A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on September 9, 2012
For the Moment for All Ages, we watched this preview from the movie Brave and talked about “who has the authority?”
From time immemorial, authority has been used as a cloak to hide behind. It has been used to explain injustice. It has been used justify immorality. Like Brian said in his Congregant’s perspective, it is “our responsibility to question the way things are.”
This thread of questioning authority runs deep in our veins. As religious liberals, we have loosened the shackles of tradition and sought the truth on our own terms. We follow in the footsteps of those who looked at the teachings of the Trinity, looked at the bible, and said “I don’t see that in the scriptures.” We follow in the footsteps of those who looked at the God of love as portrayed in the Christian Scriptures and who claimed that God would be no less loving than a parent, and that if God is love, then God would never damn even one of God’s beloved creatures to hell for eternity.
We follow in the footsteps – and make new ones of our own – of troublemakers, pot-stirrers, people who saw how the world could be better, more fair, more just, and demanded that those in power struggle to make it so.
Science teaches us to question everything rigorously. To question, and then to test, and then, if testing proves the question true (and it can be independently verified by others), then, to trust. To trust, until there is new information available, in which case we being the cycle again.
We proudly proclaim that God would not have given us brains and the ability to reason if God did not intend for us to use them!
Question authority? Absolutely.
But questioning every authority, all the time, on every subject, gets very tiring! Even if we wanted to, we don’t have the emotional resources or the time to do it. I remember being pregnant with my first child and spending an inordinate amount of time reading, reading, reading about pregnancy and childbirth. And then when she was finally born (totally not the way I had intended or planned), I suddenly realized that I had barely read about caring for a newborn at all and I needed to find a trusted authority to help me know what to do. I sure didn’t have time or energy to keep up that previous level of research. In the end, we have to put our trust in some authorities.
So, let’s start with who in our lives we give authority to.
There is the authority of tradition. Customs, traditions, “The way it is always done” – these are the types of authority that are found in hierarchies, in scriptures, and in many ways, in parents.
There is also legal authority: lawyers, police, politicians have legal authority to make laws, the country had legal authority to draft Brian during the Vietnam war.
We also give authority to specialists in their fields. Folks like doctors, lawyers, plumbers…
We give different amounts of authority based on our perceptions of people, too. Tall people get more authority granted to them than short people. Men get more than women. I guess I am out of luck!
And we also grant authority based on that “je ne sais quoi” – something we may not know how to put a finger on, but we know if someone has it. Personal qualities. Charisma.
No matter how we grant authority to these folks, with each one we question, we test, and then, if the testing proves positive, we trust. And if the testing does not prove positive we move on – if the plumber can’t fix our problem, we don’t keep calling the same person over and over, we try someone new.
Now troubles can come when the streams get crossed. Whoops, sorry, wrong movie. Trouble can come when people with one type authority tries to assume authority of another type. Such as when politicians decide they are authorities on health and wellbeing and make rules that interfere with the care a patient receives from her doctor. Or when clergy decide they are authorities on science and urge that creationism be taught in the classroom instead of evolution.
And trouble comes when someone with authority neglects to use it. Such as when a teacher looks the other way when kids get picked on.
We often know abuse of authority when we see it, too, don’t we? When lawmakers are passing unjust laws, or police pull over one group of people more often than others. Or anytime someone uses their power to rationalize causing pain to someone else.
Something tells us when authority is being abused. That something is the still small voice, deep inside all of us. It is our own, inner authority. It is the compass that guides each us. Our conscience, Jiminy Cricket, our sense of morality, our ethics, our gut instinct.
I am reminded of the poem “The Voice” by Shel Silverstein:
There is a voice inside of you
That whispers all day long,
“I feel this is right for me,
I know that this is wrong.”
No teacher, preacher, parent, friend
Or wise man can decide
What’s right for you–just listen to
The voice that speaks inside.
Brian has that voice. Merida has that voice. Each of us has an inner authority, the voice that whispers.
So where does that voice come from? At a couple of different points in the Christian Scriptures, Jesus is asked by what authority he is speaking to the people. He has various ways of answering (or ignoring) the question, but they all came down to one: God. Jesus speaks with authority because of God.
Our Unitarian faith teaches us that Jesus was no more divine than any other human being, no more divine than any other of us in this room. More enlightened, definitely, but not any more divine. So another word that you might give this flame that burns within, this voice still and small, is God. We are the spirit of God.
Or, as Carl Sagan said, we are the way for the universe to know itself.
We each have this voice. And this is why we hold the democratic process to be so important in our congregations and in society at large – because all people need a voice to claim their own truths and experience.
Just as God has given us reason – or, if you prefer, just as we have evolved the ability to reason – so too have we been given, or evolved the ability to discern right from wrong, good from evil, loving actions from harmful ones.
But our own inner authority is sometimes, frankly, wrong. Think of a stage light that burns brightly. You can put colored gels in front of this pure light to color what others will see. Our inner authority can be like this stage light: it starts off as pure light but then can be colored by our own biases: it is colored by our fear; by what we are taught as children; by our experiences; by just living. We all have multiple layers of colored gels that distort the light of our inner authority.
I think of Anne Braden when I think about how difficult, and how important it is, to work hard to remove those colored gels. She says that she grew up as a little girl – absorbing a hundred stereotypes about herself and her role in life, her secondary position, her destiny to be a helpmate to a man. And she also grew up white – absorbing the stereotypes of race, the picture of herself and other white people as somehow privileged because of the color of our skin.
Anne had a very bright light (we will learn more about her in the service on Sept. 30) and she worked hard to remove the gels of her biases.
So getting back to questing authority: it turns out we need to question our own inner authority as well. We need to test our own inner voice as rigorously as we test the authority of others. And we need to let others test our authority as well. We should even expect them to. Invite them to. Because we need independent verification to know for sure whether we are standing on the side of love, or oppression.
This is part of our free and responsible search for truth and meaning. We support the right to question authority, and we search for is true and rigorously test our own conclusions as much as we test others.
Which is particularly apt in this time of heated political rhetoric.
The shadow side of questioning authority is having our own authority questioned. And being open to change. Which, at its core, is what it means to be liberal: to be open to new behaviors or opinions and willing to discard traditional values if they prove to be untrue or harmful.
It doesn’t mean having to be wishy-washy, or not take a stand. It does mean testing that stand, not turning away from evidence that may prove that it is not the best stand.
Questioning authority will always be an important part of liberal religion – we are free and unshackled. We just need to make sure it goes in both directions.
May it be so. May we make it so.