Questioning Authority

question mark.jpeg

Who has the authority to question?

Everyone has that authority, no one in particular. It takes no special investiture to have the authority to question.   

To question is to search, to seek. To put under question is to open to investigation, that is, to open to being searched or looked into. To question something is to open it to being looked into.

The deeper the questioning, the greater the openness.

Who is vested with the authority to question, to open to investigation?

Who, if not everyone?  All of us without exception have such authority of ourselves.

In other words, it takes no special investiture at all to endow us with the power to investigate whatever comes before us. No special training, credentials, or titles are required to entitle us to question things--to try to search them out to their depths, exploring them thoroughly, opening them up to vision and then looking as deeply as we can into what has been so opened.

To question is a universal human right. Everyone has an absolute authority to question--most especially including the authority to question all claims to authority.

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Our being [. . .] is not only given to us but also demanded of us. We are responsible for it; literally, we are required to answer, if we are asked, what we have made of ourselves.

                                    --Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be (slightly modified)


It is one thing to question a claim to authority. It is quite another thing to question authority itself.

Both--questioning claims to authority and questioning authority itself--carry their own authority. Both thereby serve authority itself.

What is more, it is only by doing both that we can fulfill our obligation to obey authority. 

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Genuine authority, in contrast, calls all who encounter it into question. It awakens all whom it addresses to their own guilt and responsibility, calling upon them to take up both. 

To take up one's guilt and responsibility is to respond to the question that genuine authority makes of one by questioning genuine authority in turn.

Not questioning it, however, in the sense of casting doubt upon it. The voice of genuine authority, when it speaks, says nothing doubtful, and it authenticates itself, needing no vestments or credentials whatever. There is nothing subject to doubt about such authority.

To question genuine authority in the sense at issue is, rather, to take up and make one's own the question into which such authority calls one--the very question of oneself, or who one is, and how one can own up to it. It is to take upon oneself the burden of holding open that very question of oneself--the very question that genuine authority has posed to one--and thereby assuming the burden that such authority places upon whomever it addresses. It is to assume one's own being called into question, to assume it by keeping that very question always open.

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As we ordinarily understand questions, they are requests for answers

There is nothing questionable in that ordinary understanding of what it is to question.

However, at the same time we also ordinarily understand answers as bringing questions to a close.

There is something questionable in that.

The only sorts of questions to which answers bring a close are no more than requests for information, of one form or another. When that information is given in answer to such a request, the question is closed.

In contrast, the question that genuine authority poses to each of us is one we can never close. It must always be held open, awaiting further response.

The question that genuine authority poses to us is one that can only be answered with the entirely of our lives.

Martin Luther King dying--Lorraine Motel, Memphis, Tennessee, April 4, 1968

Martin Luther King dying--Lorraine Motel, Memphis, Tennessee, April 4, 1968

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