Posts tagged ‘Authority’

Faith and Authority

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Credit: Rod Long on Unsplash

I find people’s faith stories fascinating.  Take, for instance, Rachel Meyer, who, in an article for the Huffington Post, chronicles her struggle of how she might be able to pass down her faith to her son.

She opens her piece by talking about a man she dated when she was in her early 20s.  When she asked him whether or not he believed in God, he responded, “I believe in ME.”  “I knew in that instant,” she writes, “it would never work between us.”  Why?  Well, she continues:

I am a person of deep faith: a preacher’s kid, a yoga teacher, and a meditation geek with a master’s degree in systematic theology.  I’ve spent my whole life belly-deep in the spiritual world.

Her spiritual world, however, is not what many would expect.  She sums up her creedal commitments by rattling off a litany of things she does not believe:

I don’t believe in original sin, or the pathological shame and guilt that comes with it.  I don’t believe in hell, or that bodily desire gets us there.  I don’t believe that God is gendered, or in the kind of sexist and homophobic theology that shuts out LGBTQIA+ folks.  I don’t believe in substitutionary atonement or white supremacy.  I don’t believe that nationalism should have anything to do with religion.

For the record, as a confessional Christian, I don’t believe in many of those things, either.  I do believe in original sin.  But I’m not big on pathological shame.  I do believe in hell.  But I don’t believe that bodily desire gets us there.  I believe that rejecting God’s resurrected Son gets us there.  I don’t believe that God is gendered per se, for He is spirit.  But I do believe that He became incarnate as a man and invites us to approach Him as our Father.  I don’t believe in shutting out LGBTQIA+ people – or anyone else, for that matter – but I do believe we must take seriously the sexual contours outlined in Scripture and consider that perhaps they are there for the sake of our safety and thriving.  I most certainly do believe in the substitutionary atonement.  And I most certainly loathe white supremacy.  It is inimical to the very nature of who the Church is to be – the redeemed “from every nation, tribe, people, and language” (Revelation 7:9).  A good portion of the fun of figuring out what you think about nationalism is figuring out how to define it, as this podcast from Arthur Brooks reminds us.  But regardless of how you define nationalism and what you think of it, I most certainly believe that I am a member of God’s household before I am a citizen of any nation.

But behind our individual instances of agreement and disagreement lies some bigger questions:  How does one decide what to believe?  To what authority does one turn to shape one’s beliefs?

There is a canon of beliefs that Rachel Meyer wants to hand down to her son:

I still want my kid to grow up with an appreciation for high-church liturgy, for the holy space of grace that is a cathedral.  I want him to know the selfless service of church ladies setting out homemade casseroles and Jell-O salads in the fellowship hall after baptisms and funerals.  I want him to learn that Jesus – like Buddha and Muhammad – was a radical prophet who taught us how to live gently, wholeheartedly, out of love above all else, and to let that understanding cultivate a passion for social justice.

Okay.  I agree that selflessness is critical – even to the Gospel itself.  Gentleness is a member of the Spirit’s fruit.  And concerning ourselves with justice in society is beautifully prophetic.  But why are selflessness, gentleness, and social justice in while the substitutionary atonement is out?  Rachel never quite answers these questions.

In the end, Rachel seems to have cobbled together a faith that is not based on much of anything besides her own affections and aversions.  What she likes in faith, she keeps.  What she doesn’t like, she trashes.

The humorist Anne Lamott once told the story of a priest friend of hers, Tom, who would say, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”  Tom is right.  To be a person of faith is to be, among other things, a person under divine authority.  Only a fool would believe that their own opinions and preferences would always match up with God’s commands and revelation.  This is why, for millennia now, Christians have turned to the pages of Scripture to discover God’s commands and character, even when His commands and character unsettle us, puzzle us, or even offend us.  We approach the pages of Holy Writ humbly, wondering what we have missed, what we must learn, and how can change.

If your God always agrees with you, then it’s safe to assume that the “god” you believe in is really just a thinly veiled version of you, which means that your god can’t help you, challenge you, stretch you, or save you because he is you.  So why bother with him at all?

Perhaps Rachel has more in common with her old love interest than she lets on.  “I believe in ME,” he said.  It sounds like she could say the same thing, too.

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June 24, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Who’s In Charge? The Self As the Source of Authority

Protests

Authority issues are nothing new.  Conflicts over the source, scope, and systems of authority can be found in every socio-political upheaval, in every teenager who rebels against his parents, and in every rebellion going all the way back to Adam and Eve.

In our current cultural mise en scène, we seem to have two ascendant loci of authority:  that of personal experience and that of corporate solidarity.  The authority of personal experience claims that, simply by virtue of experiencing something, a person can speak conclusively, decisively, and intelligently on issues that intersect with his or her experience.  It is assumed, for instance, that a person who identifies as gay can speak conclusively on LGBTQ concerns, or that a person who is an immigrant can speak decisively on border policy.  These personal experiences, in turn, coalesce around a corporate solidarity where LGBTQ people come together to form the LGBTQ community, or where immigrants come together to form coalitions like the Dreamers.  These communities then develop their own canons of orthodoxy and heresy, with individuals whose personal experiences or commitments do not conform to the broader communal experiences and commitments finding themselves marginalized or, sometimes, even shamed.

In many ways, our current secular assumptions about the wellsprings of authority parallel the experiments with authority in nineteenth-century theological liberalism.  The German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, for example, located the foundation for authority in individual experience, claiming:

If the word “God” is in general originally at one with its attendant notion, and thus the term “God” presupposes some notion of it, then the following is to be said.  This notion, which is nothing other than simply a declaration of the feeling of absolute dependence, or the most direct possible reflection of it, is the most primary notion with which we have to do here, completely independent from the primary knowing proper just mentioned.  Moreover, the notion we have to do with here is conditioned only by our feeling of absolute dependence, with the result that for us “God” signifies, first of all, simply that which is codeterminant in this feeling and that to which we push back our being, that being viewed as what we are.  Any content of this notion that would be derived from some other quarter, however, has to be explicated based on the fundamental content just specified.[1]

Schleiermacher claims that notions of God are founded on feelings of dependence.  One’s feeling of the need for God becomes the basis for a transcendent understanding of God.  In this way, divine authority is found first in personal feeling even as today’s authority is grounded in personal experience.

Likewise, the authority of corporate solidarity finds its advocate in another German theologian of this period named Albrecht Ristchl, who put a heavy emphasis on a theological authority that arises out of the Christian community.  As his famed dictum summarizes: “the immediate object of theological knowledge is the faith of the community.”  More fully, Ritschl writes:

Authentic and complete knowledge of Jesus’ significance – His significance, that is, as a founder of religion – depends on one’s reckoning oneself part of the community which He founded, and this precisely in so far as it believes itself to have received the forgiveness of sins as His peculiar gift.  This religious faith does not take an unhistorical view of Jesus … We can discover the full compass of His historical activity solely from the faith in the Christian community.[2]

Though I am more sympathetic to Ritschl’s emphasis on community than I am to Schleiermacher’s obsession with individual feeling, Ritschl nevertheless strays when he not only celebrates the faith of the Christian community – that is, “the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people” (Jude 3) – but calls for faith in the Christian community, supplanting Christ Himself as the object of faith.  Ultimate theological authority for Ritschl is found in the Christian community even as ultimate secular authority today is found in ascendant activist coalitions.

Whether it be the locus of personal experience or the locus of corporate solidarity, these loci are fundamentally one in the same, for they both ultimately point back to the self.  And authority that is grounded in the self cannot endure because, even as many selves can come together in a corporate solidarity, inevitably, such alliances will fissure as factions arise and their lust for authority will lead to the horrors of war.

One of the fascinating features of our modern notion of the self as the ultimate source of authority is how regularly we seek to elide the responsibility that comes with authority.  Many tout their personal experiences not only as authoritative testimonies, but as grievance litanies that explain why the problems they face are not their fault.  Likewise, some corporate solidarities have a habit of tying the legitimacy of their authority to the severity of their oppression.  Thus, while many may want to have the authority to complain about what’s wrong, they don’t want their authority to include responsibility for their own part in what’s wrong.

Orthodox Christianity grounds ultimate authority in a place quite different from that of the self or of the community.  Christianity’s message is that ultimate authority is in no way humanly grounded, but is instead divinely founded.  Ultimate authority is not in the self, but in a Savior who declares, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me” (Matthew 28:18).

Christianity invites all of us who have been unraveled by our own authority to trust in Jesus’ authority.  For where our authority stumbles, His authority stands.  Maybe it’s not so bad not to be in charge.

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[1] Friedrich Schleiermacher, Christian Faith, Volume 1, Terrence N. Nice, Catherine L. Kelsey, & Edwina Lawler, trans. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 31.

[2] Albrecht Ritschl in Wilfred Currier Keirstead, “Theological Presuppositions of Ritschl,” The American Journal of Theology 10, no. 2 (1906): 425.

March 12, 2018 at 4:15 am 1 comment

You’re not smart enough or good enough, even if people like you

Stuart Smalley 1It was Stuart Smalley, played by Al Franken on Saturday Night Live, who said, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and, doggone it, people like me!” As it turns out, many took Smalley’s credo to heart. And the results have been sadly predictable.

Case in point: the American Bible Society, in conjunction with the Barna Group, recently published its “State of the Bible” report for 2014. The report opens with plenty of punch:

Now there are just as many Americans skeptical of the Bible as there are engaged with the Bible. According to the fourth annual State of the Bible survey, 19 percent said that they were skeptical of the Bible. This number is up from 10 percent in 2011.

This trend is even more pronounced among the Millennial generation (who range in age from 18-29). According to the State of the Bible report, Millennials are

–   Less likely to view the Bible as sacred literature (64 percent in comparison to 79 percent of adults),
–   Less likely to believe the Bible contains everything a person needs to know to lead a meaningful life (35 percent in comparison to 50 percent of adults), and
–   More likely to never read the Bible (39 percent compared in comparison to 26 percent of adults).[1]

It turns out that America’s latest generation is more suspicious of the Bible than any that has come before it.

Now, on the one hand, such suspicion requires solid biblical apologists – people who can argue for Scripture’s veracity, historicity, consistency, and even morality to a society that is increasingly questioning Scripture on all these fronts. Indeed, one factoid that came out of this report is that while 50 percent of all adults believe the Bible has too little influence on society, only 30 percent of Millennials believe this. This is, in part, because many Millennials no longer accept the basic premise that the Bible teaches right from wrong. Instead, many Millennials now believe the Bible promotes wrong rather than right – for instance, on topics like sexual ethics. Thus, they see the Bible as having a negative, rather than a positive, influence on society – one they would be happy to see continue to wane.

But there is more to this report than just what Millennials believe about the Bible. The statistic I found most telling from this report is this one: 19 percent of Millennials believe no literature is sacred compared to 13 percent of all adults who believe no literature is sacred. In other words, it’s not just that Millennials have a problem with the Bible in particular, it’s that they struggle with any literature that claims to be sacred in general.

It is here that we arrive at the core of this new generation’s struggle. For to claim a particular piece of literature is sacred is, at the same time, to say something about its authority. After all, something with a sacred, or divine, origin is, by definition, “above” me and can therefore make certain claims on me and demands from me. But this is something this current generation simply cannot endure. For to believe a book like the Bible has divine authority is to concede that if I disagree with the Bible, the Bible gets the right of way. But when I’ve been told, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and, doggone it, people like me,” I cannot stand to have my goodness or moral intelligence questioned by some backward work from ancient antiquity. My modern, enlightened sensibilities cannot be wrong. I must be right.  The only sacred literature left, then, is the moral script I’ve written for myself and carry around in myself – hence, the reason so many Millennials see not only the Bible as unsacred, but any religion’s holy book as unsacred.

So with all of this in mind, perhaps it’s worth it to do a little reflection on our assumption concerning the sapience and sacredness of our moral sensibilities. We have been told we are smart enough. But are we, really? Have we never made a wrong call, a tragic error, or a bumbling fumble? We have been told we are good enough. But are we, really? Have we never broken our own moral boundaries or changed them over time because of a shifting perspective, or, more cynically, because of coldly calculated expedience? A little bit of honest introspection is enough to remind us that what Stuart Smalley taught us is profoundly untrue. Indeed, it is downright silly. And it is supposed to be. That’s why it aired on Saturday Night Live.

So let’s stop looking to ourselves for truth and morality and start looking to something higher. Let’s take an honest look at the Bible. Who knows? We may find it’s smarter and better than even we are. And, doggone it, we might even learn to like that.

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[1] “State of the Bible 2014,” American Bible Society.

April 28, 2014 at 5:15 am 2 comments

ABC Extra – Authority Issues

In seminary, I had a friend who loved the sitcom “Malcolm in the Middle.”  He watched it religiously.  I myself was not so big a fan, but the theme song for the show, sung by They Might Be Giants, was catchy and still sticks in my mind.  Its chorus was clear and unambiguous:  “You’re not the boss of me now.  You’re not the boss of my now.  You’re not the boss of me now, and you’re not so big.”  What a message of fierce independence!  Apparently, They Might Be Giants had problems with authority.

Problems with authority, of course, are nothing new.  They are as old as the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve first rebelled against the authority of God and ate from the tree of which God warned, “You must not eat” (cf. Genesis 2:17).  There is a seemingly innate tug on the human spirit to declare to God and everyone else, “You’re not the boss of me!”

Considering the difficulty so many of us have with authority, it comes as no surprise that many people try either to minimize or rationalize the Bible’s calls to submit to authority.  Yet, the call of Scripture remains clear.  The preacher of Hebrews declares, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Hebrews 13:17).  There are a couple of especially notable features of this verse.

First, it is important to note that those in authority over others are themselves under authority.  They “must give an account,” the preacher of Hebrews says, concerning how they exercised their authority.  Specifically, they must give an account to the Lord.  As I mentioned in ABC, all human authority is derived authority.  That is, all human authority is given by God to certain individuals who are called to steward that authority faithfully and well.  No human being has a carte blanche authority which is unaccountable to God.

Second, it is important to note that when those under authority willingly and joyfully submit to the authority of others, things tend to go better – both for those in authority and for those under authority!  The preacher of Hebrews says that when people under authority submit to authority, the job of those in authority becomes “a joy, not a burden.”  Likewise, to those under authority, the preacher of Hebrews says that rebellion is “of no advantage to you.”  Submitting to authority makes things go well – for everyone!

Rebellion against authority often appears tantalizing.  After all, it promises the alluring prospect of autonomy.  But such autonomy is illusive and, finally, non-existent.  For at the same time we seek to rebel out from under the authority of others, we end up rebelling into the authority of sin.  And the authority sin wields is tragic and terrorizing.  Paul calls the authority of sinfulness “weak and miserable.”  He then goes on to ask, “Do you wish to be enslaved by it all over again” (Galatians 4:9)?  The authority of sin leads to slavery.  The authority of Christ, conversely, leads to freedom – not freedom from all constraints, but freedom for a joyful and righteous life.  This is why Paul continues:  “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).

Though it is true that some authority is depraved and despotic and ought to be resisted, in general, we are called to submit to those in authority.  For we need authority.  We need authority to provide guidance, protection, and a safeguard against wickedness.  Blessedly, God’s authority provides all of these things perfectly and fully.  Submit to His authority.  And submit to those He has put in authority over you.

Want to learn more on this passage? Go to
www.ConcordiaLutheranChurch.com
and check out audio and video from Pastor Tucker’s
message or Pastor Zach’s ABC!

June 6, 2011 at 5:15 am 1 comment


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