Half a Life in Religious Studies: Confessions of an ‘Historical Historian’

From The Craft of Religious Studies, Jon R. Stone, ed. New York: St. Martin’s, 1998.

This autobiographical and programmatic piece reflects on what it is to be an historian, a scholar, and a person of faith. 

By Martin E. Marty

When people ask whether I am in “religious studies,” “history,” or “divinity,” I answer “Yes.” It all depends upon what question is being asked at any moment, in what context, and toward what end. We all express ourselves through various modes of being or universes of discourse. When asked at this moment to reflect on what someone in my generation of historians might wish to pass on to scholars in the two generations that are at work succeeding ours, I pause. Given my peculiar history vis-a-vis religious studies—a curricular zone for which I never consciously prepared myself—will not everything seem idiosyncratic if not idiopathic?

Attempting to answer that question, I looked around me at colleagues in my generation and in those that were our students, in theirs, and then it dawned on me: the professions of most of us are idiosyncratic; that is, they bear “structural or behavioral characteristics peculiar to an individual.” At least some of us display “idiopathic” career patterns, which means that the cause of the disease that led us into our fields is not fully known. Rather than be disturbed by that feature, I make a virtue of the necessity of showing how different from each other we all are.

In a lifelong battle against conformity to a single model of what religious studies is and how scholars in it are to think and behave, I will unembarrassedly drop any masks that academics are trained to hide behind, and accept the invitation to be autobiographical. This means that, no more than any other colleague would I be able to offer my career, outlook or achievement as a template, a gauge or pattern others could follow even if they would. Instead, it is designed to be an emboldener: if I could get to this curricular area through routes this circuitous and have this much enjoyment in it, why not “be yourself” and make the most of the routes you have taken, have to take?

Right off, I am all but violating a norm of the humanistic culture we are supposed to share, since the study of religion belongs to humanistic culture. Humanistic cultures, philosopher Ernest Gellner reminds us, are cultures based on literacy. Pre- or non-literate cultures rely on a kind of tribal wisdom, passed on from seniors and sages to successive generations. I am being asked for this moment to act the role of the senior sage and to address some who are in the figurative tribe of religious studies professionals. But since those who come to what is being “passed on” here do so not in front of my rocking chair but through a text, this text in this book, I suppose we check out all right in respect to what the humanities intend to be.

Still, one is uneasy for reasons that have already begun to show. In the academy we are trained to suppress reference to the “I” of the scholar, yet this invitation calls for an orgy of -ism. We are so accustomed to humanistic culture’s dependence on texts and their analogues—town maps, monuments, dance charts, cathedral floor plans, and the like—that it is hard to make an intellectual case without constant reliance on footnoted authorities; yet here we must. Also, regarding one’s self as a senior or a sage is a difficult act for a person who thinks of himself as a perpetual 35-year-old who is not sure what he wants to be when he grows up. Picturing juniors gathering around the metaphorical campfire of our teaching and writing tribe, in eagerness to hear valuable anecdotes that might instead reveal signs of anecdotage, demands a strongly developed sense of fantasy. Yet here we are, you and I, transacting. Pope Leo X once said, “God has given us the papacy; let us enjoy it.” I have bee given this forum and intend to enjoy it.

To begin at the beginning, it strikes me that most people in religious studies are still self-conscious about the study of religion and its closeness to the expression of faith. Folklore at the American Academy of Religion, in tried and trite and true tellings, finds AAR scholars wearing AAR badges on elevators in hotels they share with Rotarians or Kiwanians. “What religion are you?” they are asked. Or they hear joshing: “Oh, oh, we better behave and not be profane. We are sharing the elevator with you religious folk!” To which the responses are: “We’re not religious! We study religion. We don’t behave. We’re profane. Don’t get us wrong!”

The roots of this more-secular-than-thou attitude, which often extends from elevators to curricular discussions, are usually in the childhoods of the scholars. Interview almost any who are emphatically distanced from religion and you will find that, more often than not, they are dealing with what John Dewey called his childhood religion: a “laceration,” old wounds. Or they are embarrassed by the provincialism of their adolescent spheres, where commitments were forced on them, or had been made naively —and necessarily were later broken. Temple Emanu-El or Old First Church was the symbol of boredom, niceness, repression, and narrowness, precisely the elements of life we, the liberated, spend our lives rejecting. For those of us in religious studies who remain in continuity with their childhood faith tradition or have been “born again” and habituated into another, most find it discreet and civil not to bring the subject up, lest we look pious or sound apologetic.

Here comes my own religious studies-based caveat: don’t get me wrong, I find myself saying. I am not suggesting that one must be pious or apologetic, a believer or a practitioner, to be a good religious studies scholar. I am only promoting a notion forged by experience of decades in encounters, at AAR conventions and on the site visits that this wanderer has made, that we do best if we are ourselves, and use attitudes toward or against faith that are part of the accidents and contingencies of life to understand what we are teaching. This would be opposed to artificial and militant distancing in the name of an objectivity that only other cultural war laggards in the academy are still looking for.

I think of how many North American scholars of religion, now liberally at home in pluralist societies, were brought up in fundamentalist Protestantism or in sheltered and often repressive ultra-conservative Catholicism. To spend their life fighting their past is an activity interesting only to them. To spend it transforming the substance and structure of childhood training into adult and professional skills that encourage empathy, listening, and criticism, strikes me as the most mature and helpful use of such pasts.

The Roots of Commitment to Religious Studies

My own first path to religious studies had four elements: familial, catechetical, ecclesial, and confessional training combined to form a matrix that I did not experience as repressive, though many peers found it so. Translate my four adjectives ending in “-al” to real life, beginning with familial. I was brought up in a family that fused the heritages of Swiss Reformed and German Lutheran nurture. This occurred in Dust Bowl and Depression Era Nebraska, in a county that even today, according to the denominational censuses, is listed in the atlas as being 100.2 percent “churched,” mainly Catholic and Lutheran.

A clue to what one does with beginnings like this in religious studies: We scholars have to remember or learn that the faith, in cases where there was faith, that elders like mine professed and taught us did not look to them like anything we now call “religion,” let alone a subject for “religious studies.” The universe of meanings and practices were fired point blank at us children. In a gentler picture, it was presented as a world of threat and promise, divine law and divine grace. The tone of teaching was somewhat polemical, but not grievously so. Others of faith or of no faith were simply “others.” They and what they believed and practiced were simply “out there,” serving neither as subjects for copying nor even as objects for studying. “We” had to make sense of our own ordinary and sometimes desperate lives, and the adult world set out to show us how they were doing so.

As children of the Enlightenment, even when as respectable postmoderns we repudiate “the Enlightenment Project,” we often forget that our parents and teachers and rabbis and chaperones were also children of the Enlightenment, but they often found ways also to be people of faith—as the vast majority around us profess to be (“ask Dr Gallup”).

The advantage for religious studies of the kind of background I have described was available to many in my generation and may be repeated in the experience of a minority of scholars who are younger. I recognize that thousands of others in religious studies now have the opposite kind of past: religionless, marked by parental apathy, nurtured in college along a bewildering cafeteria line of options, none of which one could take seriously, and none of which provided grounding. To such, many in my generation’s kind of experience may seem antique, but I hope not worthless.

This personal background has helped me and my kind, lifelong, to remember that the people who believe and practice what we scholars classify and analyze as “religion” for “religious studies” is to them simply immediate experience, a given world. My childhood reference does not mean by any means that our family and the families around us thought we had all the answers. We and they could be benumbed, stupefied, silenced, or angered by the presentations of the mysteries of faith in that stark climate, just as we could be quickened, enlightened, moved to speak, or filled with delight by unwarranted benignities and mercies. So it is, I have always thought, with most of the folk that scholars of religion study. I wish more of the scholars would take the risk of manifesting that enlivening ambiguity in their teaching and public expression.

Secondly, I mentioned catechetical formation, an element that I expect and almost hope many will find idiosyncratic and esoteric—which means, ripe for retrieval. The study of a religion, our religion, came to us in a form that was both static, in the form of monologues expounding scriptures or traditions and, at times, dialogical, prompting conversation. We memorized a catechism and, already as children, were taught to use its question and answer form as a stimulus to our own inquiries, expressions of doubt, and affirmations. Recall that etymologically “catechetical” has to do with “resounding in the ear of.”

The catechismal was also, in its way, systematic. Paul Tillich often said that he liked to teach in classrooms where students had long and deep steeping in Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, or other scholasticism. They at least had something arranged that he could help them rearrange. Those who lacked all acquaintance with system were interesting—Tillich liked to work with chaos—but were at a disadvantage when it came to experimenting with the new.

The advantage of this catechismal background for religious studies has also always struck me as dear, and I hear similar affirmations from others, whether they critically affirm “their” catechism or its analog, or reject it. The religions we study, be they “primitive” or “high,” folk or sophisticated, tend to have a substance. In faiths such as that professed in my parental world, there is some accent on “belief that” as well as “belief in.” I would argue in other contexts, including with historians of religion or anthropologists who stress ritual and behavioral elements, that all the expressions we call religion exhibit some sort of cognitive or substantive dimensions that undergird their practices. It strikes me as romantic on one hand or condescending on the other to suggest that “primitives” have no intellectual structure to their ritualized lives.

Whatever it was intended to do centuries ago, the catechetical approach now at least potentially empowered us and inspired us less to argue than to converse. In recent years we note much attention among philosophers like Michael Oakeshott and theologians like David Tracy who use the model of conversation in religious thought. We had a head start on this. I hope that the next a two or three generations of religious studies experts refine the approach that combines both substance and conversational a encounter.

Third, the childhood approach to religious studies was ecclesial, and, in ways, often misunderstood by some; decades later it remains so. At the gatherings or convenings of the American Academy of Religion and other scholarly societies one senses a company of scholars disdaining the idea of being found present at a mosque, synagogue, or church. Away from the gatherings and conventions, I visit hundreds of campuses and find many of the same scholars positively related to local worshipping congregations. One thing tends to happen to many when we scholars gather and something different happens when we disperse. Maybe something about professionalism is here revealed.

On ecclesia and community: I underwent training for pastoral ministry in the context of churchly prep school, college, and theological seminary. This meant that the study of religion was provincial and professional. Provincial means that we explored scriptural, historical, and theological texts within a defined (and prejudicial) province, in this case conservative Lutheranism. Professional means that the learning was designed to make graduates effective practitioners and leaders of religious communities. All this occurred without much reference, or certainly without much positive reference, to the non-Lutheran or non-Christian surroundings that made up our culture, or world culture. Of course, that approach therefore represented some disadvantages later on, when it became urgent to make sense of the larger environment, the different, the other.

I am not sure that the positive values of the ecclesial or communal experience have been understood or appreciated among generations where late-Enlightenment hyperindividualism in religion and other spheres came to be taken for granted. I like to make the case that the scholar, if moved by faith, may benefit from putting to work his or her complex and ambiguous mix of faith and nonfaith, communal experience and private search, when trying to understand others. Many suppress the experience of religious communities while trying to impart to students a sense that religion past and religion elsewhere cannot be grasped apart from comprehension of this communal dimension.

That paragraph might sound like an injunction, “Go to church!” I am not forthright or self-assured enough to preach that, though I have had African-American religious studies colleagues who were emboldened to shout it as part of their contribution to religious studies. At least a willing suspension of disbelief or dispractice, a bracketing of the hermeneutics of suspicion long enough that one might experience and understand the minuses and pluses of religious congregating, can be a plus. When speaking of possible values in congregating, I hasten to add that those of us who are members of religious communities, and as many juniors as seniors in the profession may be such, are not likely to initiate bed-checks and scoldings in a search for Sabbath or Sunday slugabeds in order to increase empathy and nuance in religious studies!

The advantage of the kind of background of ecclesial practice for religious studies I have described here was not as clearly advantageous in this case as were the other two, familial and catechetical backgrounds. But something vital could be rescued from it, and thousands of scholars in religious studies who share rootage in ecclesial and professional training have done such rescuing.

Lifelong after such training, whether later it is reaffirmed or rebelled against, our kind has reflexively been poised to be sensitive to the forms of community in which religious meanings have characteristically developed. In an era when academics perceive and perhaps experience individualistic “spirituality” at most, the ecclesial framework makes possible analogical thinking about communal expression, so easily forgotten in the postindustrial and postmodern West, where most of what we call “religious studies” goes on.

Now it is time to note the most problematic of the four inherited marks of so many in religious studies: the confessional, not in the sense of “true confessions” but of creeds. This was my fourth mark: from age four to 24 I experienced teaching in the confessional context. This had to be and was radically transformed when I entered religious studies in a pluralist and partly secularized cultural context. Our self-enclosed confessionalism had often been perverted into an orthodoxism of “this you have to believe in order to belong and be right.” Confessions had instead been intended chiefly to say “this we believe, and if you want to understand us, you have to hear and understand this.” I was pleased to find such a note in one of my theological heroes, H. Richard Niebuhr, who helped me make a transition from the cocoon version to the expressive and expansive interpretation of confession.

Some in religious studies will say that any vestigial trace of a confessional bias, and of course it is a bias, is detrimental in at least two ways. It first assumes that belief that, the content of confessions connected with dogma, colors all the things we call religion. This it does not or, at least for most of us, need not do in any exclusive way, at least not in our Western ways of apprehending belief. Second, because the confessional mode is prejudicial, biased, and subjective, it may blind the confessor, the creedalist, so that she or he cannot express empathy for the different, the other.

Such threats to integrity from confessionalism or such biases are obvious dangers to learning, of course, and they have often properly evoked a response of suspicion or rejection in my generation, just as they have among those who are younger but who also experienced similar modes of teaching. But I would argue that varying prejudgments or biases color the thinking of everyone in religious studies, no matter their background. Robert N. Bellah and any number of other analyzers have rather provocatively but, in my understanding, successfully suggested that the ethos of Enlightenment era and postmodern academic study of religion alike generate and depend upon a kind of religious ethos, almost a quasi-religion itself. Such a creed might be rooted in Enlightenment rationalism, Nietzschean or Marxian or Darwinian or Freudian precommitments, gender, class, ideology, or postmodern relativisms. To those who stand outside any of these, each looks like an informal and thus especially formidable confession that also colors religious studies.

Though I have some psychological and biographical clues, I have not been swayed by any intellectual case that suggests why prejudgments or perspectives shared in their awesomely broad spectra of options (“Judeo-Christian”) by over 80 percent of the North American people can be almost uniquely the subjects of suspicion and scorn by many in the academy. Tell someone that you have adopted Zen Buddhist ways, are on an individualized spiritual search or, like me, are an Aquarian, and you will be honored, or at worst smiled at with measured condescension. I’d like to think that Mennonites, Catholics, or Conservative Jews could get off so lightly.

That paragraph may sound defensive, as I do not wish to be. More positively: an advantage of the confessional background is therefore ambiguous, but there are compensations in it. One can acquire from it both the impulse and the skill to engage in what some colleagues at the University of Chicago have called “metaphysical crap-detection.” On the basis of the saying about the thief, “it takes one to know one,” one might observe those brought up in confessional settings “knowing one” who may not know that she or he is some sort of confessionalist. H. Richard Niebuhr among theologians later taught us to look at history or at anything else from within and from without, as insider and as outsider. The phenomenologists among religious studies experts later taught us to bracket our precommitments and prejudgments in order to begin to understand a phenomenon. We at least knew what some of those presuppositions were that we had to suspend, to bracket, to make the subject of the Husserlian epoché.

The Role of Contingency and Accident in Profession

We are not simple objects of fate, bound by childhood, adolescent, and collegiate experiences. But we are not simply masters of it either, thanks to the role of accident, contingency, luck (good and bad), and serendipity, as my case illustrates. Nothing in the four elements already mentioned directly or intentionally led me to what we mean by “the study of religion” in the academy. Here begins an account of the second path, one that I find many in my generation and successive ones have walked, but one that is not always identified or celebrated. My version of contingency is perhaps more bizarre than many, so I shall bring it up and hurry past it, hoping readers will thereupon explore the value and meaning of their own accidental tours on the blurry map that leads to religious studies. Again, I think “luck” has its place in philosophical and theological speculation, but I bring it up here as an historian who is unmoved by what are called “covering laws” of the sort certain schools of sociology would impose on human behavior, especially in religion. Here is my improbable course:

I coinvented and helped promote the pretend-theologian Franz Bibfeldt (see Marty and Brauer 1994) while I was a theological student, and therefore was seen by seminary administrators and ordination boards as being too immature and irresponsible to represent their church in the United Kingdom, where I had been informally scheduled to go (to minister to post-World War II displaced people from the Baltics). I was instead sent to assist a mature and responsible senior minister near Chicago. He and the congregation we together served compelled the assistant ministers to do graduate work toward the doctorate. Speaking therefore of accident: I ponder and look around: how many others entered religious studies as a punishment, a disciplining before there was a discipline? The Polonius in me is tempted to say, and says: “If I could make something of such a bizarre route to religious studies, so can you transform your accidents into purpose.”

Back to my plot: so it was that for two years after ordination and before seven more years of pastoral ministry after the doctorate, I was coerced and attracted to study at the University of Chicago where Sidney E. Mead and Jerald C. Brauer in religious history and Daniel J. Boorstin in history history, among others, became my mentors. At age 26, in 1954, I finally and for the first time and utterly without forethought encountered the bewildering world of religious studies. Joachim Wach, a pioneer in the History of Religions, and one who focused on Verstehen, understanding, was the prime influence at Chicago in those years. While I took no courses under him, his approach provided a climate in which I could appraise the “process theology” then regnant among the theologians, who provided the other pole in divinity at that time and place. Between those two poles I pursued the questions of what it was to be an historian in religious contexts and a religionist in historical contexts, but without having developed much of a teachable or scholarly framework for understanding how to go about pursuing these questions systematically or vocationally.

I am supposed here to address particularly the historians in religious studies, but I hope to write in such a way that I do not lose readers from other disciplines in the paragraphs ahead. I like to compare the necessary and inevitable muddiness of disciplinary outlines historians have to use with those who can enjoy neatness. Historians have to work with and might as well enjoy messiness and blurring of lines. So we ask: Do we represent a definable subdiscipline within religious studies? Do we historians simply offer an enriching “provision of historical perspective” for all the other subdisciplines? Is our contribution, if any, the result of what we can bring from foreign disciplines as we make our intrusions from “secular” social sciences and humanities?

Whatever the intention, I have tried to make a virtue of this disciplinarily messy necessity and like to counsel others, “you” in whatever your discipline, to do the same. That is, lifelong one tries to perfect the inherited subdisciplines of one’s discipline and, lifelong, one learns to turn to advantage the fact that it is hard to define the borders of those disciplines or to isolate and define them. The advantage of this? One gains some contentment with that ill-defined discipline of history and this equips one for religious studies, none of whose subjects or objects (“the religious” people) experiences or expresses religion on lines that match the academic curricula’s disciplinary outlines.

Again, back to autobiographical plotting: in 1963, seven years after receiving the doctorate, at age 35, the proverbial, or at least biblical and Dantesque, middle of life, I was invited to return from a parish pastorate to the University of Chicago to teach. The path was again indirect, not intentionally chosen. This fork in the path did not demand repudiation of the familial, catechetical, ecclesial, or confessional life that was now part of my autobiography. At the same time, in the pluralist and in many ways secular setting of a Divinity School that is physically positioned at the axis mundi of the campus flagpole and at home in the secular university, little of my background made much difference to colleagues or students. It had done so to those who had appreciated or rejected my pastoral ministry in the pluralist and in many ways secular setting where I had been ministering.

It has always been good for my historical work that no colleagues or students, no citizens of the city or the university community, bowed or saluted or honored any part of my four background contexts for religious studies. Some in the academy, as noted, might dishonor such backgrounds, perhaps to cover up for aspects of their own autobiographies that paralleled mine.

Schopenhauer once said that you spend the first half of your life writing its script and the second half interpreting it. From exactly age 35 until exactly age 70, when I plan to retire from teaching, I have been doing that interpreting and intend to interpret on a set of three curricular routes that together make up the third path of my scholarly life. This works itself out in the context of a professional school of divinity, a social scientific history department, and a humanistic committee on the history of culture. These are three PhD granting routes in three disciplinary contexts at the University of Chicago. I found and find them ideal vantages to pursue the substance and the methods of religious studies, though I am aware that most scholars and teachers will work in only one of the three. We mixed-up ones do have to be reflective concerning our vocation and disciplines in special ways.

Back to the life course: For those who need proper names to go with themes such as “substance and methods of religious studies” I should report that by 1963 Joachim Wach was gone from the university, but his influence lived on in Joseph Kitagawa. By then Mircea Eliade, who brought his distinctive approach, was the strong influence, though the then and always since provocative African-American scholar Charles Long did more to stimulate my historical approach to religious studies. In passing, let me express at least mild discontent over the fact that Eliadeans and their counterparts appropriated the word “history,” as in “History of Religions,” for their Religionswissenschaftliche studies, colored though these were by various structural, synchronic, and symbolic bypassings of what ordinary historians call history. Compensatorily, these historians of religions taught this historian of religions to deal with the different, the other, the sacred, in terms that differed widely and wildly from the modes of dealing I had brought to Chicago at midlife.

Disciplinarily, my own intellectual history has led me through a vocation of teaching and scholarly writing on modern, Western, originally North Atlantic oecumenical (northwest Europe, British Isles, North America), and finally United States religious history. All this occurred within a genus whose species used to be called “church history.” At Chicago it was called History of Christianity. But more properly, if our colleagues had not camped on the words History of Religions, we would better describe our work in that category. The numbers of Jewish students or students of Judaism whose dissertations I have mentored have the oxymoronic, idiosyncratic, and, were they ungenerous, they would have to say, sometimes ignominious experience of living with this anomaly: their histories of Judaism occurred in the History of Christianity area!

I have also spent almost as much energy studying what Benjamin Franklin called “publick religion” and what others from Rousseau through Durkheim and beyond Robert Bellah have called “civil religion,” as I have probing the history of Christianity. Still, “church” as concrete object or Thing provided a skeleton, “Christianity” as a cultural complex has been a fleshing out, and “religion” has been the breath of ethos in the body of much of the West that I studied multiculturally in premulticultural days, and still do.

Not assuming that readers know my works, I should mention that the history endeavor has issued in the publication of my books on the EuroAmerican church complex (such as The Modem Schism); on United States Christianity, in one case on the assigned topic of the Protestant mainstream alone (which means Righteous Empire); on American religion in the broadest sense (in Pilgrims in Their Own Land: 500 Years of American Religion and the by now three-volume Modern American Religion on the 20th century pluralist experience). On occasion I have been asked to do some generalizing, some mapping work that verges on the discussion of method (as in A Nation of Behavers).

Sometimes I have also been asked to write historically-informed essays that throw oblique light on issues in religious studies, as in ) the textbookish Protestantism, the edge-of-religion Varieties of Unbelief, and the publick religionist Religion and Republic. Note that twice I have used and shall again use the verb “asked”: except for filling assignments in periodicals where I am an editor, such as, currently. Church History, The Christian Century, Context, and Second Opinion, I have never written an article or book unless it was “asked for, solicited, commissioned.” Editors, publishers, or commissions have made requests that I take up this or that subject matter in this or that medium. Doing research for such assignments has contributed greatly to my continuing education, serendipitously.

Working in Several Modes, Including the Comparative

Here is where contingency led me to the somewhat idiosyncratic point of having to write, and then choosing to write, in a variety of modes. Sometimes, editors of journals, tenure committees, cautious colleagues in numerous disciplines, and those who strike me as affectatious in their ambition to be known as “scholars’ scholars,” “theologians’ theologians,” and the like, or to “protect the integrity of academic disciplines,” often school and advise younger scholars to be conformist, to restrict themselves to the impenetrable style and formal academese favored by some m the disciplines. Polemical point: they thereby lose credentials when they complain either that a) amateurs alone are ministering to public hungers for humanistic discourse or b) that the public has no hunger for humanistic discourse. So, in my case:

In the instances of Righteous Empire and Pilgrims in Their Own Land, for instance, the series formats included a “no footnotes” stipulation. As senior or sage now—I smile my ironic smile — I picture being asked whether a young scholar should take the risk of writing in such modes. I answer: it depends, but, yes. Let’s see a bit of chutzpah. Ask anyone who has complied with such demands and they will tell you what I have to say: that the above mentioned propless, unfootnoted works, were more exacting and demanding than have been those with scholarly mien and apparatus, those whose footnotes have footnotes. At the same time, I recognize the frustration one causes and the scholarly limits that go with non-documentation. In order are different strokes of the computer keyboard for different folks, or for the same folks on different days.

So here comes another plug based on my own experience as someone who believes in a public mission for the humanities. Scholars would do well to try to help create a climate in which more and more humanists and social scientists would take some risks on writing clearly, which is the hardest kind of writing, and for the public, which is the most demanding audience. I hope to learn how to do better myself.

While on the “asked to” theme, I introduce one other dimension of scholarly work with which I became accidentally but, I hope, productively associated: the formally comparative mode. Two vast projects which drew on my being-commissioned way of life and comparative instincts were asked of me as an editor. The two differ drastically from each other but, taken together, define poles of religious studies. Someone observed that I get interested in religion only when it “heals or kills,” but not often in between. Documentation:

There has been on one hand my comparative work on history and healing. The Park Ridge Center for the Study of Health, Faith, and Ethics, where I am senior scholar in residence by dusklight, asked me to edit some series of books and collections of essays whose authors compare approaches to illness and health, well-being and suffering and death, in the religions. At the other extreme, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences asked me by moonlight to direct its The Fundamentalism Project. It took over six years and its findings appear in six volumes coedited with R. Scott Appleby. This project led Appleby and me to pursue a strand or expression that courses through and colors religion in everything from Sikhism and Shi’ism through Latin American evangelicalism and the Gush Emunim in Israel and Judaism.

This experience has poised me to ask first a substantive question about the religion in religious studies and then a formal question about how to pursue it. I have been impelled to ask. What is it about what we call religion that makes the same phenomenon capable of being, through most of history in most cultures, the prime instrument of both healing and murderous activity?

Here the Religionswissenschaftlicher sorts like Wach and Eliade, Kitagawa and Long, and the masters like Durkheim and Weber and Otto, have informed this ordinary historian. They have forced or enabled me to contemplate “the sacred,” the numinous, the Other, and to hypothesize that somehow it is the subject matter of religious studies. Or if the sacred is something else, it colors the subject matter of religious studies, whether or not religious studies has or should have a corner on the disciplinary market when it comes to the sacred. In this understanding, people, in awe, experience the sacred. It fascinates, frightens, and empowers them. In its name and realm they find company, employ symbols, create artifacts, and engage in activities which historians, among others, then study. I would like to see the generations ahead put more energy into isolating what “the sacred” can mean in emergent, postmodern cultures.

The other element to be teased out of the sentences several paragraphs ago was signaled by the word “comparative.” A disciple at a distance of the great French social historian Marc Bloch, I have learned to think self-consciously in comparative terms when writing narrative. My students know they cannot get through doctoral qualifying exams with me without being able to respond to a first question: Compare such and such a phenomenon in a period of your choice in at least three nations that you choose, nations with three differing religious expressions. Thus, compare spirituality or piety or intellectual challenges or religion and regime or religion and art or institutional development in, say, the United States, Brazil, and Belgium.

Bloch reminds us that we all naturally and inevitably think comparatively in our reach for the sizing adjectives and the qualifying adverbs, but we normally do this without reflection or sophistication. In my understanding of religious studies, we have to help students think, and we have to think, in terms of more than one tribe, even if we write on but one. This understanding recalls the motif: “Wer ein Religion kennt, der kein Religion kennt,” whoever knows but one religion knows no religion. After having worked on the Fundamentalism Project, I can never write the story of American Protestant Fundamentalism, which had earlier been familiar to me, without mentally and sometimes verbally comparing it to Sikhism in the Punjab for one feature, or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt for another. Not knowing the languages needed, I would never write a chapter explicitly on Sikhism or Islam, of course. But comparing the phenomenon one is centrally equipped to study with something more remote strikes me as being a valid exercise.

My curiosities, at least those relevant to religious studies, have focused on the spheres that have been named and thus partially misnamed “secular” and “religious.” As with most pursuits of whatever it is that inspires curiosity, these curiosities have led to some surprises. It may be the familial-catechetical-ecclesial-confessional orbit of my younger years that first painted the world of the different and the other as secular, and almost simply so. Most academic colleagues in other disciplines keep referring to most of the society or culture as being secular. Through all these years I have kept pondering, studying, and writing about what the secular is, especially in the academy, media, government, commerce, and ordinary ways of the West. What has led so many in the academy to describe individuals, collectives, and complexes of ideas as “secular?”

Certainly these reveal a dimension that wears a secular guise, if by secular we mean what theologian Karl Rahner pointed to. He spoke of the understanding by which the world figuratively “rounds itself off” without occasioning reference to the transcendent. But is that the whole story, as historians find and tell it?

To my surprise, it was difficult then to isolate simply secular social and cultural phenomena. Eliade’s influence was there, too: the modem person was modem, in some respects at least, precisely because she chose to live in a dis-enchanted, Entzaubert, universe of meanings. We postmoderns may be secular in our operations but most are also religious in our passions. Not shy about fashioning neologisms with some always thwarted hope that one or another might make it into the dictionary, I am embarrassed not to have come up with anything more elegant than the unsalable coinage “religiosecular” to describe this. That is, in some modes or dimensions almost everything of cultural importance represents an inextricable bonding and interwebbing of some elements conventionally called secular and others conventionally called religious.

All of which makes religious studies an area, field, or emphasis that cannot have clear “No Trespassing” boundaries around it, ruling out other disciplines, just as religious studies will constantly be a trespasser in other disciplines, such as my own, history. Think of me, then, if you think of me at all in religious studies, as someone who, by studying the religiosecular or the secular-religious fusion, will insist on messiness at the boundaries of the discipline.

On Methodology And Historical Inquiry

Thinking of the visual metaphors for postmodernity—assemblages, montages, collages, bricolages (Chuck Long would add, in French pronunciation also, garbages)—it may be that we in religious studies were the pioneer postmodernists, necessarily eclectic, acquainted with many conventional disciplines without having clearly invented—which means both “made up” and “found” — our own, and also without having become fully reposed in any. I’d like to see that theme developed.

In the Divinity School at Chicago we ask, which means we force, students of history to include some reference to method and awareness of trends in their dissertation proposals. They and their advisers often wrestle at length with this requirement. Thus on one level or in one mode or dimension, I try to embody the naïve simplicity involved in an epithetical dismissal of Leopold von Ranke, the father of us all as historians, by Hegel, the father of them all as philosophers. Hegel said that Ranke was “nur ein gewohnliche Historiker,” just an ordinary historian.

An ordinary historian: I’ve taken inordinate pride in the designation on the plastic badge provided for my identification at a conference of theologians in Tubingen to which a dozen Chicago divines were airlifted some years ago. Other colleagues were, in the English on their badges, described as “Theologian” or “Historian of Theology” or “Historical Theologian.” Marty was “Historical Historian.”

No one gets past our Divinity School’s interarea, interfield, interdisciplinary doctoral proposal committees with apparently jejune self-descriptions like that one. We must wrestle with and become self-conscious about so many methods and trends, that one religious studies enthusiast advocated “polymethodology.”

In the spirit of colleague Wendy Doniger, who dismissed “polymethodoodling all the day,” I have tried to teach students to take “methods and trends” very, very seriously—but not too seriously. If historians are reporting on events, they have to be good at being aware of trends in times past; can they be trusted if they are not alert to those present? So one demands and hopes to acquire relative acquaintance with what is passing—we historians know each is passing by way of method. Just you wait, and we’ll tell the story of their demise and fall into disfavor: deconstructions, poststructuralisms, Lacanisms, Foucaultisms, and the like will pass. Should we be attached to one or another of them along the way?

Let me borrow the spirit and framework of reference once mentioned by philosopher John Searle first in a formal article and, as reported here, in informal conversation: “Here I am in my sixties, and I have already outlived eight permanent, all-purpose, final explanations of… [fill in the blanks].” From each of these one learns that most of us cannot refute or dismiss or even intelligently criticize most of them. But when it comes down to the work of “ordinary history” or being an “historical historian” of religion, a partner in religious studies, one does a critical reading of sources and composes some sort of narrative, with methods and trends absorbed but put from the front of the mind. To speak thus is to leave real problems with a new generation, since in the budget of downsized humanities departments, religious studies departments will have to justify the presence of a particular subdiscipline or scholar in their department. What is an “historical historian” doing there?

As I write that, I am aware of how complex the theory of narrative has become, and have no interest in chasing away members of new generations from acquaintance with such theory. We have to reflect on how historians can work with synchrony or how relative the very concept of story has become. Yet my own methods and trends analysis suggests that postmodern history will also keep including story, narrative.

Issues that Puzzle or Plague

My reference to awareness two sentences ago, however, does suggest an element of something I have been asked to speak about: some “issues that have plagued” me. In the company of theologians I have to reflect on this one: I know no way to break what I call “the circle of immanence” when writing history as history. This means that the empirical methods and assumptions one brings to an enterprise if he or she wants to call it history and have it somehow recognized as such, provide no certifiable means of dealing with the Absolute, no special access to the Mind of God, no result of research that offers the Metaphysically Certain.

All of which means that religious studies, also and maybe especially in its historical aspects, cannot verify or validate its own enterprise. There is no way of knowing, within the issues of the discipline, whether our stories are full of fury and sound, signifying nothing; whether the only meanings available are meanings we fabricate or bring to the perceptions of reality around us; whether the study of religion is entirely self-enclosed and self-referential, which means whether religion points to anything but itself, or whether it can be and has to be reduced to something else, to be pursued in the late-modem, still self-defined as secular, university.

What theoretical assumptions guide me at this crucial positioning in religious studies? That is, what is assumed by someone who does not believe religion has to be reduced, rendered something else, until it is “nothing but…” this or that? Which means, for example, not reducing religion for scientific study reasons to nothing but Marx’s materialist understanding that it is nothing but bad faith; nothing but Freud’s psychoanalytic or Darwin’s evolutionary or Nietzsche’s promethean “nothing buttery.” My assumption is that such an issue can ultimately be addressed only metaphysically, and penultimately only pragmatically and existentially . That is, whether or not there is “something there,” as William James would say, cannot be settled by history or any of the approaches to religious studies.

Therefore, pragmatically, we go about the business of studying, using any number of criteria to test our results, without having settled things metaphysically. And existentially, we may be better or worse students of religion depending upon whether we “believe” or disbelieve. Neither belief nor disbelief, “appreciation” of the objects of religion or a priori and total dismissal of these, by itself makes one a better or worse scholar. The appreciator of religion has to compensate by developing critical sensibilities, and the dismisser, I believe, does well to cultivate arts and acts of empathy.

The Company We Keep

From what I have said above about familial influence, conversation inspired by a catechetical approach, and ecclesial or communal thinking, it should be obvious that this critical non-rebel has kept talking to family, to spiritual mentors, to the community of faith, and to ordinary friends who never heard of religious studies and would be unmoved by what it represents. I cherish roots and trying to have my feet on the ground, love “the minute particulars” of concrete life, and like to think that they bring with them the possibility to a scholar of keeping a special note of realism in religious studies. I do not judge those who distance themselves; who think they can distance themselves, or spend their lives trying to distance themselves from such influences. The ideal religious studies house is catholic, cosmopolitan, and many mansioned. It welcomes what William James called “a republican banquet.” I’m glad to have been given one seat there.

Next, from what I have said about teaching in three university faculties, professional divinity, social scientific history, and humanistic history of culture, it should be obvious that I converse with colleagues and students who spend their lives refining the historical element in the professions, society, and culture. Closest to home in Chicago, this has meant people like Jerald C. Brauer, the late Arthur Mann, and Neil Harris—to take one from each of the three spheres—and, beyond them Bernard McGinn and Brian Gerrish or, looking toward tomorrow and two new generations, W. Clark Gilpin and Catherine Brekus in Divinity; or, back again, to John Hope Franklin, Katherine Conzen and Karl J. Weintraub in the other faculties.

In the American Society of Church History, the American Catholic Historical Society, and the American Academy of Religion, three professional societies over which I have taken a turn presiding, we historians cherish the notion that, by and large, we are a very critical group of scholars but are also almost familial in our regard for each other as persons. This has meant that my critical conversations, often very intense, have been with friends like the two Sids/Syds, Sidney E. Mead and Sydney Ahlstrom and their colleagues and successors. Which ones, since I cannot name them all here? All of them, any of them, any who will talk, criticize, be a friend.

Election to fellowship in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and to membership in the American Antiquarian Society, the Society of American Historians, and the American Philosophical Society—this is getting to sound like a paragraph in my curriculum vita but, then, I was asked to be autobiographical, and I do mount the certificates on the wall!—has brought me into surprising humanistic conversations with scholars in many disciplines. If an entity has the word “Humanities” in it, I am often among the religionists who have been graced—no merits for this Lutheran!—to be among the invited.

Colleagues from religious studies in all these companies report on the experience we together often have: one first experiences an assumed distance by the majority of the invited company from or a dismissal of religion and what it signifies in these academies, which are putatively and self-descriptively secular. But these colleagues and I take delight in the challenge we thereupon offer: we can mess up any seminar, cocktail party, dinner, or program by bringing up religion, what we study, and the ways we study it. Then there emerges from the company of academics all kinds of long-forgotten or repressed, subliminal or subterranean, supraintellectual and passional elements of curiosity about religion, which soon tend to take over the topic. I do not mean that as triumphalistically as it sounds. No, one whispers, hints, and peeps more than one stands on a soap box and shouts in such settings: we have much to learn and there are rules of etiquette. And we can often be as wrong or, worse, as foolish as many of those uninterested in religion in such company.

Who have been my intellectual opponents, I am asked for definitional reasons. I am bored by and abhor literary and scholarly feuds, which obscure true critical faculties and endeavors, so I have no Enemies List or register of opponents in historical zones of religious studies. One cannot have critically reviewed as many articles or books in manuscript or print as I have through the years without having done some bruising and, no doubt, quickened some bruisers. But, frankly, I would not know in whose presence to keep a guard up to protect against getting bruised.

However, if I had to point to members of a genus of opponency in the intellectual and postural aspects of religious studies I would list these as the probably irritated: first, the “more secular than thou” sorts who believe one can establish religious studies more respectably by culturally laggish regress into distanciated and objectivist modes. Ironically, it is such as these that are being themselves called into question by much of the rest of the academy long after the prime of the Enlightenment Project.

Second, if I were a reductionist in religious inquiry, one who was ungenerous to those who bracket the issues of reduction, I would find fault with Marty.

Third, those who see no place for ordinary historical historians in religious studies on one hand and, on the other, those historians who allow no place for religious inquiry should find fault. But I would have to disappoint the reader who might be searching for names to draw some plot of the drama of conflict out of this essay. There is no gallery of personifiable villains in my mind.

The Personal Aspects of Teaching and Scholarship

Of course, my views keep changing constantly; historians are in the business of chronicling and discerning change. They, we, may be as set in our ways as are scholars in any other discipline. But some of us at least theoretically are given to what Gabriel Marcel described as disponibilité. This means making one’s self available to the different, the other, to the one or to the event that might induce a person to change.

And at the same time, in order to be secure enough to be free for intellectual change, I have also cherished ties to roots: to continuity with the mental and physical landscapes of a Nebraska youth and an adult life in Chicago. Intensely, and gratefully almost beyond words: to family and friends. To The Christian Century for almost 40 years and the University of Chicago for, one hopes, 35 preemeritus years and more from a distance thereafter. These are the externals: to take another Marcel term, I aspire to show “creative fidelity” to certain beliefs, communities, and ideas. Most of them are not relevant in this essay on religious studies except in the personal self-description of one scholar in that sphere. “Fidelity” means continuity; “creative” implies criticism and innovation.

The key change à propos religious studies themes, but relating to the ecclesial or theological understanding of religion and my later developed religious understanding is this: my generation of my sort was brought up during the neoorthodox Protestant, neo-Lutheran, Barthian, Bonhoefferian prime. In those four companies, religion was, shall we call it, a dirty word. It was seen as a human artifact, a construct or complex that prematurely satisfied its creators. But that meant it necessarily kept them insulated from and deaf to divine revelation, prophetic judgment, salvific proclamation. That notion of religion was a stringent concept, an astringent medication for anyone who wanted to understand religions as an historian in religious studies might and must. Wach is relevant here again: Verstehen, understanding is the goal. Or Spinoza, who in paraphrase provided the motto for the Fundamentalist Project: when setting out to understand human action, I have made a sedulous effort not to laugh, not to cry, not to denounce, but to understand.

I am not sure if a single incident or episode led to the turning toward appreciation of religion, of apprehensions of the sacred, of the spiritual search beyond the scope of specific revelation as one conceived it, or one’s own ecclesial or confessional understandings. People, embodiments, were exemplars: people like Wach and Kitagawa among historians of religion were influential, as were most of the historians I knew in religious studies, few of whom operated in a confessional orbit.

A mix of scholars and writers including Alfred Schutz, William James, Paul Valéry, and Michael Oakeshott have been mentors on the printed page. They have taught me to operate with a variety of “modes of experience,” “nonparamount realities,” “multiple realities,” “universes of discourse,” “provinces of meaning,” “worlds,” and spheres of “attentiveness,” each of which is not or need not be in conflict with or in contradiction with the other. This variety exacts consistent intellectual endeavors until such endeavors begin to become second nature. It exacts consistent behavioral discipline until it comes to be reflexive.

Thus in one “universe of discourse” one can be, or can aspire to be, a scholar’s scholar and in another the same person can talk in the discourse of the public intellectual, without creating internal conflict (though perhaps presenting an image that will confuse the stereotypers). Thus also one can operate within ecclesial and confessional contexts which allow one to say “I believe” and then to move to scholarship without confusion or any more prejudice than any other good bracketer brings.

One is ready then for the questioner to ask, as one must in religious studies: “what do you mean by ‘believe’ and ‘how are you sure’ and ‘how do you find warrants for faith’ and ‘don’t you notice that the different, the other, also believes and practices with integrity?’” To be alert to these multiple realities, universes of discourses, and modes of experience, it seems to me, is to help form the habitus and habits of scholars in religious studies. Such scholars then would move eagerly and full of expectation, as this historical historian among them always has and would, to the religious subject matter to which they are committed and to which they are commended by their discipline and their vocation.


Marty, Martin E. and Jerald Brauer (eds). 1994. The Unrelieved Paradox: Studies in the Theology of Franz Bibfeldt. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.


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