A Love of Authority

May 22, 2006

I was at a party over the weekend, and started chatting to this young (24ish) guy (lets call him Peter). Very bright, engaging guy; a banking and finance lawyer in a big city law firm. Peter spends most of his time finding interesting ways to reduce the amount of tax that his clients have to pay.

At one point Peter started to talk about moral relativism. He had, the previous week, had a long discussion with a friend about moral relativism. This friend was a ‘secular humanist’, and Peter felt that he had achieved somewhat of a victory in his discussion, because the friend was unable to provide a source of authority for his moral beliefs, even though he clearly had some.

At this point Peter confessed he was a Christian. Unlike his friend, he didn’t trust his own moral judgement, and so instead he trusted the moral laws of God. He had a source of authority for his statements about morality, so wasn’t a relativist like his friend. That his friend clearly believed in moral values that transcended individual preference and cultural norms didn’t matter – he was a relativist if he couldn’t explain who (begging the question a bit) was his source of authority for those values.

(You may notice the word ‘authority’ keeps on popping up in this post. This is because it kept on popping up in the conversation.)

From my point of view it was obvious that just because Peter’s friend could not point to a book as authority for his moral statements, and instead had to rely on his innate sense of right and wrong, did not make him necessarily a moral relativist.

But later I started to wonder about another aspect of our conversation; the description of Christianity as a source of rules, making becoming a Christian like an almost feudal submission to the authority of a Monarch or the jurisdiction of a State.

Where in this is the joyous shout of liberation threaded throughout the New Testament? Where is Paul’s ringing declaration that we are no longer under the Law? If the only thing that Christ is freeing us from is God’s own judgment, if becoming a Christian is about submitting to rules contained in a book because you should not trust your own moral compass, is it any wonder that people don’t shout Hallelujah when you explain it to them?

Can Christianity be about freedom? Or must it be about submission and authority?

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One Response to “A Love of Authority”

  1. hatless Says:

    Your friend, Peter, works in an area that I would find morally alarming. I think taxation is an excellent idea and a mark of civilisation. All the Bible says about tithing applies today, I think, to paying taxes. On the other hand, people and corporations should not pay too much tax. It needs to be reasonably fair. And I also know that (I am rambling) the only way something like fairness is achieved is by accountants trying to subvert the intentions of legislators. But Peter’s job is still pretty much about getting rich folk out of paying the stuff that poor people have no choice in. Morally questionable.

    So I see an attraction for a moral view that is nice and solid: authoritative. Saves painful worrying. I just don’t think it’s morality if we’re just following rules. We are only moral beings so long as we have free will. Our right actions only have real worth if we have chosen them after exercising compassion and responsibility.

    Yes, freedom is pretty essential, I’d say.


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