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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.

~ Mark 1, 22

In 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 conformist interpretation.  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 of authority.”  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.

I’m Nobody!  Who are you?

Are you – Nobody – Too?

Then there’s a pair of us!

Don’t tell!  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.  

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Last updated: 11/24/10.