Truth and the need for authority

After arguing that ‘rights’ is an inadequate foundation for just government, last week I argued instead that truth is the only adequate foundation. I then went a step further to point out that the three basic freedoms (freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly) should serve the three basic truths that we need: the truth about God, the truth about the right relationship to God, and the truth about how God wants us to live our life and for what purpose.

Next, it is important to recognize the difficulty involved in attaining the truth. The ancient Greek philosopher, Plato, in his dialogue ‘The Meno’ addresses the question of what virtue is and whether or not it is teachable. In the process of the discussion he ends up making a distinction between knowledge and right opinion (the Greek expression would be ‘orthodoxia’, ‘orthodoxy’, which could also be translated as ‘right faith’).

Knowledge, he says, is ‘tied down’, secure because we know a thing by the light of our own reason. Right faith, or orthodoxy, is less secure, because we do not know it by the light of our own reason but receive it on authority. Nevertheless, he points out that right faith, which is easier to attain, is sufficient for right living. Of course, right faith depends on the reliability of the authority that we trust.

This now leads us to St. Thomas Aquinas. The very first question he addresses in his master work, his Summa Theologiae, he talks about the necessity of divine revelation. I am going to reverse the order of his arguments. He makes a secondary argument that divine revelation is needed even for those truths about God to which we can attain by the light of human reason (e.g. true knowledge is possible in their regard) because such truth “would only be known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors. Whereas man’s whole salvation, which is in God, depends upon the knowledge of this truth.” (ST Ia q.1a.1)

Here we can take ‘salvation’ very generally to refer to human well-being, individually and socially. Without the truth about God that comes from God, we are lost.

Even more so, because as human beings it is proper for us to direct our thoughts and actions towards some goal or ‘end’, but the ‘end’, the supreme destiny for which God created us, exceeds the light of our reason, that is eternal life in the bosom of the Holy Trinity, the beatific vision. We could never know that goal to direct our life thither unless God made it known to us. (cf. Ibid.)

The point is that to attain the truth we need about God, our relationship to him, and the right way to live, the most important truth, our reason is not sufficient, we need authority, we need the authority of God who reveals, and we need to trust that authority. That is the basis of ‘right faith’ or ‘orthodoxy’.

This, however, leads to another problem: since each one of us individually does not have direct communication with God, we need to recognize how the authority of divine revelation is made manifest in the world.

Here reason will have to come into play, but not so much a highly sophisticated reason of philosophers, as shall we say the common sense of the human race. We can put it this way: there are at least elements of truth that are universal and recognizable by their universality, through the whole of humanity and through the whole of history (so far as we can tell). If the truth of an expert or specialist does not fit with this universal experience of humanity, there is no particular reason to trust that expert. The human oddity and eccentricity of some ‘experts’ tells against them.

Nevertheless, first role of reason is not to figure things out by its own power, but to look for, recognize, and embrace the authoritative teacher of truth. Actually, the life of our mind starts out with unquestioned authorities, the authority of our parents and the teachers of our childhood. There, however, comes a time of questioning when those authorities need to be either confirmed or rejected; still the presumption should be in favor of the authority that governed our childhood, which should only be rejected in the measure that it has been shown wanting and is to be replaced by another proven authority. The way of self-sufficiency is the way of pride and destruction. This is the way the modern world has followed and we have now almost arrived at the point of destruction.

That path of destruction has left us with a unique problem: recent years, recent decades even, have seen such a wholesale assault on universal experience that people begin to doubt what is most obvious. For example, people seriously seem to think that a man can become a woman and vice-versa. In a time in which nothing can any longer be taken for granted, we need to take stock of the basics of human experience.



Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.

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