Tuesday, July 19, 2011

On Authority

In our culture, which prizes individual will and liberty above all other virtues, authority has gotten an undeserved bad rap. With skepticism being esteemed so highly, what room left is there for authority? What proper role can it have in our society? If the movement of my will is the good of all goods, then authority can only be a hindrance to my realizing my purpose in life, which is obviously to do what I want to do.

Perhaps our society shows some deference to certain necessary authorities, such as the police, whose existence is necessary to maintain order. Beyond that, however, there is a precipitous drop off in respect for any other kind of authority in our culture.

Of course within the Christian tradition -- and the other monotheistic religions -- authority takes a central role in the formulation of beliefs and the acquisition of knowledge and wisdom. Authority in the form of God, in the form of the Church, in the form of Scripture, in the form of Tradition. The difficult part for Christians is keeping the role of authority up front in their minds, while living in a culture that demeans all authority as necessarily illegitimate. In this sense, and as is very often the case, the Gospel is at odds with our culture's most fundamental values, and if Christians aren't vigilant in the face of this hostility it can erode their own understanding of authority and its just role in their life. Too often our culture's elevation of individual will as the ultimate virtue infiltrates into our own understanding of what is most noble and worthy.

While it's clear that our culture doesn't afford the notion of authority much respect, it should be noted that, at the same time, it can't avoid begrudgingly submitting to its dictates in certain aspects of life. To some extent we all recognize the proper role of parents as authorities over their children. Although even parental authority is constantly under threat and being pushed back in various ways, mostly as the state attempts to replace the parent's role in making education and health related decisions for parents. And while that is an instance of one authority usurping power from another, there are other ways that our culture attempts to reduce the role of parental authority even without the dictates of government. Such as trends in parenting in the West that treat children more as adult peers than as children; in the ways that media and marketing that sexualize and exploit younger and younger children, effectively conferring upon them one aspect of adulthood earlier and earlier; in the shift in education philosophy that emphasizes "critical thought", "learning how to think" and "creativity" over and above the transfer of factual, foundational, fundamental knowledge. All of these cultural trends are transfers of responsibility from external authorities to the ultimate authority, the self.

Authority also plays a prominent role in that wonderful, modern source of knowledge which is science. Despite the fact that it is an independent method for determining various truths about the physical cosmos, without authority the wonderful fruits of science would be impractical and irrelevant to the lives of most. The vast majority of us don't have the means or time to experimentally verify the claims of science. Even professional scientists in particular disciplines don't have the expertise or tools to verify the results of scientists in other disciplines. With this being the case, we have no choice -- for the most part -- but to submit to the authority of the scientific consensus in particular fields, and critically evaluate the best way to integrate these into our worldview.

None of this is meant to denigrade the role of critical thought or skepticism, which are essential for honest inquiry. Only to highlight the equally critical role of authority. A radical rejection of authority as such would be the death of knowledge itself, and yet we are constantly, and gladly, proceeding down this path as a culture.

1 comment:

  1. I like your line of logic here. I think there may be a contemporary march toward a type of tribalism that happens when authority is rejected. What I mean is that one of the great aspects of authority is its ability to unify despite difference. In other words, you and I can put aside or work through differences we may have as long as we both have a common reference authority we adhere to. When a hirearchal authority is rejected in favor of our own ideas or beliefs as authority, then we are left only to cluster with others of similar personal values or ideas. This would lead to an unhealthy homogeneity where anyone too far removed from our own way of thinking would become "the other".

    My mind jumps to this hypothetical end game type scenario even though I think that we could never reach that point because for the most part, as you point out, we tend to substitute authority even when we tell ourselves that we are "rejecting" it.