Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A Question of Authority

The whole concept of "authority" manifests itself quite powerfully in today's readings--all of them. It's most explicit in the Gospel where the word itself is used: Jesus was in the Capernaum synagogue, "teaching with authority." And not only teaching! He had power over unclean spirits: they had no choice but to obey his authoritative word. From that, it was clear that what the psalmist had written about creation being entrusted to Adam and Eve ("you have given rule over the works of your hands") was more than fulfilled in Jesus. St. Paul would even say (quoting the same psalm that is cited in today's reading from Hebrews) that this play of authority and power had an unearthly dimension: that "in the end" Christ,
     to whom God made all things subject,
     would subject himself to the One who made all things subject to him,
     and God will be all in all.
Church life (and especially the liturgy) is meant to reflect this sense of right order.

But is "authority" (with its converse, "subject") a dirty word in a democracy?

To some extent, I think it is. At least (and this could be my vow of obedience influencing me), I tend to think of authority in terms of obedience: authority as a kind of power. Which it is, judging by today's Gospel. That's not a problem unless the authority is illegitimate or exercised as a personal prerogative.
Genuine authority is, well, authoritative because it is reliable. That is why we say things like "I have it on good authority..." or "Dr. So-and-So is a recognized authority on ..." To be subject to true authority is not "subjection" or passivity, but reasonable and life-giving receptivity and responsiveness. When we have the opportunity to learn from an authority in our field, it would be self-defeating not to be "subject" to him or her out of a misguided sense of autonomy.

Maybe we can redeem the concept of authority after all!


JSullivan said...

Great reflection, sister!

I think of it like this: in our culture we are much more comfortable with leadership than we are with authority. Leadership has to be earned -- a leader is someone others choose to follow. This fits in very well with our American/Protestant work ethic.

Authority, on the other hand, is not earned but is granted by a higher authority; e.g., the king is given his authority by divine fiat. This doesn't sit as well with us -- we fought a revolution to rid us of authority!

Yet it is authority, not leadership, that gives a suitable foundation on which to build, be that a society or a belief system.

Sr Anne said...

Thanks for the great insights, J! I meant to develop the idea of "foundation" but didn't have it quite gelled, so you really finished the piece for me!