Wednesday, March 15, 2017

A Conversation with Trust, Faith, and Keeping It Real

I don't think anything could make me want to sky dive.  I'm not averse to the thrill or even the possibilities of death.  I could trust everyone involved, including myself, and still not want to do it.  The world holds out more possibilities for trust than I have inclinations, much less faith.  Skydiving is someone else's religion to me.  I'm okay with that.  I'm looking for a different kind of experience when I go looking for the conversation I want to have with trust, faith, and keeping it real.

So first a few assumptions that I think we can agree on.  The world burns and everyday seems a far more dangerous place.  The American situation with North Korea serves as a kind of benchmark for reality, not only for real shared political terror but for the challenges we face closer to home and within ourselves.  Robert Litwak has succinctly made the choices clear enough when he writes, "bomb, acquiesce, or negotiate."  Does anyone really believe that our worst choice is negotiate?  We're going to need to negotiate with our trust and credibility first.  That needs to happen before our other negotiations.

What are the terms of a more serious conversation about the value of trust and the importance of credibility?  What do we take to heart?  That is not only the etymology of credibility ---le coeur, courage, creed, śraddha in Sanskrit--- it is the very heart of the matter.  How we feel always tells us about what we are thinking.  Making that connection between feeling and thought, well, that is what we call “yoga.” It seems more necessary than ever that this spiritual conversation is about what “keeping it real” means as far as we can and take with equal importance just how these issues of credibility spill into our public discourse.  Our religious lives are political, our spiritual lives cannot operate outside political and social circumstances, and our politics across the globe are straining credulity and credibility.  What is a living human spirit to make of all this?

We need to feel what we can trust and that means we need to have some “good” reasons, even if they are merely tacit, implicit, or inferential.  It becomes paralyzing to our everyday humanity not to be able to put stock in relationships on which we depend.  And let’s make no mistake about it: our fields of relationships are the very source of our self-confidence.  The alternative is truly miserable:

“It’s an environment of fear that has hamstrung the routine functioning of the executive branch. Senior advisers are spending much of their time trying to protect turf, key positions have remained vacant due to a reluctance to hire people deemed insufficiently loyal, and Trump’s ambitious agenda has been eclipsed by headlines surrounding his unproven claim that former President Barack Obama tapped his phone lines.”  (cited from

It is difficult to live in an environment in which competing agendas mean there is too little trust and too much suspicion.  We need confidence to feel safe enough to put ourselves at risk.  And without risk, nothing important can ever happen.  We can’t love without risk, invent or think or feel without inviting risk.  And we can’t risk unless we can trust.  Some modicum of safety and confidence must underwrite the requisite invitation to secure risk.  It’s that oxymoron ---secure risk--- that helps us define which relationships are worth having and empowers those we need to grow and explore ourselves further personally and socially.

We need secrets too and we need safe places to keep them and to tell them.  “We are the secret that the universe is telling,” was something my own teacher said many times.  He meant that there is always three-fourths more hidden by our limited mortal human condition than we can ever uncover ---his point was less mystical, more practical and, dare I say, transparent?  Our spiritual task is to imagine how we participate in something far greater than ourselves.  We rarely mean by that how we must address our limitations.  Being spiritual is indeed about expansion into that greatness that encompasses us.  But our task becomes truly meaningless unless we take the unfinished business of what we do not know, what is hidden from us and defined in terms of our embodied self.  That embodied self is not limitless, not free from boundaries, and is wholly dependent on more than its own self-sufficiencies.  It’s easy to posit a mystical self that has no such boundaries or conditions but, for some of us, this is just another ancient alt-fact.  If that alt-fact is somehow true, the evidence is not public enough to be verified beyond one’s own experience.

Here lies the crux of confidentiality: we need more than our own experience in order to trust our own experience.  We need other benchmarks, relationships, and evidence.  This means that we need more than ourselves to trust ourselves.  Without that, delusion is nigh and paranoia, without having to be a social fact, becomes part of our inner conversation.  Trust requires a heart that is reaching out to check in on itself.  It won’t be enough just to reach into that heart.

We can talk a great deal about authenticity, revelation, and the need for self-transparency in the cultivation of a candid inner voice.  There is nothing like honesty and the light of day to remind us of the importance of establishing credibility with the world around us and with our selves.  To reach further in we have to reach out because living on the island of self means living with other selves.  The alternative is an insularity that only self-validates without regard to anything greater than one’s self.  This might be the very definition of delusion or, for some, enlightenment.

But it is not merely delusion that imperils, anesthetizes, and disables us.  It is as much the genuine presence of deception.  If delusion originates in the subject, deception finds its source in the object, in other than one’s self.  So the issue of self-trust is once again a matter of reliance and interdependence.  We need good company because our spiritual health truly does depend on the company we keep.  I will return to this as we conclude but we need that all important interlude into “faith” right about here.

I’m skeptical, as ever, to call any worthwhile process “faith” because I find that word laden with hopes and dreams we invent for the sake of insulating ourselves from disappointments and, indeed, from “keeping it real.”  Do we want to know more transparently what we are and will experience, or will we prefer the fantasies that accompany nearly all uses of the word “faith”?  Faith is, at best, a tool and a tactic we can employ for the experiments with trust we need to function in healthy ways.  Unless, of course, you believe your faith saves you, then all I have left is my trust in our differences of opinion.

So if faith means only a requisite supposal rather than rock solid assurance, what are we to make of that limitation?  One can say that faith supposes doubt and leaves open possibilities.  But for my money, “faith” just doesn’t cut it.  It’s lost its edge and while it can serve theists as a productive instrument of their own convictions, it leaves me wholly unquenched and not a little importunate.  I’m trying my best here not to conflate “faith” with trust because the one involves a wishful character while the other demands character.  I may have access to my wishes (much like Republican healthcare plans) but if I can’t afford my wishes then what is demanded instead is a test of character.  Trust tests character while faith merely substitutes for it. These ideas are likely making me fewer friends and raising all sorts of feelings and even objections in you.  That’s because “faith” is such a laden, complex, and often meaningful word to so many: it comes from culture but how much of that comes from you?

Shadows come into play whenever we examine our inner conflicts.  I confess my own traumas involving “faith” involve very unpleasant, nay, tortured conversations with Wilfred Cantwell Smith whose Faith and Belief was published during my graduate years.  Cantwell Smith held my professional fate in his hands and our dissonance didn’t make anything easier for me.  I also made it something of a mission to demonstrate to Dr. Smith that his fundamental thesis ---that faith is a quality of human experience that is the foundation of all religions and is not to be confused with belief--- confused Christian and other monotheistic traditions with other kinds of religions that refuse to be defined by faith. 

I have in mind here particularly the Vedic world, which one can argue requires no faith, no trust, nothing more than the evidence and efficacy of experiments tried and true.  In Vedic ritual the claim is “do this, get that,” and the heart of its doctrine is aptly described in the saying, dehi me dadāmi te, which means, “give to me, I give.”  This is the heart of Vedic ritualism, which by every measure passes the duck-test of religion (it quacks, waddles, has feather and a bill, it’s a duck…).  Professor Smith thought those kinds of religion were magic.  I protested they were, at worst, merely science poorly executed but in fact religions without faith.  One need only trust in the evidence and pursue the most reliable outcomes.  The real miracle in this story is that I escaped with my degrees over Dr. Smith’s strong protestations.   We shared a few personal notes before his death and not only did they include difficult and dear exchanges, they provided me more ways to think about “faith.”  Let’s continue for a moment more. 

I am still more than just wary of how the faith meme, so deeply embedded in western culture, invites us to a too-sunny, too fanciful, too wishful a feeling that skews our keeping it real.  Faith is far too often in the way of keeping it real.  While I don’t expect that to be a popular view, I think it’s an apt description of what people want from their faith.  People want the shiny side up because the alternative requires a lot more work.   The problem is not only what lies on the other end of faith ---doctrines, ideas, and claims that defy any methodologies of evidence---it is also that faith is just too summery and so requires too much yearning, the kind that push it’s shadows into more shadows.  Faith admits shadows of doubt but seeks resolution.  And that is a real keeping it real problem.  Our shadows don’t resolve or diminish.  In fact, the more light we cast on them, the more we see and the more we make.

The more brightly we burn, the more shadow we create, which means faith too will become yet another tool of yearning to obfuscate rather than illuminate our human situation.  Faith was supposed to help us develop trust in the face of darkness or doubt and so show us clearer boundaries and possibilities.  Instead it becomes a substitute for trust because we want to crowd out mistrust, not just doubt or fear.  We can live with unknowing and say aplenty about the value of holding fast when we can’t know (more faith) but we positively dislike and eschew distrust.  But these too are assets when we stop believing they are mere liabilities.

We seem to think that there is a cure for our deepest anxieties, mistrust, and distrust.  This is where faith fails too many keeping it real tests.  Those needles aren’t going away.  They are part of what has been selected out for survival.  We need them, otherwise it’s unlikely we wouldn’t still have them, and no amount of faith is going to alchemize into unreality the real causes of these feelings.

Our alternative is to find another way to talk about trust, about the quality of values we need to keep it real.  That alternative we might call again “the conversation.”  (The Latin com- is a prefix meaning “with” related to the Sanskrit su- (and having also the same sense as anu-), plus versare, as in “to turn,” directly related to the Sanskrit root /vrt, thus vrtti, vartate, etc. ) So literally conversation is the “act of living with”, “to keep company,” and so “take turns with.”  That’s it, that’s the key right there.  We must stay in each other’s company and take turns.  We must listen and reply, not merely answer and counter but also reciprocate, carry forward, and carry on.

We have to be willing to stay in the conversation, not because trust consummates but because once it does, it must be made to happen again and again.  Lest we forget, “conversation” once meant what we now call criminal conversation, in the sense of either consensual or coercive sexuality.  Provenance reminds us that conversation is never without the real risks that come with all of the implications of intimacy.  And intimacy always invites us to boundaries, exposures, and real dangers.  We can’t have the joys of conversation without the perils, the jeopardy, and the consequences.  That’s where we need to be if embrace the slightest hope to keep this real.  We'll need to create and re-create trust and a keen sense too of what we must not trust.