“A Celebration to Honor Martin Marty”

Hugo F. Sonnenschein
President, University of Chicago


The following tributes to Martin Marty—by Hugo Sonnenschein, Bill Moyers, Norman Lear, Elyse Nelson, and Clark Gilpin—were delivered at a dinner sponsored by the University of Chicago and held at the Chicago Historical Society on Marty’s 70th birthday (February 5, 1998). All of the text below is reprinted from volume 37, no. 2 of Criterion, a publication of the Divinity School of the University of Chicago.


Good evening and welcome. I would like to begin by thanking everyone who made this wonderful dinner possible, especially Harriet and the Marty family, Norman and Lyn Lear, Bill and Judith Moyers, our benefactors, and the members of the Honorary Committee. Happy Birthday, Marty. Being President of a great university is an enormous privilege, but it comes with some element of challenge.

For example, one is expected to have some knowledge of the work of the faculty—their books, their scientific discoveries, their appearances in the news. In addition, it is useful to remember the names of family members and to remember birthdays. As many of you may already know from this morning’s Tribune, today is also Andrew Greeley’s birthday. So I hope you will allow me to prove how well I do my work by recognizing Father Greeley’s birthday as well. Happy Birthday, Andrew.

Tonight we are celebrating Marty and his life’s work, and this outpouring of distinguished guests is a tribute to how much Marty means in the lives of so many people and the variety of ways in which he means so much.

On this campus, Marty is first a teacher and a creator of great ideas, an internationally acclaimed scholar and thinker. And it has been our privilege and honor to share Marty with the world.

Fortunately, there is much available to share. Marty is incredibly energetic, efficient, and generous, and so we have been led to feel that there is time and space for all of his children. And he makes it all seem so easy. Nobody is more “there” for our community than Marty, and yet in the course of his career he has published fifty books and over 4,300 articles.

I will tell you a story. As all of you know, Marty was recently awarded the National Humanities Medal for his many achievements, and I was there with him in Washington. At the White House ceremony, President Clinton joked about how Marty told him he almost didn’t come to the ceremony because he was scheduled to teach that day in Chicago. What President Clinton didn’t quite get—and what so many other people there that day just didn’t quite get—was that Marty really almost didn’t show up. Marty had a problem. In his thirty-four years as a teacher at The University of Chicago, he had only missed twelve classes—an astonishing record, even for The University of Chicago. His respect for his students—and we are all his students— means that his meetings with us are of the utmost importance. The point is this: Marty is a man with a profound sense of vocation, of calling. His first concern is not with a national award from the President, presented in the Rose Garden of the White House, but with his responsibility to his students, to his community, and to the creation of great ideas. This commitment to service, this generosity, this vocation, has defined Martin Marty’s life as a scholar, teacher, advisor and friend.

Once, when writing about his first visits to the University in the 1940s, Marty wrote:

“Weekends back then, I would hitchhike with my roommate to walk in wonder around The University of Chicago. The ‘Great Ideas’ beckoned from its towers, as did the Great Idea people . . . on whom we’d eavesdrop. My imagination was too small for the Great Idea that it would be my vocation some day to teach there.”

Today we can only be grateful that The University of Chicago had the Great Idea to invite Martin Marty to teach. He has contributed immeasurably to the world of Great Ideas that is The University of Chicago, and which so impressed him during the visits of his youth. We like to believe that this has been a wonderful platform for his vocation.

It is hard to imagine a University of Chicago without Martin Marty, and we are most hopeful that we won’t have to for a long while. Although the end of this school quarter marks Marty’s formal retirement, we plan for him to be with us frequently. This is your order to me, my order to his Dean, and the will of the faculty.

I hope that you enjoy this celebration of Martin Marty’s thirty-five years at The University of Chicago. May there be many more productive and joyous years of vocation to celebrate.


A Tribute (of Sorts) to Martin Marty

Bill Moyers
Television Journalist

Hi, my name is Bill, and I’m a recovering Southern Baptist. We’re not allowed to do the “Twelve Steps” because it sounds too much like dancing, so we maintain our sobriety by mixing with Lutherans. That’s how Judith and I met Martin E. Marty. We call him Martin E. Marty for short. It helps keep us from confusing him with the ThreeM Company, which is also Lutheran or otherwise it wouldn’t be located in Minnesota.

It also means we don’t get him mixed up with M & Ms, which is obviously a Lutheran product because, like Lutheran theology, it doesn’t come off on your hands. So it’s Martin E. Marty for Short—and Bald.

You must be wondering, how is it that of Martin E. Marty’s 675,413 closest friends, I am the one called upon to open this festive occasion commemorating his gerontology. Well, Judith was the first choice of the Dinner Committee until they learned she has a life-long habit of telling the truth. Since that would certainly cast a pall over the event, they turned to a journalist.

The choice may also have been influenced by the fact that I am probably the only person in this room who has read every book Marty has ever written, straight through, in the order they were published, beginning with Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Furthermore, I read them just as Marty wrote them, standing up in the shower. Moreover, I read them in the original Lutheran.

No one knows how many books Marty has written, including Marty. Many of his works have been published under a pseudonym, The Encyclopedia Britannica.

Nor do many people, even close friends, know that the thesis he wrote for his Ph.D. at The University of Chicago would one day be the most-read document in the White House. Its title—and I’m not making this up—is: The Uses of Infidelity.

What would you suspect from a Lutheran whose call to the ministry occurred when he was “a four-year-old awed by the dark theocratic gloom . . . that emanated from a Nebraskan pulpit whose shadow loomed over” him. So Marty wrote his first memoir when he was five. And he wrote his first book—A Short History of Christianity—on his first day of seminary while brushing his teeth. I’m not making all this up. It’s right there in the Who’s Who summary of his life and work, pages seven to eight-hundred fifty-nine, with a separate volume for the footnotes and index.

You should also know that the Chronicle of Higher Education now publishes an annual supplement just to report the honorary degrees Marty receives every year. He, himself, receives 250 periodicals which he carefully reads to see if he can find one that does not contain his by-line. His productivity is staggering. He has been known to deliver seventy lectures per year—all on the same day. No wonder he married a voice coach.

The accomplishments continue. The American Academy of Religion recently established the Martin E. Marty Award for the Public Understanding of Religion, and (you’re not going to believe this) the first recipient of his own prize was . . . Martin E. Marty. Any day now we can expect to hear that the Martin E. Marty Award For Humility Despite Overwhelming Genius goes to . . . Martin E. Marty. The Institute For Religion in American Life is planning the Martin E. Marty Award for the single major award not won in a given year by Martin E. Marty.

All of which is to say that we are dealing here with a human phenomenon and now I must get serious. The phenomenon is that this pastor, professor, editor, author, historian and journalist, this father, husband, and friend, who has for years been acknowledged to be the most influential interpreter of religion in America, could so consistently practice what he studies. I don’t know anyone who more fully embodies George Santayana’s notion that “religion, for all its poetic motley, comes closer than work-a-day opinion to the heart of things.” It is in all Marty so tirelessly does, so that the Director of the Public Religion Project is also the author of A Cry of Absence, a poignant moving meditation on the death of a wife; and the author of a monumental multi-volume study of modem American religion is also the trickster mind behind the bedeviling theology of Franz Bibfeldt; and the boy reared in towns named West Point and Battle Creek is the man who actively opposed American intervention in Vietnam and offered moral support to young men who refused to participate in that war on grounds of conscience; and this man so honored by the Academy and The Establishment is the same man who himself salutes radical political groups—even some with anarchic instincts—as moral agents in our society.

Martin Marty’s God is a big-hearted God, and Martin Marty’s America does not shrink from, nor fear, the new world tribalism that he himself saw coming twenty-five years ago. Perhaps his greatest contribution is to remind us, over and over again, of the importance of telling our stories: of belief and practice, of hope and defeat, of loss and the promise of redemption, of our ancestors, our saints, and our sinners, until from the great cacophony of voices and noise and clamor, until from all the tales, stories, and myths of the many, we just might discover the themes, rhythms and refrains common to the species. “One nation under God”—but whose God? That’s the rub. But the whole of Marty’s work has been to say: “Rub it, and be not afraid; that’s where the vitality comes from.” Furthermore, we have no choice but to make it work. In naming what is good about religion, and in alerting us to what has and can go wrong, in reminding us that while religion has a killing side, it also has a healing side, Marty makes it possible more carefully to draw the distinctions in whose nooks and crannies platitudes die, ironies abound, truth has air to breathe, and we can live poised between light and dark, between fear and freedom, between faith and doubt.

Someone long ago reminded me that one man finds in religion his literature and his science, while another finds in it his joy and his duty. In the fabric of Marty’s faith runs the strong weave of duty—he would not be a Lutheran were it otherwise. But all of us who are his friends know that the pattern is cut from joy. So Judith and I were delighted to co-host this event, with Harriet, Norman and Lyn, and we are grateful for your presence here. Now I’ll close, the sooner Marty can go home and write another book.


“A Singular Force of Nature”

Norman Lear
Television Producer

I have known Martin E. Marty for a long time. Since before I started wondering what my father’s hand was doing hanging out of my sleeve. It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows the schedule Martin Marty has kept all his working life that our first meeting was held on the run, at O’Hare airport.

I was nervous about meeting Marty because on the surface we had so little in common. He was a Midwestern Lutheran, I a New England Jew; he the author of some twenty-six hundred scholarly books—well, maybe only thirty or forty scholarly books at that time, but to me it might as well have been twenty-six hundred. Anyway, he was the scholarly book writer and renowned theologian and historian, an esteemed educator and true intellectual, and I was the man responsible for Archie Bunker, George Jefferson, Maude and Mary Hartman, arguably four of the least informed characters in the history of the mass media. Still, we took a fancy to one another immediately. I liked his haircut; he liked mine.

The year was 1980 and Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority had just broken into public view, exerting an astonishing influence on the presidential election and promising to deliver much more. Christian fundamentalism, for decades oblivious of politics and public affairs, had suddenly burst into the American mainstream promoting a level of intolerance and divisiveness unparalleled in modern times. I soon realized that the idea for the film I was then researching, a satire on the TV evangelists that were erupting all over the tube, no longer appealed to me. There needed to be a vigorous citizen response and a stout defense of our democratic traditions. In the course of consulting with a number of church leaders and public affairs experts around the country, the same name kept cropping up. “Martin Marty,” I heard again and again, “You must talk to Martin Marty.” At first I thought, “Martin Marty has to be a stand-up comic.” Then I realized, if he were a stand-up comic, he would be Marty Martin.

So I put in a call to Martin E. Marty at The University of Chicago. When I reached his office, his secretary said, “Oh, Mr. Lear, Dr. Marty just sat down to write his new book. I couldn’t think of interrupting him until he’s finished. Would you care to hold?” I couldn’t hold, so I called back in eleven minutes. He had just finished.

Our meeting at O’Hare, in the airport lounge, was brief and intense, but it proved indispensable at a critical moment in the birthing of People For the American Way. Martin drew upon his remarkable historical knowledge of religion, politics and American culture, to help clarify the central themes that would come to animate People For the American Way: tolerance, pluralism, free speech, religious liberty, and church/state separation. Most important of all, he helped us to understand and respect the followers of those religious charlatans, the good people who were simply seeking the answers they weren’t getting elsewhere.

But, what a moment it was meeting Dr. Marty. First of all, I’d never met anyone with quite his intensity of engagement with life: his curiosity and electrifying intelligence; his sweeping historical and cultural perspectives; his lifetime of study and involvement in Lutheran theology—and, despite all this, his deep humility and openness to every other open mind and religious tradition. There’s an old down-home prayer, from Texas, I believe, and every time I think of it I think of Marty: “Dear Lord, let me spend my life seeking the truth, but spare me the company of those who have found it!”

I have relied on Marty’s ability to share who he is and what he knows on many occasions, once in a most unusual circumstance. In 1982, early in our friendship, I produced a two-hour televised paean to the U.S. Constitution and religious liberty called “I Love Liberty,” and I asked Marty to come to California for a week or two to consult with the creative team. Can you imagine Marty, holed up with an array of Hollywood writers, preparing material for the likes of Robin Williams, Walter Matthau, Barry Goldwater, Jane Fonda, Burt Lancaster and Barbara Streisand? He was wonderful. He sat there day after day, that Cheshire smile, bow tie akimbo, and helped us fashion a show of which none of us could have been more proud.

It was a brave show with Marty’s help, because it dared to mix talk of the spirit with sheer entertainment. I can remember a moment late in the process when two good friends, to whom I had given a draft of the script, came to see me to give me their critique. Both had far more experience in this arena than Marty, but Marty and I met with them alone. They voiced deep concerns about what they had read and asked me—no, begged me—to reconsider whole portions of the script. “It won’t play,” they said. “You can’t address the spirit, social commentary and sheer entertainment without diminishing the impact of all three.” I looked over at Marty, at that moment enjoying his ninth day in show business. He just shook his head—and we didn’t change a word.

Martin Marty and I became acquainted through our shared love of America and its pluralistic traditions, but our friendship really ripened over the years on dozens of long walks in the New England woods in autumn. During one of our early walks, I asked Marty to give me the shortest definition he knew of worship. “Gratitude,” he said. And then he added: “In prayer. God answers the soul’s attitudes, not the words.” I love that. I love what it’s meant to me. Since meeting Martin Marty I can’t tell you how sorry I’ve come to feel for those people who have no invisible means of support.

Eight years ago, I was hospitalized, and had several weeks of recovery. Each morning, for every day of that recovery, I received in the mail from Marty another uplifting, life- affirming quote, from ancient literature to modern poetry, from the sublime to the ridiculous. Let me just read you the first and the last. On the first day he sent me this from Archy and Mehitabel:

“Do the best you can, without straining yourself too much and too continuously, and leave the rest to God. If you strain yourself too much you’ll have to ask God to patch you up. And for all you know, patching you up may take time that it was planned to use some other way.”

On the last day, Marty wrote: “This is the last word from the hospital to a healthy-enough Norman.” And he quoted Groucho Marx in Duck Soup: “Go! And never darken my towels again!” What a friend! What a man! What a night!

Goethe said, “At the moment of commitment, the entire universe conspires to assure your success.” That could explain this remarkable fellow. None of us have ever spent a moment with Marty to which he hasn’t been committed. Those here assembled, I know, stand second only, behind his wonderful wife Harriet and his children, when we say: We love you much, Martin Marty. Happy Birthday!


“Martin Marty: Teacher and Preacher”

Elyse Nelson
Ministry Student, University of Chicago

It is an honor to be at this 70th birthday celebration for Martin Marty. I stand here tonight as a representative of the Divinity School’s Ministry Program to speak about Dr. Marty as professor, and specifically as a teacher of future ministers.

My first class at The Divinity School was Marty and Dean Gilpin. This course was our initiation into the Chicago world, and to the concept of the public church and ministry.

Through Marty’s lectures, conversations, jokes, and anecdotes, one thing was alarmingly clear: ministry really matters. Now, this may seem a moot point; of course it matters. But to an ecumenical, nondenominational classroom filled with diverse, opinionated, passionate, questioning, and doubting students, this was the message we needed to hear. That is why many of us came to The University of Chicago, itself a religious microcosm of the real world. We were wondering: is traditional ministry valuable in today’s world? Can I be of service in this vocation? Marty welcomed our doubts and affirmed the necessity of public ministry. It did still matter in today’s pluralistic, post-Christian culture, and the work of the church demanded educated, committed, and public women and men. Thank you, Dr. Marty, for that early encouragement and counsel. Your vocabulary of public church and ministry has helped to shape my own call to ordained ministry.

But limiting my remarks about this teacher to that classroom would share an incomplete picture of my experience of Marty as Professor during these past two and a half years, for his teaching expands beyond the classroom. Last spring, Dr. Marty spoke at a banquet for students, their teaching pastors, and lay committees, and expressed his philosophy of the Ministry Program. He said that Swift Hall was where we would get the tools for ministry. With these tools in hand, they would then SET US LOOSE. What a gift those words were to exhausted, over-extended students! Marty’s brief comments captured the essence of the Program and his own teaching philosophy. In a pluralistic and diverse educational setting, we would get the nuts and bolts of tradition, theology, history, and criticism. Our toolbox full, we would then be set loose in order to embark on the path of ministry.

And finally, Marty as Professor extends to the pulpit. Two weeks ago, Marty preached at Bond Chapel on the nature of call. He spoke not just to ministry students, but to the entire community of faculty, staff, and students. By doing so, he expanded the notion of call, vocation, and public work into all realms of the academy. He encouraged us to listen to our experiences, to other people, and to ourselves as we made life choices. All careers are vocations.

Dr. Marty, as Professor, you are Teacher and Preacher. And to these roles you have brought your gifts for public scholarship and ministry. Thank you for sharing with so many students your prolific scholarship, your hospitality, your humor, and your broad knowledge of things divine. Happy Birthday!


“A Certain Bias: Remarks on the New Martin Marty Center”

W. Clark Gilpin
Dean of the Divinity School and Professor of History of Christianity and Theology

For many years now, on the wall of Marty’s office at the Divinity School, there has been taped a small sheet of paper—almost, but not quite, hidden by the books that surround it, from floor to ceiling, in every direction. The paper bears only a short quotation, composed by the Puritan John Winthrop, first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, as he wrestled in the late 1620s with the question of whether he should stake his entire estate on sailing from old England to New to found a colony.

The quotation reads: “When God intendes a man to a worke he setts a Byas on his heart so as tho’ he be tumbled this way and that yet his Bias still drawes him to that side, and there he rests at last.”

Some people who know Marty less well might be struck by the phrase “tumbled this way and that,” associating it with the staggering schedule of travel that takes Marty to an uncountable number of colleges, universities, seminaries news rooms, television studios, churches, synagogues, and conferences to discuss religion’s relation to health, the humanities, ethics, and public life. But, what is unfailingly evident to those of us here this evening is instead “the bias of the heart,” whose consistent rhythm enlivens both his myriad activities and his associations with us: his family, friends, students, and colleagues.

At The University of Chicago, the academic work that “God intendes” Marty to do displays this same bias of the heart. It is not a narrowing bias. Quite the contrary, Marty enters every encounter with the expectation of learning and changing. Marty opens his recent book The One and the Many with William James’ observation that “the world is full of partial purposes and partial stories . . . to sum up, the world is ‘one’ in some respects and ‘many’ in others.” Marty has, to a remarkable degree, the historian’s delight in these particular and partial stories, while telling those stories in ways that alert us to what we hold and hope in common—the partial oneness of our world. Marty’s bias—critically open, inquisitively engaged, and synthetic—engenders substantive scholarship that is accessible to the wider public, not simply because it is cogent, but because, in Marty’s phrase, it creates “spaces and places” for conversation to develop as real exchange across the lines of religious tradition, academic discipline, race, class, or political loyalty.

In his long association with The University of Chicago Divinity School as student and, for thirty-five years, as professor, there have been strong mutual influences. Marty’s scholarly bias has both reflected and shaped The Divinity School’s own long-term bias. Throughout his distinguished career, he has epitomized the type of religious scholarship toward which our school itself has aspired, when we are at our best, doing the work we are intended to do. Like Marty, Chicago has consistently pursued research that is oriented toward public life, that concerns itself with the religious health of civil society, that explores at-depth and from interdisciplinary perspectives issues of perennial human importance. I think, for example, of Marty’s own study of world fundamentalist movements, Don Browning’s work on religion, culture and the American family, Jean Bethke Elshtain’s assessment of religion and American civil society, William Schweiker’s theological analysis of property and possession in Western culture, and Susan Schreiner’s interpretation of the twin problems of religious certainty and skepticism in modern thought. In these and similar inquiries, Chicago scholars have emphasized that disciplinary and comparative interpretations of religior offer critical resources both to better understand the religions of the world and to responsibly practice any particular religious tradition.

With Marty’s retirement at the end of this academic term, we face the question of how to express more consistently the bias of the heart expressed in the very best work we have done, are doing, and will do together. Thus, this seems a most appropriate time to launch a major educational initiative that honors Marty’s innumerable contributions, gives permanent institutional form to his scholarly and religious commitments, and accentuates the bias that we share.

I am therefore delighted to announce tonight, on Marty’s 70th birthday, the establishment at The University of Chicago Divinity School of a major new research institute for theology and religion: The Martin Marty Center.

The Martin Marty Center will study religion’s role in public life and culture. Its projects will emphasize the public communication of research conducted at The Divinity School. Through the Marty Center, The Divinity School intends to educate scholars who understand the rich diversity of the world’s religious traditions and who can effectively communicate that understanding to citizens, religious leaders, and professionals in other field’s of endeavor.

Marty Center research will range broadly across religion’s historical and contemporary relationships to politics, science and the arts. It will address themes of perennial human significance, such as the problem of human suffering, as well as more immediate issues on the American civic agenda, such as religions role in politics or health care. When designing new research projects, the Marty Center will actively consult with religious, civic, and a. professional groups, in order to bring opinion makers into direct contact with scholars on the leading edge of research in religion. Through engagement with religious and civic consultants, faculty will more clearly delineate the scope and import of the questions they intend to pursue. At the same time, these public consultants to faculty research will have the opportunity to discuss ways in which perspectives based on religious and theological scholarship can enhance their own understanding of civic, professional, and personal life.

Throughout, the Marty Center will use these publicly engaged research projects to enhance the teaching skills and professional self-understanding of students preparing to become ministers or professors in universities, colleges, and theological seminaries. The Marty Center will sponsor interdisciplinary workshops and colloquia that will move student research beyond specialized fields in order to identify common issues and scholarly questions. It will introduce students to conversation partners in church and civic communities, by organizing supervised teaching opportunities that engage students with diverse audiences. By involving graduate students in its research and communication projects, the Marty Center will provide them with challenging opportunities, at the beginning of their careers, to think of themselves as public intellectuals, engaged in research that a can reach a wide public audience.

To meet these objectives, The Divinity School intends to raise six million dollars for the Martin Marty Center over the next five years, and I am delighted to report this evening that, through the generosity of many people, including several of you, we have commitments of two and one-quarter million dollars toward that goal. I especially wish to thank the Lilly Endowment: first, for a generous gift toward general operating support, to be spent over the first five years of the Marty Center’s life and, second, for the wise counsel of its Vice President for Religion, Mr. Craig Dykstra, throughout our planning process.

The Marty Center builds upon the idea that, when students and faculty critically examine the broad human significance of the scholarship to which they have devoted themselves, it will fuel the intellectual power and profundity of their work. It builds upon the idea that when citizens are invited to explore civic life from the vantage point of serious scholarship on religion, they will encounter fresh and revised perspectives on culture and the common good. Martin Marty has displayed a remarkable genius for cultivating transformative exchanges of this sort, and The Divinity School intends to continue that enterprise through the Marty Center.

A half-century from now, when a student arrives at The Divinity School, we intend the Marty Center to open the possibility for her that the life of scholarship can wrestle with issues of perennial human importance, that the life of scholarship can help fellow citizens understand the roles that religion plays—for good, and sometimes for ill—in world cultures, that the life of scholarship includes a consequential public responsibility. And, in the course of exploring these possibilities through the Marty Center, she may also perhaps discover that, “when God intendes her to a work he setts a Byas on her heart so as tho’ she be tumbled this way and that yet her Bias still drawes her to that side, and there she rests at last.”


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