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    February 17th, 2012 @ 3:27 pm by Kevin

    I’ve been having a protracted debate with a Catholic friend of mine lately about the issue of authority. The crux of our argument has to do with the basis on which we can claim to say we have true knowledge. My friend accuses me, a Protestant, of being my own highest authority. He would rather see me adopt a position where I submit to the authority of the Catholic Church, which he believes to be the only legitimate manifestation–or perhaps the fullest representation–of the Church Jesus founded.

    I’ve responded by arguing that even if he chooses to submit himself to the Catholic Church, he made that decision based on his assessment of certain arguments in favor of the Catholic Church’s privileged status. No one made that decision for him. So even though he has chosen to submit to the authority of the Catholic Church, ultimately, he is still his own highest authority, because it was his assessment of the facts that led to that decision. Therefore, we are in the same epistemological position–that is to say, we are both our own highest authority when it comes to belief formation. And I really don’t see a way out of that situation.

    In response, my friend essentially accused me of being a relativist, of believing that truth is dependent on my acceptance or rejection of it. I disagreed, arguing that I do believe in objective reality. I just don’t see a way for any of us to experience it objectively, seeing as we are all subjective beings with a limited point of view.

    That brought us to the point where my friend argued that if we both believe in objective truth, but we disagree on the nature of that truth, one of us must be wrong and the other right. The fact that our  perspective on objective truth would be different is not disputed. What is disputable are the reasons we ended up with different perspectives.

    I agree, but the question is, how do we settle such arguments? Is there any way to declare a definitive winner? This is an edited version of my response to that question:

    The other option is that BOTH of our perspectives could be wrong–and both of them could be right. But once again, what is the objective standard against which we can measure the accuracy of our positions? Because even our ability to measure our POV’s by that standard will be hampered by our limited perspective, which is constantly changing due to the inflow of new information.

    For example, how fast am I moving right now? The only way to answer that question is, relative to what? Relative to my desk, I’m sitting still. Relative to the sun, I (and everyone else on earth) is moving through space at a rate of 107,300 km/h. So both statements appear to be correct from different points of view.

    From my point of view then, it seems quite reasonable to say I’m sitting still at my desk. But if you asked an astronaut observing my movement from space using some kind of super-powered telescope, he would argue I’m living under an illusion of stillness created by the fact that the desk is moving through space at the same speed I am.

    The point is, neither perspective negates the objective reality of me sitting here at my desk or the earth moving through space. But our different perspectives on this objective reality has a hugely distorting effect.

    So in the case of the astronaut and me, you could say we’re both wrong, and we’re both right.

    This illustration may seem like it’s light years away from the hell debate, but I thought it would be helpful as we think through how so many intelligent, educated and fair-minded people can disagree so strongly about such issues.



leave a comment on this post (7 Comments)

  1. Kevin, again another interesting thought and thank you for welcoming us to the topic. I’m far more inclined to think that God gave us intuition to help guard against evil, but when authority speaks it asks us to bypass this intuition.

    If the pope says something wrong, who’s to say he is? How do they know? Do they weigh his words against the scriptures? Who’s to judge if they can’t interpret them the way the pope does? Is the pope perfect? I have my doubts the pope is anything but a man like all of us. So how do I know when the pops is right or when he’s wrong? How do I test the pope?

    What I’ve found is everyone who claims to hold the truth exhorts it’s listerners to test everything, but once you really do, they call you a heretic and throw you out; poor Luther or dare I say lucky Luther.

  2. If Kevin permits this hijacking,(he may not, and that would be alright also) here is for you Gene–So our intuition is our authority for truth. It only means that each one of us is The authority for truth. Confusion and anarchy can only be the result of that belief.
    Your second paragraph shows that you do not have a clue on the meaning of authority in the Catholic Church.
    If by any slim chance you would care to educate yourself here is a chance: http://benedictus-gallant.blogspot.com/, and look for Tuesday, February 14, 2012 with the following title:
    “It is never wrong to follow the convictions one has arrived at—in fact, one must do so. But it can very well be wrong to have come to such askew convictions in the first place, by having stifled the protest of the anamnesis of being”.

    “Luther exerted his listeners to test everything”. You have to be joking. He thought that rationality was the trouble, that faith reigns supreme.

    • I have “By What Authority?” on my bookshelf (along with many other books on Catholic apologetics). I pledge to read that book at least.

  3. I wasn’t a Catholic, but I’ve had a fair share of bad church epexriences. My friends at my Presbyterian college told me my sick dying father wasn’t going to heaven because he didn’t attend church. That did it for me, and the only time I’ve set foot in a church since was for a much-loved uncle’s wedding. And the whole time I sat there in that pew, I had the shakes.Religion is so twisted, thinking they have the inside scoop on exactly who God is and what he is like, then twisting that into their superiority over others. And not just Christianity or Catholicism either. It’s all such a mess, and it’s all just people, these fallible humans, saying we have THE definition of God, WE know what he is and how he feels about us and what he wants us to be like. I say BULL.SHIT.I do believe in a divine creator, but if he’s like any creative type I know, he kinda likes what he’s created and doesn’t want to send us to burn just because we missed last Sunday or our religious books are a little dusty. But he’s probably a little sad and pissed that the people who claim to worship him have turned him into such an utter bastard too.

    • Thanks for weighing in. Yes, it is sad what a mess we’ve made of everything. But I like what you say about God being a “creative type.” If so, he’ll never be entirely done with his creation. As they say, no work of art is ever finished, it’s just abandoned. But I don’t see why God would ever have to do that… Welcome here.

  4. I know this is a boring reply, but I just want to say I’ve had almost the same thoughts as you (in response to your RC friend).

    There just isn’t any objective way out of our own individual subjectivities—not in this live there aint’! ;-/

    This is my first visit to this site: am downloading the trailer now. Interesting!

    • Welcome here! Yes, my discussions/arguments with him are ongoing for exactly this reason. It’s like we’re speaking different languages. In fact, he accused me of being like a conspiracy theorist today. No matter what evidence he shows me for his position, I always say, “Yes, but…” Of course, I threw that right back at him. Who knows how anyone actually changes their mind. All I know is that it happens. A lot. But the process is still a mystery to me. Must read Steven Pinker’s “How the Mind Works.” It may offer some insights.

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