Radical Trust

Brueggemann suggests that the biblical witness clearly depicts David, not as trust-worthy but nonetheless trusted by God. This radical trust in humans is the foundation of the wisdom tradition. I first encountered radical trust in Herman Waetjen’s translation of Romans 1:17 – “trusting into trust.” But what does such radical trust mean?

Radical trust means that:
The poor are to be trusted, just as the rich are
Blacks are to be trusted, just as whites are
LGBTQs are to be trusted, just as straights are
Muslims and Jews are to be trusted, just as Christians are
Immigrants are to be trusted, just as residents are
Children and youth are to be trusted, just as adults are
Politicians are to be trusted, just as neighbors are

That last one was hard to write, until I realized that radical trust does come with filters – namely, responsibility and transcendence. When any individual or group acts irresponsibly – that is, uses their status, condition, or opportunity to aggrandize their own power – they are not to be trusted. When any individual or group is so focused on things that they lose a transcendent perspective – that is, they act in such a manner that denies “the mystery of life’s underlying order and direction for the sake of those entrusted to us” – they are not to be trusted. Radical trust is radical because of its filters.

The current state of affairs in American society is that radical fear has replaced trust. Radical fear is transposed into radical ideologies which have no filters other than “us” versus “them.” Decisions are brokered on the basis of those ideologies, resulting in increasing chronic anxiety which feeds the radical fear and produces more extreme and rigid ideological schemes. Our politicians are the tip of the iceberg; we are the iceberg!

Responsibility and Transcendence

Brueggemann suggests (In Man We Trust) that the wisdom tradition in Israel was developed partly by those theologians who worked to make sense of the new phenomenon – a king. What was required was a shift in focus for cultural meaning away from cultic practices and toward society and government – away from the leadership of priests and judges and toward the king (and eventually) the prophets.

He goes further by suggesting that “Our task in the church today is to fashion a theology fit for kings – kings of affluence, power, technology, and urbanization.” Is this simply an attempt to legitimize power? By no means! Two threads provide a balance (or perhaps hold some contradictory ideas in tension):

1. Responsibility. Power is never to be absolutized. Government does not exist for the sake of the governors, but for the sake of the governed. Even the ideal king, David, could not get away with his shameful use of power to acquire Bathsheba. 2 Samuel 12 relates how the prophet Nathan confronted David face-to-face.

Wisdom understands that human destiny is determined by human choice informed by responsibility. Such responsibility means going beyond personal comfort and gain. It means seeking the good for all in society and caring for nature.

People charged with leadership (in government, business, education, church, family, etc.) are responsible to and for those whom they lead. Republican and Democratic politicians need training in this area; as do pastors and elders in the church. And responsibility is not only the charge of leaders, it is the calling of participants, as well.

2. Transcendence. Traditionally, transcendence is the term used to gather together the various attributes of the “otherness” of God, especially as that otherness invades and interrupts the normalcy of human life. Brueggemann, reflecting on the development of the wisdom tradition in Israel, offers a different perspective:

Transcendence is the recognition that there is a mystery in life that is not confined to our ignorance, incompetence, or abdication. There is mystery in our best knowledge, in our greatest skill, and in our most passionate concern. The wisdom teachers and their followers did not care form a ‘God who acts,’ but they did know and affirm that life has an order and direction which is larger than human effort and which is not knowable to us. Faith means coming to terms with that direction and order for the sake of those entrusted to us.

I wish Brueggemann had said more about transcendence, but maybe that is the key to understanding the wisdom tradition – there is always enough information to make a decision, even when the data is conflicting. The data most often overlooked or neglected is “the sake of those entrusted to us.”

Responsibility and transcendence are not opposites; instead they complement each other. Together they provide a definition of radical trust, which is the essence of wisdom.

In Man We Trust

I have begun re-reading Walter Brueggemann’s delightful little book on the wisdom tradition in Israel, In Man We Trust: the Neglected Side of Biblical Faith (John Knox Press, 1972). Brueggemann’s usual prescient insight into scripture is present as he describes the cultural shift that takes place during the United Monarchy under Kings David and Solomon.

The shift was from cultic religion to secularized society. The wisdom tradition that resulted relocated accountability and responsibility away from God and toward human beings in community.

The old traditions no longer made sense or fit as explanations for behaviors in the contemporary world. What to do in order to “get through to those who had ‘escaped the gods,’ and so avert the suicidal course of avarice and pride” on which course the nation seemed to have locked its auto-pilot? Abandon the old? Stick to and reinforce the old? No, those options were not chosen. Instead a “radical transformation of the old” was called for. “But Israel under Solomon was so busy that she could not listen in time.”

Brueggemann’s insights could be applied to our culture today. Our society, at large, has been telling us for years that the old traditions of Christianity in America are no longer working. Some of us have doggedly stuck with the old, reinforced their passion for the old, and told the rest of us that we are going to Hell because of our non-Christian beliefs. Others have simply abandoned the old traditions. They are the “NONEs” and the “DONEs.”

I happen to belong to a small group of Christians who are seeking within ourselves a radical transformation of the old. I am not ready to jettison Christianity or the church (although my lover’s quarrel with the church leads me to criticize it vociferously).

“Out of wisdom quite another approach to the gospel is possible. Jesus Christ may ne presented not simply as savior form sin, but also as fulfillment of the summons to Adam in Genesis.” Christianity faith understands that Yeshua opens the possibility of an intimate connection with God we serve, whose summons is experienced within, not from the outside. Furthermore, Yeshua defines what we mean when we talk about genuine human life — connection with God in and through service to others and nature. Why? Simply because human life floats on gratuity — theologically this simply means the the cosmos trusts human beings to be fully human. 

Is American society so busy with our own brand of arrogance and pride that we, much like Israelite society under Solomon, will not listen in time?