The Church claims authority to preach absolute truths to all
mankind. These are truths which, we are told, affect every human being at
an absolutely fundamental level. If past debates are anything to go by,
Rick and Mick
are likely to disagree about the validity of the Church's authority.
Mick: Years ago I worked in the
South African mining industry. It faces peculiar difficulties,
particularly in gold mines which go down some 3 500 metres (11 700 feet)
such as the ERPM mine near Johannesburg.
Safety concerns are understandably paramount in that dangerous
environment, so the chief executive is accountable in law for everything
that happens on the mine. He can be penalised in law if a supervisor at
the rock face mishandles a safety issue and someone is hurt or killed.
But the supervisor himself can't easily be prosecuted because it is the
mine manager who is ultimately accountable.
In business, managers are authorised by a board or similar body. They
in turn derive authority from shareholders who get their authority from
the laws of the land, passed by politicians. The latter are authorised
by the voters to pass laws. In the case of democracies, therefore,
voters are the ultimate source of authority.
Authority, then, is on one hand the right to give commands, and on
the other the acceptance of possible penalties for errors and omissions.
Authority without accountability is tyranny. Accountability without
authority is oppression.
As I understand it, Church leaders give God as the ultimate source of
their authority. I find this claim unconvincing.
Rick: Death and taxes, we are told, are the only certain
things in life. I would revise the old aphorism to include authority.
To avoid chaos, there is a natural drive for individuals and societies
to coalesce around figures or institutions having authority.
From early morning to late in the day and even when we sleep we are
all subject to authority. There is authority in the family circle, at
our work places, when we drive on the highways and when we identify with
As you suggest, authority derives from some hierarchical source and
has varying degrees of gravity and consequence. It is one thing to
exercise authority as a parent and another to act as a police officer.
We submit to authority either voluntarily or by coercion. In a free
society I can quit my job if I don�t like the authority. I can divorce
my wife. Or, I can leave my church if I am uncomfortable with its
authority. When I bomb a government building I will be coerced to submit
if I am caught.
Sources of authority can be logically traced to the particular nature
of the institution or the role of the individual exercising authority.
Parental authority is based on cultural norms. Business authority is
derived from business models and applicable business law. Since the
Church is founded on belief in God, it should not be surprising it
claims authority from that source.
Mick: I think we agree
broadly on the nature of authority. If I were to wonder about an
aspect of your admirable summary it would be with regard to the
reciprocal nature of human authority.
As we have noted, accountability operates upwards in a hierarchy,
usually in a complex web reinforced by a formal structure of some sort.
The strength of democracy is that accountability is returned to the
bottom of the pile. Subjects can dismiss their rulers and appoint
others. In other words, accountability should include the possibility of
sanctions. We in the West speak of authority without accountability in
terms such as dictatorship, autocracy and despotism.
As I understand you, members of the Church do not operate under this
sort of authority. Their authority is derived from God, and they
therefore answer to God. But God, by definition, cannot be called to
I am stumped by this line of thought. It is as though I'm operating
blind. That is, I can't check out the God side of the equation. I find
no way of challenging the statement "I have God's authority" except by
dismissing the "God" part of it.
Rick: To those who are frank materialists or atheists, the
following remarks will sound banal. For those who believe in God I hope
I will make sense. I happen to live in both the materialist and
non-materialist worlds, adapting both to my particular situations.
As God is the creator of all reality it is absurd to think he can be
accountable for anything. He is the autocrat of the universe, the benign
despot of the world. As one descends from the source of all authority
into the sphere of humanity, authority is less authentic. Those who
assert authority from God can be held accountable and challenged for
their interpretations of God�s will. One of my icons, Martin Luther, did
I believe that moral authority that is consistent and enduring is
founded on a source beyond the physical contingencies of life. If it is
not, it will always ebb and flow at the whim of any earthly despot or
Although Christ lived two thousand years ago amidst vastly different
social circumstances, His concerns, as I interpret them, resonate to
this day. They are, as I asserted in our debate on Progress,
- human life;
- individual dignity;
- personal identity and integrity;
- one�s neighbour and society;
- the significance of human existence.
These are unchangeable concerns, bearing authority, emanating from a
source beyond the physical. They are dynamic principles that can be
applied to any contingency or circumstance.
Mick: Don't get me wrong.
Anyone can assert beliefs. But I'm assuming that all such assertions are
best tested. So let me try to test yours. Here's a case:
Christian A asserts that x is the truth from God about the
significance of human existence.
Christian B asserts that y is God's truth about human existence
and that A is therefore incorrect.
I am someone who believes in God. I acknowledge the existence of an
authority beyond the material who gives us principles to apply to any
contingency or circumstance. I note that the assertions of Christians A
and B contradict each other. What criteria do I apply to choose between
In other words, I'm asking how and on what authority I'm to know that
Luther was correct and his opponents misguided.
Rick: Two thousand years ago Pontius Pilate asked, "What
is truth?" We have asked the same question throughout these debates and
quite likely a similar question was in the minds of the earliest Homo
sapiens. There is a kind of arrogance to the present that compels us
to think we will and must have solutions to everything in our lifetimes.
The Middle East problem will be solved, poverty will be abolished,
justice will ultimately be served to all who seek it; on and on it goes.
Most likely we ride in a stream with no final resting place of truth.
C�est la vie et c�est la le diable.
In the meantime, we of fleeting existence must try to make the best
possible deal with our lives. Our individual "truths" derive from those
sources and authorities we trust (if they are not forced on us) be they
traditions, civil laws, religions or charismatic persons.
As for the two disagreeing Christians A and B, I must know more about
their assertions x and y before I can judge who has the truth. They both
may be right. To use the analogy of the great mountain, each could be
viewing it from different flanks but still describing the same mountain.
Despite these ambiguities, I perceive threads of universality and
truth weaving through, not only the wondrous material world, but as well
through the sublime reality of non-materiality. These universals are, in
part, embodied in the five major concerns I previously enumerated.
Knowledge of these principles is afforded each human being by virtue of
a conscious mind. If we were not conscious, of what significance or use
would be truth?
Mick: I acknowledge that meaning for a person depends on
perspective and that contradictions may arise when attempting to fuse
differing perspectives. There will therefore always be mysteries.
The question here relates to authority. I must press you on it. None
of us can see from all perspectives, and many answers must therefore
perforce be accepted on trust. But mistakes are easily made. I wonder
why you trust your authorities. Are they open to questioning? By what
means were their answers arrived at? Are their answers supported by
anyone else? Are conflicting answers just as valid as theirs? These are
all critical questions for me.
We can't test all who claim authority, though I think we should test
as many as we can - including those who claim to derive authority from
beyond the physical. For example, the Pope says that God forbids
abortion except in rare, clearly defined cases. The problem for me is
that God is unavailable for questioning.
Rick: You, as a sovereign conscious individual, have the
right to question any one, but not God or Jesus Christ who is an
extension of God. Any human below this level is, in my book, fair game.
Whether or not you are successful is another question. Those you may
challenge have the same right to question your truth and your motives.
As a young man I questioned many authority figures and often came out
second best. In retrospect I was probably basing my challenges more on
opinion than on truth. Then again, I feel I was sometimes right in the
light of the truth I held. There are timeless, unalterable truths and
there are mere opinions.
I am struck by how, in this discussion, the words "truth" and
"authority" are found in juxtaposition. They really go together. Real
authority is founded on truth. Authority without truth is not authentic.
As always, the rub comes in trying to find truth and to argue what is
important and not trivial.
I still believe there are basic, immutable truths such as those
expressed in the five concerns. More often than not, truth comes dressed
in modern packaging that must be unwrapped to find the nugget. Truth in
this sense is not relative, but only seen in a mirror dimly. It comes
hidden and in versions.
Thus, I say challenge whom you will. Good luck with the Pope.
Mick: You have me between a
rock and a hard place!
On one hand I can't assert any final authority because I have none
except my own reasoning capacity. That is, I have taken the position
that in the final resort I must decide for myself what's true about life
and what isn't. And when I say "true", I find I mean only "most likely".
On the other hand, I can't question the authority "emanating from a
source beyond the physical" which you propose because I have found no
way of accessing it.
So I'm damned if I do and damned if I don't.
Which is, I suppose, why I regard myself as an exile from traditional
Christianity. That is, the Church offers me only damnation - or, to put
it another way, Jesus is for me to be found mainly outside the Church.