January 24, 2021 – By What Authority?

Scrapped Homily, originally planned for Word of God Sunday. It was too long and unfocused. I felt like I was covering too many things. I also felt like the Capitol breach was not as present on the minds of the people as when I wrote this homily the weekend before.

This is the first weekend I have preached since the attach on our Congress on January 6th and reflecting on that event over the last couple weeks has gotten me thinking about authority and belief.

Let’s say, hypothetically, that there was widespread, coordinated fraud in a U.S. election, like we see in so many autocratic states all over the world. I am not sure that I could advocate violence, but I would certainly see it as my duty to protest, even in the streets, in order to preserve the democratic institutions and way of life that so many generations have worked and died to build. And yet, I unequivocally reject the attack on our Congress because, rather than try to preserve and protect democracy, that attack sought to overturn and impede a legitimate and fair election.

You can see here that the crux of the matter, the switch between patriotism and insurrection, lies entirely on the question of the legitimacy and fairness of the election. Now, I did not count any of the votes in this election, and neither did any of you. (Interestingly, Fr. Albie Grasher who was here two weeks ago actually did count the votes in Whatcom County; he volunteered as an election worker because his niece works for the county auditor’s office.) Nevertheless, for the great majority of us, we accept or reject the legitimacy of the election based on the testimony of authority. President Trump and his supporters and his political enablers repeated over and over again the claim that the election was stolen, and based on the authority of these voices, some Americans chose to reject the results of the election. Other authorities, like the Republican Secretaries of State for Washington and Georgia, or the Republican-appointed judges who nevertheless rejected lawsuits claiming election fraud, these other authorities claimed that the election was legitimate and fair, and the great majority of Americans have accepted the authority of these testimonies.

But, ultimately, we are left with a question of authority – who do I choose to believe and why – a question that all of us need to start taking a lot more seriously. 47% of Americans voted for President Trump in this last election, meaning that, presumably, 47% of Americans were disappointed in the election results. This narrative about the election being stolen persisted because some portion of this 47% was hearing what they wanted to hear – that their candidate had actually won – and they chose to listen to those voices above all others. They chose to believe exactly what they wanted to believe and shut out anyone who opposed their favored narrative.

This, my friends, is exactly the accusation made against religious believers by modern day atheists. In the modern era, we stand accused of have a favored, feel-good narrative, maybe about the persistence of life after death, and ignoring all reason in order to preserve that narrative. We are charged with listening to a false and self-interested authority – the Church – that we are too afraid to contradict.

So how can we condemn the attack on Congress and defend faith? How can we make a distinction between authority that we can trust and authority that we ought to reject? What is rational belief as opposed to irrational belief?

Society today offers us two extremes in answer to this question, two authorities which are each said to be the highest authority. The first is the absolute authority of the autonomous self. We see this most predominantly in moral relativism, the idea that each of us must decide for ourselves what is true and right. We see this in the idea that each person can define for themselves what sexuality or gender means to them and how it applies to them. We see this in the idea that faith and religion are individual choices, rather than a question about objective truth. We see this in the simple phrase “you do you” as if the individual does not have to answer to anyone other than themself. But placing the individual as the highest authority is incredibly dangerous because we human are fallen beings; left to our own devices we will quickly construct realities entirely defined by our biases and selfish interests. I, personally, know my sinful depravity far too intimately to trust myself as the highest authority.

At the other extreme, we are presented with science – vaguely defined – as the ultimate authority. But what do we mean by science? Do we mean that we should only trust what we can directly observe ourselves? This is nothing more than a return to the absolute authority of the individual, who should verify everything and trust no one. Or, by science, do we mean the process of observation, hypothesis, and testing that we teach our school children? This form of science is certainly a helpful check on individualism because it supports the idea that there is a reality outside of ourselves that we cannot change or control to suit our self-interested desires. Unfortunately, however, science is not as simple as our high school and early university courses make it out to be. Those who claim science as the only authority or as a perfectly objective authority go too far. Real scientists understand that almost every claim of scientific truth that we hear about today is a statistical claim, not an absolute claim. When we hear on the news that “a recent study has shown” something, what that means is that, through a complex series observations, tests, and statistical assumptions, one group of lab scientists is 85 or 90 or 95% sure that something is probably true, and they are often far less sure than that about why a thing is true. It is certainly appropriate to claim science as an authority to be believed, as long as we believe it the same way that the scientists themselves report it – as our best guess at the moment, given the limits of observation and statistics. And as long as we realized that, particularly with the so-called social sciences, statistics can still leave a lot of room for personal bias to seep in.

It is deeply ironic that society tries to force adherence to both of these authorities at the same time – that we must not question the experience of an individual but we also must only accept truths which can be observed in a lab.

So do these societal answers bring us any closer to deciding which authorities are good authorities and which are bad authorities?

No, not really, and you can see this in the way we debate. Our public debates today are either throwing personal anecdotes and experiences at each other, or throwing opposing “facts” at each other, without any proper understanding that facts come vastly different levels of confidence depending on their source and context. We try to appeal to individual or pseudo-scientific authority, and we get nowhere. There is no desire to seek the truth together, only a desire to look more authoritative than our opponents.  

[This is a break between two drafts of the homily, so the logic and focus shift a little bit.]

So where does religion fall between the authority of the individual and the authority of science? What authority is a religious adherent supposed to accept as the foundation of belief?

That depends on the religion.

New Age spiritism, Wicca, and “spiritual but not religious” practices are the extreme form of the religious authority of the self. Each believer is left to invent their own form of religion for the sake of their own self-fulfillment, and to reject whatever they disagree with or do not like.

Even seemingly formal religions will fall into this trap. The Mormons, for example, have the following printed in the introduction to the Book of Mormon: “We invite all men everywhere to read the Book of Mormon, to ponder in their hearts the message it contains, and then to ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ if the book is true. Those who pursue this course and ask in faith will gain a testimony of its truth and divinity by the power of the Holy Ghost.” Did you catch that? The Mormons claim that the truth of the Book of Mormon can be best known by asking God whether it is true or not. But how can one know whether they are hearing the voice of God or their own voice in response? The same is true of many of our Christian brothers and sisters who have abandoned creeds and doctrinal statements in favor of letting each member decide for themselves. This is the absolute authority of the self and one’s own personal experiences.

Most religions, however, retain some form of scientific test of their authority.

Buddhism and Confucianism, for example, provide a test of their authority in the success of their system. Buddhism claims to bring peace through detachment and Confucianism claims to bring about order through discipline. Insofar as they are successful at achieving these goals, they are worthy of belief and the authority of their claims is upheld. It is similar to the authority we might attribute to a diet or a system of self-care: regardless of why is works, we just care that is works. In a sense, this makes them the most scientific of all religions, because they are based purely on externally verifiable results. On the other hand, this makes them the least religious of all religions, because they are only making essentially psychological claims about the human person and do not content with the question of God or creation.

The claims of Islam rest on an individual. The Quran is meaningless unless it was given by God to the Prophet Muhammed, so to test the authority of Islam, one must test the claim that Muhammed is a Prophet of God. Traditionally, prophets are confirmed as prophets through signs, usually miracles during their lives or the fulfillment of future predictions that they made. A cursory survey of Muslim websites sees both of these attributed to Muhammed, but Muslims will also claim that the Quran itself is so perfect and beautiful that it reveals itself as divine, and that the rapid spread of Islam during and immediately after the lifetime of Muhammed shows the divine authority wielded by that religion. In any case, the authority of Islam lies in the question of whether one believes the claims of Muhammed. If one believes that Muhammed is worthy of belief, then one can accept Islam as worthy of belief.

Judaism is like Islam, in that its authority lies in the authority of its prophets. Does one believe that Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Elijah, and the rest were true prophets of God or charlatans? The same test can be applied to them as to Muhammed, regarding miracles, future predictions, and the consistence or divine character of their writings. But Judaism, unlike Islam, relies on an entire community of individuals over the course of centuries, all claiming to have received revelations from the same God is vastly different circumstances. While the authority of Islam relies on accepting the authority of one man, the authority of Judaism relies on accepting the authority of an entire community of people, their culture, and their history. If we believe the Jews, then Judaism is true. If we do not believe them, then Judaism is false. In case you were wondering, a foundational aspect of Christianity is that we believe the Jews.

Finally we arrive at Christianity, which is unique in its claim to authority. Unlike Islam, the authority of Christianity does not rely on teachings of Jesus or his claims to have received revelations from God. The authority of Christianity is based solely on the claim that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead. If Jesus rose from the dead, he clearly acts with divine authority, meaning that everything he taught is also imbued with divine authority. If he did not rise from the dead, then he is no more authoritative than Muhammed and his teachings no more authoritative than Confucianism.

Do you see why this makes Christianity unique? Our religion does not depend on whether you trust a system or an individual. The entire authority of our religion lies outside of the self, on an objectively, historically verifiable fact. It is the antidote to religion as wish-fulfillment, because the truth of Christianity never depends on us or our beliefs, or the subjective, self-reported experiences of prophets or religious figures. Christianity could be true even if no one believed it.

Now, all of this was a very long path to preaching about the Bible. Pope Francis has decreed that the Third Sunday of Ordinary Time be “Word of God” Sunday and that we preach on the Bible on this day every year. But for us to care about the Bible, we have to ask why it is worthy of belief. We have to ask what is its authority.

First, the Bible has, at minimum, the same authority as any historical document from the ancient period. Unfortunately, historians will often place the Bible in a different category than, say, Caesar’s “Gallic Wars” because the Bible deals with questions of God while Caesar deals with questions of men. But this just reveals an anti-religious bias on the part of these academics. We cannot reject the historical claims of the Bible simply because they often deal with the miraculous, unless we can first justify why we have prejudicially rejected the miraculous as possible.

But of course, Christians claim that the Bible has divine authority, beyond its historical authority. This divine authority comes, as with everything else in Christianity, from the Resurrection. Jesus rose from the dead, a fact immediately accepted by significant portions of the Roman Empire even before the Bible was written, and the Resurrection proves Jesus has divine authority. Jesus also regarded the Old Testament as true and promised the Holy Spirit to his followers who wrong the New Testament, meaning that Jesus’ divine authority is what gives the Bible its divine authority. If we believe in the Resurrection, we must also believe that the Bible is the Word of God.

So, why is the Bible important? First, of course, it is God’s self-revelation. Nothing is more important than God, so nothing is more important than the greatest and most reliable source of information we have about God. But beyond even this, the Bible is the great protector against allowing Christianity to become another religion of the self. Remember, the great critique of religion is that it is simply bias-supporting wish-fulfillment. Well, the Bible is a constant and steady voice apart from our own, challenging us and pushing us to make sure we do not only believe what we want to believe. The Bible helps us worship God has he truly is, not as we want him to be.

[This is residual from an earlier version of the homily where I mention the insurrection at the end, rather than the beginning, of the homily.]

As a final note, this is my first weekend preaching since the insurrection at the Capital, and I would briefly like to offer this: it was a textbook case in good authority versus bad authority. Why did large swaths of Americans believe that the national election was corrupted to the point of being stolen? Why did a small handful of people believe this so strongly that they felt it necessary to, essentially, coup in order to correct this perceived assault on free and open elections? It was on the authority of a President, his advisors, and his Congressional enablers.

Again, it is so important to ask why we believe what we believe. On whose authority? 47% of Americans voted for President Trump in 2020, which means that 47% of Americans were presumably disappointed in the election results. So when the President repeated his claims, over and over and over again, that this election was stolen from him, some portion of those 47% of Americans were hearing exactly what they wanted to hear. It didn’t matter that it was on the authority of one man and his supporters, who could produce nothing close to evidence that could sway even the judges appointed by the President himself. It is exactly what these folks wanted to hear, and so they believed it, on the sole authority of their chosen prophet.

This was a classic case of bias-supporting wish-fulfillment, and it is exactly what we have to guard against, particularly with religion. A good religion, just like a good politics, is one that allows itself to be challenged, one that seeks out opposing viewpoints, one that does not simply repeat over and over again what its adherents want to hear. We have to be careful about what voices we consider to the authoritative, and what voices we allow ourselves to approach with skepticism. As Catholics, we are not afraid of those who challenge our beliefs, because we have tested, over and over and over again, through many centuries and eras and cultures, the central claim of our religion: that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, that he communicated his divine authority to his Church, and that the earliest members of his Church produced a Bible which faithfully preserves the revelation of God through his Son. I do not doubt the Word of God to be true, because I do not doubt the authority of the Resurrection. I also do not doubt the Word of God to the true because nothing has challenged my person beliefs more than reading the Bible. It is clearly not an echo chamber, but a transcendent truth with which I am in constant dialogue.

Featured Image

From a college trip to Washington, D.C., April 2008

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