In a discussion group of “spiritual leaders” (in which I think I’m the token scientist), the question of religious and spiritual authority has recently been raised, and I warned that:
“… it’s useful to realize authority is an exceptionally powerful, and therefore dangerous “drug,” which people can get addicted to and crave more and more of…..”
One of the discussion participants, a minister who, in my opinion, is doggedly wedded to seeing Christianity as the superior religion in this world and so give it ultimate authority, replied that yes, in negative terms authority can be dangerous, but felt that I hadn’t addressed the real question, namely that people can’t exist without authority to organize and control them, so the big question is really who and what that authority is? He was correct that I wasn’t addressing the big question, so here’s some further (but hardly complete) thoughts of mine on that.
Yes, we agree that authority is a powerful “drug,” and individuals who have it tend to want more of it, tend to get addicted to it, and to abuse it. The same considerations apply to institutions. Any institution, such as a church, gets used to having authority, wants more of it, and tends to get addicted to it. I’m not a historian of Christianity, but I would bet there are innumerable instances where the actions of the church had a lot more to do with preserving the authority and privilege of the church and the priests than of spreading the teachings of Christ.
So the question is, indeed, who and what authority is, as we do seem to need a certain amount of it in ordinary life. I don’t want to have to work out everything for myself. On a simple level, if I need some plumbing work done, I can generally (but not always) assume that if I have a plumber licensed by the state come over to repair something, the job will be adequately done. Similarly for licensed physicians. Although of course there are fake plumbers and physicians, and rogues who are plumbers and physicians.
The broad question you have asked is way too complex to answer in a reasonable size post, but I will say at least part of the answer to making progress in the use of authority is pointed at by the way authority is given to people in properly done science. In science, what is actually observable, the data, the facts are always the final arbiter of what’s the best understanding of truth that we have at the time. Any current understanding is also subject to change or rejection if new facts are observed that can’t be handled by the current understanding. If a Nobel Prize winner comes to a university and gives a colloquium, (s)he comes in with great authority, but if the lowliest graduate student in the department gets up and shows that there is a mistake in her/his calculations or reasoning, they don’t really fit the facts, the graduate student is right, not the Nobel laureate.
On the human level many scientists are much too submissive to authority, of course, and don’t even think to question it, but, in principle, we’re all trained to always come back to the observations of the facts, and not rely too much on authority.
What comparable “fact-checking,” or “explanation-checking” mechanism is there in organized religion? Or in any spiritual path?
In my upbringing as a Lutheran, e.g., I can’t recall any instance in which I was told that it was all right, much less urged, to question what the minister said, to try to reason with him, to argue with him if I thought he wasn’t right. To be good in the eyes of God was to simply believe what religious authorities, like my church’s minister, said was The Truth.
Personally, I like to believe that we were indeed created in the image of God, and that means we have intelligence like (S)He presumably does. And we’re supposed to use that intelligence, otherwise why would we be given it? Will there ever be a religion or spiritual path where we can respect accumulated authority but feel at liberty to question it, to try to refine its teachings, and perhaps to recognize mistakes in its teachings, even though they are now considered authoritative by reason of long acceptance in history?
Please note that I’m not making any extreme statements here that only science, especially materialistic science, can give us better truths about anything, but I am saying that this basic scientific method, that facts always trump beliefs and authority, has worked extremely well in many areas of life, and I think it could be applied to refine religion and spirituality to a very high degree, even if it wouldn’t apply to some aspects of spirituality. And I don’t think it will be easy, but we very much need to try…..