Building Cultures of Trust -- Review

BUILDING CULTURES OF TRUST.  By Martin E. Marty.   Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010.  192 pp.

    Back in the day, a song by the rock group Three Dog Night suggested  that “one is the loneliest number that there ever was.”  I’d like to paraphrase that line to read: “trust is the loneliest word that there ever was.”  At least in the current situation, trust seems in short supply.  Where once the mantra was “don’t trust anyone over thirty,” today we don’t trust anyone or thing, including politicians, government, religious institutions, science, corporations, banks – think about that for a minute, a bank is supposedly a “trust” institution -- and the courts.  We have become a nation of conspiracy theorists, where a significant minority believes it’s Jesus-confessing President is a closet Muslim who was born in Kenya.  But, if trust is in short supply, how then can our society survive, let alone function?   Although a certain degree of suspicion is healthy, lest we allow ourselves to be scammed and defrauded, we’ve moved far beyond healthy skepticism, which makes building cultures of trust difficult.  
    Building cultures of trust the topic of Martin Marty’s latest book, and if any figure has earned our trust over the years, it is Dr. Marty.  He is not only an elder statesman in the Christian world, he is known for his sagacity and discernment.  If anyone can point us in the right direction so that we can again build trust in one another, it would be him.  This book is Marty’s contribution to the Emory University “Studies in Law and Religion,” and is based on a series of lectures Marty gave for the Trust Institute at the State University of New York at Stony Brook in 2008.  In these revised lectures, Marty suggests that trust starts with the individual, and has to do with a person’s character, resolve, and ability to change.  However, trust doesn’t stop with the individual.  Trust must involve others, and it evolves in the context of social cultures, which provide for conditions where the task of building trust can occur and even thrive. 

    Trust, as Marty continually reminds readers, involves risk.  Indeed, it requires risk, for if there is no risk, then there is no need to trust.  The current context, therefore, provides an important place to explore the possibilities of trust building.  Our discussion is framed in the context of 9/11 and the attendant conspiracy thinking, an ongoing economic crisis, failure of banks, distrust of the government’s ability to rescue Americans in times of disaster (Katrina, Bank bailouts, etc.), foreclosures, retirement accounts that have decreased in value, if not totally disappearing, criminal economic activity (Bernie Madoff, for example), bribery, media deception, trust-breaking by religious institutions, the growing presence of religious “strangers,” and exploited public.  None of this makes trust-building easy, and yet, it is the contention of the author that this is necessary if society is to exist in any meaningful way. 

    The goal of this venture is building cultures of trust, and by “culture,” he has in mind something akin to a definition provided by Philip Bagby in a 1958 book, which defines a culture as “regularities in the behaviour, internal and external, of the members of a society, excluding those regularities which are clearly hereditary in nature.”  Two cultures that will intersect in this conversation are the religious and scientific communities, along with the broader context of public life, which are experienced through certain “modes,” including thinking, feeling, and behaving.  In these contexts a culture of trust is to be built and experienced.   A culture of trust, then, can be defined as existing “when there is evidence that through internal or external means the religious, political, economic, artistic, scientific, technological, educational, and linguistic expressions of a group lead participants to count on each other and keep commitments” (p. 15). 

    Trust assumes risk.  Whether it is an athletic adventure, a medical procedure, or an investment, going forward involves risk, as we trust our lives and futures to the hands of others.  Both trust and risk are experienced at various levels, and Marty names seven that begin with the self or the soul.  It requires assessing one’s interior life and one’s experience with others.  This is the foundation and moves along through experiencing the other, to the input of education, life in community, and onward to the telling of our stories.  Marty notes that “stories of betrayal or victimization undercut efforts to build elements of cultures of trust,” while stories of heroes and faithfulness inspire trust (p. 33).    Thus, the question then becomes – what stories are being told, recognizing that trust is difficult to build and easy to destroy.  Indeed, the very fact that we have locks on our doors is a reminder that at our very core, we’re mistrustful of others. 

    In seeking a foundation for building these cultures, Marty looks to what he calls “scripted resources” and “humanistic reflections.”  The first comprise the various scriptures or sacred texts, together with the theological/historical sources that emerge from these texts.  Religion is part of the conversation when it comes to the task of building cultures of trust.  They often provide the vocabulary and the lessons about trust and mistrust.  Indeed, faith is by definition trust, built upon the expectation that God is reliable.  Faith/religion, then, is one of the central building blocks of society.  Although Marty recognizes that all religions contribute to this conversation, for the purposes of this book he limits himself to the Western traditions, which are influenced by Jewish and Christian traditions, together with classical and Enlightenment texts.  The second component is the humanistic/secular contribution, which leads to an interesting construct that forms the foundation for cultures of trust, something he calls “religio-secular.”  This construct seems awkward, but it may be a better way of describing the legacy upon which Western society is built than is Judeo-Christian.  Built into this conversation is the realization that the biblical texts do contain a sense of realism that relates closely to the conversation – whether or not we call it original sin, there is the recognition that cultures of trust can’t count on the “natural trustworthiness of humans.”  But, while there is need for a “hermeneutic of suspicion,” if we’re to move forward we’ll also need a “hermeneutic of trust.” 

    When we come to the humanistic part, Marty has in mind what we call the humanities – the contribution of classical and Enlightenment philosophy, from Plato to Aristotle, and on to Locke, Hume, and even Hobbes.  Each of these sources accept the need for suspicion and even mistrust, and yet provide a foundation for creating cultures of trust.  Hume and Locke constructed, for instance, the idea of the social contract and Kant the “categorical imperative.”  The principal lessons of this tradition concern the fact that the more people keep the promises they make, the greater the possibility of creating networks or cultures of trust.  Experience and habit lead to the ability to trust and be trusted.  Thus, reason plays an important role in this process. 

    Having laid out the resources upon which cultures of trust might be built, Marty moves  to the task of “correcting ‘category mistakes’.”  It is in this context that Marty brings in the religion/science conversation.  He notes that partisans from the science side and the religious side have often attacked each other.  These attacks, which lead to mistrust, are rooted in modes of experience and differences in language or “universes of discourse.”  Mistrust occurs when we misapply modes of understanding to something.  He uses, to give an example the folly that emerges when a scientist steps into the debate over the real presence, assuming that the issue can be resolved by testing the wine and bread to see if they have changed.  On the other side of the coin, creation science is built on category mistakes, where scientific questions are resolved by through scriptural interpretation.  But, Marty wants to facilitate conversation and trust, which means that science and faith can’t be compartmentalized – as Stephen J. Gould would have it.  Instead, he would have us see these questions in terms of modalities or voices, in which the methods and values of one are not confused with the other. 

    Having offered his conclusions on category mistakes, he moves to the importance of conversation to the process.  Category mistakes occur when we don’t pay attention to the rules of conversation, and therefore violate the boundaries of conversation.  True conversation, which leads to trust building requires one to listen to the other, allowing ideas to flow back and forth.  These conversations cannot be built if, like the fundamentalist, we impatiently wait our turn to denounce the other.  Interestingly, what we might consider trivial conversation can lead to trust-building because it allows participants to get a sense of the other, making possible the creation of trust. 

    In this book, the goal is to lay out a basis for trust-building conversations between science and religion.  The controversies of the day emerge when private thoughts/conversations go public.  And the conversation becomes vulnerable when it is caught up in politics.  To move toward trust building conversations we must recognize that the universes of discourse that occur within the scientific, religious, and even the political cultures are distinct, but not isolated.  If we don’t follow the rules set up in one culture, then we end up with category mistakes, confusion, and mistrust.  Indeed, problems arise when one side seeks dominion over the other.  But, trust can be built if we set aside the desire for dominion and for settling everything.  Conversations don’t have to settle every issue.  Conversation is informed, but the goal isn’t winning something.  The goal is understanding and trust-building.  Conversations are ongoing and often inconclusive.  Thus, science and religion could be considered two different world views of a single reality.  According to Marty, “both are God-given in the sense that God is revealed through human minds and hands not only in Scripture, but also in the scientific insight that God allowed us to develop through our senses and brainpower” (pp. 169-170).  Dialog such as this requires that each discipline be allowed its own integrity – they can challenge each other, but you can’t, for instance, reject a well-founded scientific theory such as evolution because it conflicts with your interpretation of scripture.  Ultimately, mistrust is often rooted in miscommunication. 

    The goal of the dialogs between world views or modes of experience, is building cultures of trust, cultures where we respect each other’s views.  We do not have to always agree or even find resolution, but we respect the rules by which the other does their work.  In difficult times, such as these, it is important that we begin working on this task.

    This is, in every way, a timely book.  When there is an increasing lack of trust in any form of authority, when increasing numbers of religious people are questioning the findings of science – not just on evolution but climate change and more – it is important to have this call to action, and the action required of us is to join in building a culture of trust.  The message here is clear; although the challenges are great, there is a pathway that can lead to a culture of trust, if only we’re willing to take the necessary risks and be willing to listen to the other.  We are, once again beholden to the wisdom of Martin Marty.


John said…
The song which came to mind for me was "I Am a Rock."

Your review alludes to complications in the mix which seem to me to be just as compelling as the decline of trust in Western society (which, together with post-modernism in general, seem to be natural consequences of the events of the last century), I would couple this with the growing social norm of risk avoidance in general as well as the developing trend towards avoidance of consequences for our choices.

In Western society we are less and less inclined to take risks; and when we do take a risk, we want society to let us off the hook when things don't work out so well. If we are overly concerned with risk avoidance we will refrain from taking he risk of trusting others. If we will not accept the consequences of our choices, we will not keep our commitments.

In a way liberal Christianity may be contributing to this situation by affirming in its adherents the notions of universal forgiveness and salvation - that there are no lasting (eternal) consequences to our choices, and therefore we should also be able to avoid any immediate, temporal consequences.

Also, because we teach that there are no eternal rewards for immediate principled risk-taking, there is no incentive to stand on principles, because in the end (eternally speaking) it doesn't matter - it doesn't gain you anything.

I don't know what the resolution is but I think it deserves some refection.

John said…
Boob, a few points:

You said: "like the fundamentalist, we impatiently wait our turn to denounce the other." I think the very statement evidences the error it points up - we progressives are just as likely to denounce our perceived opponents without listening to their issues and arguments.

You mention that "Marty notes that “stories of betrayal or victimization undercut efforts to build elements of cultures of trust....”

Its ironic that in the verbalization of these narratives there is s much healing to be had. I suppose that the damage Marty speaks of comes not from the first person narrative, but from the retelling of the narratives by others with agendas other than healing in mind.

Finally, you said: "Conversations don’t have to settle every issue." Truer words were never spoken. Even when issues continue unresolved, sincere conversations, whether about the issues or even about unrelated trivialities, will build relationships which transcend differences in viewpoint and those issues which such differences give rise to. The very best and most important conversations we have are with those with whom we disagree.


Popular Posts