Religion and authority

Is religion an authority in life? Are humans meant to explore truth individually, personally, or is it the place of religion to dictate truth to us?

It is my understanding that religion, with respect to the inward aspect of the individual, represents no authority: that although socially religion may have a purpose, it makes no demands of the heart. In fact, such freedom of spirit is essential to what it means to be human.

The course of this essay depends on the meaning of two words: “authority” and “law”. As such, a bit of definition is in order. These are only attempted definitions, but perhaps from example a clearer picture will arise.

  • Authority is the capacity and intention to exercise power in pursuit of a goal.
  • Law, in the absolute sense, is a condition of existence; in the relative sense, it is the dictims of authority.

In pursuit of its goal, an authority exhibits two major characteristics: the restraint of personal liberty, and response to challenge using force. Since relative laws only express the will of an authority, they do not possess attributes per se. But absolute law – or natural law – has the distinct characteristic that it is inviolable within its scope. One must decide what relationship one will have to it; it does not dictate, or determine anything relative to the subject. It is entirely without motive, which is something possessed in high degree by both relative laws and their governing authority.

Governments are a typical example of an authority. In the pursuit of their goal, putatively social welfare, they exercise power to keep citizens within the bounds of their law. Yet these same attributes can be found in the gardener, or the teacher: anywhere that artificial rules (i.e., relative laws) are imposed to produce a desired effect.

Authority itself seems to be neither good nor bad. If the laws it proclaims are healthy, and its aim a good one, the result will be good. But if the laws are inappropriate, or the aim evil, the result will likewise be evil.

Without authority there would be no exercise of power. Life would be an agglomeration of unintended forces and blind instinct. The moment we begin making decisions and applying them, we are exercising our power and asserting our authority to make those changes to some degree.

But despite the useful nature of power, there exists a dimension in human life where it never exerts a beneficial influence. Consider the artist. In the field of painting she represents an authority through her control of form and color. By following certain inner, ethereal guides, her brush can produce whatever goal her imagination desires. For the sake of simplicity, let’s say our artist has chosen beauty for her subject. And by a good hand and a willing brush, picture such an example standing before you now.

Is there any authority imaginable which can decide your appreciation?

Someone may command you to act kindly, but can they demand your love of kindness? Neither can they decide another’s faith, or happiness, or their heart’s desire. For the human heart is exempt from all authority.

Which is not to say it is exempt from the laws governing its existence! For this is what I believe one purpose of religion to be: the education of man as to the laws governing his spirit.

A true law cannot be contravened, but it can be used. Gravity prevents us from jumping to the moon, but proper use of physical laws has allowed us to fly there. So although the spirit cannot escape its own reality, it can profit and develop through an understanding of its nature.

Yet, the expression of a natural law bears no relationship to any authority. An authority voices relative laws, laws specific to its purpose. Natural laws deal with the fabric of reality itself. Parents tell their children that gravity holds them to the Earth. But is this a command that it must be so? There is a distinct difference between elucidation and command. No physicist has ever been accused of playing the tyrant.

Furthermore, authority is always in pursuit of a goal, whereas natural laws exist of themselves. Men can either profit through the knowledge of them, or suffer the consequences of ignorance. Never do they seek to win first place in our hearts; the reaction we chose determines our relationship to them.

Religion has parts of both of these. With regard to the individual, it reveals to us the secrets of our own nature; with regard to society, it seeks to unify us by threatening reward and punishment, the trademarked tools of any authority.

Since the latter involves material reality, and I’ve already said that the use of authority is required for progress, I won’t question religious authority in that respect. But I would like to see what more can be rooted out in the first case, that of religion’s message to the individual.

Our love for anything cannot be decided. To do so, for whatever purpose, would be the act of an authority which has chosen our love as one of its operating criteria. Even when our conscious mind tries to play that role, it fails. Love is a spontaneous production of the heart, dependent on sensitivity and circumstance, not will.

It makes no sense, therefore, to believe that God has decreed for us to love Him. Perhaps He has created us in order that such love might exist, but it must come about through the pureness of one’s heart contacting the very thing that heart most desires.

If spiritual law says that God is perfect beauty, and that He cannot be seen until we open our eyes, is that a command? Why would an omnipotent being have any need to command, if he could have created us without lids?

Authority exercises power to dominate, because without power its goal could not otherwise be achieved. God, on the other hand, if He is omnipotent, all-possessing, incomparable, has no need to invoke power. His station is the root of dominus: Lord. Why exert power to dominate, if your very being betokens Lordship?

Therefore, in the relationship between believer and Lord, there is no question of authority. The affairs of men may always need some beating into shape, but the human heart is a thing to flower, not to mold. For One Who could have created us in any image, He chose His Own: that we might reach out across the immensity of ignorance by our volition, and learn through that experience to appreciate the beauty of His creation.