Speech and Authority
November 15, 2010
The people were astounded
at his teaching, for, unlike the doctors of the law, he taught
with a note of authority.
the introduction to
Anatheism: Returning to God
After God, Richard
Kearney relates the story of how his teacher, the great
philosopher Paul Ricoeur, would begin each seminar.
According to Kearney, Ricoeur would begin on the first
day of the seminar by asking each of his students: “d’ou parlez
vous?” “Where do you
speak from?” The
question is a most significant one; for all of us, in fact,
speak from many different places.
Often our speech is pre-reflective, an unconscious
reaction to what we have heard, or to what is happening to us.
At such moments our words are pretty much expressions of
feelings or habit.
Often, even in speech that is more reflective, our words are
based on cultural conditioning, common sense understanding or
The people of Jesus’ time, as those subjected to much
religious preaching today, recognized that “the doctors of the
law” taught what they had learned but often had not personally
and uniquely assimilated.
As in much of today’s preaching, the words were not words
of “spirit and life” but rather the repetition of a learned
theology, doctrine, or mandate.
The hearers of Jesus, however, experienced in him someone
who spoke from a different place from most of the doctors of the
law, even, as related in the Gospel of John, from a place in
himself that they had never heard from any other person (John 7,
48). It is the
place from which Jesus speaks that gives his teaching the “note
Speech has authority when its speaker is truly the
author of his or her
words. Although the
words may be familiar ones, the hearers recognize that the words
come from the depths of the speaker’s originality.
When one does speak out of his or her originality, the
words express both the original identity of the speaker and the
One who is the source of that originality.
Thus, true authority in speech resides not in the power
that the speaker has over the others but rather from the place
within us from which the words originate.
Father Adrian van Kaam teaches that our deepest
responsibility as a human person who has been created in the
image and likeness of God is to be faithful to our origin, to
“be original.” In
this sense we can recognize the multiple connotations of John 7,
28: “No man ever
spoke as this man speaks.”
In his words as in his life, Jesus was unique and
original. The Word
God uttered through Jesus’ life was a truly unique word.
And in his fidelity to that call, Jesus spoke and acted
as no other person had before him.
In our own lives, tension and struggle mark our attempt
to give form to our lives in accord with the original form we
have received. We
are constantly torn between appropriating, appreciating, and
expressing the original
form that God has created in us and creating and manifesting
our own counterfeit form.
We live the same “temptation” as Adam and Eve, to receive
and gratefully live out our life as a gift of God or to attempt
to “become as gods” and creators of our own identity.
Van Kaam says that when a person is living in accord with
her or his originality, that person has a capacity to recognize
and even to draw out what is unique in others.
The “deep that calls unto deep” (Psalm 42, 7) in such an
authentic encounter is the mutual recognition of the Divine
image and origin within each other.
In this way, the encounter with Jesus and with original
others powerfully evokes not so much one’s desire to be like the
other as to live out one’s own life more truly in tune with
one’s own origin.
A poem of Emily Dickinson playfully and mystically
contrasts the difference between an encounter of two “original”
human beings as opposed to two self-created identities.
Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – Too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
They’d advertise – you know!
How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To Tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!
Most of our interpersonal encounters are
meetings between the “Somebody” we are and the “Somebody” we
meet. “What do you
do?” “Are you busy
these days?” “What
have you been up to?”
Emily Dickinson, however, speaks about another kind of
encounter, one between “Nobodies.”
If we are to know something of our own originality and
thus have a capacity to be present to the original life in the
person we meet, we must begin by recognizing that we are
“Nobody.” For the
life we are that comes from God is “no-thing.” As a “nobody,” we
need not perform or impress, or project any identity other than
who we have been created to be.
The life that Jesus lived and expressed was always only
his deepest originality: his life with God.
"I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself;
he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever
the Father does the Son also does.”
(John 5, 19)
Those who heard him recognized in the originality of his speech,
the authority of the author of their own lives.