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Martin Marty

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Trust: The Heart of Religion

Posted: 12/21/10 07:34 PM ET

Wearied by the decline and fall of trust relations in most sectors of society, many have had to seek energy from beyond the headlines. Politics, economics, religion, commerce and family life are zones where trust is so broken that for many the temptation to feel defeatist or to grow cynical is almost overwhelming. From "beyond the headlines," then, can one find some alternatives to denial, indifference or despair?

Religion and religions ought to have something to say, both about the sad situation and possible ways to transcend it as steps toward recovering trust. Religions advertise these as a specialty. Thus in most versions of the Christian faith "trust" is central, right next to its kin, "faith," along with hope and love, yet that centrality often gets obscured. I was brought up on a catechism which explained the First Commandment simply: "We are to fear, love, and trust God above all things." That's fine for catechism class, Sunday or Sabbath school, or parochial settings. But it's hard to sell that within a pluralist, multi-religion, multi-Commandment culture. So, "forget it!?" Millions did.

I was first jolted into taking a second look by reading essays by Joseph J. Godfrey, S.J., who began writing in the 1990s that "Trust" is "The Heart of Religion." At home with non-Christian faiths, he spun the globe and found the cognate concepts -- hold on! -- sraddha, visvasa, bittachon, emunah, and pistis to be "key" in Vedantist, Buddhist, Hebrew, and Christian texts. Mercifully, I don't have to -- and couldn't -- give scholarly scrutiny to these. I have to trust Father Godfrey and his interpretation of the texts and terms. My interest is in asking what use such terms and the decisions to regard them as central can mean in our cultures which we call secular and pluralistic. The answer: plenty!

Trust can be used first as a measure for reform of the faiths and their institutions. Trust them? "You should talk!" is an understandable response if the headline-making activities of the faiths get covered up by advocates. Renewed trust in the divine, however experienced and defined, can provide a standard by which to measure human trust, which necessitates taking risks. Libraries are full of books referring to people of faith exercising trust heroically, and seeing it pay off in human relations. I'd like to stress a third feature: while many go it alone, not trusting institutions or texts or traditions to guide, judge or inspire them, the majority in all those faiths mentioned by Godfrey depend upon community, and they inspire association and common activities.

In a world where trust in "the other" otherwise gets obscured or dissolved because of the size and distance of huge realms where trust is needed, millions of the faithful get to practice trusting. They do so through charitable giving and activity, depending on each other for words and acts of support and challenge, and creating settings where people come to know each other enough to take risks. They are not alone in these efforts, of course; people of non-faith can also develop what I call "cultures of trust." But those who through faith experience realities that go beyond the bounds where human frailty is all that seems at hand can have special reasons for developing trust.

Doing so will not restore integrity to large financial institutions, political agencies, media, or get any of the other out-size and apparently irredeemable forces to shape up and win trust tomorrow. But whoever has experienced the risks others have taken as they exercise trust can help bring back the rewards that come as trust relations begin to grow. I guess those who do so will agree with Professor Godfrey: trust is the heart of the important things, especially of religion and religions.