A wise person builds his or her house on a solid and lasting foundation. According to Jesus, such a foundation is rooted in him and his teaching about life. The wise person, said Jesus, “hears these words of mine and puts them into practice” (Matthew 7:24). It’s a call to follow what Jesus says as our authority.
Claims to authority grind in our cultural gears. But this is often based on confusions about what authority is and what it means to follow it. In this series we’re unraveling some of those confusions.
In Part Two I offered a definition of true or legitimate authority: an authority is a trusted source of important truth in a particular area. Someone (a person) or something (an artifact such as a map or textbook) is qualified to serve as a true or legitimate authority by possessing (at least) the knowledge, skill, and/or character that is appropriate to the area in which they function as an authority. The proper response to such an authority, especially in an area where we desperately need to discover the truth, is to find out what the authority says and put it into practice.
Is it rational to follow authority?
Not only is this the “proper” way to respond to authority, it seems utterly reasonable to do so. But let’s say more.
We live in a time and a culture that is suspicious of authority of all kinds. And there are good reasons to be suspicious, because so much authority is clearly bad. We endure “card” authorities (see Part One), leaders who demand compliance solely on the basis of their position or power. Pundits and gurus make pronouncements and diagnoses that extend far beyond their credibility, and millions suffer. Respected generals and coaches abuse their positions, and heroes let us down. Plenty of religious “authorities” are included.
What does this say about authority?
It should lead us to be careful to evaluate claims to authority—but not to reject authority altogether. Bad authority exists, perhaps even prevails. But from that it does not follow that there’s no such thing as good authority, anymore than an abundance of lies means there’s no such thing as truth.
Nor does the fact of bad authority mean that we can—or should—try to escape authority altogether. That turns out to be impossible—and irrational.
A popular bumper sticker, especially in the 1960’s, was: “Question authority.” I have a question for someone who puts that on his car: “Why should I do what you tell me to do?”
I’m questioning his authority.
For the slogan itself functions as a claim to authority; it tells us what to do, how to act, how to think. When he instructs us in this way, Mr. Bumper Sticker is, in effect, setting himself up as an authority in such matters.
And the appeal to authority goes deeper still. The reason Mr. Sticker passes along this edict, presumably, is that he believes it—he endorses and follows the vision that underlies it, which functions as his (unquestioned!) authoritative guide in these matters: that the best way to live your life is not to follow what anyone else has to say, but to do whatever you want, whatever you come up with to do.
It’s inconsistent—rejecting authority, based on authority.
And it’s really bad advice. Unless you or I happen to have supreme knowledge, skill and character in every area, it’s pretty stupid for us to insist that we are not going to follow any authority.
My daughter lives in Washington, D.C. A year or so ago I went to visit her. I’d been there before, but I certainly didn’t know all the streets in that area. So I used authorities (trusted sources of information) in order to get around—a map and a GPS. I could have insisted that I was only going to “think for myself” and “not let anyone tell me what to do.” But I didn’t want to get lost and never find my daughter, or get stuck in a dangerous part of town. So I did think for myself: I got out the map and the GPS and followed their instructions.
Rejecting all authority is not only foolish and often dangerous. It’s impossible. The need for authority in our lives is inescapable. In fact, all of our thinking depends upon it. As C. S. Lewis pointed out,
Do not be scared by the word authority. Believing things on authority only means believing them because you have been told them by someone you think trustworthy. Ninety-nine per cent of the things you believe are believed on authority. I believe there is such a place as New York. I have not seen it myself. I could not prove by abstract reasoning that there must be such a place. I believe it because reliable people have told me so. The ordinary man believes in the Solar System, atoms, evolution, and the circulation of the blood on authority-because the scientists say so. Every historical statement in the world is believed on authority. None of us has seen the Norman Conquest or the defeat of the Armada. None of us could prove them by pure logic as you prove a thing in mathematics. We believe them simply because people who did see them have left writings that tell us about them: in fact, on authority. A man who jibbed at authority in other things as some people do in religion would have to be content to know nothing all his life.
We especially need authority when it comes to building our lives. We’re not born knowing how to live. We inevitably, necessarily pattern our lives after ideas or people or books of some kind, which thereby function as authorities in our life.
So the question is not whether you and I will follow an authority; it is only whether the authority we follow is a good one, whether it can actually guide us to the truth we need. In building our lives what we need is a firm foundation, a solid, credible, authoritative map or blueprint for life. And when we find that, we need to listen to what it says and put it into practice.
Where can we find that kind of guidance?