Virtually There: Martin Marty, Cyberspace, and Cultures of Trust in the 21st Century

[1] At the university where I teach, opportunities exist for students to receive funding to collaborate with faculty on summer research projects. This summer, one student working with me is investigating social forms beyond religion that provide non-religiously affiliated people (the “nones”) with meaningful community-based social ties and opportunities for civic engagement. To set the context for this project, my student turned to Robert Putnam’s influential Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (Simon and Schuster, 2001), summarizing Putnam’s diagnosis in one of his weekly reports:

Stressing how our lives have become more individualistic and focused on personal concerns and successes over the past half century, Putnam provides a wide array of contributing causes that have led to the collapse of civic engagement. These range from amounts of time and money devoted to privatized leisure activities and personal material aspirations, ballooning commute times, and the separation of work from home and neighborhood; to technology- and media-related factors, such as declining interest in current events, the meteoric rise of television (to which I would add Netflix and video games), and the ways in which such media create proxy communities focused on TV or cyberspace that provide few if any of the benefits of real-world community; to generational differences, including relative levels of economic prosperity and changing cultural mores.1

[2] As I read this presentation of Putnam’s sobering assessment of the collapse of social forms that keep us connected, I wondered the degree to which my student agreed with the assessment. Was Putnam’s assessment too pessimistic for this bright-eyed, eager young scholar? During our meeting that particular week, I asked him how Putnam’s diagnosis relates to his own on-the-ground experience of young adulthood in Midwestern America. Without missing a beat my student replied: “It reflects my experience exactly.”

[3] Reading Martin Marty’s Building Cultures of Trust while working with this student has only intensified my conviction that we all need to heed Marty’s call to join in creating cultures of trust in a society suffering from hyper-individualism, disconnection, and the collapse of civic engagement. Indeed, when Marty proposes that “against all odds” we can “begin to develop cultures of trust where there have never been any, or restore them where they have been devastated,”2 I’m taking notes and passing along excerpts to my student and anyone else who will listen.

[4] Before talking more specifically about building cultures of trust to counteract the collapse of civic engagement my student is investigating, it is worth saying a few words about Marty’s understanding of trust and its potential role in contemporary western culture. Marty “inelegantly” refers to our current cultural context as “religio-secular,” that is, a context where religious and non-religious traditions are tangled together in complex ways.3 Even with increasing numbers of “nones” in our society, Marty claims it still valuable to draw on religious conceptions of trust, partially because the majority of the population still claims religious affiliation, and partly because religion has historically provided much of our vocabulary of trust.4 Playing a central role in his theological analysis of trust are Jewish and Christian conceptions of human sinfulness, or to use the language of Marty’s project, human untrustworthiness. Marty stresses that religious conceptions of trust help us understand that we will never build perfect communities of trust. What does it mean, then, to work to establish cultures of trust amidst a society full of often-untrustworthy people?

[5] Our propensity to break trust with one another is precisely why building cultures of trust is an inherently risky endeavor. Christian ethicist Sharon Welch explains her book, A Feminist Ethic of Risk, that working to transform societal structures requires an ethic of risk that understands that immediate change—or even change in our lifetime—is not guaranteed. In fact, becoming a more trustworthy, more just society will be a painfully slow process.5 Because Marty is clear that flawed people will be building the new cultures he envisions, he focuses on incremental change rather than radically new visions for a trustworthy society.

[6] While Marty devotes the final section of his book to building trust between the disparate arenas of religion and science, our focus in this essay will be on Marty’s broader interest in building cultures of trust within public life more generally. He proposes that developing such cultures “will hold more promise and can draw on the energies of more citizens if there is concentration on the building blocks of our society. Those who build can then draw on both individual efforts and proposals for change on social and communal levels, including national levels and beyond.”6 Marty does not list those building blocks by name, but we can imagine he would include educational systems, government, religious organizations, and familial structures in such a list.

[7] As important as such building blocks are, I propose adding another block to the list, a block largely overlooked in Marty’s project: cyberspace. If we are going to talk meaningfully about creating cultures of trust—especially if such cultures are going to capture the imagination of the younger members of our society (the folks who will be vital to any future cultures-of-trust building)—our conversations must address the increasingly significant role technology plays in our lives and in the larger societal forms we inhabit. As Secretary of State Hilary Clinton remarked recently: “The Internet has become the public space of the 21st century—the world’s town square, classroom, marketplace, coffeehouse and night club. We all share and are shaped by what happens there, all 2 billion of us (on the Internet) and counting.”7 If we’re talking about a vision for a more trustworthy society, can we afford to ignore the role wired lives and virtual communities play in that future?

[8] Perhaps one of the reasons Marty neglects this arena has to do with the conviction that face-to-face engagement is the best hope for creating new cultures of trust. If that is the case, Marty is certainly not alone in his concern. In his recent book, Healing the Heart of Democracy, Parker Palmer acknowledges the Internet’s role in creating ties and in helping the cause of democracy in places like Tunisia.8 At the same time, Palmer holds up Malcolm Gladwell’s critiques of Web-based social media and their “weak-tie environments.” Palmer cites Gladwell: “The platforms of social media are built around weak ties. Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met. Facebook is a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with.”9 Gladwell gives voice to a widely held concern, one that has potentially significant implications for building cultures of trust. What Marty might say is that connections made in cyberspace are simply too weak to facilitate the hard work of trust building. We need strong-tie environments for that kind of work.

[9] Such critiques beg the question: Do virtual interactions and connections have the capacity to be strong-tie environments? Howard Rheingold, author of the influential book, The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier, is willing to bet virtual networks can be as strong as “actual” ones. He writes, “The technology that makes virtual communities possible has the potential to bring enormous leverage to ordinary citizens at relatively little cost—intellectual leverage, social leverage, and most important, political leverage. But the technology will not in itself fulfill that potential; this latent technical power must be used intelligently and deliberatively by an informed population.”10 While there is much to lament about online interactions by seemingly uninformed populations, Rheingold ‘s point is a vital one: it depends upon how the technology is used.

[10] Since the “Arab Spring” movements of 2011, journalists, scholars, and others have been analyzing the role of the Internet in large-scale movements toward democracy, and those movements seem to suggest the possibility of strong-tie environments existing in and through cyberspace. Did the Internet enable political revolution in Egypt and other places? Perhaps. What we do know is that cyberspace is changing our conceptions of the world and our place in it. In the work of creating cultures of trust, then, we need to attend to how the Internet both inhibits and opens up space where trust can be nurtured. In the spirit of helping create the kind of imperfect but impactful cultures of trust Marty calls for, I offer a modest proposal for the inclusion of virtual space as an overlooked arena where such trust building can—and does—occur. To do this, I draw on my own recent experiences with a culture of trust created by an online community created in the wake of a cancer diagnosis.

[11] Not many years ago, I had a dim view of the Internet’s ability to create cultures of anything productive. Living and working with others constantly connected to—and distracted by—digital tools left me skeptical that any new relational depth was being plumbed through our wired lives. I did not even have a cell phone and was quick to judge others who ignored their children or carried on conversations in public while on their phones.

[12] Then I got sick. Really sick. In a matter of months, I went from being a healthy forty-one-year-old religion professor, wife, and mother to a virtual invalid with a broken back, a stage IV cancer diagnosis, and a grim prognosis for the future.

[13] To keep family and friends updated during the early days following the diagnosis, my brother created a Caring Bridge site for me, a website dedicated to connecting people with serious illnesses with those who care about them.11 News of my diagnosis spread quickly; just as quickly loved ones, friends, and eventually even strangers signed up to receive my Caring Bridge updates. From my narration of what stage IV cancer had done to my body to sharing the grief of having to resign from my very full and wonderful life, each of my posts was met with dozens of responses on the Caring Bridge site, as well as additional emails, cards, packages, visits and calls from people from all corners of my life. It was startling to realize that through our connectedness via Caring Bridge I was being surrounded by a cloud of witnesses greater than any I could have previously imagined.

[14] Despite all the challenges and problems with ways in which people connect online, it is also the case that powerful, healing cultures of trust can be built on virtual foundations. If the beginning point for building cultures of trust is conversation as Marty suggests,12 then online conversations should also be considered potential contributors to trust building. While my initial understanding of the function of a site like Caring Bridge was as a tool to help me update others on the condition of my life as a cancer patient, I quickly realized it was much more than that. My updates became the start of a conversation with an assembly of people who respond with stories of their own navigation of similar health journeys, offers of prayer or support, and acts of care for me and my family. The conversations taking place online have often been illuminating, encouraging, and life giving during very dark times.

[15] But just like Marty, who is interested in exploring “ambiguities and contradictions in life,”13 I am well aware of the challenges involved in such conversations. Indeed, publically narrating my illness for hundreds to read and comment on is a risky endeavor. Marty’s use of moral philosopher Annette Baier’s quote is applicable to my public sharing of my journey with cancer as well: “Where one depends on another’s good will, one is necessarily vulnerable to the limits of that good will. One leaves others an opportunity to harm one when one trusts, and also shows one’s confidence that they will not take it.”14 In the three years I have been participating in these online conversations, there certainly have been responses I have found less-than-helpful. A couple even could be considered harmful. The much more common experience, however, is that others’ online words of support have nurtured a fledgling culture of trust that has been building since my diagnosis.

[16] Surely I have received much face-to-face support as well, so why highlight the role a virtual community has played in creating relationships of trust for me since my diagnosis? Journalist Margaret Wertheim suggests that it is “our common task to do better with the Net than we have done with the physical world” (285). While we could quickly generate examples of how the Internet enables people to behave more poorly online than they do in person, it is also the case that examples exist of how at times cyberspace allows us to do better than we do in person. For instance, it is generally less difficult for me to explain how I’m doing in an online post than it is in a face-to-face conversation. In virtual reality, my tears don’t make my point unintelligible. Online, I can go back and edit out something that sounds more bitter than I want to be. In cyberspace, my vulnerabilities often can be better managed than they are in the actual space. Being clearer about how I’m doing has allowed others to be clearer about how to be supportive. Trust has begun to grow.

[17] At the same time, public expressions of vulnerability on sites like Caring Bridge have prompted others to be vulnerable in return, which according to Marty is how cultures of trust get formed. He writes, “Observing how people negotiate among [provinces of meaning], noticing whether and how they do this elegantly or with consistency, can encourage more people to risk building communities of trust, in which more complex levels of communication are to occur.”15 One poignant example of how a virtual community has encouraged vulnerability involves a colleague of mine at our university. She and I have worked together for over a decade and before my diagnosis, we had never had a substantive discussion about anything personal. A few months after I got sick, I received an email from this colleague, wherein she told me about growing up in Israel as an agnostic Jew and how she often felt on the outside of religious practices like prayer. After reading my postings on Caring Bridge, however, she became inspired to start praying. Not long after she began praying, she led a group of students to study in Israel. She then told me that in every church the group visited, she got down on her knees and prayed to Jesus for a favor: to heal her friend with cancer. Her message to me ended with this: “I hope I didn’t offend Jesus–after all, I’m a Jew and I don’t even pray regularly–and there I was, asking Jesus for a favor. I think he’ll be ok with that, won’t he?”

[18] That an agnostic Jew would get on her knees in churches throughout Israel to pray for her Christian colleague living with cancer suggests to me that the Internet is capable of facilitating strong-tie environments. When Marty talks about how interreligious dialogue can help overcome intellectual mistrust of people living in different mental worlds,16 my own transformative interreligious experience attests to the potential of virtual communities to facilitate overcoming such mistrust.

[19] Due to the new level of relationships that have formed in large part through our contact in cyberspace, I have been prayed for by countless individuals and many Christian communities of faith; at the same time, I have received a sage blessing from a Native American colleague, been prayed for in the synagogues and Hindu temples of friends and colleagues, had Buddhist meditation sessions dedicated to me, and Jesus has even been asked a favor by a Jewish friend who took a gamble on my behalf. This strong-tie environment that surrounds me has built a culture of trust that cuts across religious traditions in ways that continue to surprise (and awe) me. For all my academic training in the discipline of religion, my experience with this virtual community has taught me more about interreligious interconnections than years of reading and discussion about such connections.

[20] The Internet is not going to save us from the rise of individualism, the collapse of civic engagement, or the other ills my earnest student is thinking about this summer. But recent experiences with virtual communities have shown me that the cultures of trust we so desperately need will not occur independent of cyberspace. As we go forth, then, informed by Martin Marty’s compelling presentation of the task before us, we also must attend to the ways in which the Internet shapes current cultures of trust and be on the lookout for potentially surprising ways that cyberspace becomes a place where trust can be nurtured and even flourish. We need all the space for trust building we can get.

1. Merit Stewart, Hamline University Summer Collaborative Research Program Weekly Write Up, June, 2012.

2. Martin E. Marty, Building Cultures of Trust (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans) 37.

3. Ibid, 43.

4. Ibid, 39.

5. Sharon Welch, A Feminist Ethic of Risk, revised edition (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009) 46.

6. Marty, 43.

7 Embassy of the United States: Asmara, Eritrea website,

8. Parker J. Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010) 171.

9. Malcolm Gladwell, “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted,” The New Yorker, Oct. 4, 2010,, as quoted in Palmer, 171.

10. Howard Rheingold, The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier, revised edition (Boston: MIT Press, 2000) 4-5.

11. The Caring Bridge website address is: My Caring Bridge website is:

12. Marty, 127.

13. Ibid, 73.

14. Annette Baier, “Trust and Antitrust,” Ethics 96: 235, as quoted in Marty, 145.

15. Marty, 124.

16. Ibid, 69.

Deanna Thompson

Deanna A. Thompson

Dr. Deanna A. Thompson is Director of the Lutheran Center for Faith, Values, and Community and Martin E. Marty Regents Chair in Religion and the Academy at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. Before moving to St. Olaf, Thompson taught religion for over two decades at Hamline University in St. Paul, MN. Thompson is a sought-after speaker on topics ranging from Martin Luther and feminism to the intersections of cancer, trauma, and faith, and what it means to be the church in the digital age. She is author of five books, including The Virtual Body of Christ in a Suffering World and most recently, Glimpsing Resurrection: Cancer, Trauma, and Ministry.