Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Trust, Love, & Cynicism

The Bible is a strange religious text. It counsels pessimism about human nature, while counseling optimism about the world as a whole. It looks at mankind as the potential to be like God, but broken by a sinful stain brought on by 'original sin'...whatever that pans out to be. Reinhold Niebuhr's entire theology is aimed at working out this tension, and it is for that reason if no other that he is my favorite post-Biblical theologian of all time.

The ethics of the Bible also take a strange turn. They ultimately counsel you to trust almost no one, and yet to find some way to love them. It is a strange question: can we love a person we do not trust. I have a friend who says 'no'... I unequivocally answer 'yes'. I love a great many people. As far as I can tell, love is simply comfortable vulnerability. I am comfortably vulnerable to a lot of people. If you are my friend, you have the power to hurt me, deeply. It would probably make most people uncomfortable to know how much I love them.

Yet I fully expect, all the time, to be hurt by these people. I don't trust people generally. My love is given in comfort, because I believe the act of love to be ultimately meaningful, however it may be proximately painful and defeated. I believe this because I believe that God is Love, and to love is to create an eternal outpost within the life of God. No act or attitude of love is never wasted, not because love is generally returned and properly responded to (it often isn't), but because for as long as a love relationship lasts it builds up God in the world, and creates for itself an eternity within the Kingdom of God in the next.

If I love you, and you betray me or hurt me, you'll get sadness but little anger. It is just what I expected to happen anyways. I made myself vulnerable, and was comfortable doing it, because of what it means for God, not because of what it means for you or me. And you'll be quickly and duly forgiven for transgressions. I'm generally forgiving person across the board, but a relationship based on love but not trust is quickly restored for me. I trust in God and so I love you.

Trust is different. I trust people when my comfortable vulnerability is accompanied by an EXPECTATION that I will not be hurt. I trust God and love God, because I am radically vulnerable to him and believe strongly I will never be hurt by Him. I have a core group of family and friends that I love and trust. I not only make myself vulnerable to him, but my comfort in that vulnerability is grounded not only in my trust in God, but in my trust in them. This trust is given sparingly, and only after a long time, and only when it is returned.

If you betray my trust, you will get anger. Trust is a two-way street: break trust with me, and usually some of your trust in me will no longer be founded either (I have scruples about how and to what degree I'll no longer respect someone's trust in me, I won't go around airing everything I know about you, but your feelings will no longer be a top priority for me). Given my general pessimism about human nature, to have my trust is to have something that I give with a lot of reservation. If you earned it, and you betrayed it, you have reaped the whirlwind. I won't go around trying to punish you, but you will see a reaction that accurately reflects the pain you put me in.

Forgiveness will be given, though not as quickly, and trust takes a concerted effort to re-earn. I repeat: trust is a two-way street, you have no right to expect it when you have broken it. I never put myself out there as some moral exemplar. I've always said I'm a rotten and broken person saved only by God's grace. That is what I am. Your trust in me is well-founded because it is well-earned.

The upshot is, I guess, is that cynicism and optimism can live in the same heart, as can being less trusting and more loving. The world works this way. It is the home of suffering and hope, of horror and wonder, of heaven and hell. Most religions and philosophies try to hold on to one or the other side of those dichotomies, while abandoning the other. One of the reasons that I'm a Christian is that in the man-God Jesus, dying and rising, the whole truth of life is expressed. I would end with a quote from Pascal, which I've posted before:

"The essence of the Christian religion consists in the mystery of a redeemer who, uniting in himself the two natures, human and divine, has withdrawn men from the corruption of sin to reconcile them to God in His divine person. This teaches us two great truths together, that there is in man a capacity to be like God and at the same time a corruption in his nature which renders him unworthy of God. It is equally important to know both of these truths. — One knowledge produces the pride of the philosopher who knows God but does not know his own misery, the other produces the despair of the atheist who knows his own misery but knows no redeemer."

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