Crisis of Authority

It seems to me that we have a crisis of authority in our world today. Speaking from my own experience, I grew up in a church in a very religious town. The authorities of church, teacher and home all taught me a certain set of truths and values. Everything was fine and dandy until I ventured out into the big bad world and found out that other people have other ideas. Not only other people, but other Christians. And many of these turned my old notions of truth and values on their head.

Combine this revelation of pluralism with a dose of learning to think critically, and suddenly I refuse to simply take anyone on their say-so. Other authorities have been proved wrong—sometimes dreadfully so—and this means that I don’t trust your authority either.

The problem with this is that, no matter how postmodern we get in our ability to deconstruct, we’re still walking around as a bunch of modernist autonomous authorities-unto-ourselves. We are deeply suspicious of others and we do not know how to entrust ourselves to others.

I am part of the problem. I don’t trust anyone’s authority. I have seen no good reason why I should. I don’t know the way out of this, but I know that we must find it.

4 responses to “Crisis of Authority”

  1. Great post Matt, and here are a couple thoughts:

    1) Regarding us as “modernist autonomous authorities-unto-ourselves” – I think we secretly or overtly yearn for this and see ourselves this way at times, but I don’t see any of us as independent of language and culture. We are bound to language and culture, and thus bound to ‘others’ (and the Other?). We also seek to transgress this binding in various ways I think, many of them good. How do we ever really know if we are still in Plato’s cave, or if we’ve managed to get out? Perhaps we’ve left one cave for a another brighter cave, or perhaps one with a more dazzling display of illusion.

    I think our self-worlds are necessarily constituted in large part by the worlds of others. Gadamer points to the fact that we actually transgress/get beyond our tradition less than we think. We always do critique from somewhere, as you well know. Individualism is often our framework, but known or unknown to us, we have already “entrusted ourselves to others,” at least part way. Strong individualism is an illusion.

    2) The issue reminds me of Kierkegaard’s “individual” and the “crowd” – I think somehow we are always caught between the two. Should we escape the crowd? Are we even able to escape the crowd? Who is this self who is ever apart and ever enmeshed with others?

    3) The fact that we can dialogue, and that you DO seek dialogue, is to me an act of faith, entrusting yourself to fallible others – hoping for what is unseen and uncertain. You, and many of us, distrust various authorities, and many times for good reason. I suspect the distrust is not so much chosen by us, as discovered lurking in our “individual” and collective conscious/subconscious. However, in this crisis of authority, I suspect you have still opened yourself to the authoritative experiences/narratives of others.

    How to address this crisis of authority? I have heard many answers, none “wholly” satisfactory to “me/us” yet. So I don’t know. I take some comfort in that we are already responding, and necessarily have to find a way forward in the web of authorities and relationships that we find ourselves located in.

    Following Rioeur’s thoughts on the aporia of evil, I don’t think I have “answered” or “solved” anything … but have offered a “response” … something we all must do.

  2. Hey Jer, thanks for the comments. It is definitely interesting that we’ve all had had to trust someone to think for ourselves! Also, you’re quite right that distrust of authority is itself taken on trust in some type of anti-authoritarian authority! Whew, my head is dizzy.

  3. Being kind of “old school,” I found your philosophical musings thought provoking and well thought out. As regards my own failings as your mother, I can only say, “I’m sorry,” and ask your forgiveness. My authority was flawed, but thank you for the respect you showed me in spite of it. My own views on authority are probably old-fashioned. Authority is someone who or something that has power over you and to whom you answer. You show them respect because of their position (and in the case of an employer, because you value yours), but this doesn’t necessarily mean mindless obedience or respect for the person or institution. (Seems like hypocrisy, doesn’t it?) It is good to question. Even God doesn’t mind our asking, “Why?” when we don’t understand something or disagree with him. I think when it comes to human authority, we need to employ discernment, and that includes towards our fellow Christians, who are as perfect as we ourselves are. I think our biggest problem with authority is that we are, by nature, a rebellious lot. (Read 2 Peter 2.) We don’t like to answer to anyone aside from ourselves, and we sure don’t like unpleasant consequences because then it has to be someone else’s fault. I hope I haven’t missed the point you were trying to make.

    I take my stance on authority from Romans 13:1-3, Hebrews 13:17, 1 Peter 2:13. You acknowledge those in authority and their authority because without it, we would have anarchy.

  4. Hey Mom, thanks for your thoughts. You’re still trying to retrieve a positive notion of authority, but I’m not certain that any abstract idea of authority is retrievable. I know that I’ll be thinking something else tomorrow, next week, and next year, so we’ll see…

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