Editor's Note

This is the seventh of ten posts about discussing strong disagreements. See the series summary, with links to published posts here.

 

Authority is great, in theory as it is in heaven. The authority of a good parent over a good child, or of a good employer over a good employee, or of a good God over his creation, is beautiful and useful! As often as not we mess it up here and now, and sometimes badly, but at its center it’s beautiful and useful. Hooray authority!

What’s more, even when here-and-now authority relationships aren’t beautiful, they’re sometimes necessary. Good things would fall apart without them.

Further, when they aren’t even necessary, they’re sometimes just factual. There it is, an authority relationship between you and me, or between them over there, or between all of us together. Ready or not, there it is.

Sometimes we can get all excited and act like authority relationships don’t exist or shouldn’t exist. We can get into an authority-toppling mood. Ok. Those moods are fun sometimes! But they’re also often foolish. If we aren’t ready to replace our toppled authority with a truer, better, more heavenly system, we'll just be a little disruptive flare in history’s big night.* There it is; there it went. So much for our enthusiasm.

Besides, authority fairly inevitably sneaks into our biggest joys: in our deepest friendships, little patterns of authority emerge, fade, shift, and grow like music or a big game. When we're around someone plenty, we cede authority to one another out of efficiency or conscience, or just out of sheer fun. Relationships and hierarchy just kind of go together. Not always-in-everything, no, but almost-always-in-plenty-of-things. Authority, it turns out, isn't just nasty, even now.

So. That authority-toppling or authority-ignoring mood. It's often foolish.

Every authority but God’s is necessarily subject to temporary irrelevance.

But there’s another kind of foolishness: treating here-and-now authority relationships as if they’re constant, permanent, and inexorable. Because they aren’t. Every authority but God's is necessarily subject to temporary irrelevance. New circumstances equalize or invert even the most entrenched relationships. An area of expertise could, for a moment, exalt the lowest attendant over a President, or a small child over a grown parent. Or unique access to a desirable resource can, in its time, give unlikely authority to its owner. 

Finally, moral, social, and intellectual ideals, when accepted by groups of people, have a unique ability to render preceding authority relationships irrelevant. Devotion to liberty or goodness or unanimity or truth or conservation or beauty will supersede almost any human authority relationship. We see ideals as reigning above the muck of our systems and the accidents of our authority.

And though we do mess up –wistfully and falsely elevate some mere ideas to the level of equalizing ideals– this sentiment, at its base, is correct. In the presence of truth or goodness or of things like them, we are, all of us, equally bound to submit ourselves, no matter our status. She who submits well, no matter how previously lacking in authority, will be, in reference to the ideal, higher than she who does not, no matter what authority she held. Truth and goodness just trump social status. Always. No authority has a hold on them or power over them. In a contest about them, authorities are not the primary representatives of them –at least not due to their authority.

If the question is, "What is truth?" Pontius Pilate has no better authority to answer well than his slave girl does. Social status has nothing to do with the apprehension of truth, and (in respect to the truth being sought) is toppled by the apprehension of truth. Truth humanizes everyone, and it elevates its finders, no matter who they are.

And what is true of Pontius Pilate and the slave girl is no less true of a parent and child, employer and employee, pastor and parishioner. In the quest for truth or goodness, they are equal. The only thing that matters is attaining the ideals, crowns laid by the wayside.

Insofar as we insist on submitting our pursuit of truth or goodness to preexisting authority relationships, we cannot meaningfully pursue truth at all.

Let's turn the idea around. Insofar as we insist on submitting our pursuit of truth or goodness to preexisting authority relationships, we cannot meaningfully pursue truth at all. If we say that a position of authority gives one greater power over truth, or a greater say in deciding whether something is the truth, we are saying that we seek not truth, but intellectual subservience. That an authority over us –whether parent, pastor, president, king, or employer– has authority over truth too, over saying what it is and putting it in its place. We are, as it were, calling Pharaoh god. But no one has truth in her thrall. It is for and over everyone no matter what.

Discussions are two or more people seeking a single, unknown truth together. If no one has authority over truth, and if truth has authority over all of us, then when we seek it we're under it together. We have to be. During a real discussion, no parent, pastor, employer, or president gets to "lay down the law." During discussion, insofar as you're discussing, everyone must be equally ruled by truth, no matter who finds it or where it's found. The President and I would discuss as co-seekers, or we wouldn't be discussing at all.

Now that doesn't mean that the President stops being the President just because we've discussed. Parenthood and employment aren't eliminated by discussions. Before and after a discussion, authority relationships should look about the same, in most cases. But during a discussion, they're rendered temporarily null. The search for truth equalizes without surely destroying. 

This is tricky. It's hard for people with authority (parental, governmental, etc.) to lay it aside, even for a little while. On the other hand, it's hard not to use something that looks like a discussion as a cover to subvert unwanted authority (parental, governmental, etc.). We can say, "Discussion! Discussion!" and mean, "Overthrow!" Thus either party to a discussion, by striving after power, can leave discussion, exploiting its form. During discussions –and especially discussions of strong disagreements –it's easy to pick power and authority over truth. Don't.

Instead, discuss. Seek truth together. Don't be content until you've found the truth, and found it holding hands. Keep returning to your questions, relying on agreed-upon patterns of behavior in the interim, until you've both arrived. Seek the truth in love.

We'll have to decide: is our power more valuable than the truth you seek? If we answer, "yes," then we'll never discuss at all.

Before we finish, let's draw one last implication. Because the search for truth humanizes and equalizes people, we cannot allow ourselves to prefer having discussions with people in authority to having discussions with people who have no authority. Wealth, status, and fame do not correspond to truth-access. We mustn't give a favored place at the discussion table to people with finer clothes or more impressive titles. Laying aside pride and ambition, we should rather value anyone whose eyes are fixed on the goal, and on heavenly things. For God has chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom. These are they whom we should seek: the rich in faith, whose search for truth and love of others will be genuine.

We should seek those people, and we should strive to be those people. Unless you become such as them, you won't be able to discuss strong disagreements with the people you love. Together, therefore, humble yourself, that Jesus the Truth may lift you up.

 

*If we are ready to replace it, of course, we could make history! Which is nifty.

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