Hannah Arendt: Authority, Church, and God

Last week, we talked about how Eichmann is sort of the poster boy for how not to appeal to authority. His ‘banal evil’ is his inability to think for himself, his (more or less) complete obedience to a heinous authority. I suggested that the Holocaust might well be a pivotal moment in shattering our collective faith in authority – which is not to say that nobody trusts in authority, but rather to suggest that any faith we choose to put in authority is much more measured and deliberate. There’s a greater sense of hesitation around these things. Today I wanted to apply that to both God and the church, and think about how these things are impacted by our mistrust of authority.

Speaking purely in theoretical terms, God is treated as entirely good, and entirely infinite, such that we are able to rely fully on His good and righteous authority. He is, after all, the Author, the great Creator upon whom all else is dependant. He is also an external authority, in that He is not me. This raises immediate questions, because in our complete submission to God, we must ask whether we are falling prey to the same trap as Eichmann. Of course, speaking again in the theoretical, that’s impossible, because God is infinitely good – it’s not possible for Him to lead our moral compass astray, because that would be for Him to deny His own nature. Point being, it’s not God who’s the issue (we’ll come back to this later). Even though God Himself is not and cannot be an issue in this equation, everything else can be. There’s two main problems I want to hit here – both the issue of our personal perception of God’s will, and the issue of the church. We’ll hit the church up first.

Obviously the church has an institutional aspect. It’s been a major player in terms of Western political authority for well over a thousand years, and, more importantly for Christians, it’s the Body of Christ. If you’re a Christian, you’re part of the Church. It’s part of the theological terms and conditions, if you like. Thing is, obviously the church is not infallible. It does stupid things with alarming regularity. As an external authority, it’s not really something we should trust entirely – and yet it claims to be in possession of God’s authoritative revelation (the Bible), and God’s Holy Spirit, which allows them to correctly interpret that Bible. So there’s complications, because we want to affirm the Church as a place where God’s authoritative self-revelation can be found, but we also want to recognise that the Church is remarkably fallible.

That said, most Christians would probably argue that as Christ is the centre of the church, the church has no authority in and of itself – it’s only authoritative insofar as it points to Christ. That’s true, but it’s not helpful for understanding how social and political power play out in the real world. For example, the Church of England never really supported the suffragette movement – individual Christians did, but again, that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about how the institutional church leveraged the authority of God’s self-revelation as a justification for the oppression of women. Given that this is something the church does in various areas with relative regularity, it’s genuinely difficult to trust any claims of authority the church makes – and yet, at the same time, here we are, all Christians together. If you want God, the whole ‘Christianity’ thing is sort of part of the package. The claims made by the faith don’t belong to any particular individual: they were given to the Apostles and the early followers of Christ, and we follow in that tradition.

The second issue is our perception of God’s will. Yes, God is all of these things we say He is, but there are debates about how those attributes translate into the real world. Although God cannot be less than perfect, our perception of perfection is arguably always skewed – so we might think we’re seeing God when we’re really not. The problem is when we go to act on who we incorrectly think God is, we fuck things up – and all the more spectacularly, as we’ve invoked God’s authority as a justification for our actions. My favourite example of this is Origen. His father was imprisoned and executed for being a Christian, and Origen was chomping at the bit to follow him into martyrdom. Origen’s mother, decidedly less keen on this outcome, hid his clothes. Origen didn’t want to go out in the nuddy, so he stayed home, survived, and grew up to be a great theologian. In this situation, although we can’t guarantee that Origen’s mother was acting according to God’s will, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suppose that she was – which suggests in turn that Origen was not. If that’s the case, then it suggests a) that Christians can be entirely wrong in their perception of God’s will, which we already knew, and b) that Christians are allowed to intervene to stop other Christians doing stupid things in God’s name, which I actually rather like.

So although there are issues relating to correctly perceiving God’s will, even the correct perception itself is not always comforting. God asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac on an altar; He also ordered the Israelites to wipe out the people in the Promised Land. There is a point where God’s external authority leads us to do things that we might not want to do – things that, to outsiders, might seem to be in a similar vein to Eichmann and his stupid-sheep Holocaust. I’m not advocating mass murder as God’s will, because I don’t think that’s who God is, but I have to be real about the fact that Christians do set about surrendering themselves to the external authority of God. Eichmann is a spectre who will eternally haunt that type of surrender.

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