Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Moral Authority

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.

Saturday, January 9, 2021


The following is a reflection I shared with my fellow parishioners at the "Faith at Eight" online service of our church on Sunday, November 15, 2020.

The epistle reading this morning is from the First Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians (5:1-11), and it speaks of remaining awake, so that we won't be surprised by the coming of the Lord and can find our salvation. 
      The gospel reading this morning is from Matthew (25:14-30), and it's The Parable of the Talents, describing how a wealthy man gives one of his servants five talents, another servant two talents, and another servant one talent, with the expectation that they'll return his money to him when he returns. The first two servants invest their money profitably, but the third servant buries his one talent in the ground because he's afraid of losing it, and when the master returns, the master is angry because the servant hasn't invested his money profitably, and the master calls the servant lazy and worthless and will have nothing further to do with him. 
      For me, the lectionary readings the last few weeks have been a series of provocations. There's something wrong with each of them. So I'd like to discuss what they do, rather than what they mean. We can discuss their meaning later.
      In the Old Testament reading last week from The Book of Joshua (24:14-25), Joshua described the Lord as " a holy God, a jealous God." Do we really believe in a jealous God?
      And in the gospel reading last week from Matthew (25:1-13), the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids, five bridesmaids were denied entry to the wedding banquet because they had forgotten to replenish their lamps with oil, and their oil had run out, and when they asked the bridegroom to be admitted, he told them, "Truly, I say to you, I do not know you." Is this any way to treat those who've come to celebrate your wedding?
      And in the epistle reading today from Thessalonians, Paul says "the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night." Really? Like a thief in the night?
      And in today's gospel reading from Matthew, The Parable of the Talents, are we really supposed to accept the implication that the wealthy should rightfully receive a greater share and reap more profit from the distribution of society's resources than those who are poor?
      The parables of Jesus are often puzzling and paradoxical. They teach us about justice by describing injustice. They're provocations that cause us to question our assumptions, to look at the world differently, and to think differently about God.
      A dictionary definition of the word "provocation" is that it's something that incites, instigates, arouses, or stimulates.It may be designed to elicit a particular kind of response, and it may be intended to elicit strong feelings (such as rage, anger, or resentment) in the viewer, reader, or listener. Provocative acts may also be iconoclastic, offensive, transgressive, or sexually suggestive.
      Provocation may be a psychological, social, aesthetic, legal, military, or political phenomenon. Examples of aesthetic provocations include controversial paintings, sculptures, songs, dramas, or novels. Examples of military provocations include unlawful encroachments on territorial boundaries, launching of short- or long-range ballistic missiles, and testing of nuclear weapons. Examples of political provocations include demonstrations against infringements on civil liberties, and protests against violations of human rights.
      How should provocation intersect or interact with tactfulness and discretion? When should we be forgiving and conciliatory rather than demanding and provocative?
      An example of provocation in Jesus's ministry might be his response to the Pharisees who bring him a woman who has been caught in adultery and ask him if she should be stoned. Jesus tells them, "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her" (John 8:7).
      Another example of provocation might be Jesus's response to the young man who asks him what he should do in order to have eternal life. Jesus tells him, "If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven." The young man walks away sorrowfully, because he can't bring himself to part with his wealth and possessions (Matthew 19:16-22).
      Another example of provocation might be when Jesus drives the moneylenders out of the temple in Jerusalem. Jesus makes a whip of cords, and drives the moneylenders out of the temple, overturning their tables, and saying, "Take these things away; do no make my Father's house a house of trade" (John 2:13-16).
      Still another example of provocation might be Jesus's response to Caiphas, the high priest, after being arrested and brought before him for judgment. Caiphas says to Jesus, "I adjure you by the living God, tell me if you are the Christ, the Son of God." Jesus replies, "You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven." Caiphas is so dismayed, he tears his own robes apart, and says, "He has uttered blasphemy. What further witnesses do we need?" (Matthew 26:57-65).
      Acts of provocation may have a variety of motivations. They may be strategies for teaching and communication. They may be acts of protest against social hypocrisy or political inequality. They may be acts of resistance against social injustice. They may also be acts intended to elicit a retaliatory response from those in power, thus revealing the brutality, corruption, or oppressiveness of a prevailing social or political regime. They may also in some cases be acts intended to offend people or to make them react angrily or violently.
      Provocation played a role in the American civil rights movement, and it has played a role in other human rights movements as well. Thus, the lunch counter sit-ins protesting segregation is Greensboro, North Carolina in 1960 were acts of provocation, as was Rosa Parks's refusal to give up her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery Alabama in 1955, leading to her arrest and the subsequent Montgomery Bus Boycott. The pro-democracy Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing, China in 1989 were acts of provocation, as was the defiant act of an unidentified protester who stood in front of a column of tanks (I'm sure you'll recall that famous photograph of the protester in Tiananmen Square standing in front of the column of tanks), blocking their path as they were leaving the square, on June 5th, 1989, the day after armed troops had killed hundreds of protesters in what has been called the Tiananmen Square Massacre.
      Controversies regarding the nature and importance of provocation as a motivating factor for human behavior may be produced by the fact that people may vary in their opinions as to what constitutes provocation, and as to what kinds of responses to provocation are appropriate. An example may be the responses to the cartoons published by the French satirical weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo in 2006, depicting the prophet Muhammad. The cartoons were viewed by some as merely an example of freedom of expression, but by others as a vicious attack on Islam. French President Jacques Chirac condemned the cartoons as "overt provocations" that could dangerously fuel passions, and he said that freedom of expression should always be exercised in a spirit of responsibility.2 In 2012, Charlie Hebdo published crude caricatures of the prophet Muhammad, naked and in sexual poses, which the magazine must have known would be extremely offensive to Muslims. The responses to this renewed provocation varied from public indignation and outrage to violent terrorist attacks, one of which, in 2015, killed twelve people.
      Jesus teaches us how to respond to attempts to provoke us into acts of anger or resentment. He says, in the Sermon on the Mount, "If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also" (Matthew 5:39). He also says, "Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father, who is in heaven" (Matthew 5:44-45).  And the apostle Paul, in The First Letter to the Corinthians, says, "Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way, it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends" (1 Corinthians 13:4-8).
      What actually started me thinking about the concept of provocation is the fact that a Black Lives Matter banner hangs over the front door of our church. When I first saw the banner, I thought, "Gee, that's great!", just as I thought "Gee, that's great!" when I first saw a Black Lives Matter banner hanging over the front door of the Cathedral of the Incarnation a few years ago. But in view of the results of the recent presidential election, in which 81 million people voted for Biden and 74 million people voted for Trump, it's clear that "Black Lives Matter" is a message that doesn't resonate with a large percentage of the American people, particularly white male voters, and that alienates them. So I'm wondering whether the banner over the front door of our church may be viewed by many Americans as offensive or as a provocation to some act of rejection. Indeed, many "Black Lives Matter" banners in front of churches across the country have been vandalized in the last few years. Should we, as members of Memorial Episcopal Church, be promoting a message that many Americans feel is divisive and overly confrontational? Is our message consistent with our saying we're a church that welcomes everyone? It may be easy to hang a "Black Lives Matter" banner in front of our church, and to feel good about ourselves for doing so, but it may be more difficult to actually translate that message into social action. Shouldn't we consider the extent to which we've actually shown in our actions that Black Lives Matter, and reflect on what we could do to better promote social understanding and equality? I don't think we've discussed the meaning of our having a "Black Lives Matter" banner in front of our church. Perhaps, in the context of the history of our church and the revelation that the founders of our church were slave owners, the banner needs to be there.
      I'd like to conclude by quoting the Rev. Tim Kutzmark of the Unitarian Universalist Church, Fresno, California, who explains why his church displays "Black Lives Matter" banners. He says, 
"As a predominantly white congregation in a predominantly white section of Fresno, we are committed to doing whatever we can to disrupt the deep roots and present reality of racism; we also know that work must start with our own congregation...
      For two years our congregation has been intentionally educating ourselves on the history of race in America and current racial injustice...
      Like most majority white institutions, we’ve learned our faith tradition has its own shameful history of racism...
      We affirm Black Lives Matter along with hundreds of Unitarian Universalist Churches across the country because affirming and promoting the worth and dignity of all people is a core tenant of our faith. It calls us to act for justice.
      The Rev. Louise Green captures this spirit: “To display the sign, Black Lives Matter, is an act of public witness . . . to keep the spotlight on the complex set of issues affecting black people in this country..."
      Black Lives Matter is the next chapter in the civil rights movement. There was fierce white resistance to the earlier civil rights movement. There is fierce white resistance now. Our banners were first defaced and then ripped down. We’ve replaced them.
      Black Lives Matter is not a terrorist group, nor is it anti-white or anti-police. It is against policing practices that lead to the death of too many unarmed black women and men. It is against mass incarceration of black and brown lives in prisons...
      Affirming the rights of Black people and People of Color does not take rights away from white people. There should be enough to go around."3
      So I hope I've provoked you to share some of your thoughts about the readings this morning, and I hope we can talk about those thoughts together.


1Merriam-Webster Dictionary, online at https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/provocation.
2Anne Penketh, "Chirac condemns 'overtly provocative' cartoons," Independent, February 9, 2006, online at https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/chirac-condemns-overtly-provocative-cartoons-466018.html.
3Rev.Tim Kutzmark, "Why we display the 'Black Lives Matter' banners," Unitarian Universalist Church of Fresno, September 30 2017, online at https://uufresno.org/black-lives-matter/.

Friday, January 8, 2021

Fragments II

In what ways can the act of writing make us heroic? Perhaps to the extent that we reveal who we truly are, we can become heroic (or antiheroic). By expressing our concerns, inadequacies, uncertainties, doubts, and (dis)abilities, we can become heroic (or antiheroic). By being honest with ourselves (and with others), about ourselves, and by making ourselves vulnerable to others, we can become heroic (or antiheroic).

I think sometimes I may take the intuition, "That's just my opinion," as an excuse for not expressing my feelings or judgments about things.

One of the reasons I haven't given up on the idea of being a philosopher (however that calling may be defined) is that I feel I still have things to say that I haven't yet said: things that are interesting (at least to me, and perhaps to others as well), and things that need to be said (even though I may not yet know exactly what they are).  Perhaps there are things the world needs to hear about that I may be in a suitable position to tell the world about. "The world needs to hear from you, because you might actually something important to say," I say to myself. Perhaps we should try to support and encourage each other in this way, in order to discover what exactly it is we have to say to the world and what is unique and distinctive to each of our own perspectives.

Variations on the Ubuntu principle that "a person is a person through other persons":

A person becomes a person through others.
We become, and are, who we are through others.
I am, because you are (I.A.B.Y.A.).
I am who I am, because you are who you are.
As long as you are, I am.
If you weren't who you are, then I wouldn't be who I am.
If you weren't "you," then I wouldn't be "me."
My being "me" is due, in no small part, to your being "you."
Indeed, my being "me" is only possible through your being "you."
I am who I am, because of you, and through you.
I love you, because you are "you" (i.e. because you are who you are).
Without you, I couldn't say, "I am," because there's no "I" without "you."
My being "me" is only possible through you.

Monday, December 28, 2020

Some Limitations of Video Conferencing and Live Streaming as Media for Conducting Church Services

(1) Church services via video conferencing or live streaming may not be accessible to those who don't have internet access. They may also not be accessible to those who have difficulty downloading a conference app or have difficulty connecting to a platform (such as Zoom, Facebook Live, or YouTube Live). Vulnerable populations, such as the poor and the elderly, will be among the most likely to be denied access to online church services. Many elderly people may not feel comfortable using computers or may prefer not to use them. Conferencing or streaming platforms shouldn't in effect be able to decide who can go to church and who can't.
(2) Some churches may not have the technical resources to do video conferencing or online streaming.
(3) Services outages, cyberattacks, and other disruptions may occur during video conferencing or online streaming.
(4) Audio disruptions may be embarrassing for the host, and may be difficult to immediately correct without returning to the point at which the disruption occurred and then resuming the broadcast.
(5) Participants may find they've unintentionally muted themselves or been intentionally muted by the host.
(6) Noisy participants who haven't muted themselves or been muted by the host may be unaware that the noise in their environment is disrupting the service.
(7) It may be difficult or impossible to synchronize the voices of a choir or congregation in order to allow them to sing together, since each participant may have a different connectivity speed to the internet. Singing together may therefore result in cacophony.
(8) The "Hollywood Squares" format on Zoom is kind of cheesy. Participants are visible in little boxes on a screen, and a limited number of participants are visible on any particular screen view.
(9) Sacraments may not be able to be administered via the internet, due to guidelines established by the church.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

"Church" as a Noun without an Article

Figures of speech employing the noun "church" without an indefinite or definite article, e.g. "being church" or "doing church," seem to be used with increasing frequency by clergy and laypeople. Why not use the indefinite article "a" or the definite article "the" when using the noun "church"? Instead of saying "being church," why not say "being a church" or "being the church"? Instead of asking "What is Church?", why not ask "What is a Church?" or "What is the Church?" Is there really something noteworthy signified by the dropping of the article before the noun or is this merely a popular form of speech that's increasingly being used out of habit?
      The noun "church," like the nouns "hospital" and "university," may often be used without an article, e.g. "We're in church" or "George is in hospital" or "Margaret is in university," without referring to any specific church or hospital or university.
      The question "What is Church?" might have a slightly different meaning than the question "What is church?", however. The capitalization of "Church" might imply the institutional nature of the Church, while the non-capitalization of "church" might imply its everyday reality.
      The question "What is Church?" and the question "What is church?" also bring to mind the experience of going to church or being in church (or in a church) or being in the midst of a congregation. To be "in church" is also to be in community (or in a community) with others. ("Community" is another noun that seems to be used increasingly frequently without a definite or indefinite article). To be "in church" or "in community" is also for members to be in communion with one another.
       Thus, the question "What is Church?" brings to mind that Church (or a Church or the Church) may not be a physical location. It may be a form of koinonia (fellowship, unity, and joint participation) that Church members share with one another. Church members may be present with and for one another, in community or as a community, in virtual or actual reality, in the online as well as the physical world. Church members may also be with and for one another, even when they are "socially distanced" or physically separated,1 because they are part of, and belong to, the same spiritual body.


1Susan Ella George, Religion and Technology in the 21st Century: Faith in the E-World (Hershey, PA: Information Science Publishing, 2006), p. 120.