The following is a reflection I shared with my fellow parishioners at the "Faith at Eight" online service of our church, on Sunday, January 31, 2021.
The first two verses of today's reading from The Gospel According to Mark tell us that Jesus taught in the synagogue at Capernaum, and that when he had finished, the crowd was astonished by his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes (Mark 1:21-22). I was struck by the second of these two verses, because it also appears in The Gospel According to Matthew, which tells us that when Jesus finished his Sermon on the Mount, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, "for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes" (Matthew 7:29).
Why was the crowd astonished, and what does it mean that Jesus taught as one who had authority? I think it means the crowd was astonished because they recognized that Jesus was not merely a teacher or interpreter of the law, he was the fulfillment of the law. Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, "Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets, I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them" (Matthew 5:17); and in Luke chapter 4, when Jesus comes to the synagogue in Nazareth, he reads from the book of the prophet Isaiah, where it's written, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord," and when Jesus closes the book, he says to the gathering in the synagogue, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing" (Luke 4:16-22).
So how was Jesus the fulfillment of the law? I think he fulfilled the law because he obeyed the law, and he fulfilled the law and prophesies given to the Jewish people by Moses and the prophets. He also fulfilled the law because he was a lawgiver; he gave us the law in the form of his two commandments, "Your shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind" and "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Matthew 22:37-39).
Jesus also fulfilled the law because he was an embodiment of the law. He not only obeyed the law, but also, by redeeming us from our sins, enabled us to obey the law.. I think the crowds were astonished by his teaching because it was apparent to them that he was the incarnation of the Word of God.
I think perhaps some contemporary parallels to this kind of astonishment might occur when youthful prodigies appear in our midst and we're astonished by their admonishment of us for not having acted like we should. I"m thinking of the sense of astonishment we felt when young people like Malala Yousafzai and Greta Thunberg began to speak publicly at various places around the world about issues like the importance of providing educational opportunities for girls and the importance of dealing with climate change. I'm also thinking of young people like Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg, students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, who, after a gunman killed seventeen people at the school in 2018, became nationally recognized advocates for gun control. I think we were astonished because we recognized they had the moral authority to speak out as they did. We were astonished because young people like Malala, Greta, Emma, David, and others spoke to us in a way that no one had ever spoken to us before, and we recognized that we had to respond by trying to make the world a better place.
Another example of moral authority might be when someone undergoes great suffering and yet has the capacity to transcend that suffering and show us the power of forgiveness and reconciliation. I'm thinking of Nelson Mandela who, after being imprisoned for twenty-seven years by the brutal apartheid regime in South Africa, had the moral authority to lead his nation through a process of truth-telling and reconciliation that led to the end of apartheid.
Much of the influence of historical figures such as Jesus, the Buddha, Confucius, St. Francis of Assisi, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and other icons of saintliness and compassion may be due to their being recognized as having the moral authority to teach and guide us.
What are the sources of such moral authority? Individuals who embody such moral virtues as love, compassion, understanding, honesty, generosity, unselfishness, and humility may be recognized as having moral authority. Thus, the personal exemplification of moral virtue may be a source of moral authority. Another source of moral authority may reside in the social roles that people play. Thus, authority figures such as parents, teachers, priests, rabbis, gurus, spiritual advisers, employers, and elected officials may have moral authority, insofar as they're able to shape or influence the moral decisions, judgments, and actions of others. Another source of moral authority may reside in social institutions, such as the church, the legal system, the educational system, and the healthcare system, insofar as they're able to promote human dignity, freedom, security, and well-being. Thus, the ability of social institutions to promote moral ideals or social goods may be a source of moral authority.
The nature of moral authority may be an important subject for us to consider at this juncture in the history of our nation, given the recent events of political and social unrest. Our country, through its ongoing social conflict and division, seems to have lost much of its moral authority in the world. We're often mistaken in assuming that we as individuals, as a society, and as a nation have the moral authority to serve as an example for others. Our moral authority as a nation may depend on such things as our ability to promote human rights, our ability to promote the rule of law, our ability to promote fairness and impartiality in the application of the law, and our ability to promote legal, economic, and social justice.
Defiance of authority may have various motivations, including anger, resentment, frustration, and discontent caused by fair or inequitable distribution of social goods, arbitrary or inconsistent application of disciplinary practices, and imposition of excessive and oppressive social constraints. Resistance to authority may also be motivated by the need to protest bigotry, discrimination, infringements on civil liberties or violations of human rights.
Moral authority may be distinguished from epistemic authority, insofar as moral authority is authority relating to morality, while epistemic authority is authority relating to knowledge. Theodore L. Brown, professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Illinois, says in a book entitled Imperfect Oracle: The Epistemic and Moral Authority of Science (2009) that while epistemic authority is "the capacity to convince others how the world is," moral authority is "the capacity to convince others how the world should be."1
Linda Zagzebski, professor of philosophy at the University of Oklahoma, describes an epistemic authority as an expert, a person who's a reliable source of information in some domain.2 We may accept the truth of a statement on the authority of another person if she's presumed to be an expert in the domain about which she's speaking. The fact that she holds a belief about something within her field of expertise may be an authoritative reason for us to hold that belief. If we trust not only in the expert's authority, but also in her sincerity, then we may have good reason to believe what she's saying.3
Dr. Anthony Fauci is a good example of both epistemic and moral authority. He has epistemic authority, because he's a scientific expert and a reliable source of information, but he also has moral authority, because he wants to provide us with the facts about the COVID-19 pandemic and won't let himself be manipulated into covering them up or providing misinformation. And people trust him because for that.
Marianne Janack, professor of philosophy at Hamilton College in Clinton, NY, calls attention to the need to distinguish between epistemic authority and epistemic privilege. Epistemic privilege refers to the privileged standpoint that the experience of marginalized groups, such as women, racial minorities, disabled people, and gender nonconforming people, may confer on them regarding what it means to be oppressed. Such groups may be in an epistemically advantageous position to know what it means to be oppressed. Epistemic authority, on the other hand, may depend on various assumptions about the epistemic position of the person in question, including assumptions based on the perceived class, race, gender, or sexual orientation of that person, and may thus be subject to implicit bias. Janack says, "People who appear to be white, male, upper middle or middle class, and well educated generally carry more epistemic authority on their shirtsleeves. While those of us who are not upper-middle-class white men may be epistemic authorities in some circumstances...our authority is usually trumped by [so-called] "experts"--who are often upper-middle-class white men."4 Thus, "Epistemic authority is conferred in a social context as a result of other people's judgment of our sincerity, reliability, trustworthiness, and [perceived] "objectivity."5
Another subject that may be important for us to consider is the relative priority we should give to various kinds of authority. For example, when should we give moral authority priority over legal authority, and when should we give civil authority priority over religious authority? How should we resolve conflicts between moral and legal authority, and between civil and religious authority?
What does Jesus tell us to do?
Another question we might consider is: Has the Church lost its moral authority? When evangelical Christians support the kinds of lies and falsehoods propagated by Trump, how can they claim to have any moral authority? To them, it makes no difference that he's a habitual liar, that he attacks the news media as "fake" whenever the media provide unfavorable coverage of him, that he threatens to jail his political opponents, that as a matter of policy he separates immigrant children from their parents at the Mexico border, that he says neo-Nazis are "very fine people," that he tries to subvert the outcome of a presidential election by making baseless claims of voter fraud, and that he incites his supporters to storm the Capitol. What must be done for the Church to regain its moral authority?
1Theodore L. Brown, Imperfect Oracle: The Epistemic and Moral Authority of Science (University Park, PA, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2009).
2Linda Zagzebski, Epistemic Authority: A Theory of Trust, Authority, and Autonomy in Belief (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), p. 5.
3 Ibid., p.107.
4Marianne Janack,"Standpoint Epistemology Without the Standpoint?: An Examination of Epistemic Privilege and Epistemic Authority," Hypatia, vol. 12, no. 2 (1997), p. 132.
5Ibid., p. 133.