Over the past two years, a lot of people have asked about whether anyone is bound to obey this or that decree by this or that authority. Sometimes it’s about the secular government, and sometimes it’s about an ecclesial figure, but the common thread has been confusion about when obedience is good or bad. In practice, I see people flee to extremes: one group acts as though the government has absolutely no authority to deal with COVID while the other group acts as though there could never be such a thing as government overreach. One group acts as though a bishop or the Pope has no authority that could practically affect them, while the other acts as though a prelate’s most casual remark overthrows all other moral considerations. Often, I see individuals vacillate between these extremes depending on the issue at hand.
At root, it appears to me that most people lack a coherent notion of what authority is. This is a strange thing, since we live with authorities all the time: parents, teachers, employers, club presidents, priests—we have a lot of concrete experience, but we seem bad at tapping into that experience to deal with new questions.
This post offers a definition of authority and an explanation of how authority works. I am not addressing any particular controversy, but offering a general account applicable to all controversies.
Over a year ago I sat down with Matt Whitman at the Lander Bar and we filmed a conversation. He’s a protestant, recently a pastor, and I’m a Catholic theologian, and I just let him grill me about Catholicism. I have intense conversations pretty much every day, so I had that one and then went on with the week. Didn’t give it much more thought.
But I keep seeing nice comments from people who say how helpful the series has been to them. I am honestly surprised! I didn’t prepare or pre-think the interview, I didn’t see the questions ahead of time, and I got tired as the afternoon went on, so it must be the Holy Spirit bringing a treasure out of an earthen vessel.
Matt finally dropped the last two episodes just recently, so here is the whole series:
It has been a while now since my book came out: Cur Deus Verba: Why the Word Became Words. It culminates twenty years of thinking about what exactly Scripture is, getting past the various partial viewpoints and straining for that view from the mountaintop where you can see the whole landscape. That vision was a burden: I felt that I was with child, so to speak, and the only way forward to peace was to bring it forth to the world. The day it was accepted for publication by Ignatius Press I felt a weight drop from my shoulders.
Maritain expresses some suspicion about the term “fine arts”. It is hard to say what the fine arts are all about except to say that they make beautiful things, and yet Maritain maintains that beauty is not the end of the fine arts. It is the “end beyond the end,” he says—and in the same passage, he admits that he struggles to find words for what he has in mind.
This past year, I thought a lot about what he meant and how he should have said it, because I was asked to teach a course that covers the history of art from ancient Greece to the Gothic cathedral. The course presented a puzzle in its construction: during the entire period it covers, there was no word or category for “art” in the sense that defines the course, meaning more or less “the kinds of things that go in collections and museums”. Throughout antiquity and the Middle Ages, “artists” were simply artisans, and “art” was the ability to make things of all kinds, including both paintings and plows. Today we distinguish the useful arts from the fine arts. How should we approach a course on fine arts that covers only those times in which no such distinction was made? How do the useful arts and the fine arts in fact relate to one another?
Over the past two years I have studied Maritain’s aesthetics with great enjoyment. I even taught an art history course and used it as a chance to find out whether Maritain’s theory can help students in a practical way. (The answer was, “Yes!”) When I turn to others who have written on aesthetics, like Gilson, they seem clumsy in comparison. Unfortunately, many interpreters of Maritain also seem clumsy to me, so it might be helpful to others if I set out what I took away at least from Maritain’s major work, Creative Intuition.
What follows is not only a summary but also an interpretation of Creative Intuition. I aim to set down what he meant, but I spell out some ideas that he left implicit and others that may have remained implicit in his own understanding. Maritain had in mind a theory with many parts that make up a system, but he never wrote a summary chapter to bring all the parts into explicit relation, and as a result I think he never asked himself some questions that inevitably occur to the reader. Here is an outline, according to me.
A question from a man up late one night wondering:
It seems that if one can know something he can also from that, arrive at its opposite – what it is not. If we can not know Heaven, can we know Hell? Divine Revelation gives a nice lot of imagery: Fire, darkness, etc. and if the greatest joy of Heaven is of the soul in the Beatific Vision, the primary suffering in Hell would be the deprivation of It. But we don’t know what ‘It’ is.
Why I am wondering what Hell is like, I do not know. It is known that if I knew the smallest bit, I would wish that I didn’t, and also I am left confused about the fact that people do indeed choose to be there.
On a somewhat smaller scale, I have chosen against good sense, to be up far past a relatively decent hour. Similar problem, smaller matter?
Questions from a man in the trenches, with answers from yours truly:
When we read a biblical passage, what is the criteria for determining when the biblical author is making an assertion; and when the author is expressing his opinion, or making an assumption? The same question would relate to the Church Fathers scientific and historical knowledge of their day, compared with the scientific and historical knowledge of our day.
The initial problem here is that most of us are unaware of the intricacies of our own speech. We think there is a simple on/off between assertion and non-assertion, and we think it is fairly clear which is which, so we want to know what are the two or three criteria one would need to detect the on/off in Scripture. Newman’s An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent is helpful for beginning to explore how many subtle distinctions there are within our own experience of thinking and claiming. Add in the further complications of multiple genres of text and distance in time and culture, and you can imagine that a list of criteria for determining when Scripture is or is not asserting could go on more or less indefinitely. How many ways are there for a human being to signal his intent linguistically? It would be like trying to make an exhaustive list of criteria for determining whether an individual from any given contemporary culture is serious or telling a joke.
[Tune: BESANÇON. The leader sings the italicized lines, and everyone sings the non-italicized lines. The leader joins everyone in the last line of each verse.]
In the beginning was the Word, God’s own Word, as yet unheard. And the Word was with God the Father, Radiance of eternal splendor. And the Word was our God on high, God from God and light from light.
Through the Word all was made that is; All creation’s splendor his. Nothing without the Word existed, Only in him the world persisted. He was before all things with God, Everlasting, changing not.
In him was life, the light of men; Dark can never enter him. In the dark shines the light engendered, Radiance of the Father’s splendor. Darkness can never overcome Light from light, God’s only Son.
The Word was made flesh and dwelt on earth, Of a virgin taking birth. We have beheld his glory gleaming, Radiance from the Father streaming, Glory as of the Son most high, God from God and light from light.
Last night I gave a lecture to interested students about why we should obey authorities. As I have listened to people and watched the Internet over the years, I have had the impression that most people in fact do not believe we have any obligation to obey authorities, so decided to enrich our local conversation with another viewpoint. Download here or listen here:
The lecture was followed by a lively Q&A. Download here or listen here:
Once upon a time, long, long ago, in a country not far from here, there lived a sculptor. By making statues, he supported himself and his wife comfortably. He had very few problems with his neighbors, a small community of people whose grandfathers and great-grandfathers had eaten at the same tables; and the town was nice, located in the deepest part of a valley with large, noble mountains on all sides.