Why is it that people flock to specific people who seem to convey some form of authority when it comes to truth? We all know of people who seem to follow people we would consider bizarre or strange, but for them they are a hundred percent committed to what they say. We’re not just talking about cult leaders, but any individual whom others align their world view to.
In his third chapter of A Short History of Truth: Consolations for a Post-Truth World, Julian Baggini begins to explore the world of epistemic authority – an authority on truth. This phenomenon seems to permeate our history, with two most common forms - authority based on expertise, or authority based on the divine.
We are familiar with divine authority. For Catholics, the Pope is seen as the one appointed and anointed by the Holy Spirit to oversee the church. In my own Lutheran expression, the Pastoral office is seen as a divine appointment, called and affirmed by God and His church, to speak God’s Word and administer Christ’s presence through the Sacraments. But we can see it across many other religious traditions beyond Christianity. The Dalai Lama is considered a divine authority. Within traditional societies, the elders, priests, shamans, etc. all hold power based on a mandate to speak on behalf of the divine and its place in shaping and guiding that specific community. We even have individuals expressing their own personal ‘divine’ authority within New Age spirituality.
The confusion between the religious, or theological, voice such an authority is said to speak and intrusion into the secular space continues to be a complex and disconcerting arrangement in a world that seems to have shifted from adherence to such sources of authority, yet in the vast majority of the world, where Western secularism has not taken root, such an authority is still a powerful influence. The shift from abstract authority, in terms of some mystical revelation, toward a degree of spiritual expertise, is a common place in the world today. In Christianity, credibility for Pastoral leadership is a mixture of divine appointment and theological acumen. The attainment of spiritual authority in much of the world today is achieved through formal learning and development by a variety of means.
The second form of epistemic authority is found in the secular world under the guise of expertise. The strange thing here is, that while secularist find ‘spiritual authority’ bizarre, they have no qualms in deferring their own authority to the realm of experts. Experts exist in our modern world as authorities based on the accumulation of knowledge they have acquired, and the appropriate level of status they are given within any singular body of knowledge. Take medicine for example, where you would see the general practitioner, who based on the error of probability, makes a diagnosis, and then, if required defers to a specialist practitioner who, again, based on the error of probability, makes a diagnosis, and if required, defers to a higher level of specialist practitioner. All of which can be seen by the escalating costs attached to accessing each level of expert.
Baggini asks, rightly so, when is it right to accept, or give weight, to a certain authority’s version of truth. He then offers a rather helpful “epistemological triage” that first asks whether anyone can speak into the domain with which we are seeking answers. So, if we reject the notion of spiritual authority, we probably won’t have them speaking into any domain, just as a rejection of certain forms of expertise would also preclude their input. Scepticism on a supposed authority is often secondary to scepticism about what they are speaking on.
Secondly, if there is some form of truth to be understood, then the question about whether we can trust the authority to speak into it becomes important. Again, take medicine, which is made up of a myriad of health alternatives from conventional medicine through to the fringes of spiritual or metaphysical intervention. If we can dismiss the actual field as being unhelpful or fraudulent, then we have no need to deal with the specific individuals practicing in that field.
Finally, if we accept that there is some truth to be found, and that this can be found within a specific domain, we then get to determine who is best able to speak with some sort of authority within the area of concern. The fact is that not all experts are the same, and not all see the same thing through the same set of eyes. Anyone who has engaged the medical world of specialist would know this to be true. What one specialist says may be completely different to another specialist in the same field. In the end, we make a judgement as to which specialist can best speak truth into the situation that concerns us.
This triage is quite helpful. It means that in any given stage we can discern whether there is truth to be told that is acceptable, and by whom it may be told. It is also easily applicable to both the religious and non-religious domains. It makes sense why some people follow gurus and other strange individuals, and others align to experts in any given field. We all accept certain people have authority to speak truth. It is when there are no truths evident, or the person speaks outside their scope, that we begin to have a problem. However, defining that is the really tricky part. We do not have all the facts at any given time, so we defer to an authority based on who we deem to be an authority. In the end it is ultimately left to our own individual judgement. The authority of our own judgement becomes the means by which we determine the authority of another.
The reality is that we can only make that judgement based on the level of data we accumulate. The more the evidence makes sense to us, the more we are willing to judge that a specific authority is right. Getting the balance right is challenging. In a world where any sort of authority is routinely dismissed, both experts and spiritual alike, we need to become more consciously aware of who it is we are deferring authority to. We need to show both caution and wisdom, but the reality is such care and wisdom is based on our own limited and woefully uninformed personal judgement. Ultimately authoritative truth is granted because we allow it to be, so let’s collectively engage and together frame the space where our personal judgements are as sound as they can be. Baggini concludes with: “No one can make up your mind for you, unless you make up your mind to let them.”
I dealt with this question of authority, especially ecclesiastical authority, in great detail within my doctoral work. The challenge for the Lutheran church is the balance between spiritual authority and theological expertise. In a world where there is more and more responsibility, and with responsibility comes authority, given to the laity, the confessional frameworks of the church need to be more openly engaged. Tragically, we seem to be polarising ourselves. A growing number of ecclesiastical guardians are emerging, laying claim to epistemic authority, and trying to reclaim the theological high ground they fear is being lost as the world and its secular paradigms intrude on a space they have no place to intrude. On the other side, we have laity, coming to the church from a secular paradigm, experts in their various fields, urging the church to embrace such knowledge so it can better sustain its presence and engage the culture. In the end, both have created a crisis of legitimation within the church. There needs to be a more open, engaging discourse, in which the church journeys together into a post-Christendom world. Reinforcing the theological ramparts create an isolation and fear toward the world. Tearing them down removes the integrity of the church within its historical context. In the end, we all need to remember that we exist as church, not because of any individual or collective authority, but because this is Christ’s body in the world, through which God reaches out and draws others toward him with love, grace, and wisdom.