26 Oct

Command and liberation

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 10/26/15

Oliver O’Donovan on the freedom of living under authority

“Where authority is, freedom is; and where authority is lost, freedom is lost. This holds good for all kinds of authority. Without adults who demand mature behavior, the child is not free to grow up; without teachers to set standards of excellence, the scholar is not free to excel; without prophets to uphold ideals of virtue, society is not free to realize its common good. To be under authority is to be freer than to be independent. The centurion of Capernaum addressed Jesus with the memorable words, ‘I, too, am a man under authority. I say to this man “Go” and he goes, and to another “Come” and he comes’ (Matt. 8:9). He exercises authority because he is under authority. Authority communicates itself through him, liberating his capacity for effective action and command. We catch the idea in our expression, ‘to be authorized to do something,’ a condition in which one is at the same time dependent upon authority and freed by that authority to act. When a group of followers identify themselves with a leader, they experience their leader’s command as freeing them. That is true of any social movement: a political party, a school of intellectual criticism, an artistic fashion, or a gang of thugs — Augustine famously understood that certain social principles equally applied to kingdoms and to robber bands!

“Together with freedom there is awe, a wonder that is both delight and terror. Freedom begins in delighted astonishment: at the beauty of the object which the artist will paint, at the complexity of the thought which the philosopher will tease out, at the God who reveals himself in the burning bush. This is a normal element in the genesis of any worthwhile project: a rational action which looks from one point of view like the pursuit of a good may from another point of view look more like being stopped in one’s tracks. The parable of the pearl of great price is a parable about how any great thing comes to be done. Wonder contains dread as well as delight, and it is this that is especially prominent in response to authority. Those who present us with something we must do impose responsibility on us as well as freedom, and they become the immediate object of our fear of responsibility. The police officer waving down the car, the teacher setting the exercise, the physician recommending the operation, are all in varied ways our judges, should our response prove inadequate or unseemly. Only desire can make this dread tolerable, only love can make it welcome.”

—from Oliver O’Donovan, The Ways of Judgment (Eerdmans, 2005)

Click here to subscribe to the Addenda RSS feed.