Saturday, January 21, 2017


299. Loyalty and mutual responsibility with and without God

Here is what I learned from consultation with a PhD scholar Jan Jorrit Hasselaar. He is engaged in a PhD thesis connecting insights from theology and economics with ways of thinking about environmental issues. In particular, he finds inspiration from the work of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, which he combines with ideas from my 2002 book on trust.

Sacks and I both study relationships with bonds of loyalty and mutual responsibility, and we share the following views.

First, the pragmatic view that truth arises from practice, from being lived. You develop ideas by engaging in the world.

Second, a shift away from the universalism of much Western philosophy (in Plato, and Kant, for example) towards a recognition, indeed celebration, of particularity, individuality. Sacks used the felicitous phrase ‘the dignity of difference’.

Third, acceptance of radical uncertainty in relationships. Precisely defined (my definition, not one of Sacks): we do not know all that could happen (events, actions, threats, opportunities, consequences), so that we cannot attach probabilities and calculate risks (as economists insist on doing). You don’t even know in advance how people and indeed yourself will respond to events and each other. Another good phrase from Sacks is that this radical uncertainty is constitutive. From it, dealing with it, we develop, constitute our identity.

Fourth, as a result of this uncertainty one needs faith, courage and hope. Faith in the positive potential of a relationship, hope that it will indeed be realised, and courage to engage in it. Trust requires a ‘leap of faith’. Here, hope is not hope for the realization of some specific outcome that one has in advance. That would not leave room for the surprises, positive and negative, that radical uncertainty yield. Here, surprise is welcome, with the hope that it will be positive.

But what is the basis or source of that? Isn’t it merely wishful thinking? An act of desperation? Here, Sacks and I seem to diverge radically. For Sacks, we need the grace of God for faith and hope. For me, we can do without. As discussed in several places in this blog, here I am inspired more by Levinas. My reasoning is as follows.

Institutions support trust, with the security offered by rule of law. That provides the platform for the leap of faith. Classical virtues of reason, moderation, and justice also support it, and need to be taught in education.

But that is not enough. The crux is this. If indeed relations with others, with their radical uncertainty, are constitutive, needed to form our identity, then not taking the leap of faith, hope and courage would mean spurning the development of identity, of being in the world. One would squander the opportunity of life, leave fallow the grounds of being.

Now, some people might say that there is no fundamental difference between the God of Sacks and my godlessness. That depends, of course, on what one means by ‘God’.

I think Sacks does not see God as some entity beyond the world, as its creator, or ‘first mover’. Not God as the totality of nature, as with Spinoza. Not a providential God, perhaps.

He does not constrain or guide the free will of people. He does seem to intervene in the world, but only obliquely, so to speak, or implicitly, through people not on people. Perhaps, as Jan Jorrit Hasselaar suggests, for Sacks God is only implicit, living in relationships and in the perspective of loyalty and mutual responsibility. In that case the difference with my perspective is indeed small. But I still not see the added merit of calling that ‘God’, which I see as a source of misunderstanding, given the many meanings of it.