“Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?” He answered, “The one who treated him with mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
Luke 10: 36-7
One of the most discouraging aspects of political campaigns for an involved citizen is the meaninglessness of most promises that are made by the candidates in the course of their runs for office. While this recurrent situation makes for cynicism and discouragement, there is a core human dynamic that sources its inevitability. The last thing an electorate wants to hear from a candidate is an admission of ignorance by the candidate. One can only imagine the media frenzy which would surround an honest admission by a candidate of his or her limited knowledge and experience around any given issue, an appropriately tentativeness concerning his or her response to a difficult and complex situation. So cycle after cycle we are surprised and disillusioned when the complexities of a situation and the imposed limits of divided government make hollow most campaign promises.
In today’s gospel passage, the “legal expert” questions Jesus not as a sincere learner but rather in an attempt to “justify himself” (Luke 10: 29). He knows full well the legal answers to the questions he is asking. He knows, according to the law, what is required of him. What he doesn’t know is how he has constricted his heart and his humanity by his “knowingness.” The priest and and the Levite in the story behave fully in accord with what they know. The Samaritan allows himself to be moved and to respond from the demands of love as they present themselves to his heart in a situation for which his previous knowledge and experience cannot have prepared him. As Blaise Pascal famously put it, “The heart has its reasons that reason knows nothing of.” The subtext of the parable is Jesus’ admonition to the “scholar of the law” to beware of limiting his life by what he thinks he knows.
This is the same warning that Jesus gives to us. Most often our ways of relating to each other and to the world are the product of our life experience and formation. We begin to learn very young how to judge others and how it is that all other persons are to fit into our worlds. In the well known musical Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye describes the role of tradition in the life of his village: “Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do.” Human beings could not live without tradition. No life is long enough to learn anew the meaning and direction of human life. Yet, we, our world, and God are always far more than what our own experience and even our traditions can tell us. As Tevye comes to experience as his life unfolds, he does not fully know either “who he is” or “what God expects him to do.”
Many years ago as a graduate student, I wrote a personal reflection paper on a text that had been assigned. Having a fair amount of theological training as an undergraduate, I was pretty self-satisfied with the assignment I had completed. I was thus a bit shocked when I received a grade lower than I had anticipated. Along with the grade, the teacher had written a brief comment which at the time was quite mysterious to me. It simply read: “Be more opaque.” I found myself more than a bit confounded. I had been trained to be clear, precise, and focused in my thinking and writing. Now, I was being told to relate to myself with greater opacity, with a greater awareness of not knowing and understanding myself.
In every aspect of our relationships with each other, we suffer from our illusion of knowingness. We take for granted that we know others, individually and as groups, who are really total strangers to us. We do this because, as for Tevye, it is too disturbing not to know. The illusion begins with the mistaken notion that we know ourselves. We spend our lives denying and avoiding those corners of our own lives that are painful, ambiguous, and inscrutable to us. We live a rather hostile relationship to our own mystery. It is easier to adopt as adequate the definition of self, and of other, that is bestowed on us by the socio-historical experience into which we are born. The priest and the Levite in the parable respond to the man who had been robbed and beaten in light of the certainties they have about who they are and who he is. The Good Samaritan, on the other hand, recognizes in the suffering man their common humanity. He experiences that beyond any personal or societal definitions that he and the man are neighbors.
This day may we be more neighborly with our own inscrutability and foreignness. Thus, may we begin to unlearn our fear of what is not clear, concise, and focused in us. In this way, the inconsistencies and strangeness of the other may become not only more bearable to us, but even more lovable. We can come to see that we are neighbors, not principally in what we know of each other but even in what we can never know.
We have no choice but to resign ourselves to a radical “unknowingness” about key aspects of our own formation. This, in turn, complicates the issue of ethical accountability, for how can we give an account of our actions when we cannot fully account even for our own being?
Butler’s solution to the dilemma is to argue that our opacity to ourselves represents an ethical opening in the sense that it makes us more tolerant of the opacity of others. The fact that we can never give a satisfactory account of ourselves renders us forgiving about the inability of others to generate seamless self-narratives. Butler therefore advocates an ethics of generosity that is based “on our shared, invariable, and partial blindness about ourselves.” Our recognition that we routinely deviate from the story we tell about ourselves allows us to relinquish the mandate that others “be self-same at every moment.” As Butler sums up the matter, “Suspending the demand for self-identity or for complete coherence seems to me to counter a certain ethical violence, which demands that we manifest and maintain self-identity at all times and require that others do the same.” More specifically, our willingness to accept the inconsistency of both ourselves and others gives rise to an attitude of interpersonal humility that seeks to sustain a dialogue even when there seems to be no common ground–even when we cannot even begin to understand where the other is coming from. Because we know that the other may not entirely comprehend his or her own impulses, we persist in our attempts to communicate even in the absence of clarity.
Mari Ruti, The Summons of Love, pp. 160-1