Magazine | February 21, 2011, Issue

A Kind Word for the Man

Up with Authority: Why We Need Authority to Flourish as Human Beings, by Victor Lee Austin (T&T Clark, 192 pp., $29.95)

Authority is a curiously neglected subject. Round up a gaggle of grad students, and they can discourse about power and hegemony into the wee hours. And as you are nodding off, they are getting their second wind, launching into the mystifications of sovereignty, citing Carl Schmitt and Derrida. But authority? What is that, exactly? For their next seminar, they should read Victor Lee Austin’s Up with Authority.

Austin is theologian-in-residence at Saint Thomas (Episcopal) Church on Fifth Avenue in New York. His book is as pleasingly idiosyncratic as his title. (How many congregations support a theologian-in-residence?) It is not a work of theology, strictly speaking, or philosophy, or political theory, or psychology, or sociology, though it touches on all of these, grounded in the conviction that legitimate authority “comes from God and no thing, no being, no realm is outside his dominion.” It is not a polemic against what theologian R. R. Reno, commending Austin’s book, calls the “antinomian sensibility” of the “postmodern era,” in which authority is regarded as “something to be grimly endured — or simply overthrown.”

What is it, then? Austin explains his purpose in the very first sentence: “The point of this book is to show that we need authority to be ourselves.” Or, as he puts it a bit later, “we humans need authority simply in order to be what we are, because to be human is to live socially, and to live socially at all beyond the most minimal level requires authority.” What follows, in roughly 160 pages of text, is an extended essay, at once learned and conversational, fleshing out this thesis.

At this point I imagine two sets of readers deciding that they don’t need to hear any more about Austin’s book, let alone read it themselves. The first set consists of those already persuaded of the indispensability of authority. The second set comprises diverse parties — libertarians, self-styled populists, and so on — congenitally suspicious of authority (or so at least they suppose). Both sets assume they already know what Austin is going to say. They are wrong.

According to the conventional wisdom, defenders of authority are rather inflexible types. Faced with the ambiguities of life in the Modern World, they retreat to the comfort of premodern convictions. (This perspective seems to have informed President Obama’s notorious assertion that opponents of his policies, addled by fear, are resistant to “facts and science and argument.”) But Austin begins his account of authority by insisting on the acceptance of paradox — indeed, he speaks of “the paradox that is authority.”

Where, to begin with, does authority originate? Not, as some suppose, in consensus. No: “Authority has to do with our understanding (our consent), but it was there before we began to think about it.” Authority is “already there in the world around us within which we come to be as humans.”

#page#Here again, some readers will be feeling itchy, as if they were being dragged against their will into the thickets of phenomenology. It is all very well, they might say, to talk in this high-toned way about authority, but the mundane reality is quite different — in Chicago, say; or in a small city that has suddenly found itself bankrupted by unsustainable pension commitments; or in Washington, D.C. And it’s not only political authority that is frequently corrupt or incompetent or both: “Epistemic authority,” as Austin calls it, is often flawed, as is ecclesial authority — authority of all kinds, in fact.

Yes, Austin acknowledges: “That authority is necessary for human flourishing is no guarantee that authority will be exercised wisely.” He devotes a chapter to authority and error. Because he is writing to counter a pervasive distrust, he errs slightly, I think, in the direction of deference to authority. But his account is in no way naïve. Indeed, his reflections on how “we live with fallible authority,” which would always be in season, are particularly timely just now.

Consider the fashionable notion that there are striking parallels between Germany in the 1930s and the United States at this moment — posing challenges for American Christians today that are very similar to the challenges faced (or evaded) by German Christians then. My friend Eric Metaxas, for example, has emphasized this parallel in interviews occasioned by his recent biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Oddly enough, the same notion was advanced by Christians on the left during the presidency of George W. Bush. Austin’s frank acknowledgment that human authority is always fallible should encourage us to be wary of such dramatic pronouncements, even as he sketches a range of justifiable responses to errant political authority, all the way through to revolution. But Austin doesn’t stop there: “At times,” he writes, “the human good requires that we submit to social authority that we believe is wrong.” In quotidian circumstances, he counsels patience and humility.

I said that Up with Authority is pleasingly idiosyncratic. How else would you describe a book that concludes with a chapter titled “Authority in Paradise”? This chapter goes helpfully against the grain, unapologetically considering the rather astonishing promise that Christians have affirmed for the last two thousand years. How, Austin wonders, might authority function in heaven? Those who have followed his argument only because they want to refute it will feel smug when they arrive at this conclusion. (How fitting, they will say, that Austin meditates on Dante. The man is positively medieval!) But perhaps this chapter will also serve to remind some Christians what they believe.

Austin’s account of the “dynamic movement” of the Trinity is the culmination of his argument, illuminating everything that has come before. “Authority is not static,” he writes. No: “The Son’s authority comes from his eternal, obedient submission to the Father. Authority is the structure of reality: to have it is to be under it. Jesus’ resurrection also shows the converse: truly to be under authority is to be lifted into authority. The Father eternally bestows himself upon the Son.” Paradox cubed. And a little later: “Heaven is not ‘me and God,’ not ‘me and Jesus’; nor is it ‘me and all the other pretty decent people who can learn to exist alongside each other.’ Heaven is the realm of the Holy Spirit, the realm, that is, of true communications.”

Really? “True communications”? How could we know that? By what authority? What does it even mean? Those are questions for another day. But I suspect that Victor Lee Austin would be happy to take them up with you.

– Mr. Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture, a bimonthly review.

John Wilson — John Wilson is editor of Books & Culture and editor at large for Christianity Today magazine. He received a B.A. from Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Calif., in ...

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