Krista's Journal: A Generous Approach to Religion in Our World

November 2, 2006

I've long known I would one day interview Martin Marty, who is lauded all around as one of America's foremost interpreters of religion. I always found him an insightful, lively Christian voice, moderate yet devout. He is considered by some to be a bridge between the worlds of liberal mainline Protestantism and Evangelical Christianity. And when I met him in person for the first time, I found him to be brilliant and also funny, human, and warm.

He warms up in the course of this radio hour, too. We begin with history — his passion — and for a few minutes he speaks rapid-fire about religious energies in American political life that took many cultural observers aback this year. Marty doesn't leap to make pronouncements, as contemporary pundits tend to do. Rather, he leaps to put things into perspective. The "religion story" of 2004, he illustrates, has been fermenting and gathering narrative shape for decades. Martin Marty can follow its thread all the way through the 20th century. He traces the emergence of politically active Evangelical Christianity, for example, to the Goldwater campaign of 1964.

But he cautions that observers should not be confused by the unity and focus that galvanizes broad coalitions of conservative Christians around single issues such as gay marriage. Such moral issues, when mobilized and sometimes exploited by way of politics, can make the cultural divide seem deeper than it is, and create an illusion of homogeneity within conservative religious America that is not there. Marty's perspective is global. And when he casts his eye beyond this country's present introspection, he describes an even more variegated present and future. Refreshingly, I think, he routinely speaks of Protestantisms, Evangelicalisms, and Pentecostalisms. In the simple act of pluralizing these broad categories, he defies their use as ideological boxes.

Martin Marty was also a visionary figure on the other "religion story" that has dominated headlines and driven world events since September, 2001 — religious fundamentalism. Beginning in 1987, he co-directed a six-year study, commissioned by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, on militant religious fundamentalisms in 23 religions across the world. He has fascinating scholarly observations about the general nature of Fundamentalism. For example, it is never a simple revival of "old-time religion." It always and everywhere arises in reaction to something. That "something" has inevitably to do with manifestations of modernity. And yet religious fundamentalist movements are exceptionally savvy — generally savvier than religious "liberals" — in using the tools of modernity, such as technology and media.

Whatever Martin Marty's subject — and our conversation ranges widely in this radio hour — this church historian and public theologian brings a kind of dialectical reasoning to bear. On the one hand, he offers critical, descriptive clarity about strains of religious thought that underpin and drive our culture forward. On the other hand, he uses such insights not to classify and categorize but to open his own imagination, and that of his readers and listeners, to the possibilities of the past and the future, the frailty and fullness of the human endeavor to know and mirror God.

I asked Marty for thoughts on the greatest religious forces of his lifetime. His list is eclectic. It includes Billy Graham and the theologians Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr, as well as scores of people, he says, "whose name you'll never hear." He sent me some quotes from one of them, the late theologian Joseph Sittler. Sittler was beloved by students and colleagues in his lifetime, but his works did not make it into history books. Martin Marty says his thought made the world a richer place for him. And this quote of Sittler's seems a fitting introduction to Martin Marty's generous, adventurous approach to religion in our country and our world:

St. Augustine, at the beginning of his Confessions, makes a great and beautiful statement: "Thou has made us for thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee." Back of that statement lies a proposition which says that the human is created for transcendence. It is the Jewish and Christian belief that we are meant for a selfhood that is more than our own selves—that we are by nature created to envision more than we can accomplish, to long for that which is beyond our possibilities… Faith is a longing.
This restlessness may make us want to throw in the towel—or to pull up our socks. You can play it either way. You can either be creatively restless, as before the unknowable, or you can simply collapse into futility. One of the goals of the Christian message is to join together the people of the way, the way of an eternally given restlessness, and to win from that restlessness the participation in God, which is all that our mortality can deliver.

Voices on the Radio

is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at The University of Chicago. He's authored many books, including Pilgrims in Their Own Land and Modern American Religion.

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