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Steering clear of “category mistakes”

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Building Cultures of Trust
Martin E. Marty

Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2010



When it comes to important issues of faith and life, what is your common response to people you disagree with or don’t understand? Quite often we label, disregard, argue against, and ignore people or groups with whom we differ.

This happens at all levels of our culture. We don’t trust the stranger on the bus. We’re suspicious of politicians. Religious people question the motives of scientists (and vice versa). As renowned historian Martin Marty describes, trust is “elusive.”

In Building Cultures of Trust, Marty cites an absence of trust in Western society on many levels, and proposes a need to “build cultures of trust.” Marty provides an in-depth presentation that leads the reader to thoughtfully consider various dynamics related to trust in our culture. Marty displays his interdisciplinary skills well, laying a superb theoretical foundation for trust, although quite dense in its academic jargon.

The first half of the book establishes trust as a value throughout history, from both religious and non-religious perspectives, while the second half explores how trust may be sustained in a pluralistic society.

The science/religion case study is the book’s major strength, illustrating clearly how misunderstanding fuels mistrust. Both sides are guilty of “category mistakes.” They apply their own evaluative frameworks to judge one another, but neglect to recognize key differences that lead to such divergent views.

Parallels to everyday life are clear. How do we relate to our friends and neighbours in a religiously diverse culture? Does our mistrust or judgment of others’ viewpoints or lifestyle choices come from a lack of understanding – a “category mistake”?

Conversation chooses coherence

Marty doesn’t claim to have all the answers. His solution is “incremental” and can hopefully “bring some improvements” to our culture of mistrust. His modest proposal centres on “conversation.” Conversation involves choosing to be “vulnerable and searching,” seeking reconciliation and coherency amid tension and confusion. Even institutions need to value and foster conservations – “a framework of institutionalized honesty and authenticity.”

The final chapter traces some helpful examples of organizations successfully creating space for conversation between diverse groups. These examples are relevant to Canadian MBs – our theological identity continues to be discussed and debated. Listening, vulnerability, honesty, and authenticity need to be central in our dialogue with one another.

Building trust doesn’t guarantee agreement, but fosters relationships. “The point is that ‘the other as stranger’ now becomes ‘the other as conversation partner and friend,’” Marty stresses, “each one undoubtedly no less committed to his or her cause than before, but at least now empathic and ready to listen and then to speak again.”

I offer a qualified recommendation for the book. The academic language and style will appeal most to those familiar with philosophical and theological terminology in the area of faith and culture. Yet all should engage the topic: trust applies to everyone.

This book rightly reminds us how building trust amid diversity – even our own MB diversity – must include diligent conversation where the “other” can indeed become “friend.”

David Warkentin is community impact pastor at Hyde Creek Community Church, Port Coquitlam, B.C. He blogs at www.davidwarkentin.blogspot.com.

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