Voices

Authority always wins

Even those who say they reject all arguments based on authority base their arguments on authority

Issue: "John Paul II: In memoriam," Oct. 25, 2003

I HAD THE LONGEST CONVERSATION OF MY LIFE (four hours, no coming up for air) on the cool stone steps of a Unitarian Universalist church, and my first conclusion is this: All professors of philosophy and professional counselors should receive immediate pay raises across the board; I was no good for anything after that.

Rita was reluctant to be pinned down as a Unitarian-which is perfect. (You may have heard the light-bulb jokes.) But I soon found her to be much better than the stereotype: a woman of perspicacity and intellectual integrity.

Wish I had read Esther Lightcap Meek's Longing to Know before I met Rita; I would have known better to whom I was talking. For I thought I was sitting under the archway with a postmodernist, pure and simple, somebody who had given up on the possibility of knowing.

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But I learn from Mrs. Meek that Rita and I are doubly hamstrung in our intellectual heritage, having as much of the old Plato in us as of J.P. Sartre. If the postmodernist says knowledge is subjective and there is nothing "out there," the Classical Greek in us says knowledge is only "out there": Get the knower out of the way, an unwanted interference. It took centuries for Kant to rise up and say, "Impossible! There's no getting around the knower!"

Plato and Sartre notwithstanding, we actually manage to know a lot of things. Rita would have admitted to that, too-under normal circumstances. But something comes over people when you start talking about knowing God. They shift the ground rules, and you're supposed to know God and prove God in a fundamentally different way than you know, say, your auto mechanic. (That's Mrs. Meek's example: God and your mechanic, she notes, involve you in the same activity of knowing. Everything you are and do gets dragged in: effort, struggle, reflection, doubt, longing, assessing clues, weighing evidences both within us and outside of us, measuring risk, relying on authority.)

Reliance on authority is the thing that stuck in Rita's craw: I was doing it, she said (trusting the Bible), and she wasn't. But of course, she was trusting some half-remembered source on Egyptian history to disprove the Exodus (I said I could put up one of my scholars for every one of hers). And even if she could have renounced every authority known to man, there is still the matter of herself acting as final authority and arbiter. We all rely on authority all the time. As C.S. Lewis says in The Weight of Glory, "of every hundred facts upon which to reason, ninety-nine depend on authority."

Rita kept insisting on "certainty" in our discussion of God (that's both the old Greek and the postmodern in us too). If I had read Mrs. Meek first, I would have pointed out that there's no such thing as certainty-which is why classicism and modernism ended in skepticism. By those philosophical criteria of certainty, we don't know that this archway won't fall on us, or that our cars will start up later, or that our mothers really love us. But what we can have as humans is "confidence," and confidence is a better fit with reality, not a cop-out for certainty but the rich and warm and deep experience that a real person living in space and time can enjoy.

We talked "evidence." After we bogged down in archaeologist-flinging, I suggested that some evidence is more immediate and less doubtful than others. Wouldn't a longing for God be an evidence? And what do you do with the discovery of something amiss in the soul, which some call sin? And what do I make of the phenomenon of resonance between God's Word and my soul?

Rita and I had both had gaps in both our faiths: I couldn't explain evil; she couldn't explain her outrage at evil. I shared with Rita the very unplatonic and unmodern idea that if she would truly know God she must obey Him first. His terms, not hers. He is the King. This last suggestion was not well received.

I prayed for Rita on the way home. Because, as Mrs. Meek says at the end of her book, we find, at the end of knowing, that while we thought we had come to know God, He first approached us to know us. He makes short work of philosophy and brings to naught the "debater of this age."

Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again. Follow Andrée on Twitter @Andreespeterson.

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