Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Who Do You Trust?

I was having a conversation on Twitter, and Marcus Borg came up, and I said that I basically agreed with his Pauline chronology, even if I don't agree with many of his conclusions in interpretive work. And that was interpreted as a statement of how far I trust him. Which is an interesting twist—because the more I get to know Borg's work, the more thoroughly I trust him. I just don't agree at many points farther down the road. And I said as much, and explained that there are many scholars I trust, with whom I will disagree profoundly; and on the other hand, many I distrust who, nonetheless, make valid points that I will not deny.

Of course, that wasn't what the initial question meant by asking to what extent I trust Marcus Borg. In a more basic sense, we use the question of trust to imply reliance, even to the extent of not questioning conclusions. And I could say, to twist that point the other way, that I trust even people with bad intent—to do bad things. There's something honest about an unpretentious crook, who knows what and why they do what they choose freely to do. But that isn't what I mean, either, when I say I trust many people with whom I often disagree.

So, a counterexample. What causes my distrust? The short answer is, epistemological shortcuts. And the biggest of those is authoritarian traditionalism, regardless of its specific form. Why do I trust Marcus Borg? Skepticism, and thorough engagement with the field as it has taken its science seriously. Of course, others don't trust me for exactly the opposite reason: I refuse to compromise my epistemology for traditionalism. (Which is ignoring the real reason I shouldn't be trusted, as an unreliable narrator.)

So, after all that, it occurs to me: I don't trust the tradition. Period. There are authors within the tradition that I trust, whether or not I agree with them entirely, but the tradition itself gets no faith from me. Well, what about the Bible? I'm pretty sure the answer is that I also don't trust the Bible. Which depends greatly on what we mean by "trust." I trust God, to whom the various scriptures we have give testimony, but the authors of those scriptures are frequently unreliable as witnesses. And as a canon, this set of writings is the bearer of agendas I am not wholly willing to cosign. But let's break those writings out, even just for the New Testament:

I trust Paul, in his seven original letters, because he is being profoundly honest about what he does and why and how, and what he will not do, and why not. He is good, and his editors are clumsy. I trust the authors of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, in spite of their unreliability as witnesses, because I understand what they are each attempting to do with the same material. I don't trust the author of Acts, who at least had the good sense to leave most of Luke intact in his editing of the earlier composition. I know exactly what Acts aims to do, and its self-justifying retelling of history is terrible. (This is eroding my trust in the gospels, but slowly, since I work mostly on Pauline canon pieces. But none of them are witnesses, and all of them are stories well after the fact, so the gospels don't have so far to fall as they might for someone else.) I trust Hebrews, and the Apocalypse, and James, and even 1 Peter, because what they are doing makes sense, and they seem to be honest about it—even if we have not been honest about where they come from in doing it. (Again, agreement is not implied here!) I trust Colossians, but not Ephesians, because only one of those authors had a good-faith reason to write their Pauline pastiche. 2 Thessalonians, Jude, and 2 Peter get no love from me—which may be odd considering the Apocalypse does. And I feel like I'm in an odd place with the Pastorals, because they are the absolute worst forgeries in the canon, but their naked ambition is profoundly honest in its abuse of apostolic authority.

Who do you trust? Why do you trust them? Clearly, I am my authority. People have told me that as though it were a bad thing, but they usually mean that in contrast to trusting the tradition, in a kind of hyper-selective majority-rule authoritarianism sense, to know better than anyone else. Because obviously I'm not smart enough, and they all were brilliant and unquestionable, and worked on problems that were truly general and could be solved for all time.

So yeah: I trust me. I don't expect you to trust me, though. I expect skepticism, and I expect you to verify my work. Or falsify it, if I'm wrong. I need that. And so I also trust you, to the extent that you're willing to step up and do that. But I expect much from you, just as from myself.