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Why We Need Authority

Isn't it sometimes necessary to break with authority to see justice done?

Up with Authority: Why We Need Authority to Flourish as Human Beings by Victor Lee Austin. Continuum, 2010. 192pp.



This is a book I could not have read easily when I was 20 years old. At that age, the last thing I wanted to hear was that authority was a positive good without which we could not live well. After all, my country of birth, the United States, had just been through the traumas of Vietnam and Watergate, which vividly demonstrated to everyone how authority is so readily abused to the detriment of the public interest. My generation's heroes were Daniel Ellsberg, who revealed the duplicity of the US government's Vietnam policy, and Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who broke the Watergate story that eventually led to President Richard Nixon's resignation. Isn't it sometimes necessary to break with authority to see justice done?

My own answer to this question was and remains an unequivocal yes. Nevertheless, what I could not see then is that one cannot challenge the abuse of authority without first having a proper sense of what authority is for. Furthermore, specific authorities can be defied only in the name of a higher authority. This is something that Fr. Victor Lee Austin, theologian-in-residence at St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, New York City, helps us to see in this cogent and wise book. Austin draws on thinkers such as Catholic philosopher Yves R. Simon, Michael Polanyi, and Oliver O'Donovan to put forth not simply an elegant defence of authority, but a captivating portrait of a world in which authority contributes irreplaceably to the larger task of cultural development. At the end of this book, the reader may feel as if she has just finished a healthy and satisfying meal whose every course makes the whole a memorable experience.

Far from being a single undifferentiated phenomenon, authority is manifested in many forms. Austin distinguishes among four basic kinds of authority: social, epistemic, political, and ecclesial.

Social authority is based on the reality that human beings are social by nature—that is, they live with their fellow human beings in interdependent relationships. They undertake countless co-operative endeavours whose successful accomplishment requires overall co-ordination. Hence, authority is required for unified action in community. Although there is a persistent tendency to view authority and freedom as polar opposites, Austin persuasively argues that "the freer we become as human beings, the more we will need authority." Authority does not merely have a remedial function, but it functions so as to expand our capacities, which are always greater in co-operative than in individual endeavours. Because co-operation requires coordination, and because coordination calls for authority, authority in fact enhances human flourishing. One trombonist cannot play Beethoven's Eroica, but in concert an entire orchestra can do so under the baton of a conductor. In this respect, authority has expanded the range of the trombonist's freedom.

There is no single form of social authority. Ordinary human beings are embedded in a variety of communities, or "mini-societies," as Austin calls them. The human person belongs at once to families, work communities, worship communities, symphony orchestras, and a variety of other organizations. None of these exhausts the identity of the person in all her complexity. Authority is thus limited by context. No single authority can properly claim ultimacy.

Epistemic authority is that form playing a role in the acquisition of knowledge and apprehension of truth. According to Simon, epistemic authority is substitutional in that it substitutes for knowledge that is lacking in the subject. The teacher in the classroom imparting his knowledge to his students is an example of this. However, Austin follows Polanyi in arguing that authority is essential to the acquisition of knowledge, and not merely substitutional. Substitutional authority can be dispensed with in time, while essential authority is a permanent feature of the human condition. For Polanyi "[a]ll knowledge is personal." There is no such thing as objectivity in the sense in which it is used in the sciences. There is a "tacit dimension" to all knowledge. Personal knowledge can come only with the mastery of skills of knowing that are ineffable and are communicated only by example. The fabric of knowing is a complex one, requiring a period of apprenticeship. "As human nature is social, so is human knowing. And as the achievements of our social nature require authority, so does human knowledge."

Political authority is "social authority at its most extensive." Following O'Donovan, Austin distinguishes between political authority per se, which consists of power, judgement, and perpetuation of tradition; and "political authority in the historical period between Christ's ascension and his return to establish his kingdom." The latter is secular—that is, of the present age—and its "chastened and limited purpose is simply to protect the right." Political authority has four characteristics that distinguish it from mere social authority. First, there is no human social authority beyond and above it. Second, it has at its disposal coercive means, which are necessary due to sin. Third, if there were no sin in the world, political authority would still be needed, but it would not have to enforce co-operation. And, fourth, despite its legitimate use of coercion, political authority relies for the most part on assent to its decisions. If the means of coercion are too frequently employed, then something is obviously amiss and authority has ceased to operate adequately.

Austin believes there is a paradoxical quality to any discussion of ecclesial authority, because the church is not just another "mini-society" or voluntary association among other such associations. Yet neither is it an "umbrella" society presiding over everything else. It defies any attempt to categorize it: "The church is not a political society and will never be one, but its mission is to point to one peculiar and ultimate political society: a kingdom of citizens who freely obey and follow their King, who live in a city of which their Lord is the light."

Throughout the book, Austin emphasizes that authority is always personal authority. It resides in persons and not in things. Despite a seemingly vigorous corporate ecclesiology, he nevertheless affirms that "authority resides in the individual believer." The church cannot exist without its individual members and their confession of faith in Jesus Christ. The church quite properly has its offices, creeds, traditions, and, above all, the Scriptures. Yet authority in the full sense is to be found in none of these by itself: "Authority resides in the individual believer who, inspired by the Holy Spirit, proclaims faithfully her allegiance to the suffering Jesus, and thus to her Lord, and thus to the Triune Reality that is the source of all authority in heaven and earth." Yet the individual's confession of faith is dependent on the larger community which authorizes her to make this confession.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of Austin's argument is its culmination in the final chapter, titled "Authority in paradise." Here he appears to part ways with O'Donovan, arguing that authority does not pass away with the coming of the eschaton. Social, epistemic, and political authority will still be required in the eschatological state, though the need for coercion will, of course, have expired. Austin has a robust understanding of the resurrection of the dead, properly avoiding speculation concerning soul survival short of that resurrection. Austin even allows Dante Alighieri to lead us through the various levels of the universe, from hell at the centre of earth through concentric circles leading to paradise. However, as it turns out, the redeemed are not actually at the various spheres of paradise, as presented to him while he travelled through them; they are in reality at the centre of paradise with Christ who is himself the centre: "But at the very end, the universe is transformed, turned inside-out as it were; Dante passes through the outermost sphere and finds that he is, only now, moving toward the center; the center turns out to be the Triune God."

As the book closes, Austin waxes eloquent on the explosion of human creativity released by redemption from sin. Given that human co-operative efforts of all kinds require authority to reach their full potential, we can assume that there will always be a need for authority to facilitate this. In Reformed parlance, the cultural mandate, even in its redeemed state, requires authority.

A central assumption that Austin brings to his study is the conviction that "there is no person whom the Gospel does not address," including those exercising political authority. This raises the possibility of something like Christendom coming into existence, an ever-present risk where the all-encompassing claims of the gospel are taken seriously. Although the likes of John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas view Christendom as a misguided by-product of "Constantinianism," which sees the church co-opted by the state, Austin holds that, where the church's mission has been successful, political authorities might indeed come to recognize the ultimate rule of Christ. To rule out such a possibility may agree with the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but it "cannot be understood as fidelity to the Christian message."

Yet the abuses of Christendom are part of the historical record. I would suggest that any effort to counter these while maintaining commitment to the lordship of Christ requires that we resolve the "paradox" of ecclesial authority to which Austin points earlier, primarily by distinguishing between the church as corpus Christi, or body of Christ, and the church as a particular differentiated institution with its own divinely-appointed task within this larger body. This will allow us to recognize that the authority of Christ and his church is all-encompassing while admitting at the same time that the particular community constituting the gathered church possesses an authority as limited as that of the state and other human communities.

Finally, I am increasingly persuaded that authority cannot be adequately understood without focussing on that central concept of office, something only implied in Austin's treatment. All human beings are created in the image of God, which entails a grant of authoritative office. The office of image-bearer is further dispersed in a variety of offices related to the various "mini-societies" in which we find ourselves. We are at once wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, pastors, elders, laity, citizens, teachers, students, employers, employees, and many more. None of these exhausts who we are as human beings. Yet to be human is to exercise authoritative office, which is a grant from God.

Austin may not be able, single-handedly, to counter the anti-authority bias that has overtaken our Western societies since the middle years of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, he has provided powerful ammunition to those of us who have come to believe that authority really is necessary for living a fully human life.

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David T. Koyzis David T. Koyzis
David T. Koyzis is Professor of Political Science at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario, and author of We Answer to Another. ... read more »

Posted in Justice, Politics.

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