“Trust is Religion” by Mark W. Harris
September 14, 2014 – First Parish of Watertown
Call to Worship – from Thomas Merton, No Man is An Island
“The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image. If in loving them we do not love what they are, but only their potential likeness to ourselves, then we do not love them: we only love the reflection of ourselves we find in them.”
Reading – from J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
“Course Dumbledore trusts you,” growled Moody. “He’s a trusting man, isn’t he? Believes in second chances. But me — I say there are spots that don’t come off, Snape. Spots that never come off, d’you know what I mean?”
It was 1962, and I was laying in front of the television with my black Lab next to me, and the jingle that has forever been imprinted on my memory bank began: “You can trust your car to the man who wears the star, the big bright Texaco star.” Do I think of it when my car needs a repair? The assumption with this song was that you would feel trust going to the Texaco service station for all your oil changes and tune-ups. They wanted you to believe that the honest looking man with the star on his chest would take good care of you and you would never have to worry. After all, a star meant a good job, didn’t it? Wasn’t that what the teachers placed on our best papers? My father owned a service station when I was little, but he moved on to a retail fuel oil business, which is just as well. He was adept at running a business, but not so talented at repairing vehicles. He was not the kind of guy who changed his own oil. And neither am I. This means that when I need to have my cars repaired I have to put my trust in a local mechanic. Over the years I have felt like auto dealers and mechanics vary greatly in their ability to maintain automobiles. I have often gone back for service to the dealer from whence I purchased the car, thinking they must know their cars best. But the Honda dealer didn’t seem to care if I bought the car there or not, and the Chevrolet dealer never called me back even when I was anxious to buy a car. Some people swear by their local mechanic. You know the little guy with the grease stained overalls, and the gruff manner. I once had an oil change where I got the five quarts of fresh oil, but somehow he forgot to put the new filter back on. And not long ago a local auto shop was supposed to fix my brakes, but the grinding noise was unbearable, and the trip down mountain like Palfrey Street was an adventure I will never forget. Guess what? I don’t trust car repair shops very much. But I need someone to take care of them, so I keep looking for someone to trust.
Trust is always an issue with businesses we frequent, institutions we belong to and in our personal relationships, too. We trust those we can count on. We am trying to teach our teenage sons to be responsible and forthright, and not lazy and sneaky. We believe they need to tell the truth, and be respectful of others, so that we can count on them. With businesses, we trust those who have given us good service in the past or are reliable and dependable. We want them to give us a fair deal and sell us reliable products. But what happens when this trust is violated? All of us have certain businesses or institutions we are leery of or have stopped using because of negative experiences of apparent poor workmanship, dishonesty, or an inability to communicate which leads to misunderstanding. For me it happens to be car dealers and mechanics more than anything, but dentists rank right up there, too. Each of us can think of different experiences we have had where trust was violated. From the expectation that we are buying fresh fruit, only to find the strawberries on the bottom are rotten, to the dentist who says I think this procedure is the best one, but then it fails, and costs you thousands of dollars, and you have no recourse. Trust means you have had good experiences and like the service or interest they show in you as a customer or person. I know you have probably heard more about Arthur T. and Market Basket than you ever wanted to. But there does seem to be a remarkable level of trust between ownership and employees and customers than you normally encounter in our capitalist society. With Market Basket everyone rebelled, employees and customers alike, until they got back the Arthur they trusted.
The issue with trusting others, whether business or personal, is almost always based on prior experiences. Some of us have a hard time trusting anyone because of what has happened to us in the past. If we have experiences of people betraying us, or lying to us, we often fear the new relationship will be more of the same. As a result we think the more we care about someone, the more likely it is that they will desert us either physically or emotionally. We believe, “this is what happens to me.” If you believe in marital fidelity, and your spouse violates the trust you have placed in him or her, you may always be suspicious of them. You lose faith in a shared value, and instead keep asking that they prove themselves to you in some way. Perhaps it takes time or changes in the relationship you have. Where did the trust you thought you experienced go? Or did you even have it in the first place? Do you still express your values and expectations to each other? When marriage vows are violated, the person who violates the trust, not only hurts the other person, they hurt the institution of marriage. This is true of public institutions, too. While everyone jumps to extol the virtues of firefighters, we also see in the paper how the city of Boston has had to crack down on their rampant misuse of sick time, and job swapping. If we are going to place our trust in an institution, then we need to know its members are not only concerned with personal gain, but primarily with faithful public service.
Past experiences lead us to believe that if a relationship fails, a new relationship will end the same way. If a job does not work out, we begin to question ourselves, and not only fail to trust a new employer, we even wonder if we can trust ourselves with what we thought were outstanding skills and good judgment. If it happens more than once, we begin to think maybe it’s me. Now you might think that Unitarian Universalists tend to be trusting people. After all, our basic principles assert the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and we seem to assume that each person should have the freedom to make good individual choices about matters of faith without coercive commandments about right and wrong. We assume people will be honest and forthright, hard working and responsible. But then we discover that we are just as perplexed or confused about who or what to trust as the next person. Take for example these little electronic devices that lock and unlock our cars. Just last year our neighbor bought a new car, and the alarm kept sounding at all hours. He must have had a dealer he couldn’t trust to fix it. Of course no one trusts these alarms anyway. Have you ever seen a person react when they go off? I am somewhat selective about when I lock doors. I don’t lock my car at night or at church, but if I go to the mall I do. Am I able to trust more in some places than others? Statistics might bear me out, but I am more likely to trust in places where there may be fewer strangers and I feel safer.
For centuries Christians and people of faith have searched for proofs or direct evidence of the beliefs they have adopted in response to the trust they feel for God. In the fundamentalist Christian church I grew up in we used to sing, “trust and obey, for there is no other way, to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.” Now obey, is a four-letter word for Unitarian Universalists in more than just its spelling, but trust implies willingness to believe. The classic passage of scripture that shows the human need to have proofs for a leap of trust is about doubting Thomas. Jesus, as you may remember in the story, had died on the cross. The other disciples say that he still lives, but Thomas tells them you’re seeing what you want to see. You’re making it up. Suddenly Jesus appears, and invites Thomas to touch his wounds. Thomas, the pessimist, becomes a believer as a result of this post resurrection experience. Our Universalist ancestors practiced their own kind of desire for proofs in the nineteenth century after placing their trust in the belief that everyone would be saved as a result of God’s love. They said a loving parent would never condemn a human being to hell. The proof they found for their faith was in the spiritualist movement. When mediums called forth the spirits of those who had died to come speak to the living, some Universalists said this was all the proof they needed to show that everyone would be saved. But the trust was based on false premises. There were hoaxes – table rappers and floor knockers – even more surely than there were spirits. Do we really believe appearances affirm eternal questions?
Earlier I implied that Unitarian Universalists tend to trust individuals because they reject the idea that people are born sinful and instead they affirm that people have the ability to be trustworthy, responsible and caring towards others. At the heart of this belief is faith in the freedom of the individual. Yet while we have implicit trust in the individual that does not always translate so well when it comes to the formation of institutions that are made up of people who are radical believers in individual freedom. They are less inclined to affirm community standards because they are so focused on whether the individual gets what he or she wants. Thus we may fail to have trust for people within the context of institutions.
In recent months my seminary, the Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, California, has undergone a terrible loss of trust. Last year, their president retired, and a search committee was charged with choosing a new president. The Committee conducted some of its deliberations in confidence, as is necessary in any search process, but also gave sufficient updates to interested stakeholders like alumni and students. Finally a new candidate was chosen as a result of a fair search process. Unfortunately, all hell then broke loose. Starr King has a history of radical democratic governance, where some people seem to believe that every single person who is part of the community should have every bit of information about everything that goes on. Some students who were unhappy with the choice of the new president decided to release confidential information about the candidates, some of it rather unflattering to a wide array of denominational officials. The students were unhappy that the candidate they wanted, a Starr King professor, did not get chosen, and so decided that they would subvert everything because they did not get their way. They could not trust an agreed upon process, and thus violated the trust to try to achieve the result they wanted.
So the growing edge for many religious liberals is to learn to trust institutions and the authority we impart to them to carry out our wider visions of creating loving and justice seeking communities. As reported in the most recent UU World, the board president of Starr King stated, “there is a longstanding atmosphere of mistrust at the school . . . due to a system that did not have clear enough boundaries and structures of accountability.” There are good lessons here for any UU institution, including First Parish. Individuals tend to fear authority or are unwilling to grant their leaders any authority, and project onto the minister or others, this fear of someone controlling them or everything that goes on, and then often act out against it. And so Unitarian Universalist institutions cannot just be about processing what everybody has to say over and over again, and allowing authority to rear its head from whoever speaks the loudest. This is what happened at Starr King. We can never trust ourselves institutionally if we allow individuals to derail clearly defined processes, or make false accusations merely because our top priority to grant them the freedom to do so. This produces chaos, and we never trust anyone with authority, nor do we entrust our leaders to actually lead and make decisions. We also betray the trust of the ones who are following the prescribed process, and thus fail to take responsibility for stopping those who are destroying the fabric of trust.
In this day and age, it is hard to know who and when to trust. We hear about rampant instances of identity theft. How do you trust what people say? How do we get truth and, not just the appearance of truth? I suppose that is what those Universalists from the 1800’s desired so fervently. We long to believe so much we are susceptible to shams. We have to cope with the idea that what we see and say cannot always be trusted.
The character Severus Snape from the Harry Potter series addresses the notion of going deeper than appearances. Throughout the books, Snape often comes across as cold, sarcastic and antagonistic, especially towards Harry. As the stories unfold, we see he is a complex figure, who is not the mean-spirited villain we may have suspected he was. By the end of the series we see Snape’s true loyalties. In fact he does not serve evil Lord Voldemort, but is a double agent who is always loyal to Hogwarts and its headmaster. Dumbledore often tells Harry that Snape is trustworthy and his true loyalties can be relied upon. Ultimately Snape dies at the hands of Voldemort. And Harry later tells his own son that Snape is the bravest man he ever knew. In the reading we hear Moody speaking to Snape, “Course Dumbledore trusts you. . . “He’s a trusting man, isn’t he? Believes in second chances. But me — I say there are spots that don’t come off, Snape.” The spot Moody refers to is a spot on Snape’s arm that proves he was once a death eater. Snape has shown it to Moody to verify this second chance he has received, but the large question is why does Professor Dumbledore trust Snape so much? Snape suffers suspicions and accusations such as those implied by Moody, but he is the one who preserves the institution, and helps good to overcome evil in the end.
Snape has a relationship to something larger than himself. He struggles to preserve Hogwarts and its institutional health and vitality. It is not about his personal gain, and in fact, his actions and appearance prove a risk to his reputation, but he always works for is the affirmation and authority of the greater good. Harry Emerson Fosdick, the renowned minister of Riverside Church in the 20th century, once wrote, “While belief is theology, trust is religion.” To create and preserve a religious community together, we must learn to trust one another. What we believe matters less. We have always done a wonderful job of trusting the individual to be free and to express themselves, but have been less effective in trusting the relationships that are needed for powerful, change making institutions. We not only need to encourage people to fulfill their own spiritual needs, but must find more creative ways to build spiritual community together. For us, faith must consist of trust not beliefs. Trust means we can create something more powerful together through our relationships, and our devotion to a larger cause than the self.
Over the course of our lives, we all make poor choices from time to time. We are flawed like Snape with death-eater marks. But a deeper trust means we give each other second chances, and the lack of trust that exists in places and institutions we know can change. It can change starting with us, by respecting and following good boundaries and building effective power structures where we are not afraid of trusting our leaders. Over the course of my career I have served five churches. In each case, I hope the members realized that I only wanted to advance the cause of liberal religion and to nurture an effective institution where people cared about each other, and envisioned what they could do together. We can change the world! But we can’t do that without giving power to others; to let the institution move and grow and change. It can be scary. Sometimes hearts do get broken. But we can heal each other, too. To know love, to know community, to know the growth of the spirit, we must take the chance and trust each other, or else we will not give power to anyone, and the institution we love will wither and die. To grow we must trust life – not merely the life that is nurtured in me, but the life that must be nurtured between us.
Closing Words – from Martha Nussbaum
“To be a good human being is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control, that can lead you to be shattered in very extreme circumstances for which you were not to blame. That says something very important about the condition of the ethical life: that it is based on a trust in the uncertain and on a willingness to be exposed; it’s based on being more like a plant than like a jewel, something rather fragile, but whose very particular beauty is inseparable from that fragility.”