Saturday, July 5, 2008
An Economics of Trust
[image above stolen from dm stith. click on it and get ready for his new disc]
My last blog entry was on the topic of public discourse. It doesn’t seem to have caused much of a stir with some of the friends and family who read some of these things that I write out and post here. It was a long entry, but I hope the lack of response has more to do with my long-winded hot air rather than anyone’s disinterest in this topic. Whoever you are voting for in November, it is hard to not agree that this will be the most interesting and even most important election within the last forty years. Based on record setting turnouts at the primaries we can see a renewed political vigor within America, especially younger voters. I don’t see how it is possible to be interested in this election and not be concerned about our pubic discourse since this is a democracy that we are participating in. This should be especially a concern for Christians. We have spent so much of our recent past practicing such a heavy handed polemic that there are very few left who will take our questions, thoughts, challenges seriously.
I spent a lot of time on that last blog. It was hard to write and I’m still feeling affected by the thoughts and questions surrounding that writing and I still can’t get a full grip on what is really eating at me. At the risk of getting mushy, I feel a nagging intuition that this is all about love and friendship. How we engage others in public seems to have some bearing on how we engage friends and family intimately and privately? Generosity is still generosity whether it is expressed in public or private. If we can’t extend charity and patience with others publicly, then what does this say about our private interactions? The public smearing and back biting makes me feel lonely. It makes my stomach burn. How brittle, how jagged are we? Is there any tenderness, any meekness, any loveliness in humanity? Are we all really just a bunch of selfish bastards? I often feel that I do not understand where it is I live and who it is that I live amongst. This is often felt as a cold world.
Take the accusations against Obama lately—that he is flip-flopping in regards to the Supreme Court’s decision on hand gun bans in D.C., the developments with FISA and his initial renege on campaign finance, his faith based initiatives and his more conservative stance on pro-choice. Some are ready to stop contributing their money to his campaign. They might still vote for him as a lesser of two evils but they don’t want to actively endorse him. Others cynically want to say something to the effect that Obama is just playing the political games. He is a politician after all; he has to do what it takes to get elected. Critics are quick to accuse, make hasty judgments, to look for mistakes rather than to believe in all that can be shared in common. It is hard to believe that the democratic party will be able to unify around anything there is so much suspicion and distention.
So what does the presidential race have to do with our intimacy with each other? I guess it is an economics of trust. Do we trust Obama? Or if you are GOP, do you trust McCain? Or are we just getting by with a hope for the least of all evils because after all…it’s politics?
Here are some circumstances that cut closer to home in terms of trust: coincidentally my former senior pastor, the one who hired me to my first paid ministry position, resigned yesterday from the church. Susanna is flying back from Austin this evening and she told me that her senior pastor resigned from his post yesterday as well. How convenient. Between the election, these resignations and my own journey of settling into Holland Michigan and Hope College, the resounding theme is one of trust. If we are able to be the kind of people who trust our political leaders, can we trust our religious leaders? If we trust our religious leaders, what does that say about the way we live our lives as people who have the capacity to give and receive love—the capacity to trust intimately?
I’ve been encouraged and discouraged by a passage from Walker Percy that has been sneaking back into my memory. I dug it out this past week:
The scientists were saying that by science man was learning more and more about himself as an organism and more and more about the world as an environment and that the environment could be changed and man made to feel more and more at home.
The humanists were saying that through education and the application of the ethical principles of Christianity, man’s lot was certain to improve.
But the poets and artists and novelists were saying something else: that at a time when, according to the theory of the age, men should feel most at home they felt most homeless.
Someone was wrong.
In the very age when communication theory and technique reached its peak, poets and artists were saying that men were in fact isolated and no longer communicated with each other.
In the very age when the largest number of people lived together in the cities, poets and artists were saying there was no longer a community.
In the very age when men lived longest and were most secure in their lives, poets and artists were saying that men were most afraid.
In the very age when crowds were largest and people flocked closest together, poets and artists were saying that men were most lonely.
Why were poets and artists saying these things?
Was it because they were out of tune with the spirit of the modern age and so were complaining because the denizens of the age paid no attention to them?
Or was it that they were uttering the true feelings of the age, feelings which could not be understood by the spirit of the age? Message in a Bottle 25, 26
I’m encouraged because he seems to articulate my gut level suspicion of who and what we are. My high school friend, the one who the previous blog entry referred to, described me as a snake oil salesman. He said that I preach doom and gloom. His implication is that I am a manipulative liar. It seems that I am in good company. Consider the final perspective of Voltaire: he had initially praised the “infinite perfectibility of the human species.” Then after the bloodshed of the Seven Years War, he writes Candide, a satire on humanist optimism. Voltaire was inspired by Shakespearean tragedy and Shakespeare by Greek tragedy. Read Elliot’s “Wasteland,” or Auden’s “September 1, 1939” or almost all of Rilke. If I’m a snake oil salesman, then I’m in good company. And of course within my own faith tradition: this is nothing new to the Scriptures. They are riddled with a severe concern for humanity.
But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with them.
There is none righteous, not even one. There is none who understands, there is no one who seeks God…there is none who does good, there is not even one.
The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?
When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
How is it possible for any of us to be optimistic? There are several religions and even secular philosophies that argue for some sort of fall, that ours is a broken world. How else are we to explain what is most commonly observed as evil? My optimism can only arise out of a deep belief in salvation.
While discussing with a recent graduate on our trip in Montana, this is the place to which our conversation arrived. He had confessed that he had lost most of his faith by the end of college and was ambivalent about whether this was a good or bad thing. We had taken our dialogue in a couple directions but I finally found myself in an existential plea: when you consider yourself, your neighbor and the place in which we live, do you not ache for someone to come and make all that is wrong, right? Don’t we all share a consistent, pulsing plea for help?
God’s Grandeur, Gerard Manley Hopkins
THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
The common argument is that the weak need religion; I’ll counter that by saying it is the honest. Yes, honestly we are all weak, finite, narrow, constrained, and prone to confusion, selfishness and fear. What a relief to not save myself. What a relief to not have the answers, to write my own story or to carve my identity out of stone, to invent the wheel of myself. I gather myself up and lean into the warm breast; I rest within the bright wings.