Whose Authority?


Do you hear?
What do you hear?  What do you hear, when you make an important decision to act?    By what authority do you do what you do?   What is the source of your authority – and what limits or defines it?

Jessica Harwood, our Director of Faith Formation, along with at least one member of the worship committee, groaned at the thought that “authority” would be one of this year’s monthly topics.  Our Small Group Circles people didn’t like it either.   But we have an engaging guest speaker next week, Alex Kapitan, whose subject is “The Spiritual Practice of Disobedience.”  And the Nominating Committee is running the service at the end of this month, inviting us to think about leadership.  Leadership and authority go hand in hand.

It’s true that the notion of authority can conjure up patriarchy, top-down decision-making, rules and restrictions, lack of autonomy.  The news is full of stories about abuse of power.

Authority can also conjure up a religious tradition full of more rules and restrictions, with stories of sin, hellfire and damnation.  Of a god that is all-powerful, all knowing, the giver of natural law.  We heard part of the challenge God issues to Job:

 Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
when the morning stars sang together
    and all the heavenly beings[a] shouted for joy?

Psalm 19 says, “The decrees of the Lord are firm, and all of them are righteous.” All of firm and righteous decrees are found in the commandments and doctrines in the sacred texts of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  Fundamentalists in all three faiths believe that their scriptures are authoritative over human belief and conduct, because God “dictated” or otherwise revealed the scriptures to human authors.[i] 

I was part of a small tour group in Italy about ten years ago, led by one of my mentors from seminary.  We visited sites associated with St. Francis and other early founders of monastic orders, and explored some of their spiritual practices.  One member of the group was the leader of a Christian church in Singapore who took the Bible literally.  We got into a conversation in the van one day.  I asked him about life after death.  Unitarian Universalists believe that all people have inherent worth and dignity – that all kinds of people sit at the welcome table.  The Universalist part of our heritage teaches that no one is damned.

I wanted to know what he thought happened to people who led good lives but didn’t believe in Jesus as their savior?  What if they had never heard of Jesus?

He had an immediate and simple answer:  they are damned to eternal hellfire.  So was he saying that I was damned?  “I am not the one saying it.  It’s what the Bible says.  God is in charge.  It’s God’s truth.” 

People with marginalized identities are often demeaned or invalidated by literal readings of certain Bible passages.  The first time I remember hearing scriptural justification for subjugating women was in my high school physics class.  Mr. Palumbo didn’t see a good reason for female students to be taking physics.  Home economics would have been a better choice.  This was the early 1970’s, and “women’s liberation” was still fairly new.  He did not approve, and was happy to cite the Bible in support of point of view.  I argued with him sometimes.  None of this belonged in physics class, especially in a public high school.  But I got top grades.  I was motivated to work hard at spoiling the curve.  I didn’t care what the boys thought.

If you are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or gender non-conforming, it’s very likely that you have heard and experienced much worse than that.  I can sympathize with anyone who shies away from the topic of authority – especially in a religious context. 

What authority was I relying on, challenging that traveling companion or my high school physics teacher?   Or was I just angry? 

Unitarian Universalists have a history of resisting external authority.  That’s one of the reasons that our fourth principle affirms every person’s right to a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

Our origins are with the branch of Christianity that rebelled against the Catholic church, specifically against its hierarchical structure and a priesthood that held authority in all matters of faith.  That rebel branch emerged 500 years ago in the early 16th century as the Protestant Reformation, led by Martin Luther.

Luther and others believed that scripture was the primary source of authority, and that every literate member of the church had the responsibility for (reading the Bible, and) teaching and expounding on Christianity.

Unitarianism, which early on was considered heretical by both Catholics and other Protestants, stressed freedom in religion, and the use of reason rather than reliance on external authority. [ii]

Later, in the mid-19th century, Ralph Waldo Emerson and others in his circle believed that individual experience was where authority was centered.  Not all Unitarians were sympathetic to his school of thought, but over time it became a valued part of our heritage. 

The English poet William Ernest Henley may very well have read Emerson – his famous poem “Invictus” was published in 1875, after Emerson was widely known and read. 

It matters not how strait the gate,
      How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
      I am the captain of my soul.

That poem has been quoted and used to inspire, for good and for evil, for over a century. The great South African leader Nelson Mandela made a practice of reading it to his comrades while imprisoned on Robben Island.  Timothy McVeigh, who murdered 168 people by driving a truck rigged with explosives into an Oklahoma City public building in 1995, used it as his final statement before being executed by lethal injection. [iii]

Maybe Ogilvy the bunny read “Invictus” for inspiration one morning before going out and resisting the pressure of either-or thinking.   Sweater vs. dress.

Or maybe not.  Maybe Ogilvy was just angry or maybe Ogilvy listened to an inner voice.  Or was guided by a lodestone, an inner compass.

What is the source of your own authority – over others or yourself?   How much authority do you have?

This is a poem by Gary Snyder poem called “Hay for the Horses.”

He had driven half the night
From far down San Joaquin
Through Mariposa  up the
Dangerous Mountain roads,
And pulled in at eight a.m.
With his big truckload of hay
         behind the barn.

With winch and ropes and hooks
We stacked the bales up clean
To splintery redwood rafters
High in the dark, flecks of alfalfa
Whirling through shingle-cracks of light,
Itch of haydust    
         in the sweaty shirt and shoes.

At lunchtime under Black oak
Out in the hot corral,
--- The old mare nosing lunchpails,
Grasshoppers crackling in the weeds---
"I'm sixty-eight" he said,
"I first bucked hay when I was seventeen.
I thought, that day I started,
I sure would hate to do this all my life.
And dammit, that's just what
I've gone and done."

“Dammit, that’s just what I’ve gone and done.”  Let things slip away, and here I am.

I wonder how much choice that man had.  How much authority to chart his own path.  Did he have the freedom to decide to play ball one day and spend the next day knitting or drawing trees, like the bunnies in the story?

Or was he trapped at seventeen?  It’s just a snapshot, that poem.  We don’t know.   Many, many people lead hard lives – without many choices, with too many obstacles in the way of what they might really desire.  Many of us are luckier.

But having complete autonomy, complete mastery of one’s fate, is an illusion.   We create and are created by a web of interdependent relationships. 

I invite you to think about the nature of your authority in relationship to the choices you’ve made in your life – the paths you’ve taken.  The paths you might have wanted to take but didn’t.  Think about the nature of your authority in relationship to your children, or grandchildren, or siblings or partner.  What does it look like?  What comes with it?  Where does it come from? If you think you don’t have any, dig deeper.

Our older son’s family was here for a few days over Christmas.  Our grandson Kaleb is four.  He is exuberant and always on the move, a child who enthusiastically embraces almost anything someone suggests.  He loves to help.  And he’s a normal four-year old, with impulses and a desire to have his own way.

He was exploring in a cabinet and found a glass Christmas tree, about eight inches tall.  He was enchanted.  We put it on a small table next to the New England church birdhouse – one of Craig Dreeszen’s creations.  But the tree kept disappearing – to be found behind the couch or under the dining room table, or in one of his sisters’ beds.  I told Kaleb if he didn’t stop taking it, it would go away.  He knows from experience that I can make things disappear.

Where does my authority come from?  Was I being a bit like God, lording it over Job?  It’s my glass tree, after all (although I certainly didn’t make it).  I’m actually not attached to it, but someone could get hurt if it got broken.  It’s my responsibility to try to keep that from happening.  And I’m Kaleb’s grandmother. 

My daughter-in-law is Filipina.  In her culture elders are expected to be treated with respect.  And – most of the time – she allows me to direct and guide her children while we’re together.  I’m grateful for that.  I humbly realize that I derive my authority, in part, from her.

I also have to earn it.   Legitimate authority, the kind worthy of trust and respect, is earned.  It’s earned through our taking responsibility, through doing our best, through listening and learning from our mistakes, through acts of respect.  It’s earned through acts of love.

That’s true in our families, and in any arena of our lives where we are relationship with others.  It’s true in institutions like this one – the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence.  So many of us – so many of you – have authority and take responsibility in larger and smaller ways.  By exercising authority with care, we model for others how to do the same.  

I’m still grappling with the source and nature of that inner compass, my lodestone – the inner voice of my own authority.  I suspect it’s to be found in the heart and soul of that web of interdependent relationships – in the things I have learned, in the countless ways others have been and are models for me, in the ways I have been and am loved.

What do you hear? By what authority do you do what you do? 

Orange swirling flame of days,   
so little is a stone.
May we treasure the stones.


[i] Based loosely on Wikipedia article on biblical authority.

[ii] Kirk Loadman-Copeland, Touchstones Journal “Authority,” January 2020

[iii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invictus