The Devastating Insult of Truth

The Revolutionary Learning (and Unlearning) of the Gospel

Sam Bush / 2.3.21

T H. Huxley (grandfather of Aldous) was a renowned 19th-century English anthropologist, known as “Darwin’s bulldog” for his promotion of the theory of evolution. He once said, “Every great advance in natural knowledge has involved the absolute rejection of authority.” It’s an interesting notion, especially in our country, where authority has largely been undermined if not flat-out rejected. For the past twenty years, half of the country seems to have been perpetually chanting, “Not my president!” The church, meanwhile, is far from exempt, as the mere notion of authority carries a considerable amount of baggage from the Bible wars of evangelicalism. People have become allergic to the very word “authority,” and understandably so.

But what is Huxley’s point? He’s saying that scientific advancement depends on someone coming along and saying, “We thought it was this way, but what about this?” All of the champions of science once had the courage and the audacity to reject what had been assumed to be authoritatively true at that time, but was not actually authentic. When it was finally revealed to be a false authority, the world’s perception of reality was completely turned on its head. So it goes, when false authority is exposed and true is revealed.

Whenever a discovery like this happens, it often comes as a shock. It’s insulting because it forces one to realize that one was wrong. Sigmund Freud once said that there were three devastating insults that have happened to humanity. The first was when Copernicus realized that the Earth revolved around the sun, and we were forced to confront the truth that humanity was not the center of the universe. The second insult was when Darwin presented his theory of evolution, forcing us to admit that we were not even the center of creation, but simply a part of it. The final insult was a psychological blow, delivered (not so humbly) by Freud himself, that, even in our own persons, we are fundamentally not in control of ourselves, that our awareness and control is but a teardrop in the ocean of unconscious activity. Each of these advancements defied what had generally been accepted as truth. While each of them was a hit to human pride, they also advanced our collective understanding.

It reminds me of when Jesus, still early on in his ministry, is teaching in the synagogue to his disciples. The Gospel of Mark reports, “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority.” An unclean spirit who has taken possession of a man directly confronts Jesus, he orders the spirit to be silent and to leave the man. “What’s this?” his disciples ask. “A new teaching — with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” While everyone had grown accustomed to the false authorities of the world, Jesus came along to say, “You have heard that it was that way, but I tell you it’s actually this way.”

And so God directly speaks truth into our false understanding of power. His is the type of authority that does not exploit or manipulate, but declares outright. There’s nothing nuanced about it. It rings authoritative, not because it’s strong, but because it’s true.

There is something deeply reassuring whenever we are able to recognize God’s authority over us. In an interview with Stephen Colbert, John Mulaney was asked about why his latest project was, of all things, a children’s musical comedy. His answer was that he loved working with kids, particularly between the ages of 8 and 13:

That is the state I’d like to be in because people at that age tend to be very kind and very thoughtful and they also know that they have no control over their lives because they’re children. Every once in a while someone will say, “You’re going to karate class now!” and then you’re in karate class all of a sudden. I thought I could control the karate classes of my life but you cannot, not even as an adult. You still will sometimes be shoved into a car and be told that you’re taking ballroom dancing.

It’s worth noting that John Mulaney doesn’t have any children, but he has a point. When the authority in our life is one of care and loving-kindness, there is freedom in trusting it. You might get dragged to ballroom dancing some days, but there is an overarching trust that someone who loves you is directing you. This is where the authority of Christ is quite different from earthly authority. It is not a controlling, tyrannical authority. It is, rather, a freeing authority, one that opens up limitless possibilities.

Subservience, it turns out, is a poor substitute for the art of persuasion. God does not rule over us with power and might, but with love. Whereas earthly authority rules with an iron fist, Jesus’ authority rules with his hands outstretched on a cross. While earthly authority subjects us under its thumb, Jesus places himself under the thumb of the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law. And, though he has all authority in heaven and earth, he chooses to give it away (Luke 9: “Then Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases”).

Jesus came to dethrone the false authorities in our lives, which means whatever we thought were the ruling powers have been ousted. Be it a person whose critical voice you hear in the back of your mind; be it an illness that has robbed you of the things you used to enjoy; be it death itself — these things have been made subject to Jesus, and they no longer have eternal power.

T. H. Huxley claimed that every great advancement has involved the rejection of authority, and the same applies to our salvation. When Jesus rightly claimed his authority as the Son of God, we hung him on a cross, stripped him of his power and mocked him. The Lord of all subjected himself to our false authority. But, by his subjection he advanced us from death to life eternal. This is the way God executes his authority for our sake, as Jesus says, “While you had assumed that it was that way, it turns out it’s actually this way. The way of the cross. I am the way.”

Like Freud’s three devastating insults, this realization comes as a blow to human pride. Where we had previously thought we were the center of our salvation story, Christ has revealed that he is the center. One day, Jesus will exercise his full authority, when at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Christ is Lord. In the meantime, we can trust that his rejection led to our advancement.