On Authourity

We swim with questions about what is truth, what is fact, and what is authoritative. What is real news that has authority, and what is fake news? There are many people who claim authority, and not all of them are worthy of it. Few wield it, and fewer still are good at articulating what is necessary to have it. Part of the problem is we have culturally dismantled the term. We use the word “authority” now only in a vestigial sense. It is long divorced from any real meaning or moral weight.1 For all of our postmodern mistrust of authority, and for all of our self-righteous rejection of all things hierarchical and institutional­ —­ we are breathtakingly silent when it comes to defining exactly what it is that we are throwing out with our bath water.
Therefore, for a practical tool to find what authority is, I suggest we step back about 500 years ago to the teachings of an ex-friar in Wittenberg. Yes, mine is going to be a Lutheran answer. Trigger warning: I’m going to go to the religion place for an answer to a question. But stick with me, dear non-religious readers. The point in my writing is to cure us of our numbness of tongue, it is not so important to me if you share the religious underpinnings where this tool comes from. It is a good tool, and I hope you can use it just as well as an atheist as I do as a Lutheran.
The teaching is this: Luther’s explanation of the fourth commandment.2 Now you may run for the hills saying: “What on earth does the commandment to honour thy Father and Mother have to do with authority?” And that is exactly my point. Our shock that the fourth commandment would have anything to do with authority belies our very ignorance about the term. Let’s do some etymology:
Our word authority shares the same linguistic root as our word for author. Which comes in turn from our words for Father and Mother. These words all share the same history of meaning. You can even hear how they relate if you say them together “author, mother, father.” It is no mistake that a parental word is the first in the online etymology dictionary’s entry for author. Quite simply, an author is someone who parents or gives new life to something. Further, you will find that the difference in definition between authority and authorship is that you need one extra thing (for which I will use two not-exactly interchangeable words): Respect/Honour. Authority demands not just an author, but a respected and respectful one.
For instance, if you want to know something about the craft of painting, you will probably want to go to talk to someone who authors paintings. Your friend Sandy Sea-Plankton could spin you a yarn about painting all day, but he’s never seen a painting let alone made one. You could say, he does not have any authority about painting. Furthermore, not just any old schmuck dredging her brushes through pigments will do. If you really wanted an authority on painting, you would probably want to talk to a respected and honourable painter. Someone who is honoured by and honours her craft and the parents of it— like form and shape and color and technique and maybe other venerable painters and their traditions.
We will find a double gift-nature about authority. It must be given by others, in the form of honour and it must also involve a giving back of that same honour both to the community and the craft involved. To this effect, one might ask: what if authority goes unrecognized? What if the community, completely misses and takes for granted or spite those who are parenting good and vibrant things? What about the good painters who are not recognized in their time? To this I say, exactly! This is in fact the most common way you find authority. If everyone around is easily noticing it, and it is noisy and demands its own triumph, it is probably something else.
Authority often works in the background and quiet places. It does not make a habit of calling attention to itself. And most of us pass it by without giving it a second thought. Would that we appreciated our parents more! But that does not take away from the given-and-given back nature of it. We are rascals all of us, who do not know how to receive kindness. But Authority is always about passing love and respect from one place to another. Even if it doesn’t go very far, or receive much notice. It still derives its nature from mutuality. You can’t be a parent without kids, or maybe even sometimes without another person to make them with.
A further wordy note here on the two-way street of authority. Some of you may have noticed, I am not using the American spelling of “honor.” Take this to mean what you will about the state of honour in America—but I prefer to spell this word the British way. Not just for the aesthetic of it, but because there must always be an our involved in honour. It should never be something that can be claimed simply by individuals. Once honour loses its our, it is no longer authority we are talking about, but power. Once this mutual gift-exchange of honour ceases, we become bad parents and lose our authority to our individual lusts for control. The honourable thing is always to give as you have been given to. Sure, we can still give honour on an individual, but there must be a we involved to do so. A person cannot simply will their own status of honour into being for themselves. Usually, we call that hubris.
For cohesiveness, I could by the same argument spell authority “authourity,” but it is my understanding that this is an obsolete spelling even in Britain. I don’t want to be too archaic. Old stuffiness is one of the principal objections to authority by postmodernism; and it is something I already risk by bringing up British spellings, dead ex-friars, and etymology anyway. It is, after all, my project to make us more comfortable with the term authority, not less, so I have forgone the change except in the title. However, you could do no harm to the word by spelling it that way. Perhaps a little rebellious misspelling could go a long way in reclaiming the meaning of the word.
Now for the Luther bit. When Luther wrote his Large Catechism in 1528, one of the biggest contributors to its largeness was his explanation of the fourth commandment. As a whole, the commandments take up more room than the rest of the Catechism, and the fourth commandment takes up even more space than all the rest. Aside from baptism, the fourth commandment is perhaps the single lengthiest treatment of any single part of Christian teaching in the catechism. This is because Luther couldn’t stop coming up with important things to say about honouring parents. It is the only commandment in scripture that has an explicitly written promise attached to it3 and it also sets up a rubric for determining all authority everywhere. All this is to say, for Luther, the fourth commandment is a pretty big deal.
Luther’s primary insight is this:

“all other authority is derived and developed out of the authority of parents. Where a parent is unable by themselves to bring up their child, the parent calls upon a schoolmaster to teach them, if the parent is too week, they seek help of friends and neighbours, if the parent dies, they confer and delegate responsibility and authority to others appointed for the purpose. . . Thus all who are called masters stand in the place of parents and must derive from them their power and authority to govern.” (Large Catechism in the Book Of Concord [LC BOC] p. 405-406)

So here is your rubric: does the person act with the love, honour, and patience of a parent? Do they create new life about a thing as a parent should want to do for their children? Does it help parents to do their job well? Only then is it authoritative. Imagine that. If all power and authority held as its aim (and source) only the ability to help parents to better raise their children. Why, then we might actually have a government! It would certainly make it much more difficult to support any supposed authority saying we should separate children from their parents as they are crossing our borders. For that is by definition, not authoritative. How are either parents or children honoured and enabled to do their jobs by brutal separation?! But I will have more to say about tyrants shortly.
First arises a more obvious question: why, of all people, should we honour parents? When Luther is writing about Baptism later on in his catechism, he returns to the subject of the fourth commandment because he just can’t help himself:

“If we regard these people with reference to their noses, eyes, skin, and hair, flesh and bones, they look no different from Turks and heathen, and someone might come and ask: “Why should I think more of this person than of others?” But because the commandment is added, “you shall honour your father and mother” [all at once] I see another person, adorned and clothed with the majesty and glory of God. The commandment, I say, is the golden chain around the neck, yes, the crown on the head, which shows me how and why I should honour this particular flesh and blood.” (LC BOC p.457)

Basically, Luther’s argument is: through God’s promises and ability to create something out of nothing, as God is want to do—God takes ordinary schmucks and turns them into parents. It is God’s word attached to the people, not the people themselves that makes them worthy and holy and honourable. “If it were up to us,” Luther says “we would not have a penny in the house or a straw in the field.” (LC BOC, p. 408). So it is good that it is not up to us. But an external stimulus helps us out. Like when I mention to you “think about your tongue.” It cannot be helped but my words create a new reality where suddenly you are aware of a wet and weird thing in your mouth. So when God mentions to us “honour your parents” it creates a new weird sensation where we begin to see them differently. So it is that, however reluctantly this reality is thrust into our consciousness, love is the root of authority. It is God’s act of loving parents, and charging them with love in return that attaches honour to them. If you take love for the children (first from God and then from parents) out of the equation, you no longer have authority.
This is the part where my atheist friends have a jagged God-pill to swallow. If you do not believe in a God who creates something out of nothing, you may have trouble believing in parents. Let alone that you should honour them. However, there is a common groundwork here we can use: that authority should by definition be based off of love and respect. On that perhaps we can agree while we are waiting for whatever metaphysics or (lack of)deity to catch up with us. Without reference to how we got there, it is still practical to use this the following tool: How do you tell if something is fake news? Ask if it honours its parents. News is a word that means “a new thing that is happening.” So if news does not track a real thing that is new and happening, giving honour to the authors and parents of that thing, then it is fake. Does it cite sources that it says it cites? Does it approach the material respectfully? If it is science, does it use scientific arguments and does it quote good and honourable peer-reviewed scientists? If not, it is probably some yarn that Sandy Sea-Plankton is telling you. While on the topic of finding Nemo references, the movie itself is a perfect allegory for this argument: When does Marlin become an authoritative parent? When he learns to trust and honour his kid.
This leads us back to the two-way street part of authority. Because right on the heals of “Why on earth should I honour parents?” comes the next question: “What if my parents suck?” To this, Luther says, authority can never be a license to do as one pleases with one’s children.

“For God does not want scoundrels or tyrants in this office or authority; nor does God assign them this honour so that they may receive homage. Instead they should keep in mind that they owe obedience to God, and that above all, they should earnestly and faithfully discharge the duties of their office, not only to provide for the material support of their children, servants, subjects, etc., but especially to bring them up to the praise and honour of God. Therefore do not imagine that the parental office is a matter of your pleasure and whim. It is a strict commandment and injunction of God, who holds you accountable for it.” (LC BOC p.409)

In short: if what you are doing does not give to children honour and love, as you have been given honour and love, you are not being a parent. You are being a tyrant.
Being a parent is about sharing life. It is about making new people and things, and sharing honour and love with them. Once you are bullying, stopping growth, separating families, gas-lighting, or ruling out of fear or hate or any other antonym for basic decency, you are not acting as a parent. This is not to say that love and respect cannot restrain, nor cause fear and trembling. Love and respect must and do often do these things. Mutuality can sometimes be harsh and abrasive. But the crucial difference is that these are not the starting point. Once love and respect leave the picture as primary source, and fear and trembling are all you have in your tool kit, authority has also left. If you suffer under a tyrant, you have permission to cut them off. Sic Semper Tyrannis.
Hounouring parents is not slavery, and it is not blind obedience. In fact sometimes the best way to honour one’s parents is to defy them. This is shocking I know, but parents can mess up. They can command things from their children that they do not mean. So sometimes we honour their better intentions and not their commands. To go with our previous painter metaphor: sometimes the best art is something that defies all conventions. On the flip side, sometimes we must also defy ourselves to honour our parents. For we can be pigheaded and wrong and work against our better interests just as much as they can. Many painters also know this struggle. How many works of art took hours of self-denial to overcome inertia and ennui?
But let me be clear: tyrants never have authority. In their very act of trying to seize authority for themselves, they undermine its foundation (the our in honour), so that all they are left holding is a void. This is what Qoheleth means when she writes “A fool folds their hands and consumes their own flesh. Better is a handful with quiet than two handfuls with toil, and a chasing after wind.” (Ecclesiastes 4:5-6) The harder you work to boast of your own flesh, and the more toil you spend trying to secure authority, the less of it you have. Just vanity and chasing after the wind. This void usually frightens tyrants, which is maybe why they lash about themselves so often with fists of lies, fear, deception and hatred. Without authority to back up what they are saying, they must back it up with power, persuasion, and manipulation.
Perhaps, all the same, you still don’t buy this honour stuff. Maybe your hearts are hardened against authority, and you have been too wounded by those who should have been your parents. Maybe you could see no reason, God-given or otherwise, to honour someone like a parent. Postmodernism does have some compelling arguments against authority. I have already mentioned old stuffiness. Authority has also failed us in providing objective truths.4 Earthly authority is sometimes Procrustean and resistant to change. No earthly authority is pure, and free from bias, malice or human callousness. Its foundations are soft and hinge on things like faith and honour and quality which are not easy to pin down.
To put it bluntly: authority is weak. (Another reason tyrants cannot wield it, for they look only for tools of strength.) It defies reason and has more to do with framing.5 Authority involves community and things of a type that are contractual and complex. It is no bulwark from which we can always defend ourselves. Although, we often mangle and heap up authority to try to make it one. Proper authority is rarely used for defense, but serves as an extra spilling over and flourishing beyond its source. Weak as it is, authority, when it is truly present, does something to us. Authority makes more of itself inside us when we hear it. That’s because authority does what its name states: It parents. It raises children. It honours us. It makes new little authorities and shares life.

Be the 1st to vote.
  1. For a good argument for why this is the case see Alasdair MacIntyre’s book After Virtue.
  2. There is absurdly little consistency to the numbering of the ten commandments across traditions. By fourth commandment, I mean the one that says “Honour Thy Father and Mother.” If you are Anglican, Reformed, or Orthodox, this is number five. Lutherans and Roman Catholics number this as four. If you are Jewish it is number .סלה אלהים נתן רב מצוה
  3. Luther believes that all the commandments have implicit promises attached to them, but the fourth commandment was so important that God had to entice us toward it with a further written promise: “That you may live a long life in the land where you live.” (LC BOC p.404)
  4. Although this is largely due to a separate problem where it turns out there are no such things as objective truths. But that is a larger topic for another day.
  5. Framing is the primary way in which our brains organize the world. Even though we would like to think it is reason that governs most of our thought, social sciences have shown this is not so. For a quick and dirty treatment of this, there’s this wikipedia article. If someone has a better source that talks about ways we organize the world, viz. framing/reason/and others let me know.

3 Comments

  1. Sharon
    Jun 26, 2018

    TOMMY. Seriously. Tommy. This, with some editing I or Dan would be happy to provide, should be an article published in Patheos. This is great.

    • Tommy G! Richter
      Jun 26, 2018

      If you make edits, I’ll send it to a publisher.

  2. Daniel K Richter
    Jun 26, 2018

    Wow! This not only needs to be published, I hope you can find a way to condense it down for a newspaper op-ed. Bravo!

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