Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Authority

The primary issue that had my brain (and my guts) twisted into knots for the past month was the question of whose authority to trust regarding matters of the spirit.

Frankly, I would love to find one earthly source to feed all my otherwordly needs; to answer all the hard questions; and to take the onus off of my own notably fallible judgement.  

In the past, I've searched high and low among New Age self-proclaimed gurus (and one Buddhist monk), hoping to find someone who actually lives up to their claim of having all the answers.  No luck there.  I had a very specific spiritual problem to solve,  i.e. my tendency to pick up other peoples' feelings and take them on as my own, so it was easy to tell what worked and what didn't.  None of these people, even those whose theories were very convincing, were able to give me practical tools to change my situation.  After several years of consecutive disappointments, I stopped expecting to find anyone who could help.

As you know (or if you don't, read the post I linked to above), I finally found someone who could help me, in the person/God who goes by the name of Jesus.  One answered prayer led to another and another, and now my days of feeling overwhelmed by psychic bombardments are just a fading memory of a nightmare.  It wasn't about faith to begin with: my first prayer was almost sarcastic, with just a sliver of hope, and I still got an answer.  I can't prove it to anyone else, but in my personal world it's a repeatable experiment with consistent results, proving that Jesus really does exist.

Will I ever get used to making that statement?  34 years of turning my nose up at Christianity do not fall away in an instant.  But how can I argue with what I personally know and have experienced to be a fact?

The Bible is another matter entirely.  Just because I believe in Jesus doesn't mean that I automatically accept everything else that comes along with any of the major Christian combo deals.  It's supposed to be pretty much a given that if you call yourself a Christian you're going to put some amount of faith in the Bible, but how much?

It appears that no two people on the planet, even including those who claim to take the Bible as the inerrant word of God, can agree exactly on a complete interpretation of scripture.  Every human who reads it has their own bias.  Not to mention that there are over 50 complete modern English translations of the original scriptures before we even get to divisions on the basis of personal opinion.

Unless you're someone who was born into a particular denomination and 100% accepts your church's interpretation of scripture from when you're first able to understand Sunday school until the day you die, your personal opinion is going to colour the way you read the Bible. Therefore, any person who disagrees even in a small way with the tradition they grew up with, or who converts to Christianity as an adult, makes choices about the way in which they approach scripture.

There is a very convincing argument which I have read from more than one source, critiquing the New Age movement and encouraging people to pick one faith and submit to its authority.  It goes something like this:  The New Age movement treats the world's spiritual traditions like an all-you-can-eat buffet.  New Agers pick and choose among the elements of each tradition that they find beautiful, attractive, comforting, and non-threatening.  This approach, the argument goes, will always result in a faith that cannot result in personal growth, because by definition it will never take you out of your comfort zone.

If you really want to grow beyond the limits of your own small soul, you have to submit to a greater authority and trust it to guide you through deep waters to a greater truth, the argument concludes.  

The bottom line seems to be: don't trust your own preferences, because they will limit you.  You have to set your judgements aside and follow a tradition that has accumulated wisdom for years equalling many times the span of your brief life.

But which one?  I mean, you have to choose to begin with.  And if you're choosing, you're still exercising your own judgement and preferences.  

This is where everything starts to get circular and confusing.  

Even within the first few weeks of my education in Christian theology, I ran into disagreements between interpretations of scripture.  I was listening to some podcasts from this source , and also taking verbal instruction from a pastor at my local church.  Which one of them should I trust?

Honestly, there are things that rub me the wrong way within both views.  So let's say, for argument's sake, that I went ahead and picked one of them to be My Trusted Authority.  If someone were to ask me why I picked that source as Correct In All Things, I wouldn't want to say "well I just picked one at random because you have to give yourself over to something greater".  I'd want to give some compelling arguments based in fact and logic to show that this was a basically trustworthy source.  The subtext of this is:  I have good judgement!  Therefore I made a good choice!

But let's say that there are some points upon which I disagree with My Trusted Authority.  I could put my own views on a shelf and try to force my mind to accept the view of the Authority.  If someone were to ask me why I was ditching the beliefs I'd held strongly for all of my life in order to embrace the theology of the Authority, I'd have to answer "I don't have all the answers, and I believe that one must give oneself over to a wiser tradition in order to grow spiritually".  The subtext of this is:  My judgement is flawed!  Therefore I must be protected from making bad choices!

Let's review.  I've made one choice, and someone has asked me two questions regarding that choice.  The answer to the first question ends up being "A" (I have good judgement).  The answer to the second question ends up being "Not A" (I have bad judgement). 

Can I tell you how many hours of sleep I lost going through these arguments over and over in my mind trying to find some way of breaking through the impossibility?

In the end what it comes down to is this:  I can't find any way of half-trusting myself.  Either I believe that my judgement is basically good and I check in with myself to see if things feel right before I believe them, or I distrust myself entirely and let myself be led.  If I trust my judgement even a wee little bit, I'm going to end up questioning things.  You can't have A and Not A at the same time.

And considering that I wasn't born into a Christian faith that I could accept unquestioningly for the duration of my life, exercising no judgement at all is not an option.  Not that I find that to be a problem.  I hated thinking that I had to force myself to throw my own feelings and opinions into the garbage when it came to controversial topics.  Before I'd had enough time to puzzle it all through, I thought that might be what God wanted.  

My judgement might not be perfect every time, but it's been good enough to get me this far.  I'm going to keep counting on it as much as I always have.

I do believe that there's a lot to the Bible.  The past 20 years have unearthed quite a lot of archeological evidence that supports the historical points in some of the scriptures.  And, when it's interpreted through the eyes of love, the wisdom contained in the Bible does come to life.  Oddly enough, I find that I enjoy reading the Bible, even when I find the content leaves me with questions.  

I came this far in my journey, hugely outside my comfort zone, without accepting any human authority as fundamentally superior to my own.  Sure, lots of people have more education, or do more good works, etc.  I can learn from them.  But the only person I'm willing to surrender to completely is Jesus.  I reserve the right to disagree with anyone else.

I realize this post leaves many questions hanging, but it's long enough.  Tune in next time, when I plan to get more specific regarding the disagreements which trouble me most, and hopefully answer any questions you good folks leave in the comments.

10 comments:

Warped Mind of Ron said...

Good for you! God gave us all brains so we can question what seems wrong to us. If we do not question the earthly authorities of religion don't you become easy picking for the false prophets that are warned about? If we weren't meant to think and question we would not have been gifted with the capability to do so. Any good teacher will welcome questions that make him think and consider a different perspective because that will help him to grow too. We are all students here on this planet and we are also all teachers.

unsigned said...

Epic post!

Nilsa S. said...

I love the way you think, and therefore I love the way you write! BTW, as I was reading this post, I couldn't help but think this was a Jewish sermon. It just has that sentiment of questioning, yet accepting, that I always walk away with from those services.

Logan said...

That word gets through around a lot, but it's more institutional than relational. "Trust" seems to resonate better with how Jesus led his disciples and how the early church got along before it fell into the trap of power. We live our lives in general in a web of trusts. I trust my mechanic that he is doing safe and valued work on my car unless I have evidence to the contrary. I trust my bank, my lawyer, my politicians on the same basis ... well, based on evidence for or against that. I trust my spouse based on the interaction in the relationship until I have evidence to the contrary.
Who is the ultimate decider about who or what to trust? We all are as individuals, whether or not somebody claims "authority" or points to it. Even the Bible doesn't claim to be an authority. Jesus did, very clearly. The Bible contains the nearest history by eyewitnesses to his whole story, so is the first place to investigate trust, but even that process relies on other for the research and expertise.
Everything is a web of trust to be tested.
That's one of the reasons it helps to investigate in a community - we can trust that our judgment is fundamentally reliable, but not completely reliable (otherwise we'd be perfect). Others can see and compensate for our blind-spots (willful or not).

San said...

Heartfelt post, Spark. You're doing the soul-searching and I egg you on in your travels! Your faith in your discoveries is inspirational.

You've got guts! It takes guts to search the depths.

Aurora said...

You might want to start asking about the theologians whom your church and Ipod broadcasts quote. Do they cite Luther? Aquinas? Jean-Luc Marion? Boethius? The Pope? Who do they follow; what questions do they think are the most important? I would say, it's never just about the Bible.

The new agers do indeed pick and choose their traditions but I think the same goes for any new movement--Christian denominations included; they were all new once. Luther, for example, had to use a combination of research and heartfelt thinking. To the extent that an individual is honest with him/herself, it's not easy to find/define an authority.

Sparkling Red said...

Ron: Amen to that! ;-)

Unsigned: Thanks, I think. :-)

Nilsa: That's funny. I've been told before that I have a Jewish way of thinking. I guess those cultural traits can persist separately from all the rituals and rules that may have led there in the first place. I'll take it as a compliment. ;-) Thank you also for the enormous compliments of loving the way I think and write. I couldn't ask for higher praise! *glowing*

Logan: A web of trust. That's kind of the opposite way of looking at the question of authority, without being anarchic. Very helpful!

San: Thanks! It's scary, but I always feel better after I've taken the plunge, usually after much encouragement from friends.

Aurora: Come to think of it, my church pastors don't usually quote any source except the Bible itself. The Meeting House points to N.T. Wright a fair bit, and mentions others in passing. In the end I guess we are each our own final authority, whether we want to admit that or not.

Keera Ann Fox said...

First of all, faith is not religion. Trusting to the higher authority (the kingdom within) does not depend on a building, a congregation, an interpretation or a bible.

Secondly, here's where you pray to Jesus for guidance.

Thirdly, there is no reason not to first try one church, and when you've outgrown that (or whatever), try another.

Shopping around (for a religion) is not the same thing as being superficial or refusing a challenge. It is about finding a spiritual home. Why "move in" to a place that doesn't suit you? How will that support, guide and strengthen you?

I have had my New Age-type faith for 30 years. It grows stronger and stronger each day and has helped me through depression, job loss, and grief. You know, the regular shit that takes us all out of our comfort zones.

Sparkling Red said...

Keera: Woohoo! Tell it like it is, girlfriend!

Just to be clear, I really like the church I attend, so far. The pastors are very open-minded, relatively speaking, and have not pressured me in any way. A couple of people (some in e-mails) got a different impression. In fact, one of the pastors himself predicted that I might outgrow that church and wish to seek out one that specializes in people who have "spiritual gifts" or whatever you like to call my ability to sense others' feelings. He said he would totally understand if I moved on for that reason. I was impressed by his humility and lack of any need to be controlling.

I appreciate your input! :-) It comes across as both strong and supportive.

Warped Mind of Ron said...

Hey I'm leaving you an award on my blog tomorrow so drop on by and claim it. Be sure to bring at least three forms of picture ID with you to get it!