December 22, 2008
— Martin E. Marty
For the next fortnight the University of Chicago and the Martin Marty Center close down; so, while I rarely visit either of them except electronically, I'll close down, to return in 2009. This end-of-year and holiday-greeting issue differs from the other fifty columns of the past year in that they all focus on a specific "sighting" of religion in public life, usually in print media and sometimes in electronic ones. We then cite chapter and verse, date of issue, and the like.
This week I could reference Saturday, December 20, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, our Chicago papers, and dates on the covers of newsmagazines, "public religion" expressions in religious outlets, and on. But this week I won't zero in on one. Instead I will editorialize on the basis of virtually all news and opinion media of the past months. The theme: trust. Typical is the Madoff scandal, in which one network of trusters, many of them relying on connections and handshakes, saw a criminal breakdown of trust. In our state of Illinois, wiretaps confirmed what millions already knew: that our governor corruptly broke trust with the public in myriad ways.
Meanwhile, the media tell of the breakdown of trust in the entire financial sector, and of the difficulty of recovering there unless and until some measures of trust are restored. An old administration in Washington fades away, one of its main legacies being stories of broken trust in the highest counsels. Scandals, sexual and fiscal, in religious organizations have led many in the public to stop trusting clergy, evangelists, and fund-raisers who use the name of God to misuse others, often horribly. A new administration takes shape, and the main issue is: who can be trusted, before and after appointment? I am almost embarrassed to speak in terms so familiar and broad that they can sound banal, like clichés. Yet the witness to broken trust is so vast and deep that to avoid it would be irresponsible. People in many disciplines need to speak up, and they are doing so.
Now I am going to venture with brief comments. I hope and trust that they are rare intrusions in Sightings about my own project. "Trust" is a centrally central, focally focal theme in Christian (as in Jewish, and other) theological discourse, and in the language of prayer and action. It shows up in titles of two small books I edited some years ago, mentioned here only to show that I am not a newcomer to the field, but still one who has much to learn. It happens that during the past year I did several commutes to SUNY Stony Brook, New York, and its "Trust Institute," to lecture and lead little seminars. Out of reading for it, I am finishing a book probably to be called Building Cultures of Trust. Talking about such projects in detail awaits another day and other media than this.
When I started writing the book, I thought I had to spend many pages discussing why "trust" and "broken trust" were relevant themes. During these months the public media have incessantly shrieked, in effect: "dealing with trust is not only relevant; it is desperately crucial!" Stony Brook, its Institute, and people like me can do little more than add a brick or stone or trowel full of intellectual mortar in the efforts to many who would work toward some restoration of trust. By the way, if ever there was front-page or prime-time moral and ethical discussion about a theme which has theological dimensions, this is it. Many economists, writers, and thinkers in general used to sound as if economics, political science, and the like, exhausted efforts to address the grand themes. But "Trust" is a grand theme, whose biblical and theological ties are coming to the fore. I trust.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com