Thursday, December 27, 2007

On Constant Conjunction and Trust

I was driving to work today (sometimes the most vivid insights come in the most commonplace of tasks) and I was struck most vividly with this thought - there is a staggering difference between what David Hume called "constant conjuction" and what God calls trust.

David Hume is the great Scottish naturalist philosopher who, by some accounts, undermined the whole foundation for a rational belief in the supernatural. Hume argued, quite persuasively, that there is nothing that actually holds the world together; for Him God was irrelevant and unnecessary. He colorfully recounts how there is no "reason" why the sun must rise tomorrow, we only assume it does because it has every other day of ours and others existence. The sentiment of the reliability of natures gives man a sense of security by which he can conduct the normal affairs of life, and without which he would most certainly plunge into utter despair. Man needs this sentiment and yet this sentiment is not based on reason. If man were to encounter the cosmos as Hume saw it, it would be a cosmos that furnished no hope for him of progress, growth, development, success. Those things may or may not happen, but there is no reason that they must. In this view reality is utterly out of the grasp of man's control, a control he so desperately needs so as to maintain a positive and healthy outlook on life. The sequencing of life in a manner that creates this situation Hume called "constant conjuction." If there is no rational, or Divine Mind to hold all things together, or if that Mind is hostile to man, then all man has is constant conjunction and its daughter sentiment, security.

It struck me that, because of constant conjuction, I do not need trust. The apparent constancy of life furnishes me with sufficient emotional gusto to believe that I can make life work on my own terms. But then thoughts come to me, "what if tragedy were to strike, and you were to lose your wife, son, or another close relation?" There is nothing I can do about that, and that thought then begins to plunge me deep into the reality of how out of reach it is to control my life. There is no reason why tragedy should not strike me; I work in a place where tragedy is part and parcel of the lives I work with, tragedy is no respecter of persons (rich/poor, strong/weak, wise/foolish). Yet, in my case, I trust in the constancy of life for my own personal well-being. But secretly in my heart I know how tenuous this position is, and I am afraid to confront a reality that I cannot control, and that no mere sentiment of mine will stand up to the overwhelming force of my true position. This position of mine, though happy in this moment, is based almost entirely on the security I have derived from the predictability of life. The sun rose yesterday, it will rise tomorrow. I rose with my wife this morning, I will rise with her tomorrow. But will I? Is there some metaphysical reason why I must?

So I peer into this dark reality and wonder is there hope? Is it as Hume says, simply constant conjunction? How would I rise in the morning if I knew this were to be true, and if that were all?

The whole of my life I have cultivated this trust in the constancy of life, it is the habit of my heart. That is partially why tragedy is so frightening, because it opens me deeply to the overwhelming insecurity that resides at my core. There is nothing secure about my life here. You name the reality, and I will name why it is not secure. But who can live with such fear, a fear that would strip a man of all his powers and cause him to curl in the corner like a fetus exposed to the elements?

I think the existentialists called this concept "dread."

Some would tell me to trust God. I hear that, but so often as a platitude, a mere defense from feeling this truth. It doesn't help me to think of it in the way I know many think of it. There is no reason in me that compels God to maintain the constancy that now marks my life. No goodness in me, no intelligence, no wisdom, no dignity that would force his hand. God gives, and God takes away. So don't give me the platitude "just trust God." I cannot trust him for that.

I think this is why many cannot trust God, will not trust God. Because of the double-edged sword of constant conjuction and in their view an unreliable God. It is easier to trust that life will continue to go as it has, and so we resist and defend against pain and tragedy because this only takes us deeper into dread. It's easier to write God off us untrustworthy, because, all know that they cannot trust God to act on their behalf for some reason in themselves. The self-righteous may have this thought, that God is obligated somehow to me, but is only a thin defense from feeling the truth in their hearts... that God is in no way obligated.

So trust resides in the constancy of circumstances. That is why the wealthy always appear happier, their circumstances appear secure. The more "secure" a persons circumstances the happier they will be. But even the most "secure" is radically insecure.

What then can you trust God to do, if he will not act on the behalf of your temporal happiness?

1 comment:

anjuli paschall said...

i miss you so much right now.