A recent post by a thoughtful pastor friend reflects upon ultimate authority – and how it shapes our communities of faith. It made me wonder: when push comes to shove, what is my ultimate authority?
I’ve lived long enough, failed enough, deceived myself enough to know that I need an authority outside myself. I just can’t trust myself to be right all the time, even when I really, really think I am. Yet, there is no other human who meets the criteria, either. All are subject to the smallness of our own souls and our own perspectives.
Of course, some would ‘harrumph’ at me and tell me the ultimate authority is God. But that only re-states the question in another way. How do I reach to – how do I understand God? To what authority do I turn to show me that path, that connection?
I can hear the echoes of my childhood, proclaiming with great force, that ultimate authority is found in the Bible. But, of course, when I read the Bible (or Koran or Torah or I Ching), I read it with my eyes, listen with my ears, understand with my heart. An untrustworthy filter can mar even the most immaculate text – especially a text that has been handed down through many mouths and many scribes, and many languages across the years (adding their own eyes and ears and hearts in the process). So, whatever you think about the infallibility of the word of God, it gets lost in translation. Lost again when some person offers to tell me what it really means. In the end, no words are big enough – no understanding broad enough.
For me, the issue just continues when we move to the Methodist’s Book of Discipline or any constitution-like authority that gets amended by an official body over time. We are collectively heir to the very myopia that each, alone, is heir to – although the communal process and the careful attention that is part of the process of the revision of such documents helps to mitigate the single voice. It is, I admit, a little bigger perspective, a little larger ‘soul’ that is reflected there. Still, not large enough, when I look at the history of slavery, segregation and exclusion that gets codified within them.
The Bible itself suggests ‘two or three together‘ may bring discernment. For the Jews, it is a minyan (actually that’s 10 guys, isn’t it?) that is required. Of course, the debates around the constitution-like books involve more than two or three – so what’s the difference? Perhaps it is that the two or three are not proclaiming discernment for lots of folks across a number of years. Perhaps it is a limited discernment that matches the limited space of my life – not ultimate truth, but truth for my day.
When I came to the Methodist church, I pledged my prayers, presence, gifts, and service … but not my blind obedience, nor (if I remember correctly) to defend the Book of Discipline. That is the charge to the congregation as a whole and to the elders – who provide a venue for me to fulfill my own pledge and a place that calls together the ‘two or three’ on a consistent basis. Their work is vital to my own.
But, if I am not bound by the pledge to uphold the Book of Discipline in the same way, if I did not pledge to ‘order,’ do I hold a different kind of power and responsibility? Does my lack of official authority give me room to voice questions and push edges not open to those who have the responsibility of such order?
The ‘Wesleyan Quadrilateral‘ suggests it is the balance between authorities – not adherence to a single one – that may be the best answer in an imperfect world, filled with imperfect souls. Indeed, the dynamic tension also reminds me that it is not about rules, anyway. It is about relationship. And ultimate authority can short-circuit relationship.
So, it may be that I have no single, ultimate authority to claim within my life. It is all held in that dynamic tension – and surrounded by grace. It is not an ultimate authority upon which base my life, but an ultimate grace. Thank God!
[photo by Ross Griff per cc 2.0]
I was hoping to see the conclusion would be so, ahem, well-balanced and practical as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.
I guess ‘ultimate’ and ‘authority’ are both a bit out of my range.
Good thoughts here, Celia. Your wisdom and spiritual discernment show through here so well.