How can we trust others in our fallen world?
Why do former priests have more credibility in the media than current priests? I once posed that question to good friends, a married couple. Patty shrugged her shoulders and passed, which surprised me because she is never at a loss for words. Maybe I had been a bit too garrulous in asking the question. Perhaps I said, “Why is a priest so much more believable the minute he leaves the priesthood?”
Her husband Steve, stoic yet often sublime, did play catch with me. “Well, I suppose it’s because you feel that with an ex-priest you’re not just getting the company line.” This was at least a decade before the clerical abuse crisis.
“And what’s the matter with the company line?” I threw back, hard. “Have you got a problem with the company?”
Everyone needs someone who will let you throw hard balls and does not feel compelled to return them. Steve’s like that. “It’s just that companies, being companies, always have their own interests to look after.”
Are we designed to be closed in upon ourselves? Or does our growth in life depend upon our openness to others?
And maybe that is as deep as it goes. We live, all of us, in a disappointing world. We deceive each other, and when we incorporate, we seem only to maximize our capacity for deception. The modern news media tells us that we have been lied to by our government, by corporations, by the church, by pretty much every place where “two or three gather.” And now with the advent of “fake news,” we no longer trust the news media either.
Small wonder that we are essentially suspicious. It is sad, too, that one mark of adulthood is the ability to recognize when one is being taken in. Only kids truly trust, and they will learn soon enough, so we say.
Yet this question of trust, of giving ourselves to something outside ourselves, is quite fundamental. It goes to the nature of who we are as human beings. One might pose the question this way: Are we clams or clovers?
A clam closes out the world, hides something precious within a hard, protective shell. A clover can only grow, can only find nourishment by opening itself to the air, the sun, the wind and the rain. Which are we? Are we designed to be closed in upon ourselves? Or does our growth in life depend upon our openness to others?
When we know that the world is pure gift, we also know there is a giver.
Moses encounters a burning bush that is not consumed. Set aside questions such as: Did the bush really burn and yet live? How did the bush do that? The most important question is the one that Moses himself faced: Have I truly encountered something—someone, really—beyond myself? Am I confronted with someone who is truly “other”? Who is neither I nor part of my world? If this is true, then the questions come begging. “Who is this?” “What does he want of me?” “Should I trust her?”
We cannot avoid these questions in our lives. They are the portals to the intimacy of friendship and love. Once we realize that another wants to be part of our lives, we must choose. Either we trust—entrust ourselves to the other—or we turn away. Sadly, this is a decision we can and sometimes do regret. Yet clovers cannot be clams. If we try to live like clams, we slowly die.
We also cannot avoid the questions that life itself, as a unity, puts to us. Life has a way of revealing its open-endedness. For example, when it overpours its banks with blessedness. When we know that the world is pure gift, we also know there is a giver.
The open-ended nature of our lives is also revealed when we encounter great evil and then dare to ask, “If evolution is all there is, how did evolution become so cruel?” There must be more.
If you accept revelation—personal or preached—are you willing to accept its claim upon yourself? A person demands a response.
Once we realize that we are not alone, that we have been addressed by another who is not of our world, not ourselves, we either trust or we turn away. Christianity, Judaism and Islam present themselves as religions of revelation. They do not understand themselves to be collections of human wisdom, offered for our consideration. We adulterate them, make them into something they are not when we approach them as one more source of possible information. This is because each, ultimately, says that it is the offer of a person, not a collection of propositions.
Of course, once divine revelation enters our human sphere it is subject to misunderstanding and misreading. It can be adulterated or truncated, culpably and inculpably, by those charged with its presentation. We cannot fully trust the preacher any more than we can fully trust ourselves. But if the offer, if the person before us comes from outside our fallen and false world, then opening ourselves to that “other-worldly other within myself” is the only way to live.
That brings us to our New Testament tree. Unlike Moses’ bush, the fig tree is not burning. No question there. There is nothing amazing about it. That is because in this story, we are the fig tree, and the questions are: Have we been planted by another? Were we meant to bear fruit? Are we bearing fruit?
How you do answer these questions revelation poses? And if you accept revelation—personal or preached—are you willing to accept its claim upon yourself? A person demands a response.
You cannot be both clover and clam, though all of us are tempted to try. You are what you are, and that much you have to decide for yourself. So what are you, clover or clam?