Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The Roots of Anti-Authoritarianism

This post, like many others, will have to be far briefer than it should be. The title of this blog leads one to a great number of factors that have contributed to an anti-authority attitude. However, there are several that I will highlight here.

First, and this will surprise some who know my theological commitments, Luther's 95 Theses in 1517 contributed to an anti-authority attitude. Please understand me here. I am not saying that what Luther did was wrong or that he was himself sinfully trying to undermine authority. I don't think that's true at all. However, his actions did lead many of his countrymen to revolt and to sinfully rebel against the government. Such rebellion was put down, but one could say that this was the first historical example of a society turning in on itself, and the common people achieving a significant degree of rebellious success.

The major contributing factor to the prevailing anti-authority attitude was the Enlightenment, which emphasized as its major principle the autonomous will and reason of man over against the authority of God. Prior to the Enlightenment, every person who lived, essentially, believed that God held the uppermost authority. Post-Enlightenment, however, the European citizen came to view himself as an autonomous being. Thus, the French Revolution, in which the French citizenry did in fact overthrow the reigning government (prompting the celebration of Bastille Day--think about it: should a French Christian celebrate this day?). In addition, the American Revolution represents a revolt against established authority. One cannot swiftly say that this event was wrong, but surely this event represented a negative response to established authority (whether just or unjust). It also gave rise to Modernism, in which man himself is central, autonomous, and uninhibited (purportedly) by sin. Man's reason discovers truth, not the leading of God's Spirit. In pre-Modernism, authority was located in God's Word. Now, it was untethered and subject to the whims of man.

It took many years for Enlightenment thought to ferment. When it did, in the late nineteenth century, it overthrew the authority of the Bible and the Christian church. This began in Europe and spread all over the globe. Men began to realize that truth located outside of a greater authority was no truth at all, and Existentialism arose, causing men to doubt the meaning of, well, anything. This coincided with the rise of psychology in the mid-twentieth century, which displaced religion as the explanatory principle of man. Now, the self was not only central, it was worshipped. Existentialism gave way to nihilism in the mid-twentieth century. Nihilism led to societal revolt as seen in the Hippy movement and other threads. The Hippies grew up and became postmodernists, which meant that they no longer believed even in the reality of truth, as the modernists did. Thus, the rebellion was complete. Without any greater truth, man could live how he wanted. And thus came the spirit of anti-authoritarianism that we know so well today.


Blogger Jed said...

Funny to hear a Baptist admit that while Luther was right, those rabble-rousing, anti-authoritarian anabaptists went too far in their views about civil authority. Maybe they went too far in their views of the sacraments too? :)

To be provocative: According to you, Reformation good, enlightenment bad. The reformation valued revelation while the enlightenment valued reason, true enough. But because of the reformation, revelation became interpreted by the individual, essentially subjected scripture to the individual whims and caprices of the interpreter. The central idea of the Reformation--that Scripture is the final authority--became coupled with the idea that each individual's interpretation of scripture is authoritative. Hence the notion that a ploughman with the scripture can stand against the great councils of the Church and Popes. Sometimes, true, the ploughman may be right and the councils in err. But unfortunately it is far too easy for the notion of truth to drop out altogether and the emphasis shifts from the fact that the ploughman has got it right to the fact that the ploughman is able to come up with an interpretation of his own that for him is authoritative--popes and councils be damned. This is the story of the radical reformation, a movement that valued anti-authoritarianism as much as any secular movement.

6:53 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home