Featured Reviews, VOLUME 3

Featured: BUILDING CULTURES OF TRUST- Martin Marty [Vol. 3, #39]

“Trust-Building Conversation

A Review of

Building Cultures of Trust.
By Martin Marty.

Reviewed by Bob Cornwall.

Building Cultures of Trust.
Martin Marty.
Hardback: Eerdmans, 2010.
Buy now: [ ChristianBook.com ]

[ A longer version of this review is available
on the reviewer’s blog. ]

Martin Marty - BUILDING CULTURES OF TRUSTTrust seems in short supply these days, with the populace seemingly trusting no one including politicians, government, religious institutions, science, corporations, banks or the courts.   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.

Martin Marty takes up the challenge of “building cultures of trust” in a  contribution to the Emory University “Studies in Law and Religion” that’s based on lectures given for the Trust Institute at the State University of New York at Stony Brook in 2008.  Trust starts with the individual, having to do with a person’s character, resolve and ability to change, but as Marty makes clear, it 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.  It also involves risk, for without risk there is no need to trust.

This discussion is framed in a context that includes such challenges as 9/11, an economic crisis, failure of banks, a government’s seeming inability to rescue Americans in times of disaster (Katrina, Bank bailouts, etc.), foreclosures, media deception, trust-breaking by religious institutions and the growing presence of religious “strangers.”   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).

Considering that trust and risk are inextricably intertwined, Marty notes that they are experienced at seven levels, beginning with the self, wherein one must assess one’s interior life before moving on to experiencing the other, a process that involves the input of education, life in community, and moving finally 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).

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.  With religion being one of the central building blocks of society, for the purposes of this study, Marty 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 Kant.  Each of these sources accept the need for suspicion and even mistrust, and yet provide a foundation for creating cultures of trust.  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.

Our ability to create cultures of trust are often hampered by “category mistakes,” wherein partisans (in this study the focus is on the conversation between faith and science) presume to attack another party in ways that misapply the rules of discussion.  Thus, for instance, a scientist might seek to disprove the Catholic doctrine of Real Presence by doing a chemical analysis of the communion wine, or when religious partisans seek to resolve scientific questions by appealing to scriptural interpretation.  Marty wants to facilitate a conversation that leads to trust, without engaging in compartmentalization as suggested by Stephen J. Gould.  The goal isn’t separate conversations, but respectful engagement that doesn’t confuse the methods and values of the other with one’s own.

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.

Trust is built in the context of conversations where the need for dominion is set aside.  Indeed, Marty makes it clear that cultures of trust can be built only if we understand that these conversations likely won’t be conclusive and will be ongoing in nature.   Religion and Science are both “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.

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.


Bob Cornwall is pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Troy, Michigan, and editor of Sharing the Practice (Academy of Parish Clergy). He blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.

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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

One Comment

  1. It was a pleasant surprise to run into marty’s book. I look forward to reading it thoroughly. My dissertation focuses on issues of trust in generation X (post-boomers) and its implcation for evangelism in the protestant tradition. It is my conviction that the loss of trust prevalent in contemporary society is a symptom of a greater systemic ill in western culture. u00a0I hope to write a critic of marty’s book in the near future.u00a0God Bless!u00a0