Trust is Precious

Trust Websters Unabridged 1983Trust is a powerful word. From the Merriam Webster dictionary definition:

belief that someone or something is reliable, good, honest, effective, etc.

a) assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something

b) one in which confidence is placed

(Webster’s Unabridged 1983 to the right, click for a larger image.)

Trust is precious and must be cultured and protected.

The post last week Blood From Stone … But Unfortunately He Got Everything Wrong (link with comments: Blood From Stone) led to some interesting conversation, both in comments and off-line. The problem with pastors getting the science wrong struck something of a nerve for some. Trust can be in the crosshairs. One commenter went so far as to suggest:

Before seminary get a STEM degree with a minor in Greek. Your ability to interpret scientific data will be sharpened and you’ll learn the logic that they often do not teach in seminaries.

Now this may have been tongue in cheek, and I certainly don’t think that it is feasible or necessary for all pastors to have a degree in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) field. It isn’t even desirable. Psychology, Economics, Sociology and English to name only a few … are also valuable degrees. In fact another commenter with expertise in a social science commented that “Fine, but it doesn’t solve the social science problem, which in my view is more serious than ignorance of STEM.” And a post not too long ago argued that we need more English majors in the pulpit to cultivate the art of story telling. I agree story telling is important – and we need a diversity of perspectives.

A third commenter noted – from personal experience as a pastor’s kid.

Sermons are much more about emotional motivation. … Facts are generally just thrown in much the way advocacy groups use stats to raise money – for the emotional response, not for their accuracy.

Having been raised in the church hearing thousands of sermons, a number enhanced by growing up in the era of twice on Sundays, not as a pastor’s kid but with a grandfather, several uncles, and later a brother-in-law and father-in-law who were or are pastors, I can see the commenter’s point. But trust is important and must be cultivated. Careless facts may bring an emotional response. But what happens when someone swayed by the emotional impact discovers that the facts were bad?

This commenter continued:

Pastors use facts in their sermons mostly as part of the “story” often creationist “facts” are thrown in as part of a larger story – the evil of modern society, secular humanism, etc. so while a pastor may even agree afterward that the details were off, it’s the story, the felt need to include those “facts” in the first place that needs to be addressed. In that case, because its often so central to their messaging, yeah – likely needs to be addressed at a later date – and in a non-confrontational context.

Well yes, but perhaps this is story telling taken a step too far. Trust is precious … far too precious to throw away for the momentary gain of emotional impact. Could it be a temporary gain but a long term loss? This does need to be addressed, but better yet avoided altogether.

A fourth commenter reflected on the impact of hearing a pastor who “got everything wrong” on a scientific topic:

I liked the guy very much, but after that I could not take him seriously. It caused me to reconsider everything he taught[.]

Pastors, and for that matter all Christian leaders, need to cultivate, guard, and protect the trust that others place in them. This is true for the sake of believers in the church and for the sake of nonbelievers who may come in, either as guests or on their own (God given) initiative and interest.

Pastors cannot, of course, master every subject. We don’t expect supermen or women in the pulpit (at least I don’t). Cultivating trust really means being careful to do the necessary homework and to consult reliable sources. Christian leaders and teachers need a hypersensitive truth filter to evaluate information from a variety of sources. Rather than training in any specific discipline, they need to cultivate critical thinking skills that can be applied to any discipline.

QHow to evaluate authorities – including Christian authorities. Several years ago I put up a post Who Can We Trust? that explored some tips for evaluating facts and sources. The entire post is worth reading – but here I will concentrate on only a part. The tips contained in that post, and discussed again here, derived from two posts by by a blogger Chris – Tips On Not Getting Duped Again Part I and Part II. They mesh well with my experience and approach.

The first question I ask these days when reading or listening to an expert or authority is not “what does this person say?” but “how does this person think, how do they make their argument?” This is true across the board, with secular scholars and skeptics, but it is especially true within the evangelical subculture where I might be otherwise inclined to trust without reflection.

I am thankful for those who will interact with intellectual integrity and deal with ideas and evidence honestly. We need to look for truth, not protect pet ideas and concepts. Lest you fear, intellectual integrity is not a code for “agree with me.” We only move forward by open discussion and interaction – no one group or person has the corner on all truth, knowledge, and understanding. I have respect for many who disagree with some of my positions and conclusions and appreciate their intellectual integrity. It is the form of the argument and the honesty of the interaction that counts.

Some tips for honest interaction. How can a Christian leader avoid bad information and learn to think critically and carefully? The first five points below come from the two posts linked above – but augmented by comment and reflection of my own. These represent good advice across a broad range of disciplines, not only the sciences.

1. Don’t reject an opposing view until you’ve read the best available material in support of that view.

In general don’t trust the opponents of a view to do justice to its arguments. Sometimes they will, but too often they will not. Read the proponents and interact with their views at their strongest.

The Christian thinkers I trust, whether I agree or disagree with their conclusions, are those who deal fairly with the opposing view, interacting with it at its strongest in a form that would be recognized by the proponents.

2. Don’t assume that because someone has a PhD, he or she knows what they are talking about.

Credentials are important, but they are not enough. There are always credentialed individuals to support any idea. Chris notes: There will be outliers in any field. Don’t let your opinions rest on the views of a single expert, no matter how impressive his resume. Receiving a PhD should ensure a level of knowledge and critical thinking ability within a given field, but we must evaluate how and why people hold any given position. This is far more significant than the possession of appropriate credentials. A PhD alone is no guarantee of wisdom or of careful thought process. (This I say as one who has supervised 12 completed PhD’s to-date, sat on the governing board of a graduate school, read dozens of dissertations and sat through an equal number of defenses.)

3. Always find out what other experts in the field have to say.

Stray outside of your comfort zone. Know what is being said by others outside of your small circle of friends or authorities. Chris suggests “Try to determine what view is held by scholars in mainstream academic circles, not simply the view within your particular corner of the intellectual world.” This doesn’t mean that the mainstream view is correct, but you have no way to ascertain its value if you don’t understand it.

4. Don’t reject the consensus view of experts unless you truly understand it.

Chris notes: “Scholars and scientists, on the whole, are not idiots. If at any point you find yourself thinking, “These experts are all fools. How can they believe something so obviously wrong?” chances are, you’re the one who doesn’t get it. There are usually very good reasons behind widely-held conclusions.” This is an excellent point – and one that deserves a great deal of consideration. If you can not articulate the reasons why most scholars or most scientists hold a position you are not qualified to reject it. You don’t actually understand the strengths or the weaknesses of the position.

I do not put much trust in an expert, Christian or otherwise, who ridicules the consensus view and argues with humor and putdown rather than data. While the person might conceivably be correct, the odds are overwhelmingly against it.

5. Don’t justify your theory’s lack of acceptance by appealing to a conspiracy.

Nothing is more annoying in the science and faith discussion than this appeal to conspiracy, whether it is a conspiracy to cover up the truth or a conspiracy to avoid certain arguments for fear of where they may lead.

“Be skeptical about people who offer these sorts of justifications for their theory’s unpopularity.” Excellent advice.

And three more points that I add, explicitly on the topic of today’s post on trust.

6. If the source or data appear to support your prior expectation, be doubly critical.

We all find it easy to scrutinize and question ideas, facts, and data that don’t seem quite right; that we don’t like for one reason or another. We should be careful and think critically in these cases. But it is equally important to scrutinize facts we are inclined to favor. A good rule of thumb is to be doubly critical. What is this study really saying? What might be wrong with it? Where are the weaknesses? How serious are they?

This is especially true with social science survey data, even more so than in the natural sciences.

7. Consult before going public.

Cultivate a community of people with expertise in various areas who are not afraid to question your statements and conclusions. We need community, it keeps us honest and moves us forward. Academic scholarship is a community endeavor with ideas, data and conclusions always open for scrutiny. Cult leaders need “yes” men and women. Christian leaders should welcome engagement and interaction.

A fifth commenter on Blood From Stone suggested (I’ve edited a bit for generality):

If [a] pastor has found some science-related item that he wants to use in a sermon, he should send an email … to get a reality check, much as he might check multiple commentaries or ask another pastor regarding a matter of Biblical interpretation. At my church, I think there has actually been some of that with regard to medicine and doctors in the church, but not with regard to other science[s].

And this could be extended to social sciences and humanities as well. But think critically about the feedback you get – no one is infallible. Ask more questions if you find it necessary.

It isn’t a sign of weakness to consult with others, but of wisdom and concern for truth. This is, perhaps, the best way to cultivate, nurture, and protect trust.

8. Provide space for public engagement.

Realize that people will scrutinize and challenge your statements whether you like it or not. Your audience, at least some in your audience, will have questions and dig deeper into the statements you make. These days with smart phones and tablets some will be looking for more insight as you speak, consulting commentaries, translations, and other sources. Those with expertise or experience in various areas will notice when sermons include elements that are quite frankly cringe-worthy. Whether the scrutiny is public or private it will come. When it is private you cannot defend, clarify, learn, or grow. Provide room for public interaction.

A final commenter on Blood From Stone, a pastor, noted a feature included in their church:

The sermon on Sunday is admittedly a monologue, but on Wednesday nights we have “Talk Back”…a dialogue concerning the Biblical text covered and/or the sermon. No questions are off limits (as long as they are relevant). “Talk Back” provides me (I am the pastor) the opportunity to nuance things with greater clarity (most of the time) and occasionally to look at the text in a different way and admit that I was wrong on a particular point.

I think more churches would benefit from similar opportunities. It is far better and healthier for the engagement to happen in public, face to face. Such a dialogue will keep the preacher honest (it is harder to rationalize a misstatement for rhetorical impact when it can be challenged), will help prevent misconceptions and misunderstandings on the part of the audience, and will cultivate an atmosphere of trust and trustworthiness. Mistakes are easy to forgive, we all make them – but a perception of deception isn’t.

Trust is precious. Guard it and cultivate it.

Do you have any suggestions to add?

What should pastors and other Christian leaders do to build, earn, or retain trust?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

If you would like to comment please see Trust is Precious at Jesus Creed.

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