Who should we listen to?

People looking at their cell phones - Photo by camilo jimenez on Unsplash

By Ephraim Radner

Mar 09, 2020

Who should you listen to?  Who do you trust to learn something from?  These are important questions for students, obviously. But they are important for everyone in a society like ours that is torn between hyper-criticism and the gullible consumption of what we now call “fake news.”  We are taught to mistrust teachers and experts because most of their views are driven by self-serving bias; yet we gravitate to a plethora of (mostly internet) claims about all kinds of goods and ills – medical, psychological, social, political – that have very little proven basis behind them. The sum of it is that we end up listening to those who already think as we do, or who stoke our unconscious proclivities and passions.

Our supposedly critical society, then, is also one of the most self-deceived. Self-deception is, of course, not just a great issue for our times, it has always been a fundamental challenge to the truth. The late philosopher Herbert Fingarette wrote a wonderful book on self-deception that focused on our responsibilities to avoid it, responsibilities that finally centre on our wills and the things that entice them to avoid our duties on this score. Fingarette explained self-deception’s antidote in terms of continually “spelling out” why we believe this or that, and seeing if it makes any sense in the light of other people’s judgments. If you can’t or don’t want to spell things out in this way, you are willfully deceiving yourself.

A problem

But there’s a problem here: we all need help in just this task. It’s not something that comes easily; in fact, it is something that is learned, and someone needs to teach us. So: who should we listen to? Who do you trust to learn something from – learn so that you do not live your life as the pawn of your self-deceiving will?

The question is especially acute for Christians, in matters of faith. The “Gospel,” after all, is “good news.”  As with any “news,” it is as good as those who bring it. And “testimony” has always been central to the Christian faith – prophets, apostles, evangelists. Why listen? St. Paul often appeals to a “tradition” that he has received from others (e.g. 1 Corinthians 15: 1, 3). Should we trust it? Why believe another person’s testimony? Why trust someone else’s reading of the Scriptures (let alone your own)?  “Trustworthiness” is a central issue here. And nowadays – perhaps always – we are prone to say that “trust is earned.” What do we mean by that? 

Going back to ground zero

There is a recent school of philosophy known as “conciliationism,” that deals with the question of how we know something. Conciliationists make the bold claim that, if faced with someone we disagree with who is as smart as we are, knows as much as we do and so on, we should suspend all our own beliefs on the matter in disagreement, and take the other person’s beliefs with equal seriousness. In a way, we should go back to ground zero in our reasoning. This holds for simple things like calculating a tip with a friend at the restaurant, all the way to belief in Jesus. If I disagree with my friend about the tip but know her to be as smart as I, I have no reason to believe that my own calculations are in fact better than hers. And so with matters of theology. The name conciliationists give to that other person, just as smart and knowledgeable as I, is my “epistemic peer” – my “peer in knowing.” Conciliationists tell us that all our beliefs should be held in suspension in the face of contrary beliefs held by our epistemic peers; we should “trust” them as much as we trust ourselves.

The idea here is not far-fetched. Unfortunately, epistemic peers are hard to define, let alone find, as we move into areas of value and ultimate truth. No one shares our experiences exactly; not even closely. Consider what we “know”: a sense of empathy; the sting of sorrow; the depth and tone of yearning; the long hours with a crying child; a career working with prison inmates; hours of rehearsals for singing the Fauré Requiem. How do we find a “peer” for knowledge of the soul or of the human heart, of the good, the beautiful, and the true? Even our friend calculating the tip at the restaurant is someone we have come to know only over time, to see in action, so as to gauge their numerical quickness. And until such trust is earned, as peer or superior, we are left to our own devices, searching for the trustworthy person who is beyond our ken.

What basis for trustworthiness?

Societies often provide certifications to ease such trust: degrees, teaching credentials, diplomas in mechanics, a published CV. But in our critical culture, these are questioned in any case. Having a doctorate in some subject is often viewed as a recipe for narrowness and distorted self-confidence, rather than true knowledge. Some organizations, especially churches, seek to discern a person’s “character” as the basis for trustworthiness. But character turns out to be hard to discern in any stable way; it is often hidden and takes time to emerge or to prove itself; and, too, it often disappoints. The church, again, has seen this over and over. It is best when certification and character come together somehow in a person, in a way that experience can demonstrate over the long haul. Often, we call this “wisdom,” and such a person “wise.” If we are to trust anyone, it is just such persons. Who should we listen to? Not experts, not peers; but the wise. Those who “spell things out” in a way that dissolves our self-deceptions, puts our own beliefs into the light and opens us to truth.

Whether or not wisdom comes only with age – it probably does – it is certainly the case that discerning wise persons thus takes time, from the side of those who seek them. Since we no longer trust institutions to guarantee the discovery for us, simple school settings rarely put us on the doorsteps of the wise. Tools like Rate-My-Professor are useless: after all, you have to be able to trust reviewers and Twitter and Facebook writers, which you cannot and should not! Instead, networks of relations in a given space of lived encounter are necessary to inform one about who is wise and who is not. Learning from the trustworthy requires having learned to trust in the first place; and this we do with friends, peers, and mentors in a way that grows over time. No one can find a wise person on his or her own!  Even epistemic peers are given to us only through the thick experience of interaction with others. While individuals can be wise, wisdom is discerned only communally. But we are always growing in this, nonetheless; there is no single moment of perfectly achieved trust and ideal learning. Rather, there is only deepening trust (and with it times of disappointment) and better learning.

Finding the wise person

All this points to how we can find the wise person from whom to learn. First, it requires extended engagement with others, and finally with the individual who we rightly come to trust. Brief encounters, an internet profile, even an introduction from a mutual friend is hardly enough. It is only in the course of talking with, observing, sitting in silence alongside, sharing a meal, pressing through a problem or a conflict that one can find enough openings to knowledge and to character to supply a sense of wisdom or its lack. “Rabbi, where do you live?” (John 1:38). In a way, this means that living persons are to be trusted more than the dead, whose complex lives are now obscured. To be sure, much of the wisdom we rely on – that we properly learn from – comes from books. But in this case, we need to hear and see how authors have been used by others, how their words have had this or that effect or meant and touched in particular ways across generations and groups. “Wisdom is justified by all her children” (Luke 7:35), Jesus says. The wisdom of the past leaves us with just such justifications, and that of the present requires a careful sifting of its fruit.

Second, all this takes time. Indeed, one must spend time with someone to learn if they are worth learning from. We often forget this in our driven thirst for direction and hope, latching on to this or that piece of advice or person of charisma only to let it go again when it disappoints, in search of something new. Wise persons are patient; but those who search for them must be patient also, sticking around with another, paying attention, trying on, waiting to see what comes next. When Peter says to Jesus, “Lo, we have left everything and followed you!” (Mark 10:28), he is describing a period of perhaps a year or two or more. The notion that we can judge a person’s trustworthiness, even negatively, on the basis of a single meeting, or of a single class or of a single book is generally foolish. This, of course, means that we are limited in our search for wisdom; just as we cannot test every spirit, we cannot discern the wisdom of every teacher. We are patient, and we are also modest.  

Still, there are criteria of wisdom to which we can aim to be especially sensitive. We engage people, we take the time to do so, but, thirdly, we also probe the depth of their knowledge, experience and interest. “Depth” is a rather broad term, I realize. But it indicates what is most important to us, and, as far as we know, what is most important to the world: does this person go that far? Do they know suffering? Do they know joy? Do they know hope or hope’s frustration? There is a certain circularity at work here: we seek to learn from a wise person just what is “most important,” yet we must have a sense of this already in order to intuit their wisdom! Yes, but only a sense – not its fullness, its contours and corners, its true form. Indeed, we want to go beyond our preconceived answers on such matters when we seek the wisdom of the wise: we know that “joy” – or hope or suffering -- is important, but we do not really know what constitutes it. That is enough. But we must hold our mentors accountable at least to this. For if they cannot speak to what goes deep within us, how shall we ever trust them? “How do you know me?”, Nathaniel asks Jesus, astonished at his penetration (John 1:48).

A kind of symmetry

There is a kind of symmetry between those who search for wisdom and those who are wise themselves. This is the last element I would underline. Both the seeker and the sage must give of themselves; both must be patient; both must venture into the deep things of God and creatures alike. And, especially, both must be humble. The “humility that comes from wisdom,” as James puts it (3:13), is central to both learner and teacher. And part of this humility is tied to teachers being learners themselves, and seeking wisdom just as those who do not yet hold it in their hands. Wisdom taken as a whole is, in Scriptural terms, a vocation of its own, something to be pursued at all times, by young and old. “The wise may hear and increase in learning”; “give instruction to the wise and they are wiser still” (Proverbs 1: 5; 9: 8). The wise person stands in the same place as everyone else in this regard, and books like Proverbs often equate knowledge itself with humble learning. That “the student is not above the teacher, nor a servant above his master” (Matthew 10:24, NIV), is not only a common claim but, in Christian terms it is the very path of wisdom in light of the one true Word who “became like” his students “in every respect” (Hebrews 2:17). Trust those who have come to trust you with the same care and eager hope.

Who should we listen to? Let us slow down in our search; take time to engage with others and their thoughts; go deep, and pay attention to those who themselves are still attentive. Who should we listen to? Perhaps not as many as we do, nor as quickly, nor as superficially, nor as recklessly. But they are there, if we are but diligent in our responsibility to find them.