Feb 28 2008

Authority – it ain’t what it used to be

Published by under Talks


[A talk to the Dunedin Sea of Faith Group by Donald Feist, February 2008]

To be more precise,

I should say that authority has always been authority,

that it has always loomed large in the lives of humans,

that large numbers of humans 

have always liked to have authority 

and to have the chance to use it.

Equally, large numbers of people

have always had a lot of experience of having to knuckle under 

to authority exercised by someone else.

What has changed, over the last few centuries

but with accelerating speed in recent years,

isn’t authority in itself, 

but the willingness of most people to knuckle under to authority – 

and especially their willingness to tolerate absolute authority.

In an increasing number of ways,

or an increasing number of areas of life,

increasing numbers of people want to be their own authority –

they want to be able to free of any authority beyond themselves.

Some limited, or permitted or negotiated authority 

is generally accepted as necessary, 

but many people are inclined to say:

“The less authority the better”.

And absolute authority –

that is, authority about which the person under authority has no say – 

is, by and large, not acceptable.

Now let me see if I can persuade you that this is so.

First, to help us be clear what it is we are talking about

here’s a definition from the Shorter Oxford Dictionary:

Authority is:

1. Power or right to enforce obedience; 

moral or legal supremacy;

the right to command, or give an ultimate decision.

2. Derived or delegated power; authorisation;

3. Power to influence the conduct or actions of others …. ;

4. Power over the opinions of others; 

authoritative opinion; intellectual influence.

Four words there – 

Power, right, supremacy, influence –

are possible synonyms for “authority”.

And these words can apply in a number of areas of life 

which are mentioned:

morals, law, conduct, opinion and the intellect – 

and there are some other fields where they apply too, as we shall see later.

Let’s start with some history.

As far back as we can look –

in the very earliest times that humans could appropriately be called humans –

we were social animals, 

living in family or extended family groupings.

Somebody in that group would make a decision for the whole group 

about where they would camp, 

where they would hunt,

where they would go looking for berries or fruit. 

Somebody in that group would make decisions 

about which male would mate with which female. 

Somebody, in a word, would have authority – 

operating in pretty much the way 

we may see authority operating 

among communities of apes or monkeys today. 

In such communities, it is no very big deal 

when the authority shifts from one person to another –

when a younger, stronger male, for example,

challenges an older male for access to the most desirable females – and wins.

But over some thousands of years, things began to change.

Along came civilisation.

The word “civilisation” is used about human beings

from the time when they first domesticated wild grain,

and began settled agriculture

along the two rivers of Mesopotamia,

along the Nile in Egypt and the Yellow River in China.

That civilisation involved cultivation,

building more or less permanent homes,

and living in larger communities.

It also involved protecting those within,

from attacks from outsiders.

So it required more elaborate organisation – 

It required that a few people held and exercised greater authority.

As time went by, 

the building and growth of towns

also involved the organisation of water supplies, drainage, and many other things. 

So, increasingly, 

civilisation required more and more elaborate administration, 

and more and more elaborate authority.

Civilisation also brought the accumulation of wealth 

by a few,

and this meant that power or influence

was not only a matter of physical strength,

or dominance through will-power,

but was also, and increasingly, based on economic power.

And economic power, wealth power,

could be handed on from father to son

much more effectively and reliably 

than physical strength or willpower could be. 

So authority within these civilised communities

became much more entrenched 

and much more confined to one class.

Challenging and seizing authority was of course still possible,

and it did happen.

Even wealth-power could fail.

But business competition and civil war 

were a much bigger deals,

than the usurping of an alpha male’s authority by a challenger. 

In time,

the differences between the people at the top, and those at the bottom

in economic power and military power became very great – 

which meant that the degree of authority

which the wealthy and the powerful could exercise

also increased enormously.

It became much closer to an absolute,

unquestionable, unchallengeable authority.

I’ll skip over the next few thousand years, 

from say 5,000 BC to 1600 AD 

because I don’t think the basic nature of political or social authority 

changed much in a very long time. 

The level of authority,

or the kind of authority 

which – say – Henry the Eighth enjoyed

wasn’t very different from the kind or the level of authority

of the ancient Pharaohs or Nebuchadnezzar 

or Alexander the Great or the Chinese or Japanese emperors.

But I choose the 17th Century to skip to, 

because I want to mention King James the First in the British Isles.

King James wrote a book about authority 

for the benefit of his son, the future Charles the First. 

And the title is interesting and revealing:

On the Divine Right of Kings:

The state of monarchy – James told his son –

is the supremest thing upon earth; 

for kings are not only God’s lieutenants upon earth, 

and sit upon God’s throne, 

but even by God himself are called gods. …..

God hath power to create or destroy,…. 

to give life or send death, 

to judge all, and be accountable to none; …..

And the like power have kings: 

they make and unmake their subjects, 

they have power of raising and casting down, 

of life and of death, 

judges over all their subjects and in all causes 

and yet accountable to none but God only. …. 

I conclude then 

That as to dispute what God may do is blasphemy…. 

so is it sedition in subjects 

to dispute what a king may do …..

There are three points about this that I think are important.

First, James spells out very clearly 

what many authority figures before him took for granted –

that the fact that they were in authority

meant they were able to exercise absolute authority – 

unquestioned and unquestionable authority. 

To question that authority was sedition, or treason –

and the king had both the authority –

both the power and the right –

to punish any such challenge to his authority. 

My second point is

that is that in spelling things out in this way,

James was storing up trouble for his son Charles

who ended up being beheaded

by some of the very people he had bee taught by his father

he had absolute authority over. 

After Charles there was a gap before Britain went back to having a king or queen.

But the authority of the monarch

was never the same again.

The absolute authority of the British monarch was dead.

A century or so later,

the Americans had a War of Independence

to break free of the English monarchy.

and then the French got rid of the absolute authority of their monarchy, 

at least for a time. 

More recently still 

the Russian Revolution removed the absolute Russian monarchy –

although whether that meant the end of absolute political power in Russia

is another matter.

I said I wanted to make three points

arising from King James’s writing on the subject of the Divine Right of Kings.

And the third is much the most important.

I’ve talked about authority, so far, as a social and political reality. 

But James – as I’m sure you noticed – 

kept talking about God. 

I have talked so far 

as though the development of authority among humans

was a movement from the small scale social authority

into the larger scale political authority, 

and I’ve avoided complicating that picture 

by saying anything about any other source of authority. 

But as far back as written records can take us,

and surely, much further back than that,

authority was inescapably a spiritual matter,

not merely – and perhaps not mainly – 

a social or political one.

I don’t think that any present day alpha gorilla 

calls on any supernatural authority 

to support his dominance over an extended gorilla family.

So presumably, 

the very first human authority figures didn’t do that either.

But at some very early stage, 

certainly long before the beginning of civilisation,

early humans developed a religious capacity. 

Given that the beginnings of religion 

go much further back in our history

than the beginnings of agriculture and civilisation,

I think we can take it for granted

that when social/political authority began to evolve

within the context of towns and civilisation, 

there were already well established religious or spiritual authority figures.

In other words, there were priests

long before there were kings.

So I venture to suggest

that there have never been kings –

or political authority figures by whatever name –

who did not to some degree depend on, 

the religious authority figures.

No doubt priests, witch-doctors and the like 

have often had to fit in with, and take account of, 

the political authorities, too.

But in thinking about authority in human communities,

at any, and every point in our history,

we have to consider both, and how they re-inforced each other. 

So that is one major complication

in the picture of authority that I have been trying to build up –

we have to consider the power, the influence, the supremacy,

not only chiefs and kings, but also witch-doctors and priests. 

Now I need to mention a further complication

in trying to understand authority. 

Humans are – 

and I think it is safe to say, always have been –

ambivalent about authority. 

On one hand, 

we all long to have some authority over someone or something.

At the same time,

most people, most of the time, 

find the responsibilities of authority uncomfortable.

Life for them is more comfortable, less stressful, 

if someone else will take responsibility –

if someone else will exercise the authority,

for providing food, for example.

and for protecting us from our enemies.

If it were not so,

tribal chiefs and pharaohs and kings and emperors 

could never have got away with so much, for so long. 

To illustrate this ambiguity,

I’ve invited Margaret to tell you about an experience she had in her teaching.

The High School was very large school, over 1200 students. 

It was a school that prided itself on its academic tradition and achievements. 

All graduate teachers wore their gowns all the time, except for sports. 

It was also hierarchically organised 

and because classes were allocated according to staff hierarchy, 

the B stream of fourth form technical boys was allocated to the lowest teacher of all, the married, female, temporary, part-timer – me. 

Well, the class knew exactly what my status was 

and they were past masters at the game of, 

“It’s your job to control us (not our job to behave)” 

and its close relative, “It’s your job to teach us,( not our job to learn.)” 

In most lessons most of the boys were tolerable for most of the time. 

Their chosen jousting ground was the last ten minutes of the period. 

At first the noise would build, then after about five minutes, 

someone would say, 
“That was the bell, Miss.” 
“No it wasn’t; take out your homework notebooks.” 
Groans, sighs, chairs screeched , satchels were dragged up the side of the desk and dumped heavily on top. 
“It was the bell. Miss, we’ll be at the back of the caff queue.” 
“Sit still…” 
“It’s not fair. We’ll miss out” 
And, of course, time was elapsing 

and since low status teachers with low status classes 

taught in low status pre-fabs in remote parts of the grounds, 

and since the noise level was by now quite high,

it was possible I’d missed the bell, and eventually I’d let them go. 

Almost always the bell would ring about 2 minutes later, 

and a minute after that, the Deputy Principal, gown flying, 

would come rushing in to tell me accusingly 

that I was not allowed to let classes out before the bell. 

It was all very humiliating especially as, I reflected, 

there were clearly rules to the game. 

Even the smallest boy was as big as I was. The rest were bigger. 

There was no way I could restrain them if they’d decided to go. 

The game was to get my permission. 
So, having faced this moment of truth for myself,

I decided we’d face it together. 

I pointed out that if they really wanted to leave, even if I stood in the doorway, they could knock me down and get away. 

They were, in fact, choosing to stay. 

And all the fun went out of the game, 
and we got on quite well for the rest of the year. 

A relationship based not on pretence but reality. 
Margaret Feist

What Margaret has been talking about in the classroom, 

is also true on a larger scale. 

At the level of a whole country, or nation,

it is called the Social Contract – 

that is, some kind of agreement,

on the part of those under authority,

that they will recognise and co-operate with 

the authority of those who exercise authority over them. 

It may be explicit or totally implicit.

People may be aware of it, or not.

But in most situations, in recent centuries at least, it is there.

How this social contriact works out can be quite complex.

Margaret has given us one example, from the classroom.

Another example, from New Zealand politics,

is the way in which many New Zealanders voted National,

so that Rob Muldoon would be Prime Minister,

and then grumbled about him and abused him, for three years – 

but still re-elected him.

So – to sum up where we’ve got to:

my first point about authority

was that it has developed from a simple form in very early days,

to the absolutes of the Divine Right of Kings.


I spoke briefly about religious, or priestly authority,

and thirdly,

I’ve mentioned that we are all in fact ambivalent 

about either exercising authority,

or knuckling down to live under the authority of others.

A fourth factor about authority I want to mention

picks up the word “intellect”

in the dictionary definition we started with.

Throughout the centuries 

when communities everywhere 

were hierarchical and authoritarian both socially and politically,

knowledge too, was understood in an authoritarian way.

In many different cultures,

the priestly authorities 

were also the authorities and the guardians concerning knowledge.

The Maori tohunga is one example of that, close to home. 

Not so very long ago, 

in Christian Europe,

if someone wanted to know how many teeth a horse has,

the natural way to find out 

was to go to the writings of Aristotle, 

to see what he said on the matter. 

Aristotle was the authority on anything to do with the natural world.

But gradually, things began to change, here, too.

We tend to identify Galileo 

with the beginnings of this huge shift in our approach to knowledge.

We credit him with giving more weight to what he could see, with a telescope,

than to the dictates of the Church about how things were.

Increasingly, since his day, and with increasing momentum, 

the way to gain knowledge has been 

to trust the evidence of our own senses.

And knowledge, thereby, has become far more democratic.

Think for a moment of the way in which, 

not long ago, 

a couple of Christchurch schoolgirls put the pot on 

for a huge multinational company,

by showing that in fact “Ribena” 

didn’t contain the amount of Vitamin C the company had claimed.

Yes, of course, most of us, most of the time, 

have to take the word of experts, 

and are very willing to do so.

But the fact that, in principle, 

any one of us could upset the expert’s apple cart 

if we can simply present a few facts from the evidence of our senses,

means that the nature of knowledge,

and the location of authority, where knowledge is concerned,

has been profoundly changed.

Just as the divine right of kings has been scuttled 

in the political world,

and political authority, in more and more parts of the world, 

has become a matter of a real social contract

which may be granted or withdrawn by the masses,

so too, in the world of knowledge,

it is becoming less and less possible

for anyone to have absolute, unchallengeable authority.

I said a little bit, before, but only very little,

about the authority of priests, in the field of religion.

I want to come back to that, and say some more.

In many cultures and many religions

over the centuries,

priests have been able to exercise enormous authority

over the lives of the people.

But I don’t think there is any close parallel

for the way in which the Christian Church 

developed a huge, highly authoritarian structure in Europe

from the time of the Emperor Constantine onwards

and wielded enormous authority.

Nor has there been a close parallel anywhere else

for the way in which, in Europe,

the spiritual authority of the Church

and the political power of monarchy

collaborated to keep themselves in power, 

and keep the masses in their place. 

A lot of this is summed up for me in the prayer:

“God bless the squire and his relations,

and keep us in our proper stations.”

Or I could remind you of the verse in 

“All things bright and beautiful”:

“The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate,

God made them high or lowly, and ordered their estate”.

So, for nearly 2,000 years, the Church authorities

and the worldly, wealthy, land-owning authorities have been in cahoots.

I know that from time to time during the Middle Ages,

European heads of state

were at loggerheads with the papacy.

From time to time 

they were at loggerheads with one another too.

But such things didn’t affect the basic picture

of religious and civil authorities together, in tandem,

keeping the princes, the nobles and the peasant masses

in their place.

The power of that alliance isn’t totally dead yet,

but cracks began to show 

in this hierarchical, authoritarian set-up

in the field of religion, 

before they became significant in the political sphere.

The solid edifice really seroiously began to crumble 

with Martin Luther, and the Reformation in the 16th Century – 

about 150 years before the political upheavals in England

that I’ve already referred to.

But once again, neither the details of this crumbling

nor the exact timing are important for the overall picture

I want to present.

What is important

is that, in the West, in Christendom, over the last 500 years,

absolute authority in religion has been effectively challenged, 

and is now almost a thing of the past.

absolute authority in politics has been effectively challenged,

and is steadily becoming a thing of the past.

And rigid authority in the field of knowledge has, if anything,

been even more thoroughly challenged and undermined. 

Being aware of that avalanche

that is steadily gaining in size and momentum,

is important, I suggest,

for understanding what has been happening, in our own lifetimes,

concerning morals, 

concerning the Bible,

concerning the Church,

and concerning God.

When most of us were young,

we, and our contemporaries,

pretty much accepted that people like parents, school-teachers and ministers

knew what was right and what was wrong.

We might not always have done what they wanted us to,

but we accepted that they were the authorities in the matter.

I’m sure I don’t need to spend time 

trying to persuade you 

that concerning mixed flatting, 

sex before marriage,

people living together as a couple without benefit of a marriage ceremony –

concerning homosexual activity, and so on,

the “authorities” of our childhood

no longer have the authority they used to have.

One of other authorities that has lost the clout it used to have,

is the Bible.

And not only concerning morals –

in many other ways too, the Bible is no longer the authority is was.

Large numbers of people

who still count themselves as Christian, and are loyal Church members,

have no difficulty in accepting that, for example,

what St Paul has to say about women’s hair or women’s hats,

does not have the authority of divinely revealed truth,

but is simply Paul putting into words 

how most Jewish men of his day saw things.

And then, there’s the authority of the Church. 

Partly, this is a case of what I’ve been talking about all along,

that more and more people, in our day,

are NOT willing to grant to any person or any organisation

an unquestioned authority.

Partly, it’s that the Roman Catholic Church, in particular

has painted itself into a corner,

and has stuck doggedly and unyieldingly to a position – 

especially about contraception – 

that thoughtful people can see is doing enormous harm 

to millions of human beings.

So how, people ask,

can we respect or accept the authority of such an organisation

in any area of life?

Individual priests, ministers, pastors, may still have some real authority

within a congregation who know them and trust them.

But that authority will not be granted as of right – 

it must be earned. 

So finally, 

I come to saying something about the authority of God.

I’ve left God until last,

because I think we need to be clear 

about the scale and the seriousness of what has been happening 

in the other areas of authority I’ve mentioned, 

to begin to understand how much his ast issue,

and how deep-seated and far-reaching 

are the changes that have taken place in the authority of God.

Let’s go back to King James.

…. kings are not only God’s lieutenants upon earth, 

and sit upon God’s throne, 

but even by God himself are called gods. …..

God hath power to create or destroy,…. 

to give life or send death, 

to judge all … nor be accountable to none; …..

And the like power have kings: 

Two things are interwoven here.

One strand is the profound way in which political authority

has depended for its viability and its credibility on God.

And the second strand 

is that authority is assumed to be of the very essence of God.

As for the first strand, 

we take it totally for granted nowadays that for us,

and for all democracies,

political authority is granted by the people.

It has nothing whatever to do with delegation by God. 

Secondly, it is taken for granted in popular thinking

that authority is of the very nature of God –

and not just authority – but absolute, unquestionable authority.

The idea that there could be some sort of Social Contract

whereby we negotiate how much authority God is to have, 

or on what conditions, 

seems simply nonsensical.

But the alternative – 

recognising in God the traditional idea of absolute, unquestionable authority

is not acceptable to many people today either.

Having said that, I do need to mention

that there are quite a few people in the Churches

who do accept the traditional view,

and who sing, with heartfelt enthusiasm, Sunday by Sunday,

about the majesty, and glory and power 

of a God who is Lord of lords and King of kings.

But while I respect the sincerity of those people, 

it does seem to me that they are engaged in 

a desperate rearguard action,

and that in our Western culture as it has evolved,

there can be no lasting future for such a God.

Because Western culture has evolved in the way it has,

and, in particular,

because our attitude to authority has evolved in the way it has,

it is no surprise to me

that increasing numbers of people dismiss God 

as being simply irrelevant, an anachronism,

a hangover from an age thast is past,

for which we, today, have no use, and no need.

A moment ago,

I dismissed the idea of negotiating what sort of authority

or how much authority God is to have, as a nonsense.

But it seems to me 

that those people who, today, 

are exploring an understanding of “God” as non-real 

are doing exactly that.

Given that the idea of an absolute, absolutely authoritarian God

is unacceptable to many people, 

perhaps, rather than try to live without a God of any sort,

we would do better to work out a way 

of thinking and talking about a God 

who embodies the highest ideals we can imagine or aspire to –

our highest ideals of love, and justice for example. 

Perhaps human society would be better than it is now,

if we were in agreement in acknowledging a God 

who has some real authority,

but whom we acknowledge to be a projection 

of the best we can imagine or hope for – 

a God whose authority over us is an authority 

we ourselves have given to this God – 

perhaps this is the best Sort of God we can have – 

and is a better place to be than having no God at all.

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