Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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The Church claims authority to preach absolute truths to all mankind. These are truths which, we are told, affect every human being at an absolutely fundamental level. If past debates are anything to go by, Rick and Mick are likely to disagree about the validity of the Church's authority.

Mick: Years ago I worked in the South African mining industry. It faces peculiar difficulties, particularly in gold mines which go down some 3 500 metres (11 700 feet) such as the ERPM mine near Johannesburg.

Safety concerns are understandably paramount in that dangerous environment, so the chief executive is accountable in law for everything that happens on the mine. He can be penalised in law if a supervisor at the rock face mishandles a safety issue and someone is hurt or killed. But the supervisor himself can't easily be prosecuted because it is the mine manager who is ultimately accountable.

In business, managers are authorised by a board or similar body. They in turn derive authority from shareholders who get their authority from the laws of the land, passed by politicians. The latter are authorised by the voters to pass laws. In the case of democracies, therefore, voters are the ultimate source of authority.

Authority, then, is on one hand the right to give commands, and on the other the acceptance of possible penalties for errors and omissions. Authority without accountability is tyranny. Accountability without authority is oppression.

As I understand it, Church leaders give God as the ultimate source of their authority. I find this claim unconvincing.

Rick: Death and taxes, we are told, are the only certain things in life. I would revise the old aphorism to include authority. To avoid chaos, there is a natural drive for individuals and societies to coalesce around figures or institutions having authority.

From early morning to late in the day and even when we sleep we are all subject to authority. There is authority in the family circle, at our work places, when we drive on the highways and when we identify with a church.

As you suggest, authority derives from some hierarchical source and has varying degrees of gravity and consequence. It is one thing to exercise authority as a parent and another to act as a police officer.

We submit to authority either voluntarily or by coercion. In a free society I can quit my job if I don�t like the authority. I can divorce my wife. Or, I can leave my church if I am uncomfortable with its authority. When I bomb a government building I will be coerced to submit if I am caught.

Sources of authority can be logically traced to the particular nature of the institution or the role of the individual exercising authority. Parental authority is based on cultural norms. Business authority is derived from business models and applicable business law. Since the Church is founded on belief in God, it should not be surprising it claims authority from that source.

Mick: I think we agree broadly on the nature of authority. If I were to wonder about an aspect of your admirable summary it would be with regard to the reciprocal nature of human authority.

As we have noted, accountability operates upwards in a hierarchy, usually in a complex web reinforced by a formal structure of some sort. The strength of democracy is that accountability is returned to the bottom of the pile. Subjects can dismiss their rulers and appoint others. In other words, accountability should include the possibility of sanctions. We in the West speak of authority without accountability in terms such as dictatorship, autocracy and despotism.

As I understand you, members of the Church do not operate under this sort of authority. Their authority is derived from God, and they therefore answer to God. But God, by definition, cannot be called to account.

I am stumped by this line of thought. It is as though I'm operating blind. That is, I can't check out the God side of the equation. I find no way of challenging the statement "I have God's authority" except by dismissing the "God" part of it.

Rick: To those who are frank materialists or atheists, the following remarks will sound banal. For those who believe in God I hope I will make sense. I happen to live in both the materialist and non-materialist worlds, adapting both to my particular situations.

As God is the creator of all reality it is absurd to think he can be accountable for anything. He is the autocrat of the universe, the benign despot of the world. As one descends from the source of all authority into the sphere of humanity, authority is less authentic. Those who assert authority from God can be held accountable and challenged for their interpretations of God�s will. One of my icons, Martin Luther, did just that.

I believe that moral authority that is consistent and enduring is founded on a source beyond the physical contingencies of life. If it is not, it will always ebb and flow at the whim of any earthly despot or societal change.

Although Christ lived two thousand years ago amidst vastly different social circumstances, His concerns, as I interpret them, resonate to this day. They are, as I asserted in our debate on Progress, concerns for:

  1. human life;
  2. individual dignity;
  3. personal identity and integrity;
  4. one�s neighbour and society;
  5. the significance of human existence.

These are unchangeable concerns, bearing authority, emanating from a source beyond the physical. They are dynamic principles that can be applied to any contingency or circumstance.

Mick: Don't get me wrong. Anyone can assert beliefs. But I'm assuming that all such assertions are best tested. So let me try to test yours. Here's a case:

Christian A asserts that x is the truth from God about the significance of human existence.

Christian B asserts that y is God's truth about human existence and that A is therefore incorrect.

I am someone who believes in God. I acknowledge the existence of an authority beyond the material who gives us principles to apply to any contingency or circumstance. I note that the assertions of Christians A and B contradict each other. What criteria do I apply to choose between them?

In other words, I'm asking how and on what authority I'm to know that Luther was correct and his opponents misguided.

Rick: Two thousand years ago Pontius Pilate asked, "What is truth?" We have asked the same question throughout these debates and quite likely a similar question was in the minds of the earliest Homo sapiens. There is a kind of arrogance to the present that compels us to think we will and must have solutions to everything in our lifetimes. The Middle East problem will be solved, poverty will be abolished, justice will ultimately be served to all who seek it; on and on it goes. Most likely we ride in a stream with no final resting place of truth. C�est la vie et c�est la le diable.

In the meantime, we of fleeting existence must try to make the best possible deal with our lives. Our individual "truths" derive from those sources and authorities we trust (if they are not forced on us) be they traditions, civil laws, religions or charismatic persons.

As for the two disagreeing Christians A and B, I must know more about their assertions x and y before I can judge who has the truth. They both may be right. To use the analogy of the great mountain, each could be viewing it from different flanks but still describing the same mountain.

Despite these ambiguities, I perceive threads of universality and truth weaving through, not only the wondrous material world, but as well through the sublime reality of non-materiality. These universals are, in part, embodied in the five major concerns I previously enumerated. Knowledge of these principles is afforded each human being by virtue of a conscious mind. If we were not conscious, of what significance or use would be truth?

Mick: I acknowledge that meaning for a person depends on perspective and that contradictions may arise when attempting to fuse differing perspectives. There will therefore always be mysteries.

The question here relates to authority. I must press you on it. None of us can see from all perspectives, and many answers must therefore perforce be accepted on trust. But mistakes are easily made. I wonder why you trust your authorities. Are they open to questioning? By what means were their answers arrived at? Are their answers supported by anyone else? Are conflicting answers just as valid as theirs? These are all critical questions for me.

We can't test all who claim authority, though I think we should test as many as we can - including those who claim to derive authority from beyond the physical. For example, the Pope says that God forbids abortion except in rare, clearly defined cases. The problem for me is that God is unavailable for questioning.

Rick: You, as a sovereign conscious individual, have the right to question any one, but not God or Jesus Christ who is an extension of God. Any human below this level is, in my book, fair game. Whether or not you are successful is another question. Those you may challenge have the same right to question your truth and your motives. As a young man I questioned many authority figures and often came out second best. In retrospect I was probably basing my challenges more on opinion than on truth. Then again, I feel I was sometimes right in the light of the truth I held. There are timeless, unalterable truths and there are mere opinions.

I am struck by how, in this discussion, the words "truth" and "authority" are found in juxtaposition. They really go together. Real authority is founded on truth. Authority without truth is not authentic. As always, the rub comes in trying to find truth and to argue what is important and not trivial.

I still believe there are basic, immutable truths such as those expressed in the five concerns. More often than not, truth comes dressed in modern packaging that must be unwrapped to find the nugget. Truth in this sense is not relative, but only seen in a mirror dimly. It comes hidden and in versions.

Thus, I say challenge whom you will. Good luck with the Pope.

Mick: You have me between a rock and a hard place!

On one hand I can't assert any final authority because I have none except my own reasoning capacity. That is, I have taken the position that in the final resort I must decide for myself what's true about life and what isn't. And when I say "true", I find I mean only "most likely".

On the other hand, I can't question the authority "emanating from a source beyond the physical" which you propose because I have found no way of accessing it.

So I'm damned if I do and damned if I don't.

Which is, I suppose, why I regard myself as an exile from traditional Christianity. That is, the Church offers me only damnation - or, to put it another way, Jesus is for me to be found mainly outside the Church.

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