Authority: Getting to the Heart of the Issue

Again they came to Jerusalem.  As he was walking in the temple, the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders came to him and said, “By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you the authority to do them? Mark 11.27f NRSV

Authority, it is an important and interesting word, and it is the word at the heart of the changes that have been going on in the world around us.  The good news is this is not a new thing, in fact one of the things that will be coming in future posts is an examination of how this has played out in the lives of the three Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) but before we can get to this we need to understand what is it we are talking about: What is authority and what does it mean?

In Greek thought, as reflected by the language, the word we translate as authority is literally “from one’s being” it is formed from the prefix ek which means from or out of and ousia which means being-for those familiar with the language of the Nicene creed this ousia word plays a central role when it talks about ‘one being with the Father…’ but this is a Greek way of thinking and while I want to value that word as a background, I think it also plays way too much into the emerging crisis.  We have found ourselves increasingly isolated, even in the midst of webs of communication that bombard us continually.  We may receive hundreds of texts, tweets, emails, facebook posts in a day and yet I find that for many people there is an increasing attachment to their smartphone or table to give them meaning…while we have been told to go out and be independent, that our authority really comes from within, that we are our own people we find ourselves at the end of the day wrestling with that famous Alice in Wonderland question, “Who are you?”

In the 2010 Tim Burton version of Alice in Wonderland we see one answer to the question, Absalom the Caterpillar points to the oracullum, a compendium of what has happened and what will happen as a way to show Alice who she is, in short you are who the book says you are, your actions are a part of a pre-determined narrative of which you and all the other players have a part, and who you are, being the ‘right Alice’ is determined by how closely you adhere to this story.  In the Disney version, which I grew up with and watched countless times with my children, the question of “Who are you?” is much more a question of self-realization, who you are seems to be a question that, in more of a Greek philosophical style, is internal and your ability to know oneself gives one the authority to respond authoritatively to the seeker (although the caterpillar’s known self is in a process of transformation that will lead to a new identity as a butterfly).

Let’s go back to the word authority, it comes from the idea of authorship, authority is the ability to tell the story, to spin the tale or set the frames in which we understand who we are and what it is we do.  As much as we may want to think that we are all the authors of our own story,we find ourselves with our stories as a web of other relationships and stories which sometimes have control of but often we do not. Often we find ourselves looking to someone else saying, “Who am I?”  I think that is at the heart of many people’s addiction to their phones. Now the digital responses of others, their likes and comments and flares help us know who we are, we are seeking approval of others, and even negative attention is better than being ignored. Yet the traditional sources of identity and authority…family, church, government or nation, wealth, education, popularity at some point all of these have failed us, we seek their approval perhaps, and while we rely on them we don’t want to admit that they might have shaped us to be who we are. We may know when we see our father or mother in our actions that they shaped us, but we want to be our own people (just like everyone else). We’ve grown cynical, to use fancy words we operate out of a hermeneutic of suspicion, and we find we are deeply unsatisfied with answers that used to satisfy. How did we get to this point?  Well that is a whole narrative unto itself which is beginning tomorrow.

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