Charles Taylor is highly critical of so-called “subtraction stories” told by modern secularism, namely that once God, superstition, theology, and the Church are outgrown, we are left with an uncontaminated, rational reality. One such subtraction story pertains to authority: once we are liberated from the Protestant authority, God speaking through the Bible, or the Roman Catholic authority, the Church, man is free and no longer burdened by these shackles of external authority.
This is false. Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman who visited America, observed that Americans did not merely remove the external authority, they set up the Self as the religious and epistemic authority. (I’m not sure if Charles Taylor explicitly takes up de Tocqueville’s argument, but he would probably agree.) According to de Tocqueville, man did not merely remove all authority (the typical subtraction story); he actively established a new one, that of the Self.
Consider Gary Dorien’s extremely helpful definition of theological liberalism:
“Fundamentally it is the idea of a genuine Christianity not based on external authority. Liberal theology seeks to reinterpret the symbols of traditional Christianity…liberal theology is defined by…its commitment to the authority of individual reason and experience; its conception of Christianity as an ethical way of life; its favoring of moral concepts of atonement; and its commitment to make Christianity credible and socially relevant to modern people” (The Making of American Liberal Theology, p. xxiii, emphasis mine).
In other words, we all have set up an authority to govern our lives. People who say they don’t have an authority are either lying or not yet aware that their Self is the authority. If you are a secular humanist or theological liberal, why is the Self a more legitimate authority than the Bible or the Church? If you are a Protestant, why is God speaking through the Bible the legitimate authority? If you are a Roman Catholic, why is the Church the legitimate authority?
Here is how I would answer the question of authority:
- In the Sermon on the Mount, authority is something absolutely attributed to Christ. “He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as one of their scribes” (Matthew 7:29, ESV, emphasis mine). Hating all authority therefore includes hating Christ.
- Christ is the God of the Cosmos and the Servant King. When washing His disciples’ feet, He demonstrates His authority through love, service, and humility. Good authority is possible.
- Secular humanists are absolutely right to point out when Protestant and Catholic churches are demonstrating poor authority by lacking love, service, and humility.
- If a Protestant or Catholic church preaches a false gospel, it disqualifies itself as a spiritual authority (Galatians 1:8). (Here my Protestant leanings are coming out a little bit.)
- Trusting the Self is fraught with peril. Proverbs is brimming with warnings about trusting our own understanding. Jesus thanks the Father that He hides the Gospel from the wise and discerning, yet reveals it to little children (Matthew 11:25). Claiming to be wise, the wise have become fools (Romans 1); God loves us and has mercy on us in our blindness, sin, and folly (Romans 2-11); therefore by the mercies of God (12:1) “never be wise in your own sight” (Romans 12:16).