might be shaken by the horrors God allowed to be visited upon his most faithful servant and thereby cause the reader to question divine justice, a corresponding logical argument is made available to doubt (see Divine Justice”). Yes, God was cruel. 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 authority may be buttressed and trust sustained by the text, and reason soothed and Platonic objections dismissed by subtext to discourage the reader from even considering revoking her trust. This simultaneous appeal to surrender agency and employ it to endorse the surrender is an affront to the reasoning that agency employs, but for most readers that affront is ignored for the simple reason that it is discouraged from rising to consciousness, just as Aquinas ignored it despite his love of rationality. Anomaly only arises when desire is confronted as temptation to error. It remains buried until consensus shatters whether that consensus is cultural or within a single mind’s schema.  Then trust and belief must shatter as well, and authority tumbles down.

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, and that constant trust proposed as a religious desideratum, yet once again reason is subtextually soothed. See, it was only a test. God would not violate our trust by allowing the knife to come down, though the narrative makes clear how far He was willing to test it. But beneath the trust lies an unspoken assumption that such an assent would align with our everyday reasoning about goodness, so no rational interrogation need be applied.  Isaac is spared and Abraham is rewarded and his descendants number as many as the stars. Yet again, the text explicitly extols the authority warrant while the subtext attempts to appeal to soothe the reason that might challenge authority and resurrect moral agency.

From Adam and Eve to the Resurrection and from Dante to Milton, defenders of divine authority also appeal to a divine justice that explicable by reason to avoid the slightest chance of challenge 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”  or Thomas Aquinas’s incorporation of trust in authority with impressive rational argumentation. Yet even the existence of these appeals to differing warrants once brought to consciousness must be processed by the reasoning mind as anomaly because they require both an employment and a surrender of rational agency (see The Tyranny of Rationality). As Luther discovered, that awareness will have already begun the dissolution of trust or belief that transfers moral power to the thinking mind as an irrevocable shift. This was the birth of modernism and the reason it must always be suspicious of authority.

But this is a great loss, for the work of rational and moral agency is difficult and its fruits uncertain as the travails of modernism have demonstrated. On these grounds alone, the temptation to surrender agency to authority is powerful even though it requires a surrender of self. The trade-off for that surrender is a blissful certainty that the judgments of authority will conduce to the thinker’s good. We saw this temptation realized with deadly effect in the authoritarian regimes of the early twentieth century, and it is no accident that these totalitarian efforts attempted to revive a semblance of traditional social structures while suppressing the “decadent” postmodern aesthetics that implicitly challenged them. Indeed, it would require a postmodernist understanding of power to give authoritarian regimes a counterfeit of authority’s traditional appeal when it seeks to move modern minds, one of the reasons such efforts invariably fail. This is also a warning to congregants who see public morality as the exclusive possession of religion. Nowadays trust is almost certain to be withheld, for though we always seek certainty, we prefer applying our own judgment if experience presents sufficient evidence to our consideration. We are made for that. So the matter hangs delicately in the balance, pulled by the surrender to certainty in one direction and by the power of our reasoning in another. When such temptations are so evenly divided, social forces often prove decisive, and they now favor postmodern cynicism.

The issue of agency–the power to decide and act upon experience– eliminates any possibility of a  moral detente between reason and authority. It must be one or the other, active judgment or passive obedience. A commitment to authority must always be tenuous nowadays because of the sordid history of authority over the last five centuries and the modernist response that elevates the individual as the arbiter of truth and goodness. This has proven to be incompatible with embracing authority in any form, so the conflicts between modernism and pre-modernism have proven particularly stubborn, deformative, and confusing, particularly in regard to their effects on belief as a private commitment (see ‘Theology’s Cloud of Unknowing”). When persons talk about belief today, they fully indulge their own power to taint their judgment with desire, whether they commit to pre-modern or postmodern manifestations of belief (see “What Is the Virtual Circle?”). While it is indisputable that “belief” means quite different things implying quite different justifications to either side, both must admit the force of desire in their commitments. We do not judge issues of belief to be true. We wish for them to be. I need not discourse on the temptations deriving from an active preference for belief over knowledge. All of this valuation of belief only further distances us from moral consensus and stimulates the nostalgia of traditionalists. The cultural tides blow against trust in religious authority today, so nearly all of its champions today actually refuse to surrrender agency in favor of private beliefs just as their postmodern antagonists do. But, of course, they think their beliefs universally binding just as authority once was, and so they continue wasting breath pushing their own beliefs as counterfeits of traditional authority, adding to the swirling currents of cultural chaos. These tides flow most strongly for those who either don’t know the history of the Reformation or who, like Kung Fu Tse’s fish, are most unaware of the cultural waters in which they swim.



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