The Fragility of Religious Authority


  • When societies reach the point where axiomatic disputes arise, consensual warrants no longer resolve fundamental conflicts, and new axioms of moral commitment must be reached before disagreements can be addressed at all.
  • The Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment bookend one such era, marking the transition from premodern to modern axioms: from hierarchical authority to individual agency.
  • Because all religious authority relies upon the trust of its beneficiaries, which requires a submission of rational agency, challenges necessarily erode trust by requiring rational arbitration, but it is difficult for us to appreciate the magnitude of this dislocation since we operate on the blanket assumption that we control our own commitments.
  • Divine authority exercised by surrogates underwrote every exercise of power in premodern societies, but though trust has long since been corrupted, authorities still wielded power until the early twentieth century, producing axiomatic conflict and charges of hypocrisy and bad faith.
  • These charges have fueled a second axiomatic shift, from modernism to postmodernism; postmodernists rightfully attacked the moral anemia and bad faith of modern institutional authority..
  • To understand the power of religious authority for premodernists, it is necessary to examine its peculiar nature wherein an act of severance between determinations of truth and goodness must be denied; the result is a composited set of truth and goodness claims highly resistant to questioning and doubt.
  • When we employ the act of severance, we generally choose goods of utility, but the alloyed composition of religious authorities invariably are considered moral rather than useful, the major difference being that preferences of utility are necessarily hypothetical and moral preferences invariably categorical.
  • Hypothetical considerations are operations of rational agency, which discriminates among options, but categorical ones are imperatives that forbid the use of reason.
  • Premodern trust was necessarily thought to be categorical and moral and superior to hypothetical judgments of utility.
  • This arrangement, though resistant to doubt, ignores an inconsistency; any initial subscription to a divine command involves a hypothetical commitment as a prelude to a transfer of trust; this initial commitment precedes submission to some new authority; the hypothetical commitment to religious authority is necessarily moved by belief, an engagement of agency motivated by
  • Therefore, belief and trust are separate kinds of subscription: belief requires activating agency and is hypothetical, but trust requires surrendering agency and is categorical; the submission of trust thus authorizes public authority whereas the activation of belief is invariably a private employment of desire.
  • In premodern life, the early and nearly universal initiation of persons into longstanding theocratic hierarchies minimized the need for private belief, which was intentionally discouraged as corrosive to trust.
  • Heresy is therefore regarded as not only sacrilegious but also traitorous and destructive of extant order; because an erosion of trust axiomatically involves a resumption of agency so as to decide, heresy breeds more heresy.
  • This was the pattern of the Reformation for eight generations, eventually prompting a meta-withdrawal, a rejection of authority per se.
  • The problem was that no replacement axiom of commitment existed and no public warrants reliant on that missing axiom could settle social and political dispute, so the Reformation chaos could not be resolved until new axioms were consensually accepted; this process is the Enlightenment, whose axiom of commitment sanctioned individual experience and universal reason as bases for warranting truth and goodness.
  • The resolution of the Reformation chaos was forestalled by the impossibility of compositing reason and authority; before the seventeenth century, every effort to combine the two had ended in the dominance of authority and the suppression of agency best summarized by the first commandment of the Decalogue.
  • Luther exemplified this incompatibility in his own revolt against Catholic authority, so the Enlightenment axiom could not be consistently applied unless religious authority was abandoned, which did not occur until four centuries after Luther’s revolt; by then, modernist axioms were under sustained attack.
  • The reason religious authority continued to exert some power even in the face of contradictory public axioms of moral commitment concerns the anemia of modernism’s warrants for goodness, especially for public moral goodness.
  • This weakness is largely traceable to the value placed upon the act of severance by the emerging natural sciences, which gradually came to understand its importance in finding truths about physical reality, but the greater science’s success, the more uncertain moral pronouncements became, so polities continued to rely upon religious authority despite the axiomatic incompatibilities this effort produced.
  • During the last two centuries, human sciences attempted to bridge the gap so as to provide “scientific” moral guidance; their failures accentuated moral anomie while giving analysts a vocabulary with which to critique modernism’s moral hypocrisies.
  • In addition to conflicts of agency, some modernist solutions forged in the fires of the Reformation were deformed by issues peculiar to the collapse of authority; for example, contractarianism was originally a justification for divine right that gradually morphed into a theory of democratic affiliation, but its entanglements with authority and its invalid origin story have added many inconsistencies and hypocrisies.
  • The result has been confusion about the nature of the law, which is now the last remaining bastion of public morality; the postmodern critique has also eroded institutional authority of every kind, producing further disorder in complex, postindustrial societies.
  • Because hierarchies are required in public life, the corrosive postmodern critique has attacked public sanction of all institutional power as co-option of persons’ agency.
  • Postmodernism’s formal articulation in the last third of the twentieth century posited that reason must be personalized because it is a product of experience, but this reduces every dispute to a power struggle that reason cannot arbitrate, and because law is the only public moral arbiter, every power struggle becomes political; but because the axiom of postmodernism allows no objective stance by which to arbitrate dispute, every exercise of power is open to the charge of bad faith and resolvable only by the exertion of more power.
  • In contemporary life, we find premodernists, religious nostalgists yearning for an impossible revival of trust in authority who regard interactions as formative of their morality; modernists, institutionalists who seek informative interactions with authority founded upon their active sanction; and postmodernists, jealous guardians of their own agency who regard every interaction with institutions to be a performative opportunity to demonstrate their independence.
  • These conflicting relations with authority are further complicated by the peculiar understanding of belief that premodernists and postmodernists engage; premodernists mistake their beliefs, their active construction of religious truth, for trust in sacred textual authority, and because they think it authoritative, they see no reason their beliefs ought not be universalized, which is toxic in diverse cultures; postmodernists embrace the validity of private beliefs as constructive of private realities, but their axiom condemns any attempt to universalize their beliefs as abusive as attempts to overpower it.
  • The contentions of these three competing axioms of moral commitment are unlikely to be resolved until disputants agree that the proper venue for resolution must be the public square, but even that acceptance will begin to eliminate some axiomatic confusions and open space for a future moral consensus.


Ferment is more common than stability in most societies. It is not crippling so long as community members can agree to the nature of their problems and the means to address them, even when they dispute specific solutions. But there are historical eras when societies disagree not only on the way forward but of what “forward” actually means, even to the point of disputing the foundational structures of their community itself. Nothing can resolve this kind of axiomatic crisis until disputants agree to the assumptions that enable their arguments to take shape and have force for their opponents (see “The Axioms of Moral Systems”). One such case was a single crisis that divided two historical eras: the Protestant Reformation (1517 -1688) and the Enlightenment (1650-1790). They marked the bloody transition from premodern to modern axioms of commitment: from a social system constructed entirely on the authority of hierarchical and cooperative structures and fixed social orders to one built largely upon the autonomy of universal reason and private experience.

Nothing about this transition was simple or automatic. It was characterized by repetitive attempts to relocate religious authority by means of trust, and that effort in itself produced societal collapse requiring rebuilding on a totally new foundation of individual agency.  It is nearly impossible for us to understand the desperation of that collapse because we look back upon it from the presumptions of the moral structure that replaced it, making the agonies of its victims seem deeply alien to modern minds oriented to quite different sources of commitment (see “Modernism’s Midwives”). But there is a compelling reason to make the attempt, and it involves more than a good faith effort to discover our own epistemic roots. The twentieth century has marked yet another era of axiomatic upheaval, from the modern to the postmodern (see “Postmodernism Is Its Discontents). Even were these two crises not related, we could reasonably hope to find clarity by examining a settled past crisis so as to more fully understand a present one. But the two upheavals are intimately related. The essence of that first crisis was inextricably knotted around the nature of religious authority and the mode of its slow-motion fall into the antithesis of modernism. The twentieth century suffered through the second crisis because the first had neither been recognized nor reconciled. As a result, the postmodern critique turned its ironic lens upon the hypocrisy and the moral anemia of modernism in its accommodations to remnant authority.

We begin with a close analysis of the relevant concepts. If we break down the warrant of authority, we will find its root axiom in the submission of trust voluntarily granted by inferiors to superiors. Examining the process of submitting trust will be necessary to explain why its forfeiture was so devastating to sixteenth century Europe and why trust is unlikely to be resurrected as an axiom of moral commitment today despite the lamentations of contemporary religious nostalgists.

Epistemically, religious authority for simple truth claims justified by the categorical imperative known as divine command is the sole and sufficient foundation for moral goodness claims based on their truth. But divine imperatives do not fall from the sky in all their purity. All commandments need their Moses and every Moses needs his Aaron, and so on down the hierarchy, all ultimately authoritative and indebted to the original Jovian imperative. Even when transmitted by human powers, commandments warranted by God carry a special mandate.  Truth and goodness claims stem from a single root of authority. The truth of God’s omnipotence also justifies the moral goodness of a sacred text held to be God’s own word. This composite strength grants an incomparable reliability to religious authority’s claims combined with an equally strong disincentive to doubt, in part because the alloyed truth and goodness claim violates the necessary act of severance that marks our ordinary determinations of utility (see “The Act of Severance”). In the thousands of preferences we engage each day, we ordinarily must determine the truth of an experience before entertaining its possible uses. We do this so repeatedly and consistently that it takes a real focus on any one moment to see it in action, but you will do it as soon as you reach the end of this sentence and see the period that concludes it. Seeing it reveals a truth:  the sentence has now ended. A thought flits almost imperceptibly through your mind: would it be good to continue? For nearly all preferences, a judgment this inconsequential is almost instantaneous. You would hardly trouble your busy brain to interrogate it, but should you do so, you might ask what benefit reading on would confer. For most persons, the vast majority of judgments of the good revolve around the axis of utility. You consider it useful to present interests to go on, for which I thank you. This typifies the ordinary process of utility, but it is not what happens with the received word of God. Congregants trust the Apostle Paul’s Epistles to tell them necessary truths about God’s nature and equally vital means to do God’s will. The truth of Holy Writ underwrites its goodness and vice versa (see “What Do We Mean by ‘Good?”). This combined truth and goodness claim is delivered through the authority of sacred texts, traditions, dogma, or personages in various combinations compositing a single and hierarchical institutional authority. Its unity offers adherents a sense of certainty that authority’s modern successors, private experience and universal reason, could never duplicate because authority combines what judgment must sever: the separate acts of first determining truth and from that determination then choosing the good. And both determinations must always be only tentative (see “Truth and Goodness Do a Dance). Even more importantly, even the language of acceptance of this kind of authority informs us that the congregant has now surrendered her own agency, her capacity to doubt, in a submission of trust so profound that doubt is unlikely to rise to consciousness.

The distinction is so profound that it produces a terminological dichotomy that religionists think cannot be bridged: morality is defined as a concern with ultimate ends whereas utility with immediate ones. That difference for religious adherents implies that sacred texts are true and good in a deeper and more immutable way than ordinary truths, making the sacred text’s word irrefutable and antagonistic to utility because it is good in different way. It is categorically rather than hypothetically true and good, which means its value is not reliant on private experience or desire. Epistemically, this kind of commitment is termed a deontological one: it is independent of experienced reality. But the categoricality of sacred texts, dogmas, or intermediaries must always be received in tension by the faithful. The congregant believes before opening the sacred text that what follows is perfect truth and ideal goodness, so it is little wonder that she finds what she seeks there. Thus, the entire operation of finding faith involves desire, which is the signature of belief, just as trust is the signature of true authority. The believer is so moved by her desire for God’s own truth and goodness, a desire fired from the clay of her private experiences, 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 compositing of the true and the good that produces a counterfeit of certain truth that the experiential limitations of ordinary knowledge can never provide.

But this initial indulgence of belief, which is invariably a private kind of commitment engendered by private motives, nearly always transmutes over time into institutional power to engender public support. Once this is accomplished, the congregant who was once a believer has both the language and the history to offer a disinterested listener real reasons for what now is a congregation’s trust. Her beliefs have sustained her, have been slowly made conformable to public articulation, into something others can commit to. In this public form, religion may withstand the test of time to be transmitted to new generations. Their public life allows congregants to cite publicly demonstrable reasons for their faith which by now is quite distinct from what began their faith journey. Over succeeding generations, each new believer indulges the same desire and the same openness to the conversion experience that initiates her receptivity to the Word, but the earlier she submits to congregational authority, the less belief she needs to indulge, for “submits to congregational authority” is merely another way to say “trusts.” And trust is invariably a submission and surrender of the capacity to decide.

Every new religion follows this same trajectory from private and individual belief to public trust if it hopes to survive its first generation (see “Religion and Truth”). This is how a private morality becomes a public one. It is how belief is transmuted into trust. So long as authority itself goes unchallenged, the original weakness of its warrant, which began with a founder’s private beliefs and then was propagated on the backs of every convert’s equally private desires, remains unexamined. Over generations, time itself becomes the source of trust, and institutions propagate an unquestioned authority founded upon an unquestioning trust as new adherents are baptized into their faith, merging their trust of family into a trust of their faith.

It must be emphasized that the initial conversion experience that adults engage is moved by revelation or insight that changes the established religion, so it must always challenge extant authority. This was an historical inevitability since every government everywhere before 1776 was also a theocracy, though variable in both dogma and dogmatism. The initial belief of the challenging sect or heresy must necessarily challenge existing institutional structures, a conflict supercharged by the believer’s catharsis composed of equal parts of indubitability, urgency, and ineffability. In the struggle of established authority and new belief, an inherent obstacle must appear. The catharsis that prompts the challenge has engendered a private conviction. If it is to survive, it must transmute into a publicly defensible authority worthy of trust and capable of dissolving prior trust in existing institutions. But first it must confront the sustaining institutions of the society whose entire structural basis is its divinely transmitted authority. Nothing could be a stronger solvent to trust than this kind of challenge because congregants must reestablish agency to decide to whom they will now submit their trust.

Of course, medievalism had always 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, more representative of God’s will. Although rarely asked, the question was always in the air: how do you know which is the better authority except by the submission of your own trust? No question could be more corrosive to its maintenance, and so the question itself was forbidden. It is no accident that the first of the Ten Commandments forbids countenancing other gods. Kings, princes, lords ruled by the grace of God and so did popes, patriarchs, bishops, priests, and nuns. A single axiom of trust aligned all power, and it 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.

In most religions’ history, the transmutation of belief to trust is a second-generation event as adherents who knew the holy man die off, and trusted lieutenants and sacred 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 the thirteenth century’s greatest thinker, some other axiom of commitment powers the appeal.  Thomas Aquinas’s carefully presented five cosmological proofs for God’s existence, for instance, appealed to the reason of his readers to buttress the claims of authority. But these appeals to the differing axioms of surrendering trust while retaining rational agency are dangerously mixed because they must contain whiffs of desire that are fundamentally incompatible with the dispassionate, ratiocinative requirements for reasoning judgment. Even if trust is carefully cultivated in preference to belief, the two warrants must prove incompatible because authority demands the surrender of the rational 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 dogma 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. Aquinas phrases the relationship of reason and authority with his typical clarity:

. …[sacred] doctrine is especially based upon arguments from authority, 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.

He clearly sees no reason to distinguish the two warrants’ reliability or complementarity, particularly since he sees their conclusions 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 re-appropriation of agency so as to navigate competing authorities or reconstitute belief.

Religious belief only becomes a problem when its truth claims are projected as superior to established authoritative ones and more worthy of public trust. And we must remember that any claim to divine truth or divine will is inescapably a public truth acknowledging the universal dominion of God. No private revelation can reveal a purely private God. All of Thomas’s monumental effort in the Summa is aimed at reconciling authority and reason so doubt cannot arise to consciousness, but the effort is sabotaged by its nature, for employing reason definitionally requires a reacquisition of the agency that trust has surrendered. This may not occur to the congregant who finds that reason must always bow to authority in Aquinas, so no doubt might arise so long as reason remains unruffled. But it is always a dangerous thing to resubmit agency because it sends small ripples of doubt and desire across the placid waters of trust, threatening to crash through the composited structures of the true and the good.  The reader of the Summa finds such a closely reasoned and penetrating look at the nature of God and man that she wonders how Aquinas maintained his trust in answers that are so purely speculative. 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.

Unlike Aquinas’s submission to authority in his construction of the Summa, the Reformation defied authority from its very first act in a torrent of religious desire as heretics disputed each other and so required congregants to take back what had been surrendered so as to reallocate their trust. 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.  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 against a millennium of Roman Catholic authority. 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.

The 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 trust 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.”

Both Calvin and Luther misunderstood the difference between belief and trust. When Luther translated the Vulgate into German so as to allow the word of God to enter freely the minds of men, he assumed that sola scriptura would bring in the purity of God’s will.  Everyone could now receive the divine command without the mediation of cardinals and kings. Readers then as readers now saw what they wished to see in scripture, Luther most of all. And that was all it took to launch 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. Theocratic authority collapsed in an orgy of blood. One hundred thousand died in the Peasants’ Revolt wherein German commoners challenged their princes on Biblical grounds to demand communal ownership of property. But that was merely the first generational bloodletting. Seven more generations of shattered trust would follow. The butcher’s bill was twenty million lives. Trust was violated and the belief that might in time renew it was challenged and then withdrawn as heretic challenged orthodoxy and prince challenged king and king challenged pope.

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 was 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. The chain of divine command was cut and cut again, the links chiseled apart by competing revelations. 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 an 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 public 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 the nightmare of the Reformation, religious authority suffered a seemingly endless train of dissolutions.

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?

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 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 storyline, God’s will is the measure of all goodness and not subject to the vagaries of human reasoning and so deserves our trust. The narrative emphasizes the inadequacies of merely human judgment in favor of divine authority.  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 Plato’s 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 because it is discouraged from rising to consciousness, just as Aquinas ignored it despite his own intense 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 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 readers’ doubt are 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 to avoid the slightest chance of challenge to 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 and will end in a transfer of 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.

We celebrate this autonomy because we operate from its assumptions, but we must not ignore the great loss incurred, 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-governance. 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. 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. This modernist axiom of self-agency permeates contemporary cultures. 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 that rejects any infringement on personal autonomy..

But, you might object, millions are still moved by religious authority, which they find decisive in forming their own schemas of knowledge and belief. Religion seems resurgent, especially in its fundamentalist forms. At this moment, we might think that 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 more than ever founders upon a lack of trust in any external authority that might mold private belief to common ends. Religious persons today are all in the position of the first generation of heretics who power their faith by the force of their beliefs, who will never find the comfort of submission and institutional trust. Contemporary notions of authority today are pale shadows of their former power as persons bring the constant alarms of their private revelations to an active process of sanction that will not bring them to doctrinal consensus. What results is a kind of cycling of submission and retention of agency to authorities that are not so much trusted as believed in as a personal and private commitment, which makes faith provisional and easy to revoke. Authoritarianism today is not a commitment to an institution but to a personality. Because it more resembles fandom than trust, it is ephemeral in the same way fanaticism is. The real loss here is a public trust in public institutions in favor of contentious private commitments that fluctuate according to cultural temptations. Truth now more characterizes the believer’s commitment than the substance of that commitment itself, which cannot be known (see “Can Religious Belief be Knowledge?”)

In this respect, the desperate incentive that drove the United States’ founders toward history’s first formal separation of church and state still drives their descendants to reject religious authority. The Reformation furies were fresher for our founders than for us, as was their need for replacement warrants for religious authority and a replacement axiom for trust. Thus their reliance on the powers of universal reason in the formation of their new polity. As beneficiaries of that effort, we choose to ignore the doubts that led to the American republic 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. Must this be the consequence of trust in religious authority?

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 religion used as political justification. Their revolution was far more than a political invention, for it verified the modernist revolt that had begun in the ruins of the Reformation wars of belief versus authority. But because they inherited no trust in institutional authority of any stripe since political power had always been sourced in divine command, they were forced by expediency to endow their new state with a new theory of legitimacy, one only invented a century before in the midst of the Reformation wars. Contractarianism was an effort to source political power in modernist axioms of moral commitment: private experience, and universal reason (see “Why Invent a Social Contract?”). Like all such theories that sought to explain the roots of human experience, social contract theory suffered through repeated reinventions as philosophers attempted to appeal to the common reasoning of persons whose experiences were indisputably unique. And since political institutions were necessary for any new form of government to succeed, the American founders were forced to sanction the authority they had claimed to be an imposition on freedom even while insisting that government must act as neutral arbiter of individuals’ use of their private inclinations (see “Our Freedom Fetish”). To combat the kind of violent contention of citizens’ beliefs that the Reformation had made so horribly vivid, the new forms of democratic affiliation sanctions majoritarian will as guarantor of the common good, a moral goal made possible only because majorities’ will is synonymous with the common good even when it is oppressive (see “Two Senses of the Common Good”).

This approach resulted in three unavoidable conflicts. The first was between individual autonomy and the fiction of an original voluntary surrender to authority that contractarianism relied upon to found government on citizens’ assent. No state of nature ever existed because government was as necessary a part of human life as family from the beginning, so no original compact authorizing government ever occurred. If taken seriously, contractarianism regarded every act of political authority as a potential infringement of citizens’ liberty. We see the results of this political original sin in our current social climate in which libertarianism is regarded as a natural state and governmental authority as theft of freedom. The second conflict was the tension between the anemic moral authority of government in the contractarian model and the coercive force of law. If government really were indebted to a forfeiture of individual autonomy, then it could only have been given provisional and minimal authority to make laws, a conflict that gets more serious as other sources of authority have collapsed, leaving legality as the sole metric of moral authority (see “Foundations of the Law: An Appetizer”). This combines two frightening but contradictory conclusions: first, that there exists no moral restraint to legal authority, second, that no particular law has more moral force than any other one the majority might replace it with. Thus, every law is arbitrary, depriving some individual or minority of something desired in order to satisfy equally arbitrary majoritarian desires that suffer no moral restraint. Behind contemporary resentment of civil authority is a fairly obvious objection: If I am the ultimate source of political authority, what gives any number of others the right to override me (see “When Is Civil Disobedience Justified?”)? Without a moral function, legal institutions become arbiters of power rather than of justice, and government is reduced to the pitiable task of attempting to provide an impossible fairness among competing interests (see “Justice is Almost Everything”). The third problem was the consequence of the other two: compromised political institutions were forced to turn to extant religious authority to buttress their legitimacy in an ironic reversal of their own theories of legitimacy. This “gracious universalism” was never what contemporary religious nostalgists think it was, never a partnership with religious authority or a recognition of divine command. As aware as they were of the tendency of religious authority to be shredded by private belief and as clear-eyed that their own theory of political authority must legitimize private belief as autonomous, the American founders nevertheless knew that religious authority still exercised its moral force over ordinary citizens, a force whose power and threat was made manifest by the two Great Awakenings in the beginnings of the republic (see “Belief in the Public Square). They also knew that their originalist experiment in self-governance relied upon breaking with any particular religious authority in favor of secularizing their contract with citizens. So they were forced to walk a line between joining hands with religious authority to steady their own standing and shaking themselves free of it when it actually tried to assert some particular moral position in opposition to their own theoretical neutrality and monopoly of power.

Over the two centuries of centralization of political power and erosion of religious authority leading to a spectacular collapse after World War I, these three inconsistencies became increasingly blatant and their results more onerous until their implicit hypocrisies were articulated by postmodern critics in the 1980’s. By the turn of the twenty-first century, the very word authority carried the odor of bad faith just as the word institution conveyed a whiff of coercion.

Granted, there are powerful pragmatic forces at work in our contemporary relationship with institutional authority. 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 and it cannot mandate trust. 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’s Unsettling Disagreements”). If we allow our own experience to guide us, we understand their 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 retrograde power, using sleight-of-hand to secure the willing obedience of those disadvantaged by the system. They regard institutional power reliant on authority as inherently corrupt because it perpetuates current inequality by enshrining unjust disparities of power built into the historical narrative. Their suspicions are entirely understandable in light of the long and slow decline of traditional institutions that only definitively and finally collapsed after World War I and only after continually assaulting modernism throughout its long history (see “Modernism and Its Discontents”). The irreconcilability of premodern and modern axioms of commitment deserves such a critique. But postmodernists’ 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. If the absence of trust is not understood in hierarchies, authority may degenerate into coercion. 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 rarely happens today.

When trust is withheld, a different kind of relationship naturally develops so long as institutions survive, one based on reciprocity and mutual advantage. 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. This modernist effort at a reasonable give-and-take is nothing like trust and the hierarchies that practice these negotiations are engaged in a relationship more in keeping with legality than with authority. Postmodernists are mistaken, for instance, to think capitalist corporations have anything at all in common with the kind of feudal corporatism that relied upon submissions of trust in God’s surrogates. Persons who feel exploited certainly do not trust their masters, and they gauge impingements on their freedom with excruciating precision. 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 institutional relationships not based upon trust. Modernists inspected traditional social structures and interacted with them, granting them their active sanction 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, though as historical explanation and justification for government it was a pure fiction. But authority continued to demand its traditional fealty, continued to seek to form persons’ social identity rather than respect their agency as modernism required. Authority was viewed with suspicion, it is true, but also as a 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. Contemporary postmodernists regard 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 see as coercion, deception, and usurpation of their autonomy.

If the difference among these views is still unclear, 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 sanction 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, though far less time to be resented. This contradiction tainted modernist axioms with a suspicion that postmodernism eagerly stoked with endless charges of hypocrisy and subterfuge.  To envision the postmodern view, consider the thousands of movie antiheroes who “buck the system” so that they can “play by their own rules” (see “Freedom, Antihero, and Zeitgeist). 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.. Modern axioms of moral commitment have never replaced it, and modernist institutions have suffered for it in the ironic deprecations of two generations of postmodern critics.

But complex societies cannot function without institutional hierarchies and cannot advance without moral direction, so a kind of nostalgia for trust survives. And it is little wonder that it does. 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 replaced by them. The weakest of these builds authority on a trust found 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.

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. In contemporary life, our confusions about trust give us permission to think that authority has coupled its warrant to other kinds of correspondence support, producing a kind of emulsified 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. Justification bankruptcy is an apt term for authority’s decline in the modern era.

A commitment to authority must always be tenuous now because the sordid history of authority over the last five centuries has splintered it and the modernist response that elevates the individual admits of innumerable appeals to judgment. As a consequence, a kind of half-submission has become the norm. In hypothetical reasoning, utility dominates judgment, but in religious life, that same hypothetical process now powers a private belief mistakenly assumed to be submission to authority, a practice so common in interpreting sacred texts that it has now become the norm (see “Religious Knowledge as Mobius Strip”). Upon a self-examination, the difference becomes clear: the believer retains her capacity to decide rather than submitting it to the authority she wishes to obey unquestioningly. She has to retain it because she faces alternatives in every direction as she seeks to obey, and she has to arbitrate them by her own choosing. This necessity to decide dooms any formal submission to trust, replacing it with a recursive cycle of submission and retraction, thereby weakening the composited truth and goodness claims and opening them to doubt. To suppress it, today’s congregant does what she does in every other preference: she submits her judgment to utility, choosing options that most serve her present interests, at least in moments of doubt, which always characterize those wherein trust is withdrawn. This private commitment obviously lacks the authority to compel her assent, so she bolsters it by wholeheartedly embracing what seems to her to be permissible beliefs to restore the inerrancy that lost trust had promised. Now she is moved to commitment by desire, but if she mistakes it for trust, she will see no reason why others ought to resist the absolute truth she believes she has found. This transference explains the fanaticism of religious fundamentalists. What once was characteristic of the founding of new religions in their first generational passions before they became authoritative to congregants is now the norm for persons of the deepest faith. During the Reformation, this blind passion was the majoritarian condition, Now it moves minorities to a deep nostalgia for forsaken trust (see “Tao and the Myth of Religious Return”).

If modernists even notice this replacement, they discount it. Their axioms of moral commitment reject unquestioning submissions of trust to authority in favor of critical interactions founded upon publicly defensible judgements, so they consider beliefs to be fundamentally different from judgments and only privately binding. Postmodernists actually share a deep respect for belief with premodernists since their axiom of moral commitment reveres only the privacy of experience and the reasoning that experience dictates, and their flexibility about the nature of reasoning extends to legitimizing their own beliefs (see “What Is the Virtual Circle?). But this presumption necessitates that beliefs be only privately binding in exchange for being unassailable by others, so postmodernists are even more dismissive of universal beliefs than modernists are. Since postmodernists have been made aware of the hypocrisies and arrogance of authorities, which they regard as inherently coercive, they will reject authority out of hand and dismiss trust as gullibility. The societal disruptions that these incompatibilities produce are unlikely to be resolved until the disputants agree to an axiom of moral commitment that allows them to work through their disputes in the public square. But even considering them as requiring public assent would be a major step forward because it would highlight the intractable difficulties of bringing private belief into public interactions in the absence of a generalized trust (seeThe Moral Bullseye).







Leave a Reply

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

You are commenting using your 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