Religious Authority

Don: Where does religion come from? Do we need it, and if so, why?

After His triumphal entrance into Jerusalem, His cleansing of the temple, and His instant withering of a barren fig tree, the Jewish religious authorities demanded that Jesus reveal the authority for His acts. As was so often the case, He answered their question with a question of His own:

When He entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to Him while He was teaching, and said, “By what authority are You doing these things, and who gave You this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one thing, which if you tell Me, I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John was from what source, from heaven or from men?” And they began reasoning among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ He will say to us, ‘Then why did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From men,’ we fear the people; for they all regard John as a prophet.” And answering Jesus, they said, “We do not know.” He also said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things. (Matthew 21:23-27)

By asking the question at all, the Jewish leaders implied that Judaism could not have authorized the activities of Jesus. They did not represent God as Judaism understood God.

The questions were not spur-of-the-moment questions: The Jewish leaders had been watching Jesus for about three years. They had seen His miracles, heard His parables, watched Him cleanse the temple, and saw Him feed the 5,000. They had noted the effects of all this on the crowds that gathered around Him. They knew that his Gospel was one of peace, unity, and humility—of going to the back of the line, of giving to the poor not just the coat but even the shirt off one’s back. They were aware of his radical restatements of the Commandments to love God with all one’s heart and one’s neighbor as oneself.

“How can you justify all this?” the Jewish leaders were asking, and implying that Judaism would not have authorized it. They might as well have asked: “Why do you need a different religion? What’s wrong with ours?” But Jesus responded, as both God the Father and God the Son so often did to questions, with a question of His own. Their question centered on religious authority, and that is the topic of our discussion today.

The word religion comes from Latin ligare which is also the root of ligature—ties/knots, as used for example in surgery to bind separated tissues. The prefix re suggests, then, re-binding, re-connecting something that was previously united but had somehow become severed. Re-connection with God, following our severance from Him at the Fall, is the essence of religion.

Religion has been present throughout the ages in all human cultures. It consists of commonly held beliefs, commonly practiced rituals, and common explanations of life as we perceive it. This week, Prince Harry and his fiancee Megan Markle visited Northern Ireland. Prince Harry said of the Troubles (violent clashes between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland):

“Over the years, religion has divided us; but really, we are all the same underneath.”

If we are all the same underneath, why do we need religion? Might we not be all the same underneath? Pew research conducted in 2014 showed that:

  • Overall, the US was becoming less religious (but not necessarily less spiritual).
  • More than 90 percent of respondents still believed in God, but the percentage of people who were “absolutely certain” that God exists dropped sharply since the survey was conducted in 2007, from 71 percent then to 63 percent in 2014.
  • People asserting no religious affiliation rose from 16 percent to 23 percent over that period, but despite this the survey suggested that the American people are becoming more spiritual.
  • Six out of ten respondents said they regularly experience “a deep sense of spiritual peace and wellbeing”—up 7 percent over the period, while 46 percent felt “a deep sense of wonder about the universe at least once a week”—also up 7 percent over the period.
  • Believers were just as observant, committed, practicing over the period. African-Americans, women, older adults, and Republicans had a greater tendency to religious affiliation.
  • Asked “Is religion affiliation important to you?” Jehovah’s Witnesses ranked highest (86 percent), followed by Mormons (83 percent). At the other end of the scale were Hindus and Buddhists (40 percent) and at the very bottom were Jews (31 percent). Asked about prayers and reading the Scriptures, the scores and rankings are almost the same.
  • As would be expected, people unaffiliated with religion were found to pray less, attend church less, and believe in God less. This begs the question: Which came first—does unaffiliation lead to skepticism, or does skepticism lead to unaffiliation?

To delve deeper into this, the latest survey asked two new questions:

  • “How often do you feel a strong sense of gratitude or thankfulness?” The survey found that 75 percent of Americans have this feeling at least once a week. By religion, this broke down as follows: Christians 82 percent, Muslims 77 percent, 73 percent Buddhists, 70 percent Jews, 66 percent unaffiliated, and 62 percent Hindus.
  • “How often do you think about the meaning and purpose of life?” The survey found that 55 percent of Americans, including 50 percent of Christians, 53 percentof non-Christians, and 45 percent of the unaffiliated.

Whether affiliated or not, 9 out of 10 Americans felt that organized religion was in general a force for good because:

  1. It brings people together.
  2. It strengthens community bonds.
  3. It plays an important role for the poor and the needy.

In addition, 3 out of 4 thought that church and religious institutions help protect and strengthen morality in society. But many also said that organized religion is too concerned with money, power, politics, and its own rules. 42 percent of adults have a mostly positive view of religious institutions. 7 percent have a mostly negative view. The rest have a very mixed view.

Why was Jesus reluctant to simply state his religious authority? The word “authority” is a loaded word. It speaks of power, control, and even oppression, which might explain His reluctance. Is religion necessary? Important? Has it gone off the rails? How should we deal with it?

David: In non-Romance languages the word for “religion” does not mean “re-connection.” The Romance etymology is a spurious parochial artifact with no universal significance.

Mikiko: Does God approve of all religions? John 4:24 says God is spirit and that those worshiping Him must do so in spirit and truth. So we must worship in harmony with the truth of God’s Word, according to which there are only two kinds of religion: One true and one false; one right and one wrong; one that leads to life, one that leads to destruction.

Aishwarya: The root meaning of the word “religion” as “reconnecting” with God is nice, but to me seems best if it is taken to mean reconnecting with one another, human–to–human. We need religion simply because with the development of abstract thinking came the loss of equality among human beings. We need a special power to remind us of our fundamental equality. No other species has religion, and no other species sees individual differences as we do. We are all the same biologically, but we use culture to differentiate and separate ourselves from one another. We wanted a higher power to bring us back to one another, so we invented religion, but then we used it to differentiate ourselves still more!

My mother once told me that just talking with another person is enough to establish a relationship with that person—with the heart and mind, the inner God, of that person. It establishes a relationship of souls. I don’t believe the concept of an inner God any more but I do believe that reconnecting with one another is an important function of religion.

David: I share your mother’s argument and take the inner God as the ultimate authority. To me, a God outside of me would not have the same authority.


“Whether a person has a formal, organized religion or not, these are essential human characteristics. Religion is characteristic of all human beings. When people have common beliefs they form a communal religion. Organized religions theoretically enable people to understand the world and be part of a historic community of believers, a basic component of human life.”

Don: I’m hearing that religion’s major value is in reconnecting us to one another rather than in reconnecting us to God. Yet it seems to me that through the process of trying to reconnect with one another we often end up more disconnected! Hence my question about whether religion is off the rails, if so why, and what (if anything) can we do to get it back on the rails? If religion is a human creation—and I agree with Aishwarya that it is—then it is within our power to recreate it. Was Jesus making a point about this?

Kiran: We have governments, religions, and societies because as individual human beings we need the strength of the group to protect and nurture us. The greatest accomplishments of the United States have resulted from cohesive societal thought and action. That necessarily impinges on individual rights and sovereignty, which creates constant tensions between the more ardent proponents of both sides, and people in the middle feel squeezed and driven this way and that by those tensions. This is what happens in herds, such as buffalo, where the strong form a circle around the weaker animals to lead and protect them. It is an evolutionary survival tactic.

Religion is our way of finding God through other people. There is no better feeling than finding a “soul-mate” who shares one’s thoughts and beliefs. We naturally gravitate to one another. But Jesus reminds us to connect with those who are not like ourselves, including even our enemies, and this is a struggle for us. We rather use our communal and religious power to fight with and corrupt other people for our selfish ends. This is a universal tendency in all humans and religions. It is human nature, but when we manage to overcome it, we accomplish such things as the Red Cross. There is virtue in religion, but we should recognize that no human system can be perfect.

Aishwarya: The communal strength of religion is not what should connect us—we should connect of our own individual volition and recognition of our sameness as human beings rather than our sameness as Hindus or any other religion. Religion should bring us together, but instead it focuses on our religious differences rather than our human sameness.

Michael: It’s hard to argue for or against religion. Christianity has been used in the United States to justify discrimination against black people. But it’s also been the source of many good things that have helped the community. It all comes back to people. People form religions.

David: The book Bowling Alone, published in 2000, argued that civic engagement in America was in decline. It occurs to me that the decline was roughly contemporaneous with the rise in megachurches. Jesus said He was present wherever “two or three” (people) were gathered in His name. He did not say two or three thousand. Religion may claim mundane, secular authority for itself but has zero spiritual authority over the spiritual lives of individuals. Every individual has the spirit of God within him or her. To me, that is the only valid source of spiritual authority. Perhaps the spirit is amplified by the presence of Jesus, but is Jesus present in a religious institution (as opposed to a gathering of two or three)?

Mikiko: The Jehovah’s Witnesses define religion as follows:

A form of worship. It includes a system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices; these may be personal, or they may be advocated by an organization. Usually religion involves belief in God or in a number of gods; or it treats humans, objects, desires, or forces as objects of worship. Much religion is based on human study of nature; there is also revealed religion. There is true religion and false.

Michael: Christianity and Islam claim spiritual authority. Hinduism and Buddhism tend not to. And they tend to be less violent. Is there a connection?

Don: The tendency for the more authoritative religions to be more violent is clearly true historically.

Michael: What type of authority were the Pharisees expecting Jesus to claim? Were they expecting a Jewish religious authority or just authority in general?

Don: And why did Jesus not give a straight answer? Why did He not just say: “My authority is God”?

Anonymous: He saw that the Pharisees were asking a trick question, to try to trap Him.

Kiran: Hindus can be violent when they form groups. Fundamental Hinduism is not violent.

Don: The grouping that begins as an evolutionary mechanism for survival develops traits of arrogance and aggression. Is there a happy medium?

Anonymous: Yes—with God in the mix.

Kiran: But even people within the same religious group kill one another. Unity and division can coexist.

Anonymous: Churches help the poor. It’s safer to be in a group. There is a big difference between communal and religious. The key is to have all the individual members be in oneness with God.

Kiran: Isn’t the point that we must love our enemies as we love our neighbors, but we shouldn’t abandon religion when we fail. Groups—government, religion,…—have beneficial roles to play. The struggle is between individualism and group mentality.

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