Brandon and I are definitely hitting a theme lately on the idea of authority and our submission to it. I’m glad we are, because I think it’s a really important concept that we tend to view far too simplistically. People fall into one of two camps. They either are unthinking followers who entrust all their decisions to someone or something else, or they are totally free thinkers who refuse to be limited by any authority at all. Obviously, this isn’t true. Neither one of these concepts actually allows for any individual thought. Ironically, both would be just as susceptible to control by others, it’s just a question of whether you force yourself to agree or disagree with what a particular authority says.
I’m not here, though, to waste a lot of words on mindsets that few, if any, people actually hold. Instead, I want to talk about how to navigate the space between those two extremes where most of us actually live and function. Acknowledging that we submit to some type of authority that’s beyond ourselves, I want to discuss how we decide who is worthy of our submission, and to what extent. As the title says, I’m not looking to define how everyone should do it, but just to provide the example of how I have done it in the hopes that it will help a couple others.
First and foremost, when choosing someone or something to offer a submission to, we had better be pretty danged confident that they are worth following. This means, though, that we have to already have established our broad standards of good and bad, right and wrong. Very few authorities, even terrible ones, are evil and bad by their own standards, so if we allow them to define the concepts of right and wrong for us, we’ll obviously find ourselves offering our submission to every person, or even idea, that we come across. By the broadest strokes, I think we have a level of instinctual awareness of good and evil. After all, the law, St. Paul says, is written in our hearts. We know that things like selfishness, greed, and hatred are bad just as we know that love, generosity, and courage are good. We have a responsibility to sharpen our senses about these things, so that we can have the confidence that our submission is being made to someone we can count on to lead us to where we want to go.
Even then, though, our thoughtfulness can’t come to an end. Our submission, at least to any person or human organization, is not a question of yes or no. It is, in fact, a question of degree. I submit to my doctor when it comes to medicine because I have reason to believe his judgements in that field are more well informed than my own, and I have a reasonable confidence that he and I have the same goal, namely, my health. That doesn’t mean, however, that I would submit to him in areas of faith, politics, or morals. Honestly, even in medicine, while I submit to his expertise, I have a responsibility to keep myself informed as much as I can, because regardless of his suggestions, the choices remain my responsibility. In the same way, as a Catholic, I submit to the authority of the Church in matters of faith and morals, but not as an excuse or opportunity to shed my responsibility, but instead as a recognition that I have a lot left to learn. I entrust myself to the Church, but my submission is not a slavery. Instead, it is my awareness that I must continue to grow deeper in my understanding and knowledge from a position of trust. Ultimately, our submission to authority is not about being unthinking or lazy, but about having the humility to seek and learn.