The Vulnerability Problem

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The Vulnerability Problem

By | 2017-09-15T15:09:42+00:00 June 30, 2014|Culture, Philosophy|

“Never be friends with the English!” Despite his own maxim, Dr. Aziz, the main character in E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, can’t help but be friends with the English. Aziz moves through a cycle in the story. He opens himself up to and becomes friends with Dr. Fielding, falls out of friendship with him, and then in the end reunites with his old friend. The reason Aziz breaks their compact is that he suspects Fielding betrayed him. This belief hardens Aziz. It shuts him off to friendship with the English in general, who were occupying his country. He had opened himself up to Fielding by sharing about his personal life, his hopes and fears, his joys and tragedies. He trusted. But upon not finding this trust reciprocated (or so he thinks), he cuts the friendship off.

When we trust the attestation of others as reason for our own beliefs, we open ourselves up to the possibility that the one who attests might be wrong, whether intentionally or not. If their report is erroneous, then our belief, which is based on their report, will be erroneous as well. In the field of epistemology (the study of human knowledge) this is referred to as the vulnerability problem. When we attribute authority to a testifier we leave ourselves vulnerable to error. This is a problem because no one wants to be wrong. I suppose it would be best if we were never vulnerable to error – but is vulnerability something we can ultimately avoid? As social beings we are ordered to communication. Since we testify to others and receive testimony everyday, aren’t we almost always risking some degree of vulnerability? And are there advantages to hazarding this “problem”?

Testimony as a source of knowledge leaves us vulnerable to error, so if it can be a reliable source of true belief – and experience shows that it can – it demands analysis on when, why, and how this is the case. But I think we can also apply this “problem” to other areas of life. Take the friendship between Aziz and Fielding described above. In venturing a friendship, each member of the party became vulnerable to the other on an emotional and personal level. And in entering into this friendship Aziz found joy at first: “But they were friends, brothers…He dropped off to sleep amid the happier memories of the last two hours…He passed into a region where these joys had no enemies but bloomed harmoniously in an eternal garden.” Friendship opens Aziz’s inner life like a flower. It leads to an interior integration he lacked before. So in risking vulnerability he gains this joy.

But when Aziz suspects betrayal by Fielding, the joyful harmony he once felt because of the friendship is shaken and replaced by discord, and he isolates himself from friendship with others. Herein lies the nature of the vulnerability problem in the context of friendship. Betrayal by a friend hurts. As it turns out, Aziz erroneously suspected Fielding of betrayal, and in the end they reunite. A Passage to India is a complex story and many factors lead to this false suspicion by Aziz, but it serves to show the advantages of risking vulnerability (joy, harmony, friendship) and the potential problems if this vulnerability is exploited (isolation, false belief, anger, resentment).

I think there’s an implication for faith and evangelization here as well. Those who do not believe are faced with a vulnerability problem of their own. In moving from unbelief to faith in God, they see a potential danger: what if that conception of religious faith that others attest to is false? For there are divergent ideas of God. We commit to one to the exclusion of others. And the act of supernatural faith – belief in God – concerns what is most fundamental in life. It concerns God, the source and end of all life. In the work of evangelization we should be aware of this risk and empathize with unbelievers when they take it. Moreover, if our lives are testaments to the benefits of vulnerability, then we can help address this problem in those that don’t yet believe.

As people who live by faith, we must also be willing to continue to be vulnerable in our relationship with God. Of course in our relationship with God, unlike human friendships, He is not vulnerable; we are. We perceive an apparent risk in being completely open to Him. But being completely open to God is in fact what we are called to do. We are called to be open to the ground of our being. God will not let us down. He remains faithful and so makes possible true joy, harmony, and integration. And when we accept God’s plan and live as authentic witnesses, as people who have risked the vulnerability of faith and found it to be worth it, we can help lead others to do the same.

Image: Edward Hopper, Nighthawks

About this Brother:

Br. Justin Mary Bolger, O.P.
Br. Justin Bolger entered the Order of Preachers in 2012 and hails from Frederick, MD. He studied business at the University of Baltimore and earned a masters degree in philosophical studies from Mount Saint Mary's University in Emmitsburg, MD. He also wrote, recorded, and performed as a singer/songwriter. On