"Every great advance in natural knowledge," said Thomas Huxley, "has involved the absolute rejection of authority."
Huxley was a 19th century philosopher and zoologist, a mixture that is, on the surface anyway, only slightly more disconnected than theology and sports.
I have to concede I like the grit of Huxley's observation and that I'm attracted to its attitude. But I'm also tempted to tinker with it just a bit to give it a smidgen more focus and perhaps a little more clarity. I want to add one word to the quote. The word is false and reframes Huxley's quote to read, "Every great advance in natural knowledge has involved the absolute rejection of false authority."
False authority is the type that asks us, usually demands us, to abdicate our Spirit, what we know in our heart to be true. False authority requires that we ignore the still, small voice within and follow along for the sake of getting along. It is a false authority also in the sense that it receives its power not from itself but from individuals abdicating their personal power to it. Without that abdication, the false authority is a naked emperor.
Throughout our lives we will be presented with recurring opportunities, temptations even, to prostrate ourselves before forms of this false authority. The first chance I recall happened when, as a kid, I brought a copy of Hermann Hesse's book "Siddhartha" to a religious instruction class. The clergyman was not pleased to see me toting a book about an Eastern religious tradition. I figured that out from the way he waggled his catechism under my nose and sputtered, "This is what we believe."
The Confessing Church Movement of the Presbyterian Church is another example. A story released last week by Associated Press religious writer Richard N. Ostling explains that the growing CCM membership wants to pass church legislation which would require denominational officials and programs to profess that they accept and believe that "The Bible isthe church's only infallible rule of faith and life" and that "Jesus Christ alone is the way to salvation."
The CCM apparently requires a blind profession of faith. The picture that comes to mind is the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz, eyes closed to all that swirls around him in the Wicked Witches' forest as he robotically chants, "I do believe, I do believe."
The CCM not only fails to define its terms or invite the engaged participation of its community, but it is also blind to the possibility that there may well be more to the transcendent than can be fenced in by their doctrine and terminology.
There is a story that's told about training elephants. I don't know whether it's true for pachyderms but I do know it applies to humans, so I'll use it here. It seems that, when elephants are very young, trainers keep them from running away by tying one end of a small rope to their leg and the other end to a thin stake set into the ground.
When the elephants are young, they can't break the rope or pull up the stake. As they grow stronger and larger, they never discover that they could easily grab their freedom simply by walking away. Their authority to be free has been given to the trainer. They are captives not of a rope and stake but of their own fear and past patterns of conditioning.
There are thin ropes tied to our ankles by, in many cases, our churches, our jobs and our relationships. These are the ropes of false authority. The ropes that tell us we are nothing without the authority figure. That we need the authority to survive. When the authority makes demands, no matter how ill-advised, and offers in one form or another, the "my way or the highway" ultimatum, it is our fear that binds us and not any power inherent in one who wields the rope.
Thomas Merton, the late monk and meditator, had a different idea about authority. Merton wrote, "The only authority is the charismatic authority of wisdom, experience and love." Charisma is the gift of our Spirit and is a grace too large and far reaching to be encased by any one doctrine. A doctrine may be sufficient to nurture our evolving being but never adequate to fully contain the transcendent.
When a religious group is more concerned with testing your memory than engaging your spirit and providing a framework for the evolution of your being; when a supervisor suggests that you can be more for the organization by being less of yourself it is time to stop and listen deeply. It is time to discern whether to continue to abdicate our personal authority to whatever rope bind us or to reject, with Huxley, the false authority and simply pull up stakes.
(Jim Grossman holds a master of arts degree in theology. He is a trained spiritual director and is assistant sports editor at The Dispatch. Write him at email@example.com)
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