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Who Made You the Authority?

This entry is part 12 of 63 in the series

"Ten Mangled Words"

Read more posts by using the Table of Contents in the right sidebar.

The explosion of information on the web has made the idea of authoritative information almost a thing of the past. A CGI-Enhanced Youtube video about the non-existence of the South Pole is as accessible as the online Encyclopedia Brittanica’s information on Antarctica. The crowd-edited Wikipedia is found as easily (or more so) than a peer-reviewed journal. The Internet has not only granted full democracy to all ideas, it has tended to flatten out all judgement, and scrap a sense of hierarchy of trustworthiness. No longer do canons of received knowledge exist in hard-bound Oxford or Cambridge Press volumes. No longer do scholars carry the weight of authority they once did in the popular mind. If a video has garnered three million views, it may just be true.

The democracy of ideas is simultaneously the pooling of ignorance. As Doug Wilson quipped, “We have not yet realized that the computers may simply be moving our ignorance around the planet at incredible rates of speed. As one wag put it, ‘We used to think that a million monkeys typing away at a million keyboards could produce the works of Shakespeare. Now, thanks to the Internet, we know this is not the case.'”

For many, this democracy is seen as a good thing. After all, canonized error is harder to overturn than the slander and hear-say of the gossip-rags. Further, doesn’t the whistle-blowing potential of the web keep people honest? Any man with a phone can now publish to a worldwide audience, and all strongholds of secrets are vulnerable. Ideas which would previously have been actively suppressed, or dismissed by the large publishing houses, can now see the light of day.

Benefits exist, to be sure. Hide-bound ideologies like Darwinism or liberal progressivism meet their match on the web. Like-minded people meet, though separated by oceans. False teachers and false teaching can be called out as soon as they record. Every idea is exposed to challenge through this technology.

On balance though, one wonders if the negatives outweigh the positives. It is the very cacophony of ideas, and the absence of some filter to discard and retain ideas, that tends to destroy any real sense of judgement in most people. People either grant authority to people and ideas that they ought not, or they become intensely cynical about anyone being an authority. Overwhelmed with ideas and competing authorities, the average person simply sets himself up as the authority, deciding eclectically what he deems plausible.

For example, witness the obsession with fake news. Is fake news alternative media? Is it news that does not support the agenda of the Broadcasting Magnates? Is it the news the Broadcasting Magnates disseminate? Who gets to decide? How do we decide? Or consider conspiracy theories. In the world of the Truthers, a conspiracy theory is true precisely because most people think it isn’t. It is considered factual because They deny it. Every denial, or evidence to the contrary, finds an explanation that supports the Conspiracy Theory narrative.

What this amounts to is a crisis of authority. Who can be trusted? When criteria of judging knowledge to be authoritative have disappeared, when human authorities no longer exist, there is no good reason not to take seriously Youtube discussions of the existence of mermaids, accounts of teleportation to Mars, or evidence of time travelers in old photographs.

But discerning who is an authority is exactly where things begin to fall down. We find ourselves in a kind of catch-22: authorities will give us the right kind of knowledge, but we need the right kind of knowledge to spot the genuine authorities from the self-appointed posers. Experts help us to discern the issues, but we first need to discern who the experts are. On what basis should I trust a professor’s word over Wikipedia’s? On what basis should I listen to one pastor and not another? On what basis should I trust one book over another?

This is where the value of tradition comes in. Whether it is an intellectual, cultural or religious tradition, it reflects the process of elimination and assimilation that people do over centuries. Human beings were not meant to do on an individual level in a moment what is meant to happen on the scale of entire cultures over hundreds of years: evaluate meaning, recognize authorities, and deliver a consensus. Of course we must each make judgements, and trust certain voices, but we were meant to do so with the backing of tradition. Within a culture, judgements are passed on from one generation to another. People who have spoken well on an issue are pointed to, and younger consciences are formed as they are exposed to these judgements. People growing up within the bounds of a tradition had the safety of hundreds of years of judgements from which to learn. If your father’s father’s father said it was good, useful, dangerous, healthy, true, or false, there was good reason to listen. When we don’t know, we must trust our betters. In a tradition, we knew who our betters were.

Certainly, tradition can be a great evil, if it hands down false religion, poor judgements or liars held up as paragons of virtue. But most cultures have experienced some common grace, and therefore some truth. Few traditions are completely useless. Cultures most exposed to the special grace of the gospel usually have (or had) more evidences of helpful judgements handed down.

What we face now is every man adrift on a sea of opinion, cut loose from the Western cultural and intellectual tradition, cut loose from the Christian worship tradition, with gales of opinions battering each pathetic raft that each person is on. We are back to the book of Judges. Within this storm, we nevertheless have to (and do) choose whom we will trust. Whether the person is living or dead, we should consider three suggestions for evaluating his or her trustworthiness, and therefore, his or her authority. We’ll consider these next.

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About David de Bruyn

David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.