One of my favorite novels is Candide by Voltaire. It’s the story of a likeable, but hapless, young man whose life is tossed around erratically by random events in the world. Even in the midst of terrible tragedy he maintains a positive attitude by assuming that the worst possible occurrences in life are direct expressions of God’s will. The story is funny and tragic at the same time because of Candide’s naive trust in everyone he meets. More often than not, his trust is betrayed, making him both endearing and pathetic.
Trust is a fragile thing. It’s easily broken, and difficult to restore once lost. It’s also a necessity of life. Without trust in others we are disconnected from society and from our own social nature. This Sunday’s Gospel reading demonstrates the absolute necessity of preserving and nurturing trust.
In this Sunday’s Gospel Jesus takes three of his disciples up a mountain where his appearance is transformed. The three disciples had a vision of Jesus speaking with Moses and Elijah. (Matthew 17:1-4) Then, they heard God’s voice speaking, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” (Matthew 17:5) Ecstatic experiences, such as this one, are common in the Scriptures. This sort of experience was not routine, but was commonly accepted as valid religious experience.
As they came down from the mountain Jesus told the three disciples, “Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” (Matthew 17:9) The warning was necessary because the disciples would have been eager to tell the others about the vision, and the others would have found it believable. In the past, God communicated with people in this fashion because visions were considered trustworthy.
Today, visions of departed saints and locutions from God would be considered less than trustworthy by most people. Most people today place more trust in science and technology than they do in the kind of religious experience that is common in the Scriptures. Thomas Jefferson, for example, used a straight razor to cut out all such passages from his personal Bible. He distrusted miracles and visions, and was interested only in the practical wisdom that the Bible offered about daily life.
In light of the fact that western culture is quite different from Jesus’ culture, we should look to the things that we trust as likely places to hear God’s voice. Science is limited in what it can say about spiritual matters, but the limited nature of scientific knowledge is, itself, a statement about humanity’s desire for the infinite. Our form of government is as historically conditioned as any form of government, but the order brought to a society by democratic principles and the rule of law can be an instructive parable about a well-ordered life. One of the hallmarks of our society is the high value we put on relationships. Our attention to relationships can be very helpful in understanding the Scriptural idea of covenant and the value of a faith relationship with God.
All of these above are aspects of contemporary society in which we place trust and, as a consequence, all of these are the kind of experiences in which we should expect to hear God’s voice. Unfortunately, I don’t see evidence that it happens. When I read the newspaper or watch the evening news I see a great deal of evidence that few people place value on the lifelong project of learning and pursuing God’s will. It also appears that not only do few people trust God, few people appear to trust their fellow citizens. As individuals, and as a society, it appears that we are becoming less trusting as time goes on. This is truly unfortunate.
I can understand why people are slow to trust one another today. There are scams and fraudulent activities that occur routinely. Anyone can be a victim of crime. It might sound sensible to take refuge in distrust, to be wary of everyone around you. This might be the “safe” way to pass through life, but a life of faith requires more effort than that. It would be self-destructive to trust everyone, but it is just as self-destructive to trust no one.
Candide ends with the central characters having survived privation and danger. They cease their travels, and settle down to a simple life of farming. To outward appearances, they lost their former social status, and they lost a sense of adventure from their lives. It almost looks as if they settled for less than they deserved. Appearances, of course, can be deceiving. Candide’s naive trust remained intact. He was older and wiser, but still the same person. He turned his naive trust into a productive life as a farmer. He didn’t really lose anything; rather, he gained a steady homelife and a productive career.
To trust our neighbor, our society and our God requires a great deal of risk. Obviously, sometimes our trust in neighbor is misplaced. I don’t think, however, that misplaced trust is ever wasted. At the very least, taking the risk of trusting makes us more human and more personally trustworthy. It also makes us more able to trust God and more able to be an example of faith to others.
Our witness of faith is not only difficult to believe if we do not lead trusting and trustworthy lives; it is completely absent. Trust is not easy; it requires great risk and great effort. God comes to us in ways that we can trust in order that we might lead lives that are trusting and trustworthy; God’s grace is ineffective in us until we make the effort required by faith in God and one another.