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by Ken Myers

Sound thinking

The leaning tower of gabble

Oliver O’Donovan on how authority and language connect us with reality and thus sustain community

by Ken Myers

by Ken Myers

The leaning tower of gabble

In his magisterial primer on what makes Christian ethics Christian, Resurrection and Moral Order (Eerdmans, 1988), moral philosopher Oliver O’Donovan presented a thorough and compelling account of the nature of authority. Authority, O’Donovan argued, “is what we encounter in the world which makes it meaningful for us to act. An authority, we may say, is something which, by virtue of its kind, constitutes an immediate and sufficient ground for acting.” Authority is that which authorizes our actions, because it informs us about what really is the case, and thus reliably guides us in the way that we should go. Such authorization assumes that reality itself is the work of an Author, who has given the world an intelligible and good order in which our actions can be meaningful.

In his 2013 Self, World, and Time, O’Donovan briefly revisits the question of authority in the context of discussing the social nature of moral reflection, what was traditionally designated practical reasoning. In a chapter titled “Moral Communication,” he examines the giving of advice, the obeying of authority, and the teaching of moral principles as three forms of communication in which our role as moral actors in community is made evident.

“Authority,” he writes, “is a focused disclosure of reality, one that demands we turn our attention away from everything else and concentrate it in this one place.” When authority speaks, those under authority do well to attend. But authority doesn’t always explain or justify every word spoken. “‘There are good reasons for this, which I dimly perceive but do not fully comprehend!’ — that is the characteristic form of recognition we accord to any authoritative utterance. That is the best reason available to us in the circumstances. Faith in things unseen is always an element in practical reasonableness. The communicative framework of our practical reasoning does not allow us to take in the complete picture straight off. . . . Truth is mediated in successive moments, giving directions step by step when and as we need it. So while every authority presents reasons to act thus and not otherwise, it presents these reasons without their being wholly conspicuous. They are implicit, only partially disclosed; we must act according to a truth we have only imperfectly grasped.”

Modern societies prefer to speak of “leadership” rather than “authority,” because the latter suggests both hierarchy and a pre-existing order of things to which we should all conform our lives. But suspicion of authority is destructive of community, and its degenerative consequences are becoming more evident by the day. As O’Donovan writes, “Authority penetrates social existence and gives it cohesion. Discomfort with authority in general (as opposed to discomfort with this or that exercise of it) is discomfort with society itself. Liberal and egalitarian philosophy is perfectly clear-sighted in distrusting authority, for authority undermines the presumption that society is a contractual relation among equally self-possessed adults, a presumption which screens out, in Martha Nussbaum’s apt phrase, ‘all the times of asymmetrical or unusual dependency . . . through which all citizens pass.’”

O’Donovan notes that submission to authority in society is not an act of blind and mindless obedience. In our experience, “one exercise of authority may disclose a more extensive view than another, and it is this that makes the difference. Those whose power of speech — explaining, clarifying, making the mysterious plain — commands our believing adherence exercise ‘intellectual authority,’ the authority of wisdom. The teacher who first opens the disciple’s eyes gestures towards a wide horizon.”

And then comes a paragraph that connects with many of the motives, means, and manners of MARS HILL AUDIO. I will leave it to readers and listeners to make the connections:

“Communication is the key. Knowledge uncommunicated, however great, is socially unfruitful. (There is, it must be confessed, a slightly desperate air about the great libraries of the Western world, so full of books unread from century to century; but at least the books are there, and encourage us to hope that we may, one day, get round to reading more of them. More desperate by far are the unread bibliographies of our scholarly writings and the databases of our online bookstores, where so much intellectual labor is reduced to a minuscule electronic note!) Intellectual authority is connected with speech used to good effect, the ability to deploy language powerfully and clearly. ‘The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouths of fools poor out folly’ (Prov. 15:2). The relentless output of gabble never compensates for loss of articulate control. Acquired skill in the resources of language, its vocabulary, linguistic structures, and rhetorical organization, is essential to framing and focusing the nuanced discernment of reality. It sustains authority, and when it falls into decay, authority falls with it. Linguistic impoverishment in a community causes the most urgent expressions of concern to be dismissed as subjective opinion, and drives the structures of its government away from subtle discernment back upon the crude manipulations of power. Such is our age, which congratulates itself that language evolves, while forgetting that it devolves. Such are our great enterprises with their large budgets and tiny dictionaries, and such is our public discourse, where a leader’s incapacity to construct the simplest sentence is seen as a strong political selling point.”

— From Oliver O’Donovan, Self, World, and Time: Ethics as Theology: An Induction (Eerdmans, 2013)