April 26, 2011

Thought for 04.26.11

Authority is fictive. Obedience is real.

Authority is always conferred upon the one exercising it by those who choose to obey it. A monarch with only rebellious subjects, or with no subjects at all, possesses no real authority, but only a title. Reality, after all, is composed of relationships, not substances. A conductor without an orchestra may still fancy himself a conductor, but will make no music. What, after all, is music when it is not being played? Authority is granted reality by those who obey it.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

27 comments:

Erika Baker said...

Authority is granted by those who obey, I agree, but it's nonetheless real for that.

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

My point is that it is only real when and to the extent it is obeyed. The consent of the governed is essential to government, and without it no government really governs.

Robert said...

Authority, like scripture, only becomes real when there's a community willing to recognise it. Without that community, it's a meaningless concept.

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Thanks, Robert. It was actually thinking about the need for the reception and interpretation of Scripture that got me thinking about authority in a wider sense. We are on the same wavelength.

rick allen said...

Therefore, God has no authority if we refuse to obey him? Or the word of God, if we refuse to receive it?

Erika Baker said...

Tobias,
of course I agree with what you say, I just wasn't so sure about that first sentence.

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Rick, that seems to be correct, at least as far as Scripture goes (assuming that is your referent in "word of God.") It has no authority over those who reject it or refuse it. There is no inherent "power" in the Scripture that can make people do things they do not wish to do.

I'm not so sure what you mean by the "authority" of God. Nor am I entirely sure what you mean by "authority" period. I am taking it as "the power to enforce obedience" -- and if the obedience cannot be enforced, there is no effective "authority" in this sense. (There may remain a putative authority, but I'm not really sure what that is.) I suppose a softer definition "to 'expect' obedience" may be more to your liking, but in the long run that seems not an accurate or terribly meaningful descriptor. For it seems to me that authority must entail more than simply issuing orders with the personal expectation they be obeyed. King Canute or a madman can issue orders til they are blue in the face -- but the sea will keep coming in, and no one heeds the madman.

If you've seen the film "Tunes of Glory" with Alec Guinness and John Mills you may catch my drift.

How would you describe the authority of a god whom no one worshiped, or a holy book no one paid any heed to? There are plenty of examples. It seems to me that it is because you and I and many others believe the God we worship is the one true God, and the Bible his word, that we also believe them to have authority over us.

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Ta, Erika. I realize "fictive" is a tricky word. I could have said, "imputed." What I'm trying to get across is the notion that authority is relational, and essentially meaningless if no one pays any attention to it.

As happens to the John Mills character in the film reference above.

(Any who have not seen it, hie thee to Netflix or some such post haste; one of Alec's and John's best performances, and the final scenes are chill-making. A classical tragedy in modern dress.)

Erika Baker said...

Tobias,
didn't we have a similar conversation when you wrote about the authority of Scripture a while go? The conclusion there, if I remember correctly, was that Scripture only has the authority the church gives it.
That post and the subsequent conversation had influenced my thinking considerably.

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Yes, Erika. I've been thinking along these lines for a while. Ultimately I want to write a systematic theology, and one aspect of that is the nature of revelation, which for me requires reception. My background in communication theory makes distinctions between information and data, for example. (This also figures in the earlier discussion about the meaning of "trivial.")

Daniel Weir said...

Authority - like perhaps everything else - is relational. It has become clear to me in the last few years that a relational Christology makes much more sense than a substantialist one. Carter Heyward's recent lecture at Episcopal Divinity School, "Haunted by Relationality," is worth reading (http://99brattle.blogspot.com/2011/04/haunted-by-relationality.html)

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Thanks, Daniel. I am a big fan of Marjorie Suchocki's work in this area. "God, Christ, Church" is one example. THanks for the pointer to C Heyward's address...

Fr. J said...

Rick's questions are similar to my own, and I'm not sure that I understand your answer. I think that perhaps you are conflating authority with power? Authority has within it the word "Author," the originator, the creator, the genuine article. All authority, in a sense, is derivative from the Author. I don't have the authority to rearrange Shakespeare's plays, for instance, but Shakespeare does, because he is the author. All authority originates with God because He is the Author of all (certainly the "Author of our salvation" as the Eucharistic prayer says). His right to have things the way He would have them is unquestionable not because He's all powerful (though He is) but because He's original. Power and authority are not the same things. If I have a gun, I can make you obey me, whether I have the authority to do so or not.

If it were merely a matter of power, your formulation might work, albeit in a fractured way. God has the power to force me to obey Him, but He doesn't choose to exercise His power that way, and so in practical terms, we are only under God's authority if we want to be, likewise with the Bible. But that doesn't mean that God or scripture have no authority over me. It means, merely, that I refuse that authority. I won't accept it or any other authority, unless someone with power forces themselves upon me. This, it seems to me, is the very heart of what's wrong with humanity. We see things exactly backwards, respecting only power, seeing no authority. It is exactly this that Jesus sets about to turn upside down when He washes the feet of His disciples, and even more so when He walks freely to the cross.

rick allen said...

"How would you describe the authority of a god whom no one worshiped, or a holy book no one paid any heed to?"

Sounds rather like Christianity, actually, for much of our lives.

I would agree with you that authority implies a relationship. But I would not agree that the acknowledgement of authority by the person under authoirty is required for the authority to be something other than "fictive."

If authority were created by obedience, then disobedience would imply the negation of authority. To illustrate with a familiar story, it would mean that Adam's disobedience nullified God's authority, in the defiance of the one existing command.

Undoubtedly each individual must exercise personal judgment about what authority he will recognize. I accept the authority of the Gospel, and reject that of, say, shari'a law. But I don't imagine that, if it turns out that Mohammed really was the prophet of God, I would have thereby negated Allah's authority. If anything, I will be all the more subject to it.

At the end of Matthew's gospel Jesus says, "All authority in heaven and on earth is given to me." I don't see how one can read that as conditional on anyone's assent, other than that of God the Father, whose relationship to Jesus there is in granting such authority, not responding in obedience.

Fred Schwartz said...

Tobias,
I think the conjunctive word is authenticity, not obedience. Authority with authenticity makes it real.

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Fr. J., I take your point, but as I've been at pains to actually define what I mean by authority, and am basing it on the first definition in Webster's 2d Unabridged, I will stand by my thesis, which as you observe relates power. You are applying what that edition lists as "meaning 9" -- that's fine, but it means we are using the same word with different meanings.

But even that being said, I disagree on the "power" question too. As I said above, there is no "power" in Scripture to force obedience. I would say the same about God, for two reasons: if it is forced, it is not obedience (thus negating free will). If you have a gun, you might force me to obey, but you might also have to kill me if I refuse. So the power here is the coercive power to punish -- which the tradition says God has; but I'm not sure I'd call that "authority." So "authority" as power only becomes "real" when the obedience is actually resultant, and only for those who obey.

Needless to say, I quite agree with you about Jesus' rejection of earthly authority. He submits to Pilate's authority (conferred on those above him, "who have the greater fault"), and is precisely "obedient unto death" but in doing so upends the whole notion of authority (which at the Supper -- or on the road -- he tells the disciples to reject.) By his act he places all of the emphasis on the "obedience" side of the equation. Some have distorted this plain "new commandment" to love and serve rather than to exercise authority over, in much the same way they distort the rest of the Scriptures, but it seems clear to me that Jesus intended to subvert the conventional notions of authority by stressing obedience and service as the true locus of what "reifies" authority.

Rick, I'm not claiming that *everyone* need assent to an authority to make it real -- but that it is real for those who assent to it. Disobedience negates the authority only for those who are disobedient.

I'm still finding the whole "authority of God" notion a bit vague; perhaps you could say more. I really wasn't thinking of God in my initial comment. And in this matter as in so much else God is rather sui generis!

As to the close of Matthew, exousia is there being used in the sense of "power" -- as indeed the KJV translates. I am not by any means disputing the power of God, or Jesus, which is why I found your question strange. I don't put the Bible and God in the same category when it comes to "power." (I don't think Scripture has "power" in the same sense at all.) And as I've noted above, power itself is limited when it comes to freedom. Adam's freedom to choose to disobey is real. If God had forced obedience (thereby destroying it in any meaningful sense) the creation would not be the creation. There is something of the felix culpa here -- and the reversal in the obedience of the Son "reifies" God's authority, it seems to me, in and over all of humanity -- at the level of human nature (not in the individual, which is another matter). Perhaps this is what Jesus is referring to in that close of Matthew?

Fred, "authenticity" or "legitimacy" will help to engender obedience -- but ultimately the "consent of the governed" is part of what makes the authority recognizably legitimate.

So with the clarification that Rick and Fr. J. are speaking of authority somewhat differently than I am, I will stand by my original thesis. THanks for the interesting discussion.

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Some additional thoughts

As Augustine noted, the City of God is ruled by love, not power, or by the power only of love, not the power of control. The thing that in humans is the source of all sin, the libido dominandi is not of God.

The love of God is shown in this, that while we were yet sinners he came to us and suffered, died, and was raised for us.

All by love, nothing by constraint.

Marshall Scott said...

When I was in seminary, long, long ago, a CPE Supervisor I encountered used to say, "Power is the ability to persuade. The ultimate power to persuade is love."

I always find it interesting when we get into this conversations that are, at heart, wrestling with terms. So, we look for examples. As I sit here, my fingers move and letters appear on the screen, letters that I will shortly share with others. So, is my computer "obedient?" If it doesn't do what I want it to, as happens often enough, is it "disobedient?" I appreciate your point that obedience implies acceptance in some sense, even if it's acceptance of one consequence - giving up my money, to reflect on the gunpoint image - instead of another - injury or death. At the same time, I am presented daily with people who consider an alternate they can't accept, but phrase it as lack of choice: "I don't want to die with this disease, so what choice do I have other than treatment/compliance?" Is simple acceptance enough to understand obedience, or do we need some sense of willingness?

So, as we think about whether "authority" is more about "authorship" or "power," and we acknowledge some necessary factor of relationship, it seems it's the examples that are most helpful. We also wrestle with "role authority" as opposed to "personal authority" - as in bishops who, by force of personality (and what an interesting phrase that is in this discussion!) are able to take actions that the Canons don't clearly support. So, can my computer obey? If I disobey, am I denying authority - whether God's, or what an earlier age called "lawful authority?"

Which brings me to this question, too: if God's "authority" (in quotes, not to question God, but to acknowledge we're questioning the term) can be disobeyed, isn't it limited? And if it is limited, is it really an attribute of God? Okay, now my head hurts.

NB: my verification is "disms" - as if someone somewhere thought we might just dismiss the whole thought....

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Thanks, Marshall, for an as usual thoughtful contribution to the discussion. Your final question raises for me the problem of applying "authority" to God.

I especially appreciate you bringing up the distinction betw role and person. There are certain charismatic leaders who evoke obedience in spite of their lack of any formal authority in the Wizard of Oz sense of a diploma!

Real obedience, to my mind, following S Benedict, requires more than mere compliance, though I suppose it includes it. (I recall Jesus' koan of the two sons, and which was obedient.) There has to be "attention" (listening, which is the root word -- though I'm loath to engage in too etymological a search for "meaning"). So your keyboard isn't obedient in that sense, nor, I think, would you claim to have "authority over my keyboard" -- and if you do it is likely precisely because it is compliant -- most of the time ;-)

Thanks again,
T

rick allen said...

"if it is forced, it is not obedience"

Absolutely right. Obedience, like love, by its very definition, cannot be forced. Which is why I don't accept a definition of "authority," "exousia," as "power." The authority given to Jesus means we ought to obey his commands, not that he now has the power to make us. As I see it the relationship between love and obedience is nicely encapsulated in the saying, "if you love me, you will keep my commands."

So I would still say that the authority of one gives rise to the obligation of obedience of the other, and that to try to eliminate the "substantial" and hang everything on the "relational" results in the anomolous implication that God's authority is somehow contingent on our response to it.

I think it's an understandable error, since we almost universally think of human authority as deriving, in some way, from consent, "the consent of the governed." But God's authority isn't so derived, but obviously, as creator, he predates any such human construct (if we are indeed created in his image, and not he in ours).

But it appears that where you really want to go with this is the authority of scripture--does it have a weight independent of our obedience to it? Is scripture an accurate account of the will of God, of revelation? Does God reveal himself to us in other ways that allow us to modify, "update," or correct what has, in the past, been a largely unassailable "deposit of faith"? If this is what you're getting at, I don't know that these more abstract questions about authority get us anywhere. If the sacred scriptures are not an accurate reflection of the will of God, one need not relativize the notion of authority to question them.

And that's without getting into the whole question of whether the Church has authority, one of those fundamental issues of the Catholic/Protestant divide.

MarkBrunson said...

I am reminded of people saying that Jesus spoke like one with authority, unlike the scribes.

Perhaps, true authority derives only in the heart's movement? I recognize the authority of the Bible, but not all that is in it. It's authority is the same I would experience in a sterling recommendation for a new friend. I feel it right, and, in certain respects has proven right.

Authority is not a built-in, nor a right, yet it cannot be lost, if genuine. Much of the "authority" of church and scripture in the past was founded on force and power. If both have "lost authority" it is because they lacked it to begin with.

Authority is not owed but earned. Much in Scripture has no authority because it simply is not grounded in reality, either spiritual or secular.

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Thank you, Rick. It seems to me that part of the issue here is the "God" question, which as I note is sui generis. Part of my reason for understanding authority as relational, however, is philosophical: as I see reality as constituted relationally, not substantially. Thus if A is "the power to do X" if X does not result then A is not really A in a meaningful way. It also seems to me to be intrinsic to the nature of God not to be coercive -- that the freedom of the children of God, only bound by sin, is real freedom. This does then place limits on God's "authority." It is not a question of "deriving" but of a reality which comes into being by relation, as a primordial or potential authority becomes real authority as it is obeyed.

But that's a metaphysical discussion which, as I say, is a unique case with God, which was not my object here. I am more interested in the practical realities of human authority, including, as you rightly note, Scripture.

I do not think your favorite lens of "Protestant/Catholic" really works here, since it is Roman doctrine that the Scripture is under the Church's interpretative care as much as it is Anglican doctrine. (Real "reformed" protestants do go further.) Here we come to my real issues concerning revelation, and the need for reception to reify it. And I will say, and the historical record supports this, that Scripture only has the authority which the church accords it, including its content. At the most trivial level, it was the church that decided the canon itself, not the other way round. (And here is one place that the division between Roman and Reformed "Scripture" itself is evident.) One can say that the church "recognized" the authority of these books, and not those books -- but it was the church that made the decision. Moreover, the church is ultimately the authoritative interpreter of those texts, and the texts themselves are effectively powerless to "talk back" -- they are simply what they are -- and the real struggle for "authority" is between and among and within the various church bodies. The church says it places itself under the "authority of Scripture" but holds the interpretative keys, and the freedom to play up or down any given passage -- as indeed it has done. And different folk will accept or reject the various interpretations as they choose, accepting as "authoritative" the interpretations that seem best to them. That is the historical reality. It is only "relativism" to the extent that reality itself is based on relativity!

So it seems to me clear that the question of authority is inescapably bound up with that of obedience.
Mark, I think we all understand what is meant by Jesus' speaking style. Instead of "on the one hand this, on the other that" of the Scribes, he said, "Some say that but I say this, and this you shall do." That's a kind of authoritative speaking, a manner that evokes obedience -- as in a natural leader.

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Another thought: as God is Love. Love is love even when it is not returned, of when rejected, because it is all gift, the gift of the self for the other. The Love of God is primordial, and is what calls the otherness of creation into being, to serve as the object for the continued outpouring of God's unending love. If that love is God's "authority" then we have no disagreement.

Love is like light. Darkness is not its opposite, but its absence. Darkness has no substance or relationship because it is absence and emptiness. This is why darkness cannot overcome light.

Marshall Scott said...

I am put in mind of the difficulty and controversy when some event happens that is interpreted as "continuing revelation." We've had more than our share of individuals who have "had a vision," and out of it chosen a course of action, whether on a grand scale (think, perhaps, of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) or something much smaller. Does Jesus or his Blessed Mother really appear on water towers or potato chips?

And so the Church Catholic is understandably cautious. At the same time, there is some acceptance of Lourdes and Fatima and Medjugorje. These are accepted because the message from the Blessed Mother is consonant with and confirming of church teaching. We have to note, though, that this is the Church's measure. Latter Day Saints are every bit as convicted of the rightness of their revelation, with its new scripture and its prophetic tradition, as we are of its - well, in this setting, let me just say it - its wrongness. It remains the community that must assess and interpret the experience, to the point of judging the source. This is much more a matter of the limits on our perception than of God's authorship - the which we can't judge truly anyway, due to those same limits of perception.

Thus, "the righteous shall live by faith;" and make decisions with some recognition that we'll have to account for them to God.

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Thanks, Marshall. It probably goes without saying that this thought emerged in the context of working on a sermon for Easter 2!

MarkBrunson said...

Mark, I think we all understand what is meant by Jesus' speaking style. Instead of "on the one hand this, on the other that" of the Scribes, he said, "Some say that but I say this, and this you shall do." That's a kind of authoritative speaking, a manner that evokes obedience -- as in a natural leader.

I'm not sure that's what I understood, at all.

What it always felt to me they were saying was something deeper than simply a style of speaking - I mean, anyone can say "Do this, don't do that." It was that there was something worthy of being heeded in what he said. I admit I'm no seminarian, but I should imagine that the scribes and pharisees did a good bit of telling, but it never had authority. As you said, there is obedience - the Sanhedrin could end you rather nastily - but that isn't the same as authority.

In the same way, I think people like Rick mix up the power to enforce through social or legal strictures the tenets of a so-called Christian faith and the natural movement of obedience to authority.

My experience has been that there are a great many people who want nothing to do with Christianity - or any faith - believing that it has brought nothing but misery and torment in every step of its march through history, yet quite naturally embrace much of the ethical and moral teaching and tradition of the Gospels without, often, even realizing that those were found in the Gospels! To me, that indicates that there is teaching that has authority and that which simply does not in Christian scripture and tradition.

I realize the notion that the human heart is inclined to reject the Holy and embrace evil self-will - but I just don't buy that as explanation for that natural movement toward and away from - if nothing else, the notion of a corrupted self-will can just as easily be turned on those who slavishly follow, or, for that matter, created scriptures and traditions.

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Mark, I take your points, but the difference I am pointing to in Jesus revolves around his teaching style. The rabbis normally (if not always) craft their teaching in terms of "this means such and such because Rabbi so and so said so and so" -- that is, it is a teaching style based on a tradition.

Jesus, on the other hand, is bold enough to personalize the teaching to himself, "You have heard it taught... but I say to you..." That he did this with power and charisma, and that people listened to him, is important; but I think the text in question is pointing to the distinction in style of teaching, when it comes to his halakhic pronouncements, where he speaks with a personal authority, not as the scribes who refer the authority to the tradition.

On your closing points I heartily agree. There is an "ethic" that Jesus embodied, but which is transcendently True -- one of the "mysteries hidden from the foundation of the world -- and people recognize it as such sometimes independently of Jesus, or in spite of the failings of the church.