Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Religious authority vs. primacy of conscience (Part II)

In Part I, I started discussing the problem of having an authoritative doctrinal body in the devastating wake of the primacy of individual conscience. Simply put, the two are irreconcilable unless the latter means no more than that we bear chief responsibility for our acts. For the decisions of such a body — we postulated a standing ecumenical council or “central committee” — to have any traction, each person must concede three points:

  1. The individual conscience is not infallible;
  2. Human authority is both a practical necessity and an indispensible feature of education; and
  3. Some people are better equipped to decide on matters of faith and morals than others; mere possession of a Bible and ninth-grade reading skills doesn’t make a person an authority on Scripture.

    But before we go further, I should probably shore up my position. Granting that we learn indirectly from others far more than we learn directly from our own experiences, does it still follow that we need a central authority to decide what is true Christian doctrine and what is false? Even if I grant I’m not the sharpest knife in the block, and that I don’t know nearly as much as some others about Scripture, history, patristics, theology and all that rot, since it’s my soul on the line for my actions, shouldn’t I be the one to decide what Christ and the apostles taught?

    Strictly speaking, no. If primacy of conscience means anything, it means I decide whether or not I believe Christ and the apostles’ teachings and act according to them. But by my own admission, I’m not in the best position to know what is or isn’t authentic Christian doctrine: that’s a matter not of conscience but of expertise. If my auto mechanic told me my transmission was in danger of failing very soon and needed repair, I might delay the repair due to lack of money without being considered foolish; I would be a fool, however, if I thought my mechanical knowledge were sufficient to go toe to toe against a certified, trained professional’s judgment.

    Here we have one aspect or sense of authority which bears directly on the matter: expertise. An authority knows what she’s talking about: she’s done the necessary research, studied the necessary fields, read all the relevant authorities who came before her, and jumped through all the accreditation hoops. Because her superior knowledge is demonstrable, her statements on the subject are more credible than those of the dilettante who’s read a few books and possesses a certain cleverness.

    At this point, our would-be leveler is apt to complain that the experts’ reliance on previous works is apt to propagate previous mistakes. But that’s to argue a complex question: Were there “previous mistakes”? If the whole point of the institution is to protect and hand down the authentic teachings of Jesus and the apostles, then insofar as they are authentic, they can’t be mistakes. We might not like them; they may strike us as odd, barbaric or superstitious in our fancied state of scientific and humanitarian progress; nevertheless, they can’t be wrong without calling all Christianity into question.

    The matter goes beyond asserting mistakes where none should exist. To hand down a faith from one generation to another is to invoke tradition. The Protestant appeals to Scripture, and holds it superior to the authority of humans or their traditions, because it appears to promise a shortcut to the faith of the apostles. However, the apostles never expected to teach Christianity out of a book, or even a series of books. There are lacunae in Scripture because the writers took for granted things they expected their audiences to know without being reminded. Instead, for most people even up to five or six hundred years ago, learning the faith was a matter of oral tradition, mixed with symbols in artwork and participation in the liturgy of the Mass.

    Not all Protestants are hostile to the very thought of tradition; in fact, reports reach my eyes and ears of various Evangelical scholars who are attempting to “save the Church Fathers”; that is, to retrieve the authority of tradition from the dumpster in which a radical strain of sola scriptura (called with some imprecision “solo scriptura”) has consigned it. For what is any tradition but our most immediate connection through history to our ancestors? And one of the best defenses of oral tradition I ever read came from a Baptist minister, Dr. Timothy Paul Jones.

    But to invoke tradition is not merely to provoke a Scriptural argument over the authority of tradition. Many people are prone to chronological snobbery: Tradition is by definition old, and to be old is to be deficient, defective and even defunct. We of the Information Age have Science and Technology and Public Education; why, the people of the Apostolic Age passed on the faith by oral tradition because most of them were illiterate (and therefore ignorant, credulous sheep)!

    Again, it comes down to the issue of intellectual honesty. Either we’re followers of an itinerant rabbi and a handful of fishermen who lived and spoke 2,000 years ago or we’re not. Their teachings are either just as true today as they were in the days of the Roman Empire or they’re not. Those are the choices.

    If you want something newer, you can try an existentialist philosopher such as Nietzsche or Sartre, or you can get into the objectivism of Ayn Rand. Or you can try to cobble together a philosophy of your own without referring to anyone else, whether it be The Song of Solomon or The Nicomachean Ethics.

    But if you wish to call yourself a disciple of Jesus, then the fact that his teachings are very, very old as the world accounts age should be no obstacle. Conversely, if you think his teachings as they were stated in the first century have no application for the twenty-first, then why follow him at all?