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Authority in Religious Traditions



Religious authority is a complex and ever-contested issue. Historical studies of religion demonstrate that religions are always changing; nevertheless, most religions anchor themselves in the concept that there is an unchanging truth to which they are always loyal. Between this ideal of unchanging truth and the reality of historical contingency, issues of religious authority are played out. Some factions of a religious community push for change; others pull against the tide of new ideas, social practices, or technology. Balance or synthesis among these competing factions may be temporarily achieved, but changing circumstances will again challenge that consensus. Just as often, no consensus is possible and religious communities split, giving rise to new denominations and even to new religions. Thus, the existence of religious diversity is closely linked to conflicts about appropriate and reliable religious authority and the inability of religious communities to agree upon the same sources of authority.

Overview: Types of Religious Authority

Four major types of religious authority, usually combined in some way, are found in the world's religions. In most cases, tradition itself is regarded as authoritative. Religions tend to appeal to a more remote past, the true tradition, especially when current authorities are being challenged. In only a few religions, however, is tradition regarded as the major source of authority. A second source of authority is the world of nature, used as a model for human behavior and often thought to set limits for humans. While some appeal to nature is common, again only a few religions regard it as the major religious authority.

Against that background of appeal to tradition or nature, texts, both oral and written, and often regarded as revealed, vie with people for the status of highest or final authority. The authority accorded to texts varies greatly, but they are always important, regarded as repositories of wisdom from ancient times, trustworthy because they represent sacred wisdom from long ago. According to many religions, the sacred text should always be more authoritative than any reader of that text; that is to say, the readers should submit to the authority of the text, not the other way around. However, the problem with texts is that they cannot function in an unmediated fashion, directly transmitting their contents. They have to be understood and made relevant for contemporary people by contemporary readers, which means that people interpreting the texts can have equal, or even greater, authority than the texts on which a religion bases itself, no matter what that religion may assert about the superior authority of texts. Other religions do not trust a text, by itself, to give clear guidance and rely more on learned or realized human beings who have experienced the text's meaning for reliable authority. Thus, at least to scholars of religion, it is clear that the people who receive and interpret texts, are, in fact, the most important sources of religious authority, though few religions openly declare that to be the case.

Types of Religious Leaders

The types of people in whom religious authority is vested vary greatly and struggles among different claimants to religious authority often occur. Frequently, an educated, elite group claims authority by virtue of its training and credentials. In some cases, entry into that group depends on heredity and almost universally in traditional settings, women are barred from that group. Among the various types of religious leaders, these people often function as priests who perform rituals on behalf of the whole community and often they are conservative, rather than innovative or radical in religious matters.

Another elite group found in many religious traditions consists of charismatic leaders who often claim to have been chosen by the spirits for their vocation. Such leaders can have great authority among rank and file members of a religious community, and, because they owe their authority to unseen spiritual forces rather than to routine processes of education and licensing, they are difficult to control. But many religions expect leaders directly inspired by the spirits to be part of the mix of religious authorities and have an honored place for them. Such leaders can be avenues by which innovation comes into a tradition, or they may argue that a more traditional practice would be more pleasing to the spirits. They also may cause the development of new denominations or religions.

Especially in some Asian traditions, a sage or guru (teacher) who has personally experienced the truths taught by that religion is the highest religious authority. These leaders also are often innovators in their tradition because they have been thoroughly trained, authorized to lead by their own teachers, and are trusted to advise people on matters of spiritual disciplines such as meditation.

Finally, religious authority is always vested to some extent in the whole community. Those with authority may wish to lead the community in a certain direction, but find that their followers simply are not willing to be led in that direction. Who is more innovative and who is more conservative in these struggles also varies. Sometimes, religious leaders want to push their followers to accept new elements into the tradition, such as the ordination of women to clerical roles in twentieth-century Judaism and Christianity. In other cases, such as the frequent use of birth control by North American Roman Catholics, the ordinary members of the tradition defy the more conservative stances of religious authorities. But, in any case, however uneasy the consensus may be, religious communities and those who claim religious authority have to come to some common understandings. If that does not happen, the religious tradition would fall apart and become something else—either a purely secular community or a new religion.

When Authorities Clash

Clashes between religious authorities are common. One type of clash is that between completely different religions, for example, the contemporary hostility between Islam and Hinduism on the Indian subcontinent. In such cases, differences in worldview are so great that the only resolution is some accord permitting coexistence. A more common clash of religious authorities occurs within traditions, when some individuals argue very strongly for one way of practicing or interpreting the religion and another group argues just as strongly for a different method. Denominations within one religion or the formation of a new, closely related religion often are the result of disagreements between religious leaders, all of whom claim authority. In these cases, both leaders claim to revere that tradition's ultimate religious authority, but also claim that responsibility to care for and interpret that religion has fallen into the wrong hands. At least three major kinds of protest have arisen repeatedly.

First, individuals or groups protest that the wrong people have been put in authority or that they have too much power. The major division between the Sunni and Shi'ite branches within Islam arose from controversy over who was the legitimate successor to the Prophet Mohammed, meant to rule over a unified Islam. While the Protestant movement is complex, one major initial cause certainly was German Reformation leader Martin Luther's (1483–1546) defiance of papal authority. According to Luther, the pope had usurped the authority that should reside directly in the Bible and believers should form their faith directly on the Bible rather than relying on the decisions of a human intermediary. Luther's protests were only the first of many movements claiming to abandon various human institutions to return to the sacred text as ultimate and final authority. Today, numerous individuals and movements within Christianity claim to have found that unmediated text, but each claim is contested by another contender.

Second, individuals or groups often claim that those with formal authority have lost contact with the spiritual sources of the tradition and no longer can speak for the deity or interpret texts accurately. Claims of corruption on the part of established authorities are also common, found in every religion. Protestors often claim direct contact with the spiritual sources of the tradition, which they say is more authoritative than the mere rote learning or heredity power of those with formal authority. Usually they do not wish to form a separate group but long for a more vibrant, ecstatic spiritual experience within their tradition. Sometimes these movements can be incorporated into the larger tradition, as happened with many monastic movements in European Christianity and with many of the great Christian mystics. The Sufi movement within Islam also sought and provides more direct religious experience. The medieval mystical branch of Judaism, the Kabbalah, became quite popular, though it is not well-known or frequently practiced today. Some groups break away from their parent body, as did the English Quakers who believe that clergy are not necessary because deity can speak to anyone who waits in silence, only to become established groups themselves. Variations on this theme are infinite, as spirit-filled individuals and groups, dissatisfied with what they experience as dead and rigid ways of those with formal authority, refuse to remain silent.

Third, countless movements of social protest and reform have arisen when groups of believers claim that, while the religion dictates charity and concern for the poor and underprivileged, the religious authorities have sided with the rich and powerful. Many of the great reform movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—abolition, the civil rights movement, feminism, war protest, environmental activism and anti-colonial movements—have been fueled in part by the inspiration that their religion authorizes social protestors to act against religious authorities who have lost their mandate because they ignored an important part of the sacred heritage.

The Predominance of Texts: Monotheistic Religions

Texts believed to be revealed are more definitive sources of authority in the three monotheistic religions than in other religions. Furthermore, the most serious disagreement among the monotheistic religions concerns which of them possesses the truly revealed, authoritative scripture. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all claim to believe in a monotheistic deity and all three claim that the deity has spoken to humankind in trustworthy, definitive revealed scriptures. But each claims its scripture as the one reliable scripture, and predictably, as each of the three religions emerged into history, it claimed that its scriptures fulfilled and replaced previously recognized texts. Also predictably, those who did not follow the new revelation claimed it to be the work of misguided usurpers. Thus, Jews regard the Hebrew Bible, the oldest monotheistic scripture, as the valid revelation and do not recognize either the Christian New Testament or the Muslim Qur'an as revelations. Christians recognize the Hebrew Bible, virtually identical with what they call the Old Testament, as genuine revelation, but claim that their New Testament is the culmination and fulfillment of that scripture. However, they pay little attention to the Qur'an, which emerged later. Muslims, on the other hand, claim that both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament were genuine messages from the deity, valid in their own time, but now made obsolete by their own final and definitive revelation.

Fundamental to claims of authority for these scriptures is the claim that revelation has now ceased; each of the three monotheistic religions in turn makes the claim that the deity said all it intends to say now that its scripture has been revealed and that humans can expect no further revealed messages. Thus each religion in turn has declared the canon to be closed.

Within each of the three monotheistic traditions, similar problems have developed in the process of living with a definitive, final revealed text that cannot be amended or changed. First, who determines that the canon is, indeed, closed? In the Muslim tradition, this issue was solved relatively easily. The entire Qur'an was revealed during the lifetime of the prophet Mohammed (570–632 C.E.) and Muslims of his own day and later times never questioned whether any other texts could be part of the Qur'an. But the issue was not so easily solved with the New Testament or the Hebrew Bible, in part because the idea of a definitive revealed scripture as the charter of the religious community was not yet well established.

By the beginning of the common era, the contents of the Hebrew Bible had been roughly agreed upon, though one class of literature, the Apocrypha, usually included in Roman Catholic Bibles but not in Protestant or Jewish Bibles, had an ambiguous status. Many new texts about Jesus and the meaning of his life were being circulated in the Roman Empire as Christianity began to form and to split from Judaism. Were they revealed scriptures? Many texts about Jesus did not make it into the New Testament canon as Christianity gradually defined its orthodoxy and rejected the texts of the defeated Christian groups. Bishops began to circulate lists of texts that they regarded as appropriate reading material for their congregations; they had a list in common sometime between the second and the fourth centuries C.E. that closed the New Testament canon. Christians also accepted the texts that had already become sacred to Jews, but they read them in Greek (or later in Latin), not in Hebrew. The Apocrypha circulated as part of the already established Greek translation, which is why Christians continued to regard it as scripture until the Reformation.

Jews experienced very chaotic times after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., when they were dispersed to all parts of the Roman empire, and Christianity became dominant. In these conditions a group of rabbis regarded as religious authorities met to come to a firm decision about which texts were authoritative for Jews. They came to the conclusion that the Apocrypha should be set aside, leaving the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings as the three parts of the Hebrew Bible.

One way or another, the authority of a specific text is established. All three monotheistic religions agree that life should be based on that text, that the text is the final arbiter of the deity's wishes and commands for human beings. But how is what the text really says determined, and who gets to make those determinations? These are the fundamental issues about religious authority in the monotheistic religions. Deeming the text authoritative does not solve the problem of which persons or institutions should determine the text's meaning or the text's solution to various unforeseen circumstances that inevitably arise.

This problem is solved by authorizing a specific group of people to determine the text's meaning. In all three monotheistic religions, these people must be well educated in the text and commentaries upon it because they should derive their interpretations from the text, not impose them upon the text. In time, commentaries become as important, if not more important than the root text, as each generation adds its layer of commentary, which becomes part of the whole authoritative tradition.

In Judaism and Islam, the revealed text is regarded above all as the guideline for daily life. Religious authority involves not only questions of belief or ethical behavior but also of diet, inheritance, marriage and divorce, testimony in court, and all the other myriad details that make up a whole society. The most respected scholars in the tradition are those who know the all-encompassing religious legal code and how to bring it to bear on any new situation that develops. The revealed text has often been compared to a constitution and the process of interpreting it to the development of constitutional law. This fact helps explain why the separation of religion and government is so difficult for many Muslim societies; there can be no real separation between religion and the affairs of daily life that governments oversee if the revealed sacred text is, in fact, a constitution setting forth a daily routine and way of life. Muslims and Jews usually regard this code for daily living as a great blessing rather than a burden. They say that having such matters as diet or family law predetermined by religious authority makes life simpler and less stressful.

Valid "constitutional law" that develops in this process is regarded as having equal authority with the original text. In Judaism, the oral Torah of the Mishnah and the Talmud, compiled in the early centuries of the common era, is regarded as having been contained, in a hidden way, in the written Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible (which Christians call the Old Testament). It was the job of skilled, well educated rabbis to draw out those meanings, for often Jewish law as practiced in contemporary Orthodox Judaism goes well beyond the literal text of the written Torah. In a similar fashion, Muslims rely on the Hadith, the sayings of the prophet Mohammed that are not part of the Qur'an, to answer questions seemingly left unanswered by it. If more resources are needed, reasoning from the text is considered a valid source of authority in Islam. The fourth source of authority in Islam is the consensus of the whole community, a source of authority much less explicitly recognized in most other religions.

Christianity did not develop the same kind of overarching blueprint for daily living and so the same kind of detailed attention to the development of religious law did not occur. However, matters of theological doctrine drew the same intense scrutiny, the same creative reasoning to prove that doctrines most historians would regard as later developments really are present in the Biblical text itself. Early Christianity was very diverse and many different forms of Christianity competed for dominance, especially before the legalization of Christianity under the Emperor Constantine in 313 C.E. and the formation of the Nicene Creed in 325 C.E. With those events, a dominant form of Christianity, under the authority of the bishop of Rome (the popes) emerged.

Living Lineages of Oral Transmission: Asian and Indigenous Traditions

It is more common for accomplished religious practitioners to advise individuals and communities about what practices need to be followed and how to do that rather than to rely primarily on texts. Thus, religious authority is invested first in persons, who often use traditional texts extensively, but whose main basis for authority comes from their own realization of the meanings encoded in the texts. Another person, equally well versed in study of the texts, but lacking personal realization of their meaning, would not command the same prestige or be approached by others seeking religious guidance. In such religions, there is a well-established body of traditions, both textual and oral, but the canon of tradition and text is not closed; it is quite possible for contemporary teachers and their writings eventually to come to be as highly regarded as those of past leaders. Most important of all, the meaning of the text or tradition is regarded as locked and inaccessible to most ordinary people without the guidance of a teacher who has fathomed the meaning of the text.

In such traditions, the guarantor of authenticity rather than wholesale freelance creativity is the lineage of oral transmission. Locating reliable religious authority in a lineage of oral transmission depends upon two major premises. The first is that, because of the brittle, unreliable character of the written word, it can be rather dangerous and misleading for untutored individuals to try to rely directly on texts, particularly those that discuss advanced exercises in meditation and mystical experience. Such danger exists because the written word cannot fully capture or express the truths it tries to communicate. Instead, communication of the deeper meanings of a text or tradition depends on the oral instruction from someone who has already understood the text fully and can transmit it in an appropriate manner. A very different evaluation of the reliability and potency of written or memorized texts from that found in monotheistic religions drives this idea about reliable religious authority. However, protection from dangerous or misleading innovations is also needed so that the oral transmission does not become completely idiosyncratic. Such protection comes through insistence on lineage, the second major premise basic to a lineage of oral transmission as religious authority. Only those teachers who have been authorized to do so by their teachers can transmit the oral teachings, and it is believed that this lineage of transmission is unbroken from the current teacher back to the founder of the specific religious movement. Within that protective restriction of who can teach, it is believed that appropriate innovations will be introduced safely and as needed. In fact, in religions that rely upon a lineage of oral transmission for religious authority, innovations and new lineages occur frequently, often without opposition or divisiveness.

The clearest examples of investing religious authority in the authorized teacher are found in Vajrayana and Zen Buddhism, some lineages of Hinduism, and some indigenous religions. These religions value direct religious experience highly and mistrust anything else to satisfy the longings that drive people to religions in the first place.

Buddhism depends on the ineffable enlightenment experience of one man, Siddartha Gautama (563–483 B.C.E.), and his ability to teach his students to experience for themselves the peace and freedom he had found. What he experienced has never been put into words and most Buddhists would regard the attempt to do so as futile and unnecessary. However, he did teach methods to lead people toward their own enlightenment and others can teach these as well. The voluminous texts of the many denominations within Buddhism are primarily attempts to provide instruction on how to cross over from the confusion that Buddhists regard as the inevitable normal human condition to the freedom and peace that is the birthright of each human being.

Throughout Buddhist history, many types of Buddhism have evolved and some of these developments have included serious disagreement over the most reliable sources of authority. The major division in Buddhism is between the Theravadin Buddhists who prevail in Southeast Asia and the many forms of Mahayana Buddhism, which prevails in Tibet, China, Japan, and Korea. The name Theravada means the way of the elders, and this name indicates precisely what these Buddhists believe about themselves; they rely on the texts and traditions taught by the earliest generations of the Buddha's disciples and claim that Mahayana Buddhism is based on later, fraudulent ideas and practices that crept into Buddhism when some ignored the genuine oral transmissions. By contrast, Mahayanists claim that they possess oral transmissions going back to the historical Buddha, which were taught to only a few students during the Buddha's lifetime, but gradually were made more public (and written down) when conditions were appropriate. Among the many forms of Mahayana Buddhism, Vajrayana Buddhism of Tibet and Zen Buddhism (the Japanese name) of China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam rely most heavily on a lineage of authorized teachers to communicate the core teachings and practices. In these forms of Buddhism, texts are sometimes ignored almost completely, so great is the mistrust of the written word and the emphasis on the student's direct personal experience as opposed to their competence in intellectual knowledge of philosophical traditions.

Hinduism is a much more complex and diverse religion than is Buddhism, and by no means do all forms of Hinduism rely on lineages of living teachers for authority. For some forms of Hinduism, tradition, as passed down in communal memory and in texts, to a lesser extent, is the final authority. However, forms of Hinduism more concerned with philosophy and meditation do rely on such living teachers and the transmission of their authority from generation to generation. Each teacher or group has its own history and dynamic and they are endlessly diverse. Summarizing them is impossible.

Indigenous traditions worldwide are also impossible to discuss in general. Among them, one important authority is a figure often referred to as a shaman in Western sources. It is believed that shamans gain their authority through direct encounter with the spirits. Who might become a shaman cannot be predicted and it is also widely believed that an individual who has been chosen to be a shaman cannot resist that call. Shamans do not usually learn much of their craft from other human teachers, but because of their ability to communicate between the human world and the spirit world, they are trusted authority figures in their communities. Usually, they function as advisors and healers, not lawgivers. Though shaman-like individuals can be found in many indigenous settings, some of the most famous and best known are found among groups of indigenous North and South Americans. One can also study shaman-like individuals in the religions of aboriginal Australia, but they are not characteristic of indigenous African religions. Formerly, they were common in the northernmost parts of Asia.

The Force of Tradition: Collective Memory as Religious Authority

Many religious communities are not especially oriented either to a sacred text or an authorized teacher. Instead, for them, what counts is what has always been done, what they believe their forbears always did, and what tradition dictates. Tradition as the ultimate religious authority can be found in segments of the religions already discussed because convention has always had great appeal and force. However, in at least two major religions, large segments of Hinduism and the Confucian perspective, tradition and custom have been explicitly elevated to the highest rank of religious authority.

Hinduism is a modern European term for the religious behavior Europeans encountered in India, which is one reason why Hinduism as an overarching tradition is so difficult to summarize. For the vast majority of Hindus, tradition is the foundation of religious life, upon which other elements may be cast, but often tradition is the entire content of religious life. This is especially true for those segments of Hinduism not oriented to enlightenment and ultimate release but to doing one's duty well in this world— and this type of Hinduism is, at least theoretically, the bottom line for all Hindus, no matter what else they might add on to this foundation. For traditional Hindus, life is a vast complex of duties and relationships, all of them laid out in the eternal dharma, the law code that no one quite understands fully, that is contained in no single source, and that differs from person to person depending on one's caste and stage of life. Nevertheless, duty is absolute and cannot be avoided.

The mystery and complexity of understanding one's duty is discussed in many Hindu texts, including the national epic, the Mahabharata (The Great War). For starters, there is the complexity of the duty of caste and stage of life. India's controversial caste system was considered to be of ultimate authority in classical Hinduism, of cosmic or divine origins and not subject to human moral qualms about its effects on individuals and society. Part of one's required duty is to conform to the requirements of one's caste status, as determined by birth. Individual abilities and desires were meaningless against this bank of tradition. Furthermore, one should conform to the duties required by one's stage in life. It is not appropriate for young people to seek individual religious fulfillment; they must first fulfill their family and professional roles, as laid out by sex and caste. Countless authorities, from the Buddha to Mahatma Gandhi, have tried to modify or eliminate the caste system, but the force of tradition has always prevailed over them. Today, the caste system is illegal in India, and affirmative action that tries to elevate the status of the less privileged castes is deeply resented by many in the more privileged castes.

Rather than being the timeless traditions of ordinary believers, the Confucian system was the ruling ideology of the Chinese elite for most of Chinese history. Though many well known human authors, including Confucius (551–479 B.C.E.) and Mencius (372–289 B.C.E.), wrote texts that are regarded as foundational to the Confucian movement, the authors always claimed that they were not inventing anything but only urging return to the trustworthy customs of the ancients. These traditions turned on maintaining the proper hierarchical relationships between, among others, rulers and subjects, elder and younger family members, and husbands and wives. If each person truly fulfilled the duties appropriate to his or her role, harmony would prevail and society would prosper. However, in this hierarchical system, those with power had an obligation to be fair and generous, rather than to take advantage of their power. If they took advantage of their power, that would disturb cosmic harmony and warfare or poverty would result. An important part of the Confucian system is Li, the accumulated customs of civilized people which included everything from how to greet someone to how to use one's eating utensils. According to Confucian thought, having a custom or rule to govern every possible occasion led to social harmony and contentment.

The Ways of Nature as Religious Authority

Finally, for some religions, the natural world itself is the highest religious authority and the model upon which humans should base their lives.

A second religion indigenous to China—Daoism, whose founder is the legendary Lao Tzu (604 B.C.E., traditional birth date)—does not rely primarily on people or texts for authority, even though it is the source of the famous Dao De Jing. Rather, the Dao itself, the natural cosmic law that cannot be put into words but governs everything is the authority to which humans and everything else should submit and which they should imitate in every act of living. All human woe is said to derive from ignoring cosmic natural law and trying to impose human norms upon it. A wise person observes nature and trains until he or she can follow its ways in complete spontaneity, no matter where that may lead.

Finally, Shinto, the indigenous religion of Japan, is famous for not regarding texts as important. Ritual traditions and the cultivation of beauty are its primary means of expressing itself. Priests know how to perform the beautiful rituals and maintain beautiful temples, often located in places of great natural beauty, but they are not regarded as religious authorities or leaders either. Rather, the delightful natural world itself is of supreme value. It is the sacred source of all life and nothing human can compete with it for value.

This model of religion that orients itself more to the ways of the natural world than to texts or people is also common among indigenous religions around the world. They commonly have a keen understanding of and appreciation for nature and regard the entire natural world as sacred, of ultimate value.

Religious Authority and Modern Thought

All traditional sources of religious authority are being challenged by modern thought, especially science, empirical history, and secular movements of social reform.

Religions respond to these developments in various ways, from significant internal changes accommodating modern thought to complete resistance.

In many ways, the religions most oriented to texts have had the most difficult time dealing with modern thought; the texts often contain science, history, and social systems that do not fit well with modernity and the texts are supposed to be eternally valid and binding. Many interpreters have found ways to combine the deepest insights of religious texts with modern thought by considering some aspects of the text to stem from its social context rather than divine revelation, and by regarding many stories in the text as metaphorical rather than literal truths. Others have refused to concede any aspect of traditional religious thought where it conflicts with modern science or history, with the result that fundamentalism is a dominant religious movement in the twenty-first century, especially in monotheistic religions.

The traditional religions of China have also been deeply affected by modern thought, largely in negative ways. The triumph of Communism deeply weakened the hold of both Confucian and Daoist thought on Chinese people. It also led to the severe repression of Buddhism in both Tibet and China.

Secularism or indifference to religion is also common in many parts of the modern world, especially Japan and Europe. Religion has become a minor ceremonial affair having little real authority for many people.

In other parts of the world, especially India and the Middle East, religion has become a major source of conflict as different religions claim that their texts and traditions give them alone control over land and sacred places. Both sides in the conflict claim the authority of their religious tradition and ignore similar claims by their opponents as illegitimate.


In every situation, religious authority will depend on a complex mix of tradition, views about nature, various types of religious leaders, and texts or oral traditions possessing varying levels of sanctity. Usually one or two of these sources of authority are dominant. Sometimes those sources of authority will try to push the religious community into new practices or understandings. Sometimes those sources of authority will try to conserve current practices and understandings in the face of intellectual or ethical challenges. Few generalizations regarding authority in religious traditions can be made with any reliability.

rita m. gross

SEE ALSO: Autonomy; Coercion; Conscience; Conscience, Rights of; Responsibility; Trust


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