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Historical perspective meets cutting-edge practice in new investigations into a central but little-understood aspect of religious life

When negotiating nuclear disarmament deals with the Soviet Union, Ronald Reagan was fond of quoting a Russian proverb that said, “Trust, but verify.” The paradox inherent in that statement hints at some of the complexity of trust — are you really trusting someone if you also ask for outside verification? When trust takes on a religious dimension, the complexities multiply. Is trust in God the same as the trust that occurs between individuals? Is it equivalent to (or does it even require) unwavering belief?

Trust in God plays a vital role in Christianity, but in philosophy and theology it has been under-investigated, says Boston College Philosophy professor Daniel McKaughan. “There’s a burgeoning literature in the social sciences and philosophy investigating interpersonal trust, but those fields so far have said little about trust in God,” he says. Meanwhile, theology and religious studies have tended to talk about trust in God in ways that focus either on doctrinal belief or on religious practices, treating it largely as a matter of assent to certain propositions about God’s nature, actions and promises.

Thus along with Teresa Morgan of Oxford University and Michael Pace of Chapman University, McKaughan is launching a multi-year interdisciplinary investigation to develop a theologically informed, philosophically rigorous, and psychologically pragmatic understanding of trust in God.

FAITH AND TRUST IN EARLY CHRISTIANITY

McKaughan traces much of the inspiration for the project to his first reading of Morgan’s 2015 book Roman Faith and Christian Faith, in which she argued that the Greek concept of pistis, which is used in 26 of the 27 books of the New Testament, and has generally been translated as “faith,” was central to the early Christian understanding of the relationship between God, Christ, and humanity.

Morgan argues that for early Christians, pistis carried connotations of trust as relational faithfulness and loyalty that have been largely overlooked since late antiquity. In particular, Morgan’s work shone a light on how the common understanding of pistis had changed in Christian theology. Through the influence of thinkers like Augustine, pistis and its Latin counterpart fides began to be seen primarily as the belief in the truth of doctrines or an attitude in the heart and mind of the believer, losing some of its prior aspects of personal loyalty, allegiance, or trust of a sort that might be distinguishable from belief. Attention to the centrality of trust raises an interesting set of questions. Clearly you can be loyal to someone whom you do not fully trust. But can you trust in God even if you have significant doubts about whether God will come through for you in the relevant way — or even doubts that God exists?

“When Teresa’s book came out, Michael Pace and I started looking carefully at her work, and it was incredibly rich and interesting,” McKaughan recalls. At a meeting of the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Society, Morgan presented a summary of her book with McKaughan and Western Washington University professor Dan Howard-Snyder offering a response. “Through forming those relationships, we started talking about what more could be done in this area in philosophy and in theology,” McKaughan says.

LEAVING ROOM FOR RISK

As a philosopher, McKaughan is particularly interested in what he describes as the cognitive requirements of trust and the way that they may inform long-standing theological issues. “One view is the claim that trust involves not only relying on someone to come through for you but also believing that they will come through for you,” he says. “But some people say that trust doesn’t require such a belief — in fact it presupposes some uncertainty or risk.” If trust in God can leave room for — and perhaps even presupposes — uncertainty, or is even compatible with significant doubt, this raises the possibility that the question of tension between faith and reason might be approached from a different perspective.

“It’s often set up as an issue of whether certain doctrines or beliefs can be supported by sufficient evidence or reconciled with other things that we know through reason and observation,” McKaughan says. “But suppose that trust in God doesn’t require certainty or even confident belief, but rather a kind of hope or reliance even in the face of belief-precluding doubt. If so, it could turn out to be rational to trust in God under a much wider range of circumstances than is often assumed, including circumstances in which it arguably isn’t rational to hold confident beliefs with the same content.”

The project will also examine other philosophical aspects of trust, such as the ways in which it can be distinguished from reliance. “Trust arguably requires more than mere reliance, perhaps some sort of assumption that the person trusted will act with your good in view.” McKaughan says. “It is not enough for someone’s actions to be predictable or reliable.” Applied to theology, such a relational view of trust supports the view that trust in God is not equivalent to simply agreeing with certain doctrines or having a given set of beliefs about God. “A focus on interpersonal trust, rather than propositional beliefs, seems to us to be a more promising starting point for thinking about trust in God.”

THICKENING THE CONVERSATION

McKaughan and his partners also recognize the importance of including psychological perspectives in their interdisciplinary exploration of trust in God. As with philosophy, in psychology there is not much current work focused directly on trust in God, but there has been significant and fruitful recent investigation in related subjects ranging from interpersonal trust to religious attachment and religious struggle. “When we’ve talked to psychologists, their sense is that work on trust in God could benefit from a thicker conception of what that trust is,” McKaughan says. This is where dialogue with philosophers and theologians could be of particular service. “Psychologists need constructs that they can reliably measure. But if you start with a concept that’s too thin or insufficiently distinguished from other concepts in the neighborhood you might end up doing a lot of studies but producing results that may be of less interest or less clearly applicable to other disciplines engaging on the same topic.” Meanwhile, a closer familiarity with psychological approaches to trust in God will help the theologians, classicists, and philosophers frame their questions and conclusions in light of the ways that people actually seem to experience trust in God.

“I’m enthusiastic about the exceptional group that we’ve brought together,” McKaughan says. “It’s an outstanding interdisciplinary team of experts coming together for conversation.”

STILL CURIOUS?

Learn more about Dan McKaughan’s work on faith and on the philosophy of science.

Read the introduction to Teresa Morgan’s Roman Faith and Christian Faith: Pistis and Fides in the Early Roman Empire and Early Churches.