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Epistemology is a big word, and I try to avoid using it in conversation mostly because I don’t want to be “that guy.” But the word recurred, it returned and repeated, through my recent reading of the encyclical of Pope Francis, Lumen Fidei, on my Toronto Union-bound train. Craig Bartholomew defines epistemology as how you go about knowing something such that you trust the results of the knowing process. Lumen Fidei, the light of faith, is pregnant with Christian epistemology, with rejoinders that “unless you believe, you will not understand” and “self-knowledge is only possible when we share in a greater memory.”
Trust, and the faith which it reveals, is the first virtue of knowledge. But it’s also the first virtue of politics. Trust, wrote Francis Fukuyama famously, is the foundation of order, and not just political order, but economic and cultural order. After the financial collapse of 2008, it was pointedly faith and trust that were mostly badly shaken, first by the felt betrayal at the hands of trusted financial institutions, and then at the fallout as political bailouts without seeming consequence shook public confidence. After 2008, many of us lost a lot of money, but the most radical inflation, the most shocking devaluation, was surely in the currency of public trust.
It’s a deficit that needs attention, and it’s running into debt ceilings far more ominous than the ones on Capitol Hill. Chris Seiple calls the solution, or at least part of it, relational diplomacy. That may sound like a foreign policy approach, but the breach of trust at home may now have run us so deeply into the red that it’s like communicating across cultures. Relational diplomacy starts with talk, says Seiple, because without talk there can be no trust, and without trust there is no opportunity for change.
That, at least, is one of the reasons I nodded appreciatively while a flurry of outrage met Jeff Daniels' Emmy for his performance on The Newsroom. Yes, The Newsroom is reviled for its paternalism, it has a major women problem, and Aaron Sorkin’s smugness seems to know no bounds. But the show is also talk, masquerading as lecture maybe, but talk nonetheless that is badly absent and has the potential to spark trust.
Call it nostalgia, I call it trust, and we need a bunch more of it, better Newsrooms, more encyclicals, more good conversation. We’ve had enough of cynical deconstruction, of suspicion, and the fruits of its eternal return. Oliver O’Donovan writes that by elevating perpetual suspicion to the dignity of a philosophical principle, we have destroyed trust and made learning impossible. Pope Francis takes it one further: perpetual suspicion not only makes learning impossible, it makes knowledge impossible. Add to that Fukuyama’s thoughts on trust, and this suspicion makes politics, culture, and economics impossible too. No system can be designed and no politics can be sustained, no matter how talented or industrious, without this basic virtue. The irony of liberal democracies is that they are founded by virtues laws cannot make and funded by values markets cannot sell.
Therein lies the light of faith, the practice of relational diplomacy, trust, and slow politics. But none the less urgent for its slowness, Pope Francis caps it best:
There is an urgent need, then, to see once again that faith is a light, for once the flame of faith dies out, all other lights begin to dim. The light of faith is unique, since it is capable of illuminating every aspect of human existence. A light this powerful cannot come from ourselves but from a more primordial source: in a word, it must come from God.
- Robert Joustra is assistant professor of international studies at Redeemer University College and editorial fellow at The Review of Faith & International Affairs.