Rule of St. Benedict: Knowledge/Authority

What is the basis of authority?

It’s a pretty famous question with a ton of ink spilled through the ages.  Let’s hand-wave all that for now.  In “my” school of Benedictinism–I guess I should get used to thinking of myself as one–authority has its basis in the more fundamental concept of obedience.

That’s a bit weird.  I normally think of obedience as the derivative of authority.  I’m a red-blooded American with some German ancestry, after all!  The word obedience feels incomplete to me, open-ended.  Obedient to what?  We’re practically substantializing accidents here! (That’s a reeeeally funny Aristotelian joke.  Sorry.)

Once again, the Rule has changed me some.  Obedience, as I have mentioned before, plays an out-sized role in the Rule.  It’s the foundational promise (we don’t call them vows) of the monk.  And in my tradition of Benedictinism, it’s de rigueur to analyze obedience etymologically.  The root of obedience is audire, to hear or listen.

Disclaimer: I have a bit of an aversion to reducing obedience to “listening to.”  It carries the foul whiff of passive dissent, of turning the Ten Commandments into the Ten Suggestions, of emptying the Incarnation–which the New Testament endlessly describes in terms of obedience–of its infinite significance.  I think the commentators on the Rule tend to get carried away with this listening angle and veer into saccharine interpretations in which I’m ok, you’re ok, we’re all ok.

But again, it’s important to allow your tradition to change you even if–especially if?–you have some reservations.  And I have to admit, there’s a lot of power in analyzing obedience etymologically.  One of those powers is the illumination of authority.

If authority takes its meaning from obedience–I love sideways thinking–then a lot hangs on this.  When we take obedience as a kind of “do as you are told” or “because I said so!”, we see authority in terms of power.  Obedience is the proper response of the weak before the strong.  It may well be a noble and necessary thing–the Gospel has a lot to say about being weak and it’s all pretty overwhelmingly positive if I remember correctly–but it makes things a bit messy when we survey all the modes of authority and obedience across our human experience.  Maybe there is a better way to understand it that still makes sense of the Gospel?

If, on the other hand, obedience is a kind of listening to, authority becomes a matter of knowledge and experience.  The Abbot, who exercises a level of authority that the world would find extremely disconcerting, is not the powerful one.  He’s the one who knows how to reach the goal of spiritual perfection.  The monks obey him because they want to arrive at a happiness that he already knows.

Monasticism is fundamentally a wisdom tradition in which disciples seek out a master.  It’s not really any different now than it was for St. Anselm, who crossed the Alps on foot to find a spiritual master in Lanfranc, or for the Egyptians who begged of the desert fathers a word that would lead them to life.

Voluntary obedience?  How preposterous!  How could anything ever get done?  Why doesn’t this sound right to me?

Surely it has something to do with the fact that I am always right when others disagree with me.  Everyone knows that contemporary American society is extremely suspicious of appeals to authority or arguments from authority.  Mayhap we suffer from a profound spiritual blindness called pride?

It also seems to imply significant limits to authority.  The level of authority is limited by the level of knowledge.  What’s worse, to wield it, others must see you as wise.  Wait, I have to prove that I know what I’m doing before someone will follow me?  What about my cupidity for dominion over the world around me?  How am I going to make anyone do anything on this model?  This model sucks!

Notice that these limits apply primarily to politics, where consensus is rare and competence rarer still.  In fairness to political leaders, clear answers are rare, so it’s not all their fault.  But things get a lot clearer when we look at the more significant areas of authority in life:

God is omniscient and can’t lie.  Perfect submission of intellect and will to God is supremely rational.  By the way, Jesus is the author of our faith (Hebrews 12:2).  He ain’t writing a book.  Think on that one for a bit.

The Church is the pillar and bulwark of the truth.  She is the defender of the deposit of the faith.  She’s also the Body of Christ and shares in His authority.  She is the supreme Abbot (I guess that should be Abbess) of the faithful.  Mater et magistra is not just a fancy title.

Parents wield authority because they know how to live and they need to teach their children.  This one is messy for a lot of reasons, since it involves at one point an involuntary association, an irrational disciple, and a lot of animal needs/physical protection.  But we can see how the authority of the parent must evolve as the child matures.  Doing it right means transitioning from those early years of power to an authority of knowledge.  I might come back around to this another day.

Teachers (hey, look, the blog theme!) wield almost exactly this Benedictine authority.  Like parents there is a messy complication–my students are compelled to go to school–but the problem suggests its own solution.  To succeed as a teacher, which is to say to actually teach a child, you must convince them (rationally or otherwise) that you have knowledge they need.  If you fail there, you will not really teach them.

Now that may not be your fault.  Maybe some kids just won’t buy in.  But that’s your authority.  Yes, it means there are limits on what you can do.  Have you ever seen a classroom run by a teacher the students didn’t respect?  Students always rebel against teachers they think don’t know what they are doing.  You have to know your content, your students, and how to get from A to B.  The better you are at that, the more they will obey you.

Thus do I answer a mostly-fruitless question popping around the Benedictine-verse: is there a Benedictine theory of education?  It seems like the answer should be yes, since St. Benedict refers to the monastery as a school for the Lord’s service.  But putting down anything concrete about the question has proven difficult.  It seems to me that if there is an answer (other than “no”) it must begin here with the authority that comes of knowledge.


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