Authority

September 19, 2007

The immensely influential humanist Edward Said wrote:

There is nothing mysterious or neutral about authority.  It is formed, irradiated, disseminated; it is instrumental, it is persuasive; it has status, it establishes canons of taste and value; it is virtually indistinguishable from certain ideas it dignifies as true, and from traditions, perceptions, and judgments it forms, transmits, reproduces.  Above all, authority can, indeed must, be analyzed (Orientalism, p. 19-20, 1978).

Something to consider.  I’m currently teaching Sunday School class on the religions of the world; we have begun our study with Hinduism, a “religion” completely constructed by authority.  It is hard and not natural for us, but we are trying to analyze this.  Maybe by the end of the year we *might* be ready to do the same for our own dear Christianity.

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11 Responses to “Authority”

  1. Tinman Says:

    I wonder why you put “religion” in quotes when you mention Hinduism. It is more similar to Judeo-Christianity than many think. It is ultimately monotheistic despite the many different incarnations of Vishnu (God) It has a number of stories with life lessons. Vishnu, like YHWH is alternately vengeful and salvific. Both feature human incarnations. (Krsna, Christ.)etc. Are you discounting Hinduism as a religion or did I miss something?

  2. Tinman Says:

    BTW “completely constructed by authority” You mean, like apostolic succession? 😉

    OK, I’ll quit now. If I’m gonna make snide comments, maybe I should move back home and enroll in your class!

    As St. Francis would say:
    Peace and Good,
    J (Tinman)

  3. sheepdays Says:

    Hi Tinman. I should clarify. I put “religion” in quotes because religion is a category constructed–authoritatively I might add–by western, primarily Christian and Muslim, observers. The vast collection of what we might classify as “religious” traditions in the Indian subcontinent are lumped as Hinduism by external authorities. (This is not to say that “Hinduism” as an umbrella term has not been very successfully appropriated by many Indians themselves for various social and political purposes.) Certain strands of this extremely heterodox set of traditions are similar to monotheistic western religions while others are not monotheistic at all. Indeed, “monotheism” as a term itself is yet another signifier that makes better sense from our vantage point than from within what has come to be known as Hinduism. As you can see, it is probably impossible to even speak of “world religions” without moment by moment proving Said’s point.

    Hey, snide comments are always welcome !

  4. Charles Says:

    Ohhhhhh. You’ve done it now. You’ve started reading from the works of a God hating secular humanists. Not only that. He’s a PALESTINIAN God hating secular humanist. You’re on SOMEBODY’S watch list now, buddy.

    The very idea that authority should be analyzed. The very idea that authority COULD be analyzed! Next thing you know you’ll be trying to analyze the God fearing, red white and blue waving authority of our decider in chief. Can’t be done, I’m telling you! Shouldn’t be done! The last guy who tried it was a retired banker from Texas who went hunting with Dick Cheney….

  5. sheepdays Says:

    Hey, Charles. Watch lists! Yikes. And the scary thing is that you’re guilty by association! 🙂

  6. Joy Says:

    You all are making my brain hurt.

  7. Charles Says:

    On a more serious note, it is no secret that my own denomination has undergone decades of upheaval brought on by a disagreement over the nature and application of authority. This disagreement came alive in what we call the Conservative Resurgence, a struggle over “inerrancy” of scripture and political control of agencies and institutions of the denomination by those who subscribe to a very narrow view regarding “inerrancy.”

    In this struggle, those of us who support analysis of authority have been branded as heretics and are no longer invited to “the cool kid’s table” at denominational meetings. (Believe me, it’s no great loss!) From a practical standpoint, to be seen as analyzing the application of authority (polity), we are charged with denying that scripture has authority. To be seen as analyzing the nature of authority (scripture), we are charged with denying political authority. It’s a two edged sword.

  8. ale Says:

    Ah, world religions…growing up Catholic, attending Catholic school, and taking the Catholic versus born-again Christians conflict as seriously as a 12 year old Guatemalan could, my first contact with other religions was a late, but great discovery. Middle school religion class included a very superficial review of the “others.” I devoured the textbook and asked so many questions the teacher accused me of showing too much interest…was I questioning our Church’s teachings? la católica, apostólica y romana?

    One of my favorite discoveries, however, didn’t happen until college, where we spent a few weeks comparing Catholicism to Maya beliefs. Amazing “coincidences.” Saints simply replaced the lesser gods, incense, incense, crosses, crosses, hell, hell, virgin birth, virgin birth, etc, and yet the Maya were somehow considered pagans!

    Have fun in Sunday School

  9. sheepdays Says:

    Thank you, Charles and Ale, for your very thoughtful comments concerning your own experiences with religion and the way in which the “authorities” construct it.

    Charles, I don’t know how you stay, but I salute you. We have these debates in the Presbyterian Church as well, but I have to think the vitriol and the segregation is less on our side. Well, here’s a phrase from the Presbyterian Book of Order that always cheers me up: “God alone is the Lord of the conscience.”

    Ale, yeah, the study of world religions, ideally, should teach you more about yourself and your own religion (or lack thereof). Another fun thing to consider is this: After the colonial encounter, do pure “Catholicism” and pure “Maya religion” exist ever again? Here’s another phrase from postcolonial studies: “They are hybrid all the way down.”

  10. ale Says:

    Hybrid through and through. The “neo-Maya” movement that peaked in the 90s tries to deny the Catholic and Spanish elements present in Maya rituals today. It’s difficult to engage in constructive discussions on the subject since being ladina makes me suspect by default.

    I love being a syncretic Catholic and navigate all the nuances, but I guess admitting our syncretic nature depends a lot on politics. Coming from the “Catholic side”, the one that tried to eradicate all things Maya, it is easier for me to embrace the current elements than the Maya priests who hid and passed their knowledge fearing colonial and modern inquisitors.

  11. Charles Says:

    r u too tired to post kitchen makeover pics??


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