For several weeks I have been reflecting on the idea of authority and how that word impacts us. I am always struck by the use of the word in Mark’s Gospel passage because I find it offensive and counterintuitive as a term used for Jesus, yes, especially when in my favorite image of him he is holding a lamb, a person of deep compassion, of stalwart forgiveness, and of deep understanding of the cosmos as interdependent, not lording over anything, not asking for a hierarchical word such as ‘authority.’ I cringe when I hear it, and when I see it in print; my physical reaction mirrors my interior twisting and turning as anxiety builds against the myriad meanings and interpretations of this word and what it represents in its broadest oppressive, dominant context. Questions arise as the physicality of it enters my brain and the sound permeates me, such as, – ‘He spoke with authority’, or ‘Listen as I am the authority’, or I have the authority to make that decision’. How do we respond to those who presumably ‘have authority’? What does it mean to ‘have authority’ to those who have it and those who do not? What is our own sense of authority? DO we have it or do we not? If not, how do we get it? Do we want it, even? What does it really mean to have it anyway? Is it given to us by others or do we grasp at it for ourselves?
Often we have presuppositions about concepts surrounding words that are taken in or out of context. We presume meanings that may not even have relevance to the word itself, but these meanings have built a myth around a word, often distorting significance as certain of these meanings are used in ways that build a concrete wall around the word seemingly never to be dismantled. New meanings are ‘not allowed’ to be constructed. New meanings that might bring the words forward to renewal or retrieval of the original true meaning, or graft innovative, transformative or evolved meanings on them as society’s needs fluctuate progressing to ever nuanced interpretations or hermeneutics over tried and true anciently rooted meanings suffering from stagnation.
Authority is such a word. Its etymology comes from the Latin word auctoritas. According to Cicero, it was the power of the Roman Senate to make decisions and assert their voice over another’s arguments. Its meaning was fluid in a certain respect and could not be pinned down definitively. It appears also that it was a word that the Greeks had no equivalent for and in the end even the Roman Senate found it to be an ineffectual solution. So the concept of auctoritas was either replaced or paired with consilium.
What are the meanings of the word ‘authority’ today? There are many and they are as fluid as they were back in Roman times. The dictionary states, of course, a variety of meanings along with synonyms for a variety of situations. First, there are the various contexts in which the word is used, such as:
- Power based on right
- Appearance of having power, knowledge or ability
- Vested with ability or knowledge
- One who knows
Then under these subheadings are several synonyms that apply to each:
- Right, authorization, righteousness, justification, power
- Prestige, influence, self-assurance, gravitas
- Officialdom, judges, police, ecclesiastics, powers that be
- Scholar, expert, critic, specialist, judge
From the defining words above, authority denotes control, of a position of hierarchical influence of someone who is believed to have answers because of predetermined circumstances that indicate that they have an ability, knowledge, or power that someone else does not have and cannot have. Sometimes this is true and authentic; sometimes it is imagined or simply bestowed without foundation, understanding or practical experience of what it means.
Authority presupposes possession of knowledge, experience or a truth, but also a taking on of responsibility for the concept which one represents to the other. Sometimes, however, authority is not connected to experience, as expressed above, such that one comes not from a position of practical, and right knowledge about a concept, but from a pure position of power that one can self-name. One can sound authoritarian, can appear to have the experience or be in possession of a truth claim because they are capable of overriding the opinion of one who may have more practical ability, but senses a certain inability to articulate, or explain or even be allowed to explain that experience or alternative truth claim that is valid.
Is authority, as the definitions state, what is given, bestowed or graced upon us by others? Often I see those who claim they have it, but without any other entity having paved the way for them or handing it over to another as seemingly a baton or a mantle of justification for making pronouncements except for those elected into a particular office or position that has a list of prerequisites that the electee seems to possess, but may not yet possess the title. Here is where the meaning distorts as depth of experience conflates with another’s ability to misuse power or ambition to override a less astute, yet able ‘authority’ to reign. I believe that this idea was realized by the Roman Senate and, therefore, they knew that authority is always precarious and that consilium –deliberation, consultation, advice, suggestion, wisdom, plan, purpose, judgment–may lead to more just and lasting decisions.
Fr. Joe Pellegrino rightly states, “All authority is by nature transitional except that authority which comes from [God] and which has [as] its goal to return to him. Jesus held people spellbound because God gave him the authority to teach the truth. This authority would never be removed from Jesus because Jesus was intimately united to [God], the source of the authority. We share in the authority of [God] to the extent that we are united to the source of this authority.” Therefore, we are empowered by our deities, our symbols, of who and what God is to us. We are empowered to be all that we can be in the truth and trust of that authority bestowed because it has a divine source. We must not abuse it because it can be taken away or it can fade away in ways of which we might not even be aware.
Authority is fleeting, ultimately, and transitional. Today we know and are experts, but new knowledge and learning comes after and then we are left as before – without authority, or at best, a changed authority. I think that this is what my mother meant when she told me that ‘rules were meant to be broken.’ She knew that authority was not monolithic, even that said to be of God, can and does change as it is handed to others, such as a change in Popes or the empowerment of women who heretofore have not had authority, but are now acquiring it, finding it, or retrieving it in new ways to explain the truth of what God/Goddess, Christ/Christa mean to us. We have learned the lessons of how to ‘act with authority’ and many are now listening to our ‘authority’.
“Women are sources of love, carriers of love and sustainers of love.”[i]
I ask us to think about replacing this dire word, authority, with a different one that places a graced way of envisioning Scripture, Christ/Christa and God/Goddess in a new light that brings a creative view of how religion and faith work in our lives bringing us closer to our divinity and our spirituality in a fairer, more tender and more compassionate inclusivity. I invite us to begin to replace authority with arbiter, a person empowered with issues of judgment as an umpire would weigh alternatives and arrive at an answer. Arbiter presupposes experience in certain matters, an ability to be equitable in judging and discerning on important matters that involve righteousness and benefit for all. A mediator who gathers information before passing judgment or exercising authority in its harsher sense.
Authority, for me, always has the ring of a power-over structure, a hier—yes, but in the sense of ‘holier-than-thou’ –archical meaning that diminishes one’s own sense of trust in their truth as they understand and see it in light of a healthy sense of self that ‘gives permission’ to the other as having a valid answer with a varying interpretation that resonates in one’s life with a more appropriate meaning. For many, especially women and those on the margins, authority, in many ways, can breed fear as one distrusts their truth and attempts to replace it with the reigning authority. Properly used authority is there for empowered arbitration and consilium, not disempowerment and diminishment of the other.
“Eldad and Medad were not in the tent. They weren’t present with the 70 who received the Spirit back in the days of Moses. Yet, Eldad and Medad still received the Spirit. “Stop them,” Joshua said. “Why?” asked Moses. “Would that all the people shared in the Spirit.” (source)
The only way to keep authority or be an arbiter is to know how to give it away, to share the Spirit. When we do that we do it without ego and we do it selflessly, our motives are pure and full of divine truth.
God/Goddess and Christ/Christa, as arbiters, would not, I am sure, want us to ‘fear’ our existence and experience, but to find a way to trust our abilities and gifts in order to discern what is just, righteous and beneficial to all in how we express that to others and to ourselves. Let us speak as arbiters.
[i] Pellegrino, Fr. Joseph ,August 15, 2012 The Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary: Mary, the Greatest of Us, “With the exception of Jesus Christ, who is the Eternal Word, conceived through the power of the Holy Spirit, Mary is the greatest person to ever exist. She is the greatest person to be conceived through a human mother and a human father. She is greater than Buddha, or Mohammed, or Moses, or David, or George Washington, or Abraham Lincoln, any of the great people of history. She is the one who gave her life so we can have a Savior. She is the greatest of us all. Women are sources of love, carriers of love and sustainers of love.”
Janice Poss is a Ph.D. student at Claremont Graduate University in Religion and Women’s Studies, holds MA.Th. from Loyola Marymount University and BA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, sits on the parish council at her church and whose interests are in theological, philosophical and spiritual aspects of religion as they are expressed aesthetically in the visual arts.