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Building Cultures of Trust

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 [Eerdmans, 2010] is 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.

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Note: Bob Cornwall pastors the Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He is also a church historian and thoughtful author. He posted this book review on October 22, 2010 at Ponderings on a Faith Journey. Read the first portion of it here and the rest of it there and you’ll be happy you did! – David Larson

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