The Issue of Authority   1 comment


Original sin, as a concept, has always seemed to me to be a useful starting point for any topic that has anything to do with the world. You see, for me, original sin is not an arcane theological concept that only Christians can make any sense of. Rather, original sin is the fundamental brokenness of the world. Or, if that’s too pessimistic, original sin is the fundamental incompleteness of the world. However you frame it, it means the same thing: none of us is perfect, none of us is as good or whole as we want to be (or ought to want to be), and the rest of the world is in the same condition.

That is not to deny all the goodness in the world, but for me my sense of original sin gives me perspective. It drives me to do better, try harder, and fix the problems that I can. It reminds me not only can I make mistakes, but that I will make mistakes.

When I was still a Catholic, this did not bother me. It didn’t bother me because I had an outside Authority: the Catholic Church (I should add that I did not consider every word my parish priest said infallible, rather it was the institution as a whole that was infallible, and that infallibility was expressed only in narrowly defined situations). I would make mistakes, yes, but I would always have the Church there to correct me. I did not have to rely on my own limited knowledge or fallible moral inclinations, because my Authority would set me on the right path. I might stray from the path through my own weakness, but at least I knew where the path was.

This reality for me furnished my strongest early objection to Protestantism. If Protestants did not have an infallible church (and given all the dissension among protestants, how could they claim otherwise?), then they were ultimately relying upon their own judgement, which would be wrong some of the time. For me, this was intolerable. How could a person make commit to being wrong? An infallible authority was the only way to escape original sin, and the Catholic Church seemed to me to be the only candidate even in contention for that title.

I have since fallen away from the Catholic Church. For reasons I might get into at another time, Catholicism was removed from contending for the title of Authority. But I still feel keenly a need for an authority outside my own judgement. It seems to me an unbridled act of arrogance to assert my own wisdom above all others. I used to be able to say, Voltaire and Nietzsche say this, but the whole history of the Catholic Church stands with me. I can’t do that anymore.

Instead, when I push myself on the logical consequences of my beliefs, I am forced to say, “St. Augustine was a misogynist, St. Aquinas was a hair splitter, and most of the history of the Catholic Church has been filled with lies and bigotry among all its treasures. And I know this because I know better than them.” It is an uncomfortable place to assert your own rightness in the face of most of the greatest minds who ever lived.

And I do not like it. I don’t dwell on it often (it can’t be good for a person’s character to think of all the great minds who you know better than), but I simply don’t like living my life as if I know better than everyone else.

But I do. I do because I have to. I know too much of history to put my trust in any Authority. All the worst tragedies of history were committed by a bunch of people who took an Authority too seriously. So I live with trusting to my own judgement by trying not to trust too much. I try to stay open to new information. I look for ways I might have gone wrong. But original sin is real. I will look back at the things I do this year, and wonder what I was thinking. I will look at my actions and believes, and I will feel shame for at least some of them. In the meantime, I do the best I can and try not to hurt too many other people when I do wrong.

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One response to “The Issue of Authority

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  1. Pingback: GKC – What’s Your Problem? Orthodoxy Chapter 01b « Reluctant Liberal

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