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The Problem Is Authority

Continuing the conversation from last week about experience and reason in religious conversion (or de-conversion) in modernity, Damon Linker writes that there really is a chasm between reason and revelation. Excerpt:

God can call at any time, at any place, overturning a lifetime of thinking and acting and living — including a lifetime of thinking and acting and living within established, settled religious traditions. The call requires and demands an act of surrender to an externally issued, absolute, unrelativizable command.

Read in the light of Strauss’ description of primal religious experience, Sessions’ insistence that the potential convert not abandon “intellectual rigor” appears to be an example of how one can foreclose the possibility of religious experience by refusing it pre-emptively. Accepting the authority of critical biblical scholarship and academic theology (among other modern intellectual pursuits) may guarantee that the authoritative call of God will never be heard, rendering genuine religious experience impossible.

How can you hear the voice of the authentic prophet if you have decided in advance that a prophet must fit certain narrow criteria to be listened to. Who wants to pay attention to a wild man of the desert who ears animal skins and eats locusts and honey? That rural carpenter of Nazareth claims to be the Messiah of Israel, but everybody knows when moshiach comes, he will be a warrior king, so pay that loon no mind. If you rule out ahead of time the possibility of theophany (God breaking into the natural world and showing Himself), you won’t see it when it happens. Linker says that we are responsible for our own disenchantment.

PEG adds his two centimes to the discussion. He discusses his flirtation with Protestantism, but talks about how his love for the Eucharist kept him within Catholicism, even before he understood a rational case for the authority of the Church of Rome. Excerpt:

Which is why, circling back, I found myself nodding along with Eve Tushnet’s words about authority:

authority is primarily an aesthetic movement of love rather than a rational movement of adducing evidence. (Adducing evidence can be a part of how we come to trust an authority–that was a part of Leah Libresco’s conversion, for example–and reasoned argument aimed at clearing away misconceptions was a big part of my own conversion. But overall, authority is what we love, not what we understand.)

I think this might be the missing piece of what we’ve been talking about. Experience, reason, yes, they are parts of it. But as Eve puts it, assenting to authority is “primarily an aesthetic movement of love.” I love the Eucharist—I crave it, I cherish it, I need it. I don’t know whether this belief is fully described as “primarily an aesthetic movement of love” but that does seem to me to be a better descriptor than the ones I’ve seen heretofore.

This notion of authority is also, I believe, important, because it is ultimately what this is about. When you are adopting a “world picture,” you are assenting to an authority. You are putting yourself under an authority. And while the various things that this authority says about the world might be defendable on their own terms, ultimately you assent because you assent to the authority they flow from. And it does sound right that choosing/being chosen by this authority is, yes, primarily an aesthetic movement (and experiential and/or rational second) and, certainly in the case of Catholicism but arguably for any authority, a movement of love. I would even go as far as to use this as an apologia for the Catholic faith, because Catholicism is the faith that makes this movement most explicit. As DFW immortally put it, in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there are no atheists. We all worship something. All we can do is choose what we worship. And Catholicism is most explicit about not only the choice but its implications.

This is so, so key, and it goes hand in glove with Dante’s idea that love runs the universe, because we act on desire. The task of each man is to harmonize his loves with Divine Love, which created the universe. More prosaically, what PEG (and Eve) say here was true for my long process of conversion. As I’ve written before, in my college years and just after, I desired God, but I put certain preconditions on our relationship, first among them being that I would not obey, or rather, I would obey only when it made sense to me. The truth is, God was not the authority in my life; I was. No surprise when religion failed to take root within me. It was only when I had come very close to making a desperate mess of my life that I reached out in prayer, and experienced an event that was either one of the most fantastical coincidences ever, or it was a sign from God. I chose to believe it was a theophany, and from that, chose to obey God without fully understanding His ways. That was the true beginning of my new life.

It is a common truth — and this was the genesis of David Sessions’ post, which started the whole thing — that external factors condition our receptiveness to religious experience, and to anti-religious experience. Sessions, who was raised in a Christian fundamentalist milieu, writes that leaving it and living around non-believers had more to do with his de-conversion than pure reason, despite (he concedes) the story he liked to tell himself. We are free to choose, and therefore responsible for our choices, but it’s an illusion that any of us are as free to choose as we think we are. Our choices are bounded by how we frame our experience — a frame that is imposed as much as it is chosen.

An example: a Haitian immigrant livery driver in New York City told me chilling stories of the paranormal in his home country, adding that Americans don’t believe these things, because they haven’t experienced them, and can’t imagine that these things can exist. But they are true, he said, because he’s lived through them, and they had a lot to do with why he got out.

Another example: when I experienced a religious conversion in my early adulthood, I converted to Catholic Christianity. I did not convert to Islam; it was never a possibility, and not because I had weighed the arguments for Islam and found them wanting. I knew no Muslims. Islam was and is radically alien to my society, culture, and experience. Islam may be true, but I was, and am, entirely closed to that possibility. A Muslim proselytizer may said to me, “But you haven’t given Islam a chance.” He would be correct, and I could give philosophical reasons for that, but at the end of the day, it comes down to a Gallic shrug. Life is short. We can’t know everything objectively, and choose from a position of perfect rationality. This is not, I hasten to say, a concession that Christianity is true because it is easier for me to believe. I believe Christianity is true, full stop. I am saying that it was far, far easier for me to come to that belief rather than a belief in Islam, because of the society in which I was raised. An Egyptian Muslim no doubt experiences the world in exactly the same way.

A third example: When I experienced an intense crisis of my Catholic faith, I finally broke, and left for Orthodoxy. Reading Dante, it is striking how intensely he despises the Pope and the corrupt clergy of his day — and it is doubly striking how this causes him not one doubt about the truth of Catholic Christianity, including the Church’s authority. He wrote in the 14th century, long before the Reformation. For Dante, disbelief was not impossible, but it required, well, a leap of faith that he was not prepared to make, and that was all but impossible for any Western European formed by the High Middle Ages to make. The social and psychological realities of his civilization served as bulwarks of one’s imagination, keeping other possibilities out of sight, and therefore out of mind. For Dante, legitimate religious authority (but emphatically not secular authority!) could only exist within the Roman church. By the time Dante wrote, the Great Schism was 150 years old, but there is no indication in the Commedia that Dante paid any attention to Orthodoxy as a rival claimant to Rome’s authority.

Now, I live in a secular society, which in one of Charles Taylor’s senses of the word, means that it is impossible not to know that religion is a choice. That is not to say that religious truth is relative, but only that we cannot escape knowledge that it is possible to choose another religion, or no religion at all. So, when my own disgust at the corruption of the Catholic episcopacy and clergy drew me into a severe crisis of faith, the fact that I live in and was shaped by a secular world made it far more difficult to hold on to Catholicism. But I could not imagine disbelieving in God — the God of the Christian Bible — and I also could not imagine returning to the Protestantism of my youth, because by then I knew too much church history. And I could not abandon the Eucharist, which, in my Catholic framework, could only be said to assuredly exist outside Catholicism as the Real Presence in the apostolic churches of the East. Orthodoxy, then, was the only escape hatch I had, and if I had not had it, my Catholicism might have been hardened under the emotional and spiritual pressure into a diamond-like purity … but more likely than not, it would have been snuffed out. It’s impossible to say.

Here’s the thing: when I left Catholicism, many Catholics said that it was an emotional gesture on my part, and that I only put together a rationalized intellectual case after the fact. They may be right. They probably are right. It is also true, though, that when I became Catholic, I never considered arguments for Orthodoxy, because that form of Christianity was alien to me and my cultural experience. In 2006, knowing a lot more about Orthodoxy as a result of friendships with Orthodox friends, it was far more of a possibility, in large part because it was theologically and psychologically plausible in a way that atheism was not, and in a way that Protestantism could not be for me.

So, it’s entirely fair to claim that I made a move that was chiefly driven by emotional distress, and cobbled together an intellectual defense of that move after the fact. But if you want to go that route — and please don’t; I’m not going to debate my conversion again — it’s important to ask yourself about the roots of your own beliefs, and examine as honestly as you can the extent to which they have been culturally conditioned. This is not to say that all truth is relative, and that reason has nothing to do with it. After all, it was reasoning within a historical Christian framework that made Protestantism impossible for me, and Orthodoxy the only viable alternative to Catholicism.

My point is the same as the one made by atheist David Sessions: reason has a lot less to do with our religious convictions, or lack thereof, than we may think. We apply reason within a particular “world picture” (to use PEG’s term), which implies that we recognize something external to ourselves — a book, a leader, an institution, a creed, etc. — as having authority over ourselves. It is inescapable. No man is his own king and pope, though many men think they are. By assenting to an Authority, one implicitly and explicitly denies the claims of rival authorities. No man can serve two masters. To be clear, in Dante, for example, there is a clear distinction between secular authority (the State) and religious authority (the Church), but they both exist contingent on the authority of God — the God of Christianity. You see?

I think Eve Tushnet’s idea about the connection between authority and love is an important one. Submitting to authority can be about recognizing what we fear, but it is not a true submission. We may be certain that North Korea is full of souls who do not love their masters, but who are legitimately afraid of them, and thus recognize their authority. But the masters do not have authority over their souls; if the source of the fear were taken away, the people would live very differently. An authority you submit to out of love is qualitatively different — and it’s the only authority that really matters in a free society.

Going back to Damon Linker’s post, we can say that our prior acceptance of the authority of scientific materialism necessarily forecloses the possibility of experiencing a revelation that violates the bounds of its authority. But few minds are airtight. Sometimes, a prophet can seize their kingdoms by the force of his vision. Here’s Rusty Reno on Philip Rieff’s book Charisma:

By Rieff’s analysis, the central and defining purpose of culture is to regulate the always-troublesome relation between the No-imposing voice of commandment and the Yes-seeking desires of the individual. According to Rieff, the traditional approach to the felt difficulties of bringing personality into coordination with authority involves internalizing and intensifying cultural norms. Religious at their core, traditional cultures stamp our inner lives with their creeds and, in so doing, deliver the human animal from its slavery to instinct. Charisma, then, describes the gift of what Rieff calls a “high” and “holy terror,” which installs the power of divine command so deeply in the soul that we can bear the thought “of evil in oneself and in the world.” A charismatic gives this gift with special force. He or she is an exemplar and virtuoso of personality fully governed by creedal authority. St. Francis energized and haunted the medieval world, not because he was an original genius, but instead because his inner life was so completely defined by imitation of Christ that even his body was marked by stigmata. As Rieff writes, “There is no charisma without creed,” and the gift of life gains precisely in proportion to the power of the creeds that grip our souls.

We must say “I believe” before we can say “I understand.” And we all do this, even atheists. The truth of each person and of all persons is subjectivity, that is, to live subject to an authority. The trick is to live subject to the right authority.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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