Authority and its Discontents

Early this morning my friend Gary left me this morsel of food for thought:

God has been making, since the first word of creation, all things new, so perhaps what is never new under the sun is human behavior, driven by sin, and yet redeemable. That behavior as you commented on the previous blog response to me and reiterated above, is often at its core authority challenge. The emergent church can be an example of how each generation challenges parental/previous generational authority just for the purpose of rebelling, being different and then works to dress the challenge and their replacement in plausibility. The irony is that very action leaves open the door for the next generation to rebel again, and the previous generation actually then begins to affirm rather than reject much of the past. Christian mysticism, contemplative Christian spirituality, (pardon my naive position but are these different, similar or the same?) can inform this process by seeing beyond the coverings of generational rebellion to clarify the presence of God within and outside of history and turn people to that one constant thereby unifying generations, and I think this would apply to ‘cross-cultural’ ministry as well.

I’m glad I’m not a Catholic priest who has to hear confessions every week. It is my understanding from the priests I know that it is a singularly boring task. Sin, ultimately, is far more boring than exciting, no matter what our cultural assumptions about it might be. Indeed, this is the lie that drives addiction: anything that we can get addicted to, from cigarettes to alcohol to gambling to pornography, is fundamentally a boring experience that passes itself off as fun and exciting. Everything that is addictive is glamorous (yes, fame and celebrity fall in here as well). But a glamour is a magical illusion, and so the person who turns to glamour to assuage a hunger has to keep turning back, and feeding again and again, for no matter how much one feasts on glamour, the hunger is never satisfied — and so the addiction sets in.

But I digress. The real juice in Gary’s commentary has to do with authority — and oppositional defiance, our innate human capacity to respond to the command to “Jump!” not by asking “How high?” but by simply bellowing back “Hell no!”

It is said that the transition between modernity and postmodernity which some Christians hail (and others condemn) as the emerging conversation or “emergence Christianity” is, fundamentally, a problem concerning authority. Old categories, from the Catholic magisterium to the Anglican three-legged stool of scripture/tradition/reason to the classic Protestant reliance on sola scriptura are all under attack, mostly thanks to the twin fronts of science and secularism. Shall we circle our wagons and hope that the savages will eventually get bored and go elsewhere? Or do we dare to assume that the Holy Spirit may be prodding us to new ways of understanding authority?

Emergents seem to be suggesting that the new locus for authority will be in the community. This seems like a more democratic alternative to the magisterium, and the liberal in me thinks it is a fine emergence indeed. Meanwhile, the conservative in me growls that the community can only lay claim to authority in conversation with sacred scripture and what G.K. Chesterton colorfully calls “the democracy of the dead” meaning the wisdom and witness of all those who have gone before us: i.e., tradition. So perhaps the emergent model of authority is closest to the Anglican model, only expanding “reason” (which tends to have a rather fulsome smell of modernity about it) into the far more politically correct category of “community.” In other words, I am rather excited about the idea of the Holy Spirit leading us as a gathered body into new ways of discerning opportunities to be secret agents of God’s lavish love, as long as we are not so eager to embrace the new that we (unintentionally or not) end up ignoring, forgetting, or rejecting the old.

Which leads me to Gary’s thoughts about the classic dynamic of each new generation rejecting that which has come before it. Can emergence Christianity be little more than this century’s theological fashion statement? Perhaps so, which is why I said what I said about Matthew Fox yesterday. In many ways, the most significant ideological stance I took as an Episcopalian was to embrace Kenneth Leech over Fox: both made names for themselves as authorities on spirituality, but Leech is grounded in the contemplative tradition, is clearly orthodox in his theology, and consequently has a far more enduring message (even if Fox became, for a while, the darling of the angry Christian left — ironic since Leech is, at least politically speaking, the more authentic leftist). Whereas Fox’s rejection of all the injustices that came before him seems to be ego-driven (and resulted in his own marginalization), Leech represents a more discerning approach to engaging in a dialectic between rejecting that which is inconsistent with the Gospel even while we affirm all that remains true. All this is to say: rebellion against authority, obviously, is a tricky matter indeed. From Christ himself to Francis of Assisi to John Calvin all the way down to Martin Luther King, Jr., part of the sheer romance of the Christian life is the willingness to say “no” to unjust principalities and powers. Rebellion, it seems, is embedded in the Christian DNA. But, as Gary points out, rebellion, when ego-driven (i.e., “sinful”), can be its own kind of addictive substance: it promises something that it fails to deliver.

Perhaps when we ponder not only where our authority lies, but also the claim that it rightfully has over us, we need a sort of Hegelian model: of authority, rebellion, and discernment. Semper reforma is more than just a Protestant war cry, it is a fact of the Christian life, since the Holy Spirit is always on the move. But, as Brian McLaren points out in A Generous Orthodoxy, part of the problem with Protestants is that they have never stopped protesting, which is why there are some twenty-six thousand (or more) distinct Proddy denominations these days.

So, is emergence Christianity a glorious new day in our Spirit-led understanding of church authority? Is it just this week’s flavor of rebellion for the hell of it (pun intended)? Or something in between, or perhaps beyond this thesis and antithesis? I’m going to cop out and say that the answer is yes. But in my cop out, I’m clinging to discernment, which it turn means clinging to the guidance of the Spirit in each of our lives, individually as well as collectively.

Mysticism and the Divine Feminine: An Interview with Mirabai Starr
In Memoriam: Kenneth Leech
Social Media... and Silence
Life is a Pilgrimage — So Embrace the Journey
  • Paul Rack

    I attempted some comments on authority and the prospect of open-source theology in my blog at It you have a minute your feedback would be appreciated. (You may remember that we met at Albuquerque last spring.)

  • Gary Snead

    Humbly, thanks, Carl. It’s fun to see a morsel of fishy bread become at least one basket of fish, enough for a disciple to carry, to participate in and marvel at a miracle. I’m hesitant to say too much, thinking it’ll be hard to keep up with a new blog every 3 hours or even daily, but it sure beats what some of my time claimed from me lately.

  • Carl McColman

    Okay Gary, hoard your treasures, then. :-)

    Granted, it’s almost as easy to waste good time on a blog as it is to waste time on Facebook, or Youtube, or Ebay… but I do appreciate your thoughtful comments when you care to share them.

  • Ted

    In my own cathoic experience, I often muse on the observation that the Church is both a circle (community) and triangle (heirarchy). While I’m much more at home in settings which are communal, where all are invited and their gifts , to some extent, recognized, appreciated, or at least able to be offered, I concede the necessity of a discerning body that holds within it the riches and treasures of the past that can take measure of the latest and perhaps not-so greatest and give constructive, cautious guidance that challenges any appeal to ego. I confess that my own ego struggles when I perceive excessive clericalism on the part of some priests, but that is my sin and struggle as I live out my faith.

  • Carl McColman

    Beautifully said, Ted. I think we can all do well to ponder where our “noticing” of such sins as clericalism stops, and sinful responses (anger, judgment, cynicism) begin.