Rev. Harmon Smith, Ph. D.
Emeritus Professor of Ethics, Duke University
Harmon Smith is an Episcopal Priest, Emeritus Professor of Ethics, and an avid golfer.
Say a prayer for me as I venture to speak in the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
“There’s no such thing as a free lunch” was a slogan my grandfather, John O’Donnell, was fond of – and he devoutly believed it because he had been hardened to the realities of his world while owning a small-town livery stable and breaking wild horses imported from the West to bridle and saddle – and later while a railroad man, an engineer on the Gulf, Mobile, and Ohio, and a friend of the fabled Casey Jones. If it’s too good to be true, my grandfather would say, it probably isn’t – so be suspicious, be skeptical, don’t take any wooden nickels, be cautious, don’t be deceived, don’t be taken in. Like many other parents I have sometimes conveyed that message to my children. But I also experimented with Papa’s proposition by testing the responses of both friends and strangers to off-the-cuff compliments. “You look very nice today,” I’d say, or “I think your book is very good” – only to read in eyes or body-language ‘I wonder what he wants’ – ‘what is he’s after’. I think now my grandfather wanted to temper his grandchildren’s innoence with his own brand of adversity-bred realism. He wanted us to avoid the full blow of an unexpected defeat on life’s playing field. He wanted to spare us hoping to get something for nothing. I think his at-titude was more than a curi-ous twist on the Boy Scout motto, “Be Prepared”. It was the suspici-ous exhortation not to trust a boat’s seaworthiness until you are safely deposited on dry land – not to believe that something is yours until you have earned it and have it firmly in your hand.
Last Sunday’s gospel was Luke’s account of Jesus’ temptations during his 40-day’s in the wilderness – temptations that enticed him to choose himself over his divine vocation. That story also challenges us to reject temptations to choose ourselves over God. And while today’s lections describe a different set of circumstances, I think they share a common thread with our Lord’s wil-derness temptations. In the Genesis reading Abraham is skeptical, despite God’s assurances, that his land will be given to his descendants because he is childless. In his letter to the Philippian Christians, Paul pleads with them to stand firm – to embrace the gospel and be transformed by it, even in with when threatened by enemies of the cross. And in Luke’s gospel Jesus refuses to abandon his mission even when he is in deadly danger from Herod. A common theme in all of those readings is ‘hang in,’ ‘hold on,’ ‘stand fast,’ ‘be firm’. Keep the faith despite temptations that challenge you to surrender to distrust and faithlessness. The exception is today’s Ps. 27 – ‘because the Lord is my light and my salvation, I have no fear’.
Stories abound in the Bible that illustrate distrust and doubt. Adam and Eve distrusted and disobeyed God. Jacob deceived his father Isaac in order to secure a blessing to which his brother was entitled. The prophet, Micah (whose name meant ‘one who is like God’) put it this way: “Do not trust in a neighbor; Do not have confidence in a friend.” [7:5] In his address last Sunday, Fr. Bob noted that Paul’s letter to the Romans showed material differences between Jews and Christians – and he reminded us that similarly important matters divide faithful Episcopalians today. Then he asked rhetorically “what does it look like to trust God’s promise?”
There are some reasons why we’ve been taught systemic distrust and doubt. Christian the-ologians have long held that egocentrism characterizes us from before we are born – and some child psychologists believe that the disposition to be suspicious and distrustful is a inborn ‘natu-ral’ trait. I can recall the first time I invited one of my children to jump into a pool of water and trust me to catch her – or the first time I tried to persuade a child to lie flat in the water, and be supported by my hands. Children take their first steps toward trusting another person with great care and cau-tion. We say that they are naturally afraid of not being caught, or not being support-ed in the water. Abraham feared that his land would not be passed on to his descendants – the Philippians were afraid of ‘enemies of the Christ’s cross’ – and some Pharisees were afraid that Herod would kill Jesus. The theologian in me sees a pattern in all this.
I have argued for many years that studying theology has been too long sequestered on sem-inary campuses and been too long the exclusive province of clergy. Because all of us have more or less well-formed beliefs – and since all of us are called to be ministers of the Gospel – all of us need to be trained for our vocation. We need not deny or distrust lay theologians. So here is my side-bar on the recent emergence of distrust. At least since the Renaissance, and especially since the French philosopher, René Descartes – western culture has embraced systematic doubt as the sine-qua-non by which we come to true knowledge. The story is that Descartes’ climbed into a stove and closed the door in order to achieve total sensory deprivation and insulate himself from every thing except himself and his private thoughts. In that isolation, he concluded that only he himself, his insular self, was real. Hence his phrase je pense, donc je suis or cogito ergo sum – I think, therefore I am. We do not take anybody else’s word for anything.
It happened that Descartes’ systematic skepticism coincided with the advent of scientific experimental method which insists that all knowledge is in flux and forever changing. We must therefore be tentative and provisional about asserting truth-claims about anything, including so-called ‘scientific laws’. His contemporary, Francis Bacon, had repudiated deduction from philo-sophical and theological theories and put in its place systematic induction from observation of simple phenomena. [Novum Organum] His famous dictum was “If a man will begin with certain-ties he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts he shall end in certain-ties”. [The Advancement of Learning, Book 1, v, 8] I’ve mentioned the Renaissance, Bacon, Descartes, and scientific method because they are modern versions of the very ancient tendency to be skeptical, to be suspicious, to distrust. Nowadays, post-modernism has spawned what is called a ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ that suspects everyone and everything.
Hermeneutics, as you know, is the theory of interpretation – and its goal is to discern how best to discover the embedded meaning of a text. Hermeneutics was originally limited to Biblical interpretation, but since the 19th c. this term has been broadened to encompass interpretation of any text. If you have watched the political debates among the presidential candidates, you have seen a ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ at work – and one result is that voters nowadays appear to be increasingly distrustful of both the political process and the candidates themselves. In the big picture, it appears to be a fairly common view that politicians lie, the government lies, big busi-ness lies, advertisers lie, the media is biased and lies, etc. Coverups are common – and even if there is no outright lying, most people and organizations are acting out of selfish motives and self-serving agendas. Worse yet, everybody has an agenda – and they can be neatly pigeon-holed as liberal, conservative, socialist, bigoted, homophobic, racist, capitalist, reactionary, etc.
But I wonder about an all-pervasive ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’. OK, some wariness may be warranted – but is everyone lying or acting out a bad agenda? Is it always wrong to have an agenda? We’ll discuss in the Lenten series whether it is always wrong to lie. Is self interest always a bad thing? Is it wrong for groups to seek to influence the national discussion even if that influence serves their interest and world-view? I’m too old to dissimulate and I don’t have simple answers to these questions – but, as you doubtless do, I have some opinions.
(1) Everyone has an agenda and that’s tolerable. It’s not wrong to have a worldview and try to influence others to embrace it. So for full disclosure my agenda is that I am an Episcopal priest who believes that Jesus founded the Church and that it is the one true Church. I also be-lieve what this holy catholic and apostolic Church teaches in matters of faith and morals. And I pray that everyone on this planet would embrace the faith given us by Jesus. Yes, there is sin and corruption in the Church, but despite that the Church has never failed to hand on the authentic truth of Jesus Christ. In brief, I believe that Jesus continues to speak through his Church.
(2) I also believe that self-interest is not always wrong-headed. This is not the place for a litany of my self-interests – but I’ve had my share of engaging with others of common interest on active projects to effect change – and I think that self-interest can be a powerful moti-vator toward good and noble ends. I’ve seen wonderful things happen when self-interest is teth-ered to helping others, serving the common good, and being obedient to God. A ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ cynically demands ‘pure’ motives, and defines pure as completely selfless. But unconditional love belongs to God, not me. – so I don’t think my motives impugned when I get satisfaction from helping build a just and healthy world. Imagine what would happen if we just stop all our suspici-ons that self-interest is not necessarily bad and accept that people may act lovingly and helpfully from what interests them. Acknowledging that people are happy to be expressing themselves in useful and helpful ways can make us less suspicious and cynical.
(3) On the other side, of course, actions like these will always make us more vulnerable to a life that is inextricably bound up with pain and sorrow and death. But, then, that’s how it is in a world post-Eden’ and modern life is no longer one-sided. It’s in observing a holy Lent that we be-gin to see that pain and sorrow and death are not God’s last word – not to Abraham, not to the Phi-lippians, not to Jesus, not to us. We are surely headed toward the cross but we know that this road also leads to eternal life and that our lament and our pain, are met head-on by the mercies of God.
So I want to say clearly that there is no place for a hermeneutics of suspicion among us here. If we should discover it we need to be quick to say there is no place for it here – because whatever else is going on in the other world, we are friends here. In fact, we are meant to be family here. And while we have different views about the economy, national security, marriage, terrorism, immigration, and all the rest – we trust each other not to be lying but to be saying the truth as God has given us minds and hearts to discern it. I honestly don’t think we can say too often or too emphatically that we are friends here and that we trust each other not to lie.
I think a large part of the discomfort of Lent really lies in learning how to answer Fr. Bob’s question. It’s our vocation to trust God – and that challenge confronts us this season when we are invited to face squarely the radical risk of trusting God – and boldly declare with the Psalmist that the Lord is our light and our salvation.
The good news of the gospel is that, by God, there is a ‘free lunch’ for those who will but accept it. And that is exactly what awaits us at his holy altar. With open arms our heavenly Father beckons us to jump. With supporting arms underneath, he invites us to trust him to love and care for us. With hospitable and indulgent arms, he bids us come to his table to receive food for our journey. All we need do is say ‘yes, Lord, I trust you – help my distrust and my unbelief’.