Authority, The Innane Quest for Certainty

Jeremy Sig
For one to determine a definitive answer to the question of authority, they must be willing to first understand the relativity of any position for which they arrive. Furthermore, they must recognize the futility of the quest itself. How did I arrive at this conclusion? Let us take a step back and look at the four proposed solutions to the question of ultimate authority. It has been proposed that one must choose from reason, tradition, scripture, or experience as their authority. However, a cursory examination of these four views quickly reveals that there is really only one choice and that choice is irrelevant.

Let me explain further. Let us say that the choice is scripture. This one has been universally panned by our consortium. The biggest reason for this is the sheer relativity of perspective when it comes to scripture. As has been pointed out many times before, scripture can be made to say whatever one wants it to say. Ah, but some might argue that scripture has but one message and that message is ascertained through historical research. This would then mean that it is history and reason that must be ultimately seen as authoritative. This too, however, quickly proves itself to be quite relative. You see, while history and reason may assume a certainty of answers, in reality there are as many options as there are historians to espouse them. In other words, every historical or reasoned position can be seen as relative to the person who is looking at the facts.

This leaves us with tradition and experience. Many have argued that tradition should be seen as authoritative since it can wrestle down the varying opinions of history and reason into a definitive position. After all, if it’s been done for hundreds of years then it must be right. This would seem to be a plausible position until one takes into account the relativity of time. What worked for the church in 500 CE may not necessarily work for the church in 2008. It is like asking a mechanic from the 70’s whose sole car experience is carburetors to work on a 2008 model with a fuel injection system. In the end tradition must be tempered with reason and experience of the day. This leaves us with only one choice, experience.

As I stated in the beginning a simple critic of the four positions leaves only one plausible answer. This answer, however, offers none of the solutions that were hoped for in the beginning. You see everyone’s experience is personal and cannot be duplicated. To appeal to communal experience, as authority, appeals only to the experience of the chosen few in leadership.

Furthermore, experience does not offer a stable position as it is apt to sway with every changing fad. This is why most religious traditions choose the illusion of scripture, tradition, or in a few cases reason as there model for authority. Most understand that these choices are simply arbitrary and provide no real foundation for which to determine truth from conflict. However, they also understand that without these illusions there would be nothing but chaos.

So here is my final conclusion. The only real authority in the church is the personal experiences of those who are in charge. Every other vehicle that is used is tainted by experience. The delusion of man is to assume that one can escape oneself and make decisions from a perspective above our own. There is one final question that must be asked in this a religious forum. Where is God in my experiences? The answer is simple in its complexity. God is the source of your experiences. He is the animator of your being. He is the silent voice for which you unknowingly consult for the authority in which you seek. God is in it all, and yet you will never escape your own experiences.

One Comment

  1. The model for establishing authority that you neglect, Jeremy, is the one in which Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience exist in paradoxical tension with each other. Like an elaborate game of Rock/Paper/Scissors, each of the four elements check and balance each other. This tension produces a range of acceptable beliefs (orthodoxy), and at least begins to define boundaries that determine which beliefs are not acceptable (heresy). What holds this paradox together is the Triune God (Trinity being the very definition of paradoxical tension). The resulting theological “shape” of this tension is going to look slightly different for each group of Christians because each group usually favors one of the four aspects, resulting in what varies from being a slight imbalance (let’s say Catholics or Episcopalians) to a polarized extreme (American fundamentalist Christianity in all its bizarre and blasphemous incarnations). Jeremy, I think the truth of your post is not that Scripture, Reason, Tradition, and Experience cannot form a collaboratively paradoxical foundation for authority but that extreme reliance on any one of these aspects over any of the others will seldom produce truth. Ne Quid Nemis.


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