In his book The Problem of Trust, Boston University Professor of Religion & Society Adam Seligman analyzes the condition of modern social interaction. One of the major shifts in modernity is the weakening and multiplication of social roles. That is, compared to earlier ages, there is increasing flexibility in how we behave in social roles such as employee, citizen, spouse, etc. and we inhabit a broader range of such social roles.
A unique feature of modern social interaction under these conditions, he argues, is the number of interactions that require trust. Trust, for Seligman, is needed because our interactions are increasingly “free” in that they are not clearly structured by shared social expectations of specific roles. The people we interact with are free to do just about anything. To interact with them we either must prepare ourselves for a range of responses, or we must trust that they will interact with us in mutually beneficial ways.
We all know this by experience even if we wouldn’t have put it in Seligman’s terms. We have experienced the unexpected explosion of rage from what we thought was a simple social interaction. We have seen the list of taboo topics grow from politics and religion to include race, gender, holidays, and even the weather (think environmentalism).
The effects of all this are many. We increasingly isolate ourselves (often with headphones). We view interaction with others as uncertain if not dangerous. We retreat to safe relationships (tribalism). We signal our affiliations quickly to control interactions (MAGA hats). We seek to have interactions controlled by externally applied codes of behavior rather than courtesy (campus speech codes).
These shifts in interaction have an impact on the church as well. As a church we are called to be the body of Christ, to be the family of God, to be united, to bear one another’s burdens, etc. But we bring relational exhaustion to church with us. Wearied by the uncertainty of daily interactions we come to church relationships trust deprived. Add to that deficit of trust any history of having had our trust abused and the stage is set for church to be nothing more than a series of surface, guarded interactions—just like society.
What must we do? Every age of the church has had specific ways in which the cultural climate challenged their efforts to live out the faith. This may be one of ours. G.I Joe used to say, “Knowing is half the battle.” Just being aware of our trust fatigue can help awaken us to the need to push back against this minimalist-relationship tendency both within the church and without. Within, because we cannot be the body of Christ effectively without meaningful interaction with each other and without, because we cannot hope to evangelize without pushing beyond the safety of minimal social interaction.