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“an open laboratory for spiritual exploration. . .”

Filed under: Sermons — Jess at 1:32 pm on Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Unitarian Universalist congregations offer unique examples of covenantal communities, where the authority over various aspects of the community is governed by agreements of relationship rather than brokering of power. In this sermon [PDF], the Rev. Dr. Michael Schuler, senior minister at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, Wisconsin, explores different types of authority in different models of religion, with great insight into how power structures in Unitarian Universalist congregations enable a richer spiritual life for our members through emphasis on individual freedom and responsibility.

On Whose Authority?

by Rev. Dr. Michael A. Schuler

Several weeks ago The Wall Street Journal reported on an emerging trend in certain conservative Christian congregations. As an example, the story pointed to the experience of a seventy-one year old woman, Karolyn Caskey, who had been expelled from the Allen Baptist Church in southwest Michigan.

Mrs. Caskey had been for many years a pillar of that small congregation. A member for half a century, she tithed 10% of her pension and had been a dedicated Sunday School teacher. “She’s one of the nicest, kindest people I know,” one of her neighbors observed. Nevertheless, one Sunday morning last June Mrs. Caskey was handcuffed and escorted from the small whitewashed Baptist church by a Michigan state trooper and a sheriff’s deputy. The charge was trespassing.

Mrs. Caskey was taken in a squad car to the county jail and incarcerated. Surprised to see an old lady in her church clothes, one of the inmates asked, “What happened? Did you rob a church?” “No,” she replied, “I just attended one.” Ultimately, a judge dismissed the case and told county law enforcement not to arrest Mrs. Caskey again, unless she was creating a disturbance.

What had this faithful Christian woman done to provoke such measures? According to the minister of Allen Baptist, Jason Burrick, she was “spreading a spirit of cancer and discord” and deserved to be shunned. Apparently, not long after Rev. Burrick had been called to serve the small church, he and Mrs. Caskey found themselves on opposite sides of an argument over the church’s by-laws. She pointed out that deacons were supposed to be appointed as lay leaders, but her pastor said that, given the small size of the congregation, they weren’t needed.

She insisted, and he resisted, and before long he informed her that her membership had been terminated. This was followed by an open letter to the congregation stating that Mrs. Caskey had been removed for “taking action against the church and your preacher.” According to the letter, Caskey was guilty of “gossip, slander and idolatry.”

According to the Journal report, such measures are becoming more common in conservative Christian circles, where members are given the heave-ho simply for skipping church or opposing congregational leadership. Such extreme measures are justified, as one man put it, because “the Bible says that causing discord in the church is an abomination.”

The foregoing would appear to indicate that at the conservative end of the spectrum a concerted effort is being made to shore up the church’s waning authority. As the late Episcopal bishop James Pike observed more than thirty years ago,

The ideas…of a clergyman, whether parson or primate, were once widely regarded as automatically true. But these days having anything from “Rev.” to “Most Rev.” in front of his name does not produce the former almost Pavlovian response.

This shift in people’s attitudes has caused considerable consternation among conservative religious leaders, whether Protestant, Catholic, Jewish or Muslim. The desire of many contemporary worshipers to enjoy greater spiritual autonomy is seen as both inappropriate and dangerous. The divinely-sanctioned authority of Scripture and clergy must be maintained, George Barna warns, otherwise “the Church has nothing to offer our dying culture beyond some nice buildings and programs.”

That is one way to look at it, I suppose, but it clearly is not the only way to settle the issue of proper authority in either a sacred or a secular context. Granted that the exercise of authority is vital to the effective operation of human institutions, and that the application of some sort of authority is inevitable, still, we do have various options at our disposal.

Authority presents itself in many guises, but three in particular are worth considering. The first we might describe as the authority that is vested in a person’s station, their position in the organizational pecking order. Thus, when George W. Bush declares that he is “the decider” he is simply invoking the authority inherent in the Presidential office. Similarly, when the Roman Catholic Pontiff delivers an official pronouncement on abortion, birth control, clergy celibacy or woman priests he is said to be speaking “ex cathedra” – as a duly elected church official rather than from private conviction.

Significant authority has traditionally been conferred on people purely by virtue of their rank, regardless of any personal qualities or qualifications. The very labels “doctor,” “professor,” “general,” “chief” or “guru” imply that the holders of such titles are entitled to respect and compliance. Positional authority is a fixture even of a social structure as small as the family. “Why do I need to go to bed now?” the child asks. “Because I am the parent and I said so,” Mom or Dad replies. That’s positional authority.

But less deference is paid to this sort of authority now than in previous times, and the average person is generally less awed by titles and the accouterments of office than earlier generations. The spread of democracy has altered people’s perceptions and generally made them less receptive to top-down hierarchical models of leadership. Popes and Presidents who are too imperious can expect significant resistance.

Furthermore, as the media have become more powerful and intrusive, the faults and foibles of various officials have been exposed and this has diminished the stature of the office itself. Bill Clinton’s dalliances and George W. Bush’s habits of deceit have inflicted enormous damage to the institution of the Presidency, just as the exposure of dozens of pedophiles has undermined the Roman Catholic priesthood.

It is in some ways unfortunate that positional authority has lost so much of its aura, because a stable society needs officials who can be trusted to provide effective leadership and to make difficult decisions. The Chinese philosopher Confucius knew this very well, and the Chinese civilization that adopted his ideas featured an elaborate system of relationships based on different grades of positional authority. Everyone occupied an appropriate niche and was accorded the rights and responsibilities suitable to their position. However, no one, even the Emperor, was granted a blank check and all relationships were governed by the overarching principle of reciprocity.

A second kind of authority reflects not so much position as convention. One thinks of the authority wielded by sacred scripture, the U.S. Constitution or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Ours is said to be a “government of laws, not of men,” which would suggest that in the United States, positional authority (the President, the Supreme Court) is held in check by certain political conventions.

Likewise, Roman Catholics generally agree that the sacraments possess a redemptive authority in and of themselves. In other words, the character of the priest who administers the sacraments can neither enhance or diminish their efficacy. In our own Unitarian Universalist Society, the Bond of Union exists as an “authoritative” statement of our mission and purpose as a congregation. Ministers and lay leaders agree to serve in compliance with it.

Societies today feature competing sources of conventional or cultural authority, which sometimes makes it difficult for citizens to know which has the superior claim to their allegiance. If I am both a pious Christian and a patriotic American, I may find myself torn between a secular Constitution and sacred scripture.

Tensions also arise when the authority of the free market bumps up against that of the regulatory state. Can the market can be trusted to exercise proper authority and “do the right thing” by the planet and its people? Or, on the other hand, should the state’s authority be ratcheted up to curb the excesses of the market?

Revealed religion and investigative science afford a third example of this clash between two authorities. Whereas the latter insists that there is no such thing as a fixed and final truth, revealed religion maintains that God’s word can neither be challenged or changed. Religion seeks to protect an old and venerable way of looking at the world whereas science, as T.H. Huxley put it, “requires the absolute rejection of (old forms) of authority.”

Or, in the words of Albert Einstein, “The most important tool of the scientist is the wastebasket.”

There is yet another locus of authority that exists independently of office or convention and can only be described as personal. Pope John the Twenty-Third, who called the Second Vatican Council into session, enjoyed immense authority over believing Catholics by virtue of his office. But he became a revered figure among Catholics and non-Catholics alike because of the beauty of his personality.

One gets the impression that John the 23rd didn’t want people to think that his office automatically made him a font of infallible wisdom. If people looked to him for guidance and inspiration, he hoped it would be because they recognized his personal qualities as well as his position at the apex of the Catholic hierarchy. Indeed, John 23rd was the first pope in history to answer a question with, “How would I know? I am only a pope!”

A similar observation can be made about The Dalai Lama, whose office grants him significant spiritual authority over those who belong to the Gelug tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. But it is his personal authority that has made the Dalai Lama such a consequential spiritual and political figure. Like John the 23rd, the Dalai Lama exhibits a gentle, self-effacing charisma that draws people to him and enhances his stature.

The ability to command respect by virtue of personal authority enables teachers, preachers, politicians, physicians to make the most of the positions they occupy. When an office-holder exhibits depth of knowledge, breadth of experience, self-control, integrity, enthusiasm they can become a powerful, positive presence in other people’s lives.

Unfortunately, personal authority appears under many guises, some of which are far from beneficial. One thinks of the way certain demagogues have been able to sway an audience or seduce a congregation. People who project strength, self-confidence, certainty, determination are often able to play on people’s hopes and fears and thereby gain tremendous influence. Adolph Hitler rose to power by virtue of his uncanny ability to tap into the resentments, fire the imaginations and incite the emotions of millions of Germans. Janwillem van de Wetering warns that “when the disciple is ready to fall into a trap, the bogus master arrives.”

Who is this man with the charismatic eyes and the hypnotic touch? Is he perhaps the projection of all we want him to be…? We must always take care not to throw reason overboard when we select the guide who promises to lead us out of error.

Personal authority can be powerfully seductive, and demands a degree of dispassion and discernment that those who are exposed to it don’t always possess.

So where does authority reside in our own liberal religious tradition and which form of authority – positional, conventional or personal – carries the most weight?

Clearly, the position of UU “minister” is accorded far less authority than in most other traditions. Freedom of the pulpit grants me the right to express ideas and opinions without risking censure or termination. My position also carries with it a certain amount of administrative authority, but the banning, shunning, excommunicating of church members lies well beyond my prerogatives.

In a Unitarian Universalist community, a minister’s authority it largely personal and is a function of knowledge, commitment, spiritual depth and compassion. Gary Zukav defines “authentic power” as:

the alignment of our thoughts, emotions and actions with the highest part of ourselves, such that we are filled with enthusiasm, purpose and meaning.

I think that’s a pretty good description of what a UU minister ought to aspire to in terms of personal authority. It is, at any rate, what I strive for.

In our tradition and in our faith communities covenants such as the Bond of Union and documents like the church By-Laws and its Mission Statement are trustworthy sources of conventional authority. Policy making is the prerogative of our elected lay leaders, exercising legitimate positional authority. Lay leaders also bear primary responsibility for insuring that First Unitarian Society remains a safe, accepting and nurturing place for all its members.

But what sets a Unitarian Universalist community apart with respect to this issue is the granting of final authority to the individual seeker. I share Krishnamurti’s perspective on spiritual authority – that the teacher’s true function is not to define the path, only to point in a promising direction. The listener or observer never forfeits the right to reject or accept what is being offered. We expect our members to honor their conscience, exercise their own judgment while recognizing the right of others to do likewise.

Ultimately, a UU community exists as an open laboratory for spiritual exploration. We covenant to support each other with loving feedback and cheerful encouragement in the ongoing search for depth of understanding and happiness.

Over a century ago, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche predicted that advances in science, psychology and anthropology would soon cause millions of people to lose confidence in traditional sources of authority and with it their sense of spiritual security. These losses would, in turn, lead to a widespread depression, substance abuse and self-centeredness. In this Nietzsche proved prophetic. What he didn’t foresee was that these developments would also be accompanied by a resurgence of religious fundamentalism, as people sought guidance from some source of absolute authority.

I believe that liberal religion offers a viable alternative to both Nietzsche’s anarchic vision and the domineering approach preferred by the religious right. What the world needs is a truly balanced perspective on authority and an effective means for it to be fairly distributed and effectively shared. That’s what this congregation stands for, and that’s what the world badly needs right now.

Source: “On Whose Authority?” [PDF] by the Rev. Dr. Michael A. Schuler, senior minister of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, Wisconsin, preached February 10, 2008, released under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share-Alike License.

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