The opening remarks from the April 25th, 2020 Gathering
By What Authority?
Rev Steve Zink
"The human spirit is the lamp of the Lord, searching every inmost part” (Prov 20:27)
Where does the authority for religious statements come from? Quite common in the religious world is the belief that the authority is rooted in the source where the statements are found. This authority differs group to group: the Bible taken as a whole; just the “red letters” of the Bible (the sayings of Jesus); the decrees of the Pope; the Book of Mormon; a charismatic leader or “prophet.” Whatever source is viewed as authoritative, the statements that come from it are treated as unquestionable. This approach has lead to unthinkable evils, such as when “pious” souls conducted witchcraft trials or detonated themselves in public squares, convinced such directions had holy sanction. Even if it doesn’t take such a dark turn, at the very least this approach ends up compelling people to contort themselves into “believing” the unbelievable.
Over the years I have interacted with young people entering university, who felt tremendous anxiety over being loyal to their religious commitments while in an unsympathetic school environment. They agonized over how to defend the “authoritative” ideas that were laid upon them. Their anxiety would often stem from pressure to hold ideas such as a literal Adam and Eve in the course of history, the “abomination” of gay marriage, or a fiery damnation of souls in the coming future. They would often feel great embarrassment over these ideas, which indicated that their higher judgment knew better than their commitments.
It is disastrous to our mental and spiritual health to surrender or suppress the personal intuition for truth. Our power to weigh and judge, to reflect and discern, is given to us for no other purpose than to throw a light upon our path. It is the essential key in revelation. Our text makes this point emphatically; "The human spirit is the lamp of the Lord, searching every inmost part.” The divine authority has not been lodged in an external object or personality or institution; the divine authority has been planted in our own spirits. Like an art expert, you have the capacity to “spot a fake” and to know the “real deal.” This is why Jesus said, when some had turned to him hoping for infallible advice on a pedestrian problem, "Why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?” (Lk 12:57).
Theodore Parker, in a sermon delivered in 1841, said the following: “It seems difficult to conceive any reason, why moral and religious truths should rest for their support on the personal authority of their revealer, any more than the truths of science on that of him who makes them known first or most clearly. It is hard to see why the great truths of Christianity rest on the personal authority of Jesus, more than the axioms of geometry rest on the personal authority of Euclid, or Archimedes. The authority of Jesus, as of all teachers, one would naturally think, must rest on the truth of his words, and not their truth on his authority.” The authority for religious statements is not rooted in external authorities but in the worth of the statement itself. Like music or visual art, it is personal matter, a matter of individual discovery, each person discerning the merits of spiritual statements, stories, or symbols for themselves.
This realization relieves us of three great burdens. Firstly, we are relieved of the obligation to hold convictions at odds with our better judgment. We no longer need to pretend belief in things we don’t, in the honesty of our hearts, find compelling.
Secondly, we are relieved from any obligation to be concerned with the “authenticity” of sayings. There are many who believe that great damage has been done by historical-critical research of the Bible. “We don’t know the historical Jesus actually said this,” people complain. But why would that matter? If a statement was ludicrous or reprehensible it wouldn’t be worth revering and repeating even if we knew for a fact the historical Jesus said it. Similarly, if we found a statement beautiful, wise, and liberating, it would be worth revering and repeating, even if we knew for a fact Luke made it up and pretended Jesus said it.
Thirdly and finally, we are relieved from any obligation to defend the contents of faith. I don’t need to defend a sunrise. It will get on just fine without my help. I don’t need to write a book of “apologetics” for Bach. The effect of the music is more than able to recommend itself. Similarly, the Parable of the Prodigal Son doesn’t need my help. It will continue to survive the ages on its own steam, by its own obvious value and beauty. Nothing worthy to believe requires a defence. That which is permanent will prove its permanence in history, so long as there are people who recognize their inherent power and obligation to discern, as long as they make use of the great fact that “the human spirit is the lamp of the LORD.”