Updated: Aug 7, 2022
Everything in the universe is either orbited or orbits something else. The moons orbit the planets, the planets central stars, central stars whole galaxies and everything in orbit around a spot assumed to be the centre of the universe. Only this Centre orbits nothing else. All of us have a centre to our own personal universe. Here we find authority for what to think, what to believe and how to live. Whatever we identify as the plumb line in our lives—whether it is a personal deity, science or philosophy, our lusts or ambitions, our fears or our conquests, our knowledge, personal morality, our mood—whatever it is that we consider the ultimate authority in our lives, that thing is our god. I have never met an atheist.
Who or what we allow/accept to be authorities for us, or those who are, even if we do not like them, have tremendous influence. What decisions we make and how we make them, our motivation, … may bring us hope or cause despair, guide (or at least influence) our actions, command (or demand) our loyalty—half-hearted or whole-hearted, grudging or willing. We might fear the hold authority has (or we think it has) over our lives or derive great security and satisfaction from its ideals and protection. It influences whom we trust and how willingly, whether I believe I can make a difference in the world or even in my own small sphere. It affects ideas about our identity and whose we claim to be. It certainly influences our ideas, feelings and willingness to submit to God …
We all live under authority. It cannot be avoided. Even if we were to flee the confines of society and its established rulers, governors, police and social obligations, we would find ourselves confronted by the authority of the natural world and the laws of nature. Think over this past week, every time you’ve stopped at a red light, fulfilled an obligation at work, spoken a word, paid a bill, tripped and fallen, ate, slept, taken a step, jumped from the path of a car, honoured your wife, assaulted your wife, repressed your rage, unleashed your anger, acted on information, respected an opinion or did just about anything else. You had an encounter with authority or submitted to the requirements of something beyond yourself—be it a law, an expert, a superior, your biology, gravity, your lust, common sense, mortality, morality, your conscious or whatever.
Few good role models
When we say the Bible should be an authority, what might come to mind for someone without any positive view of authority?
“Few regions of the world have had such fragmented peoples and cultures or such intractable conflicts,” wrote Thomas Sowell about Central and Eastern Europe. The history here is one of domination, not of Central and Eastern Europeans over others, but of a motley mix of others over Central and Eastern Europeans or, later and most destructively, of some Central or Eastern Europeans over their own people.
If you lived in the eastern Slovak town of Košice (the second largest city in the country) and hadn’t moved since 1917, you would have been a citizen of a minimum of 6 countries with four different capital cities. A pious old woman once joked to me that when offering petitions for her government the only way she knew for whom to pray was to first look over the village square and see which flag happened to be flying there that day. Besides giving her a deep sense of arbitrariness toward the political realities of her country, the constant change in this woman’s life stood in contrast to the only thing of political constancy for her and her fellow Slovaks: no matter the geography or distance to the border, no matter the tribe, the empire, tyrant, dictator, despot or oppressor, regardless of whose flag or whose tank held sway over your town, someone or another was the master of your life and it was not you.
The effect of such a political system is clear. It bred chronic suspicion of ideology and fear of manipulation and it helped to keep good people from being involved in the running of civil society. It created obvious animosity as it reduced the value of the individual to a collective and made the value of the collective itself conditional to its usefulness to the State. Having learned that they could not rely on the formal power structures within their society, people learned to rely on themselves and a tight knit circle of friends.
While no one is a slave to their past, it is naďve to say that no one is affected by it. The history of Central and Eastern Europe has had an obvious and significant impact on its people. One of the most enduring effects is a feeling of disconnection from that past. The various regimes that have rolled through all in their own ways tried to abandon the influence of their predecessors and ignite something entirely new. Juraj Kušnierik quoted a local historian as saying, “the history of Slovakia is the history of demolitions and new beginnings.”
We need solid examples, living testimonies to how the reality of Christ can blend seamlessly with everyday life. The models exist, both today and from the past: “There were a few people for whom identification with Christianity and church service attendance was a manifestation of personal freedom and integrity. They were living examples of a holistic approach to life lived in truth and dignity even in the gray reality of “existing socialism”. Perhaps the lives of these people helped more than was ever acknowledged to bring an early end to communism.”
Actual and Ideal Authority
Almost as an extension of the idea of two worlds, many young people identify two sources of influence: the way things are and the way things “ought” to be. The way things are—the real world—is often described as something not chosen but rather imposed. The “actual” is made up of a series of restrictions—time-based limitations, other people’s agendas, impending deadlines, duties and other requirements of profession, relationship, religion, civil or judicial. In a word, the “actual” is seen as one large system of constraint. During an exercise using non-verbal communication, young people chose images of watches, day-timers, law books, fences, shackles and even clothing as descriptions of the daily regime.
The idealised world is just the opposite and is perceived as a sense of freedom, removal from the world of constraints, a strong feeling of remote, unhindered living, a world that allows the expression and achievement of one’s own agenda versus that of another. It is a world uninhibited by even time so that unscheduled spontaneity is the order of the day. Images of the Tuscan countryside, great expanses of blue sky and open space and roads that disappear into the horizon commonly represented this desire.
There seems no reconciliation of these extremes; and, without one, the resulting frustration can never be fully resolved. We end with almost unbearable tension as Central and Eastern European young people live divided between a world they cannot endure and another they cannot achieve.
From the “Afterward”
When I read the account in Genesis, I cannot but imagine the profound joy there must have been, communing with God in the cool of the day as He walked in the company of Adam and Eve. But like Esau before us we all follow Adam in selling away our birthright for a bit of food. This current age we are in, disenchanted with the notion of being bound by anything at all, finds its cause in a wretched three-pronged series of errors: our sinful rebellion, or proud indignation that anything should rise above ourselves and in our lack of moral imagination in conceiving that our authorities would never sour us with betrayal. Isn’t it the height of romantic naivety, as Lewis said, “to suppose that any human beings, trusted with uncontrolled powers over their fellows, would not use if for exploitation; or even to suppose that their own standards of honour, valour, and elegance would not soon degenerate into flash-vulgarity?” And so, as Lewis further points out, we enter the age of rebellion. Our journey is now indeed uphill in both ways at once and we are weighed down by the burden of our vanity and by our unwillingness to shuffle off the deadening coil of our pain-filled memories.
Ahead of us is the hard and exhausting work of sifting through the shadows of the past and tearing down the sullied edifices that cast them. It involves, as well, redeeming some of those very same structures, remembering that even though the romantic is a mirage to be scorned, even the mirage is an illusion of something real. While we have never been called to a romance with God, we have been called to something in some ways similar but too often overlooked for the sake of the romantic—we have been called to fidelity. And in that fidelity there lies the only real means to hope. It’s a hope that, someday, we will again acquiesce to being mastered by Him-Who-made-us, on his terms and not our own. It’s a hope that we will again, in the cool expanse of the day, willingly bend at the knee in perfect worship.