Authority: Deconstruct, Then Garden – Part 3

If you’re starting this series here that’s awesome! You can catch up here if you’d like. This post is an example of a major concept that I’ve had to deconstruct and I hope to suggest an alternative way of understanding authority that doesn’t require a lot of structure building to interact with.


 

There was a prophet named Samuel, as the story goes, well known among the people of ancient Israel, having great influence and providing critical leadership, vision, and direction for the tribes. In fact, his leadership was so established that the tribes came to him when they wanted to appoint their first king and asked him to give them a king, which he did in appointing king Saul. So you have this prophet who routinely provides the people and the king with a word from god. In fact, he supposedly successfully foretold the future on multiple occasions.

One day he approaches the king and tells him that god is ready to avenge the Israelites from multiple generations past when the Amalekites attacked the Israelites, starting with the weakest stragglers. The Israelites won that original battle. But now, it was time for vengeance. Samuel’s instructions were for Saul to destroy them completely. Men, women, children, babies, animals, everything. If you were to read this story, you would discover that Saul more or less carries out the command but not completely and he is cursed for it by Samuel. However, I tell this story not to confront the obvious moral questions this story presents but to explore the relationships of authority that seem to exist between the characters.

To give the story the benefit of the doubt, God gave the command to Samuel. Samuel gave the command to king Saul, and Saul gave the command to his soldiers. It’s an obvious chain of command. But for most Christians, it doesn’t stop there. Someone wrote all this down and so the traditional assumption is that they were eyewitnesses and gave an accurate account, or they were given the story later by God, either through direct revelation or the passing of the story in tradition. So the original chain of command was in place to ensure the event takes place, and a secondary chain of command exists to ensure we know of the event and believe it. There is traditionally no room given for us to disbelieve this story but a lot of room given for us to question it’s meaning or applicability for us today. These two chains exist throughout the bible in the mind of the believer though the secondary chain is clearly implied and must be drawn from other key portions of the text.

But may we ask what might have happened if things were different? We who have begun deconstruction find ourselves constantly asking, what are the stones in my wall that give these stories their power? In other words, what are my assumptions that I bring to stories like this? Perhaps if Samuel was a modern day man he would have questioned whether such an extreme command from god might be a hallucination or some other mental disorder. It doesn’t help that being insane and being prophetic were closely linked in the time this was written. See 1 Samuel 19:24. There was really no context for Samuel to believe anything different but that he was hearing from the god of his fathers. I’d prefer to not assume he had some motive of personal vengeance against the Amalekites, though that might have been the case. But what if he had heard the word and refused? What if Saul had refused to obey Samuel? What if the soldiers had refused to obey Saul? Their society and culture were not necessarily to the place where they would have felt there were good reasons to refuse but what would have happened if they did refuse?

The result is very clear to us who have been drinking from the well of the bible for a long time. The result of such refusal is destruction. If the chain of command is compromised the one who breaks that chain must be removed, and usually killed. This idea is reinforced multiple times in the stories throughout the old testament, it is reinforced in the garden of Eden, Noah’s flood, Abraham’s sacrifice, Moses and his detractors, the israelites and the law, Samuel and Saul, etc… I call this the principle of Absolute Threat. Most structures of authority presented in the bible are based on this principle and the narratives of the culture reinvigorate the principle. “If you refuse, you will join the condemned.” Saul breaks this chain of command in the story, killing all but the king of the Amalekites and keeping the best of the animals. His punishment is the loss of his line as a dynasty and a nasty death following a long descent into madness. This principle finds its terrible finality in the medieval idea of hell. Perhaps I’m putting the cart before the horse in sharing my deconstruction of authority before sharing my deconstruction of the Ultimate Threat (hell) but they are quite intertwined so I had to choose one.

Now, we should ask ourselves if these authority structures can be found in the church as well. Of course they are. In the “early church” there was a great amount of emphasis on the idea that there was some kind of authority transfer from Christ to the twelve (eleven?) apostles. I’m not going to go into great detail here but that concept translated to bishops inheriting some kind of authority from the apostles, and from that cauldron emerged the structure of the Magisterium with the pope at the head, understood to exercise the authority of Christ/God on earth. Most of the splits and schisms before the reformation concerned the question of who exactly held that authority? Who was the “true pope” or the “true church”? But with the Reformation came a new model of authority. Perhaps they would have called it a recovered authority. For them, that was the authority of the scriptures.

Since my religious background and worldview were essentially protestant in nature in understanding authority, that is where my deconstruction had to begin. The protestant view of scripture from the beginning till now seems to be founded on a lofty hope, that the God who inspired the scripture is capable of illuminating the meaning to those who are faithful to listen. This causes a real dilemma. What if my understanding of scripture differs from yours? Than we must either assume God is responsible for the lack of illumination, or we are. If it is God, there is nothing to do but wait until God brings us all in line. In which case, there is no need to worry or argue because God is the only one who can reveal that truth to us anyway. However, if we play a part, we must discover what that part is and how to play it so that we can reach the true understanding of scripture. The second option seems to be the primary way of resolving this dilemma for most of the protestant world from its earliest schisms to today.

To put this all in other words, until we all miraculously reach a point where everyone agrees on what the bible means, we are left with the realization that the authority of scripture, as understood by most protestants, is actually a manifestation of the authority of the individual mind. We in the Protestant movement are asked, nay commanded to go to the bible ourselves to test the preacher and test the church authority. We are not “really” searching after God until we have done this. But the protestant movement is really a mixture of individual authority and church leadership authority. Because when someone does really search and finds some major point of disagreement, the leaders insist that they are interpreting it incorrectly and must fall in line with the orthodox teaching, which is a manifestation of the authority of church structures. So we see that the so called “authority of scripture” is really a mixed manifestation of the already established “authority of the church” and the newly discovered “authority of the individual” thrust into the whole culture by the philosophy of the Renaissance. With the whole mixture using the bible as a kind of language datum rather than a real useful litmus test of right belief.

As you can see from the above paragraph. For me, deconstruction doesn’t involve ignoring a topic because it makes me uncomfortable, but rather to study, scrutinize and understand a topic to see my own faulty assumptions. What I discovered was that the authority which scripture was supposed to hold, lost its illusory power almost from the very beginning of the protestant movement, when it failed to hold together those most concerned with upholding its place as the standard of belief. If it was able to hold together those people who trusted it completely, it might have made a much stronger candidate for a governing authority. But it does no such thing.

So what now, are we to return to the authority of the church as the highest earthly authority for us to know the truth? Many protestants, when they have removed the foundation stone of ultimate biblical authority, desperate for something to go in its place, lest the building tumble, quickly return to one of the older structures of authority (catholicism, orthodox, anglican). I’m not saying that’s the only reason people return to these forms of the faith but I know it happens since the apologists and evangalists of these structures have learned the usefulness of helping their potential converts to deconstruct their view of the bible before welcoming them back to The Church, as they put it. But many are unable to return to “The Church”. That stone simply will not fit. And the building is shaking.

The church also continues the narrative tradition of the scripture in their usage of the Ultimate Threat principle to enforce their authority. Think about excommunication, threat of torture and death (at times), threat of loss of family relationships, threat of loss of marriage, threat of loss of possessions or health, and finally, threat of everlasting torment in fiery hell. We are constantly reminded that to step outside or refuse to follow the chain of command, will result in the authority that once “protected” us, reigning down in vengeful wrath to consume us along with the enemies of God. So both the narratives of scripture, and the actions of the church have sought to enforce a chain of command structure of authority that only works by using the principle of ultimate threat.

At this point I will contend that this is the only way for a “structure” of authority to work. Without the ultimate threat principle, the dissident is always seen as a threat to the structure by their questioning of foundation stones. In order to preserve their concept structure, the dissident must first be intellectually dismissed, then authoritatively condemned. That is, the act of removing the dissident from the community must be seen as sanctioned by God, which is not difficult to achieve given our dedication to the biblical narrative.

It might seem at this point that I am totally against the very idea of authority. But I am not. I do want to suggest an alternative style of authority. One that can only reach one level and still lets us jump to the ground. One that can produce food from the ground in the different seasons of our lives and that can nourish us and bring us from moment to moment without the need for a complicated and fear based chain of command. Let me give you an example. I have separated myself from an arguably “biblical” understanding of authority in marriage. I don’t think I need to rehash the details of that view with the chain of command moving from God to the Husband and then down further to the wife and kids. Yuck! Ok, but what then? That does not mean the idea of authority does not exist in my relationship with my wife and also my kids. If we have any kind of relationship at all, as opposed to two individuals living in proximity, we have authority in one another’s lives. It’s not an authority I can seize and enforce. If I did that, the relationship, as we know it, would be over. Neither can I build this authority using the principle of ultimate threat. I must build it from a different principle. That of the Ground of All Being. That of God. That of Ultimate Love. That is where my relationship must find its own ground. That kind of authority gives us influence over one another in a way that makes us realize our oneness. This authority is a paradox. We don’t have it until we let go. In a way that’s love. Letting go. And it is entirely possible and even natural to “let go” and still fully participate. Don’t mistake my meaning. I’m not saying that we should somehow be indifferent or hands-off in our relationships. I’m saying do not assume that you can somehow control or hold on to the experience of joy you have right now or at some point in the past in your relationship. You may kill it by your desire to hold it too tightly. And there’s no need to hold on to some structure of hierarchy in our relationships. It doesn’t really exist and the relationship won’t fall apart without it.

You might argue that raising kids is primarily about enforcing your will upon them even if it’s in their best interest. However, even then the goal is not to enforce submission long term but rather to teach them how to think for themselves and in fact leave our “authority”. So the result of this authority is still to let go.

What about government? Well, in so far as government is all about governing, we will simply end up with more and more rules that we are less and less sure how to follow. Government also is at its best when it’s not under the illusion that it actually controls people. When it learns to “let go” and work with the people instead of pretending to be over them. Of course it’s not an illusion that many governments, spouses, and parents use the ultimate threat principle to enforce a structure of authority. It’s not an illusion that people are abused or killed or threatened in these structures. It is an illusion that this top down, ultimate threat based view of authority is the only view.

So you have to start somewhere. Maybe personal relationships are a bit complicated for a starting place. If you’re a religious person, observe your religious authority first. Does god really operate from the top down? Has he really communicated his will to some who then accurately wrote it down? Is this how our relationships, the ones we want to last, really work? Seeing authority from a gardening perspective means seeing that authority cannot be taken, it can only be given. And we only give authority to that which we either desire to, or feel obligated to. Next time you read your scripture which has held authority over you, or you speak with your religious authority who may be a person, ask yourself if you feel obligated to take them at their word. If you feel obligated to obey. Now ask yourself if your most valued friendship requires the same sense of obligation for you to experience that depth of spiritual connection. Now imagine this. God is your friend. Does that change anything?

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