I am certain we’ve all seen the bumper stickers that encourage us to “Question Authority”. They are almost ubiquitous in our part of the world. And when we see it, I am sure we are at least tempted to hold our head up a little higher, stick out our chin, and give three cheers for individual autonomy. Question authority, that’s right! Down with the Man! I’m my own master. No one’s going to tell me what to do… except maybe that bumper sticker. Seriously, have we ever stopped to question the authority a bumper sticker has to tell us to question authority? If not, why do we simply take its authority without question?
The reason is we take the authority of people or ideas without question all the time. We go to the doctor when we are sick. We stop at red lights. We pull to the side of the road when we hear a siren coming up behind us. And what we are assuming in each of those instances is the fact that someone else has the right to tell us what to do.
The Question Authority Philosophy is one such authority figure. But taken to its logical end, it becomes self-defeating. Let’s say I question that bumper sticker. What I find is that questioning the notion of questioning authority is a wormhole of contradiction. It is like saying there are absolutely no absolutes, or nothing can be known, not even that. In reality, what the Question Authority Philosophy is trying to get you to do is to be leery, if not downright dismissive, of everyone in authority over you, encouraging you to trust only yourself.
But can we actually live like that? Appeals to the authority of others outside of ourselves are inescapable. It is not whether we appeal to authority, but which authority we appeal to. The real question is, of all the authority figures out there, which do I trust the most, and why? I trust my doctor with my health, because I believe in his character and training. I trust my financial advisor with my money, because I believe in his wisdom and financial prowess. I trust my mechanic with my car, because I believe in his experience and know-how. Each of them command authority in their fields, and are upright in character, and so I go to them with my problems. Of course, I have the freedom to question them. But because I trust them, the questions I ask are genuine, for I am interested in genuine answers.
That’s all fine and good for relatively trivial things like cars and portfolios. But what about the ultimate questions of morality, meaning, and existence? Which authority do I believe to be the most trustworthy when it comes to the questions of eternal significance? Humanity? Science? Philosophy? Or something outside of nature altogether? Again, appealing to something outside of ourselves is inescapable. We all believe in something. Some appeal to science, some to humanity, some to religion. Appeals to science are good and right for many things — but the empirical scientific method is simply unable to answer the metaphysical questions of conscience and morality. Appeals to innate human goodness sound noble and just, but the evidence of history stands against it, forcing us to appeal to an authority higher than simply the best versions of ourselves.
Again, appeals to authority in every field of inquiry is unavoidable. And for the ultimate questions, all of us appeal to some form of ultimate authority. All of us know deep down that there is some ultimate source of governance and meaning that stretches over all of us. As a rational and critical Christian, I firmly believe that the Triune God who is revealed in Scripture and in the person and work of Jesus Christ, is that Supreme Authority. I believe the answers He gives to every question that can be asked make the most sense. I believe His answers explain most consistently the good and evil I see both in myself and in the world around me. And I believe His answers alone have the power to give hope in the midst of our confusion. His authority really is supreme, and we can trust Him.
Joe Carlson was born and raised at Trinity Bible Church, and brought onto the elder board in 2014. He received a BA in Liberal Arts and Culture from New Saint Andrews College (2005). Working full-time for the Church, he leads bible studies, college groups, campus ministry at UCSC (Kyrie Christian Fellowship), and fills the pulpit when Pastor Steve is out of town, as well as serving as the office administrator. He and his wife Jen have been married since 2003, and have one son, Joseph Benaiah. www.tb-church.org