In a world where institutional religion is mortally wounded, we can feel as if we are in an authority void. This is especially true of people who have belonged to authoritative traditions, wherein people become accustomed to pious proclamations from on high telling them what to believe. In traditions with a stronger emphasis on doctrine, including those requiring new members to sign statements agreeing with officially printed beliefs, members become used to looking elsewhere for instruction about belief. The institution is in decline in part because its actions have not corresponded with its stated beliefs. Also significant is institutional denial in the face of scientifically verifiable problems with those beliefs. For example, an institution that takes five hundred years to admit it was wrong about the earth being flat fast loses credibility in any scientific area.
If you find yourself stepping away from that model and looking for external authority, I would advise you not to be too quick to latch on to another authority figure. Rather, you might consider adopting different teachers and sources as constituting your own trusted spiritual council. In our world where new, self-proclaimed “spiritual teachers” seem to emerge more quickly than newborn bunnies, don’t rush to put people on your council before doing due diligence. Remember that as you continue on your spiritual journey, you develop your own sense of spiritual authority. However, it’s likely never wise to listen only to yourself. It’s always helpful to look at what other sources are saying and doing to help ensure we don’t drift too far afield.
As we develop our own sense of authority, we develop the ability to dismiss ideas and teachings presented to us that seem conflicted, contradictory, or motivated by self interest on the part of the teacher. For example, given that nearly every religious tradition has been rocked by repeated sexual scandals in the recent past, it may be reasonable to elect to ignore teachings on sexual morality coming from groups who haven’t cleaned their own house. More subtly, perhaps, you may choose to question organizations with a problematic civil rights record when those institutions preach about God’s love for all people. These decisions, while at times uncomfortable, are all part of a maturing spirituality.
There was a time when blindly following authority made sense. When people were largely illiterate and couldn’t access and read information themselves, they were dependent on others to do so on their behalf. When scientific knowledge was in its infancy, it may have been reasonable to choose to continue to believe in some things we now recognize to be inaccurate. There is no shame in that, it doesn’t mean we were wrong but rather that truth evolves with increased understanding – and with that our own understanding of authority. What an exciting journey!