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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Why authority is in trouble

Consensus is elusive when individual values replace absolutes

One of the largest shifts in our common life is that absolutes are gone. Truth and authority now tend to be defined by individuals on their own terms. The result is not so much anarchy as ambiguity and ambivalence. No one can be sure exactly what values the next person holds.

One of the retiring bishops told his colleagues recently, "Mentally well people are those who can tolerate a great deal of ambivalence. Ambivalence is the simultaneous and contradictory attitudes and feelings that come toward you or that are within you. These mixed messages are the most challenging because of the intensity of those opposite feelings. This church is composed of people whose faith experience is on a wide continuum. We live in an ambivalent state and die waiting for consensus because we have decided to honor the end points of the continuum."

That's a highly perceptive view of why things don't seem to come together as we might wish. It isn't that we are angry or disappointed with each other. Rather, we're all at different places on the continuum and, in trying to be sensitive to everyone, consensus is hard to reach. The lack of consensus produces friction that makes leadership even more difficult than usual.


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