The Fragility of Religious Authority

I do not think we are the products of our era’s mode of thinking but rather that it influences us in ways that are sometimes quite subtle, particularly in our thinking about abstractions. Its effects are less tsunami and more a tidal flow for most eras of history.  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 awareness.

But at others they are the tidal wave carrying all into their swirling waters. Such is the case for a single consequence of 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 authority itself as a warrant for truth and goodness claims, a catastrophe to that age we cannot appreciate because we now rely on others (see “The Axioms of Moral Systems”). This in itself is a loss to us because it deprives us of clear historical vision 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 failures, prompting the fervent search for alternative guarantors over the next 150 years. 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 and certainty. Thinkers of that day were convinced that this very 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; they championed universal reason and closely examined experience as the axioms of all of their claims instead (see “Modernism’s Midwives”). Their quest was at least partially successful, for empirical science and reasoning 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. Surely, the tides of culture have been unsuccessful in sweeping away this great traditional warrant for truth and goodness. True enough. Many Americans, for instance, lack the historical literacy to appreciate the desperate incentive that drove the United States’ founders toward history’s first formal separation of church and state (see “Theocracy and the Commandments“). The Reformation furies were fresher for them than for us as was their need for replacement warrants for religious authority. Thus their reliance on the powers of universal reason in the formation of their new polity. As beneficiaries of that reason, we may choose to ignore their concerns but at our own peril. Religious absolutism in service to any faith does offer its warrant for morality, yet it inevitably brings with it the most vicious of conflicts. Why is that?

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

Authority as a generalized warrant for correspondence truth is based on either trust or belief. These terms both involve the willing surrender of moral agency to what is assumed to be a higher source of truth, goodness, or beauty.  After all, an authority needs nothing to justify her truth and goodness claims other than the assent of the beneficiary of her efforts. I become an authority when you decide I am one. My claims do not require any of the stronger correspondence truth tests. I am not required to prove my truths through experiment or demonstrate them logically. I need not establish myself as an expert on the subjects 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 commitment of belief (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 my PhD, or because you have been swayed by my arguments, or because I have developed skills in my subject over a lifetime of thoughtful effort, or because I have been there and done that(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 experience, a thin thread upon which to weave truth and goodness claims, but one at least subject to the tests of correspondence judgment. My trust in you is 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. Belief requires no reasoning whatsoever, only a transference 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 instantaneous belief 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.

Granted, there are powerful pragmatic forces at work here. Do you want to see the principal, the inside of the jail cell, the back of the unemployment line? Institutions, including the family, the corporation, and civil society itself, use authority as a warrant because it lubricates the process of getting things done. But that in itself hardly makes the pronouncements of authorities true or good. Their pragmatic value cuts both ways. For every inspiring teacher, there is a bureaucratic hack. Both good and bad cops wear the uniform 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 authority with 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. What is it about authority that produces such powerful antipathies?

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

For that is all it takes. All it took, at least, in the bloody nightmare of the Reformation when peasants withdrew their assent from the German princes, when Calvinists seceded from their Lutheran brothers, when Henry VIII sneered at Pope Clement VII, when French Huguenots challenged Catherine de Medici, and on and on (see “Premodern Authority“). Institutional authority fractured. Personal authority collapsed in an orgy of blood. Trust was violated and belief was challenged and then withdrawn. As must happen 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 trust or granted by a desperation to commit to belief. 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 improve 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 ten generations 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 claims and goodness claims stem from a single warrant of authority. The truth of God’s omnipotence also justifies the moral goodness of the Ten Commandments. This combined truth and goodness claim is delivered to believers through the authority of sacred texts, tradition, or dogma. These traditionally powerful sources of truth and goodness 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. In combining truth and goodness claims into a single decision rooted in desire, 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 emulsifies beliefs with a counterfeit of knowledge of the true and a connective sense of certainty of the good that true knowledge can never provide. So long as authority itself went unchallenged, the weakness of its warrant went 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. This explains why 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: 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 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 assumes to be the possession 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 is bound by extremely weak attachments to reason and therefore must be considered at best the flabbiest of judgments, at worst the employment of belief.  Of course, this was just the issue that plagued the ten generations of heretics, visionaries, and martyrs beginning with Martin Luther in 1517 who proudly proclaimed their own beliefs against the tradition Aquinas had defended Like his, their claims to authority were stained by the desire inherent in any submission to belief. This only becomes a problem when such claims are said to be rational, are projected as correspondence knowledge. It characterizes Aquinas’s own submission to authority in his construction of the Summa. 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.

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. Many of these same and even more 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 successful. One need not trust the product of one’s own judgment, for she cannot both relinquish her reasoning power and employ it as a moral agent. 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. First truth. Then goodness.  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. Should I accept what I formerly accepted on trust, I now accept it by my judgment rather than your authority.  The affirmation of truth determined by reason must always be provisional only, justified by a preponderance of the evidence. It is therefore far from certain.  Natural freedom then frames the goodness choices that derive from that determination and preferential freedom seeks them as goods to be gained (see “Our Freedom Fetish”). Desire is thus employed not in determinations of truth but in the preferences that such determinations present to our reason. 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 likely than the first. Subsequent expressions of doubt continue to lower the odds on trust.

The irrevocability of that 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 ten 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 permanent revolution against even newly-established authority. 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. Perhaps in his later years, Luther began to appreciate the question that has haunted the modern axioms he first introduced: how could private rational agency hope to justify God’s commands, much less to replace them (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 believes God commands what is good while still upholding His omnipotence? This is accomplished by the very neat trick of having the subtext of the story undermine the text. Yes, says the 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 believer 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 to Kierkegaard, defenders of divine authority also appeal to a divine justice that would be 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.

Commitment to religious authority must be rooted in either trust or belief. Because trust must be earned, the commitment it involves is necessarily rational, though precariously so, relying on a limited testimony of experience that cannot rise to the thoughtful commitment that characterizes surer claims to knowledge. Instead, the thinker voluntarily surrenders the rational agency that marks an active claim to knowledge of truth or goodness to the authority that now decides these matters, it is to be hoped, on the thinker’s behalf. The trade-off for that surrender is a blissful certainty that the judgments of authority will conduce to the thinker’s good. Where trust is not endorsed by reason, it may be withheld, for though we always seek certainty, we prefer applying our own judgment if experience presents a preponderance of 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. The issue of agency–who makes judgments of truth and goodness that affect the thinker– 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 belief in authority must be even more tenuous because it distorts judgment by the power of desire, forcing such commitments into the realm of coherence altogether. 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. The cultural tides blow against trust or belief in religious authority today, and they flow most strongly for those who either 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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