Thursday, July 21, 2011

Authority and Human Flourishing

“You’re a slave to that book!” charged one individual on a Facebook page. This response isn’t unusual. It’s reflective of the general contempt for the Bible that I’m encountering all over the blogosphere. The Bible is a kill-joy, the tool of a threatening and over-bearing cosmic policeman. Nor does it seem to matter if I patiently and sensitively try to explain that God sets certain limitations upon us because He loves us and knows what’s best for us. If anything, this type of counsel just turns up the conversational heat. Perhaps, this is because they intuit that a loving God has a greater moral claim upon our conduct than does a robotic, uncaring god.

On top of this, seeking our individual satisfaction and fulfillment, without someone getting in our face about it, has become the general expectation of Western society. Radical freedom, rebellion and challenging authority are the new norms, while those who emphasize any form of obedience are regarded as repressed, mindless twits.

Victor Lee Austin’s book, Up with Authority: Why We Need Authority to Flourish as Human Beings, suggests that “authority” isn’t a dirty word. Actually, it is necessary for human flourishing. This is a strange sounding thesis, since we usually associate authority with the SS and coercion.

However, Austin invites us to understand authority in terms of a symphony orchestra, where the experience of each member is enhanced as they surrender their own individual choices to those of the conductor. Well, couldn’t reason, discussion and democratic decision-making bring about just as good results? Austin argues that there are some things that group reasoning simply can’t accomplish as well as authority. For one thing, some choices are merely a matter of taste. For another thing, performing a symphony requires too many choices. The democratic process would prove quite messy.

There are many examples where authority tends to maximize our own flourishing. I had a short and unhappy stint as a substitute teacher in the New York City school system. Even there, the teacher is supposed to be the authority, but does not have recourse to adequate sanctions to fulfill her responsibilities. Consequently, many of the schools are virtual jungles, where the number one preoccupation of both teacher and student has become survival, socially and physically.

I think that the bulk of the problem results from the fact that the supportive moral scaffolding has eroded. In our schools, it’s rare to hear about unchanging moral absolutes and standards. Instead, young minds have been indoctrinated into the world of “values clarification,” where there is no right answer and every choice is valid. They have drunk deeply from the inkwell of moral relativism, and have been encouraged to think that their parents might not know best. The new moral “authority” instead dictates slogans like “be true to yourself” and “be all you can be.” What we feel has become more important than the exiled idea of truth.

When the schools have to deal with behavior problems, they resort to the reasoning and authority of “self-benefit” – “You shouldn’t cheat, Charlie, because you’re just hurting yourself.” Betraying our own best interests has become the ultimate “sin.” Everything has to be couched in this language of self. The teacher has to be constantly mindful of the “rights” of the students. These might include the “right” to not be shamed.

When I talked to the assistant principal about the disciplinary problems at her school and what I thought might be some of the underlying problems, she exercised her authority, and I was out.

We are facing a tsunami of self-interests gone wild. When people charge that “You are just a slave to your bible,” they are merely reflecting their times. But are they reflecting wisdom? In one sense, we proudly admit that we are servants of our God. However, does this “bondage” minimize or maximum our lives?

Freedom is often maximized by its limitations. A chess match needs rules to be meaningful. If the pieces could be moved in any manner, there can’t be a meaningful game. Closer to home, a goldfish’s freedom of movement is maximized when it is “held captive” by the water. He was made for the water; we are made for the solid ground.

We are also under God’s authority to forgive others as He has forgiven us. Many can attest to how liberating it has been for them to not only forgive but also to confess their sins to those whom they had offended. Consequently, we have found that the path to a meaningful freedom is also the path that has brought us under the authority of our incredible Savior, the very thing for which we were created!

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