Martin E. Marty: Faith’s Familiar Face

by Kerry Temple, editor of Notre Dame Magazine


This profile in the August 1998 issue of the University of Chicago Magazine (written on the occasion of the awarding of the university’s alumni medal to Marty) accents the religious vocation of a scholar at a secular-pluralist private university.


Martin Marty. A name you have heard for 10, 15, maybe 20 years. As in: “Martin Marty says.”

Newsweek, Nightline, The New York Times. Martin E. Marty. Expert witness, scout, seer, sentinel. Master surveyor of America’s religiocultural landscape. The “most influential interpreter of religion” in the country today, according to Time magazine. “The Thomas Jefferson of the world of theology,” says former Senator Paul Simon. “The quintessential public intellectual and public historian,” says Catherine Albanese, professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

You try bringing Marty into focus—bow tie, tweed vest, the mirthful eyes, and impressive bald dome wreathed thickly in tufted white—and you remember this too: When a neophyte graduate student came to the University of Chicago Divinity School back in the late 1970s, he kept hearing others—in hallways and classrooms—saying “Martin Marty this” and “Martin Marty that.” Sounded, he thought, like a cartoon character.

But even then, 20 years ago, Martin Marty, PhD’56, who joined the Divinity School faculty in 1963, was the name you heard or read whenever (and pretty much wherever) theologians, pundits, politicians, and the media examined the impact of religion—or some aspect of religion—on the national psyche. In fact, in 1978 the editors of 26 religious magazines voted Marty and Billy Graham as the two people having the most influence on religion in the United States.

Today the man with the name is, quite literally, legendary.

You consider, for example, the staggering productivity. Marty is the author of 50 books (including a National Book Award winner and five or six “classics” in American religious history) as well as 4,300 articles, essays, reviews, papers. He recently retired—at age 70—as senior editor of the influential weekly The Christian Century, and still edits the fortnightly newsletter Context, which explores the role of religion in public life. Add to that, a colleague estimates, the 100 or so talks/speeches/lectures he gives each year—outside Chicago—and you have a scribe/writer/ wordsmith of near-mythic profusion. Maybe 400,000 published words a year.

And this doesn’t include the quotes, statements, and sound bites accorded a national media eager for expert testimony on topics ranging from medical ethics to religion’s future in the next millennium— those profound, insightful, yet accessible, opinions regarding the nature of religion, God’s place (and His people’s), in a pluralistic, technoscientific, largely secular world.

Then, too, there is that legend-maker Bibfeldt business. Franz Bibfeldt, the celebrated German theologian whose oft-cited doctoral thesis purportedly set upon an unresolved problem of chronological proportions—the year zero—which (scholars now must agree) doesn’t exist. Yet in 1950 and 1951, at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, where a young Lutheran seminarian named Martin Marty ran the campus bookstore and edited the student theological magazine, Bibfeldt’s legacy proliferated—his ideas cited in discussions, footnoted in term papers; his books on order at the bookstore, wanted at the library.

Marty himself signed a review of Bibfeldt’s The Relieved Paradox about the time church officials asked him to consider serving a congregation in London that Marty happily figured would lead to the life he wanted—parish ministry. But a telegram called him back from Christmas vacation a day early. The seminary, it seemed, had caught on to the Bibfeldt hoax, was not as amused as the students, and saw Marty’s contributions to the scam as a sure sign of immaturity. He’d be kept closer to home, under watchful eyes. So the scholastic prankster landed at Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest—and graduate school. Marty and the University of Chicago would thereafter be joined.

“And that is why,” Marty would later explain, “Bibfeldt, who didn’t exist, has influenced me more than any theologian who did.”

Whether divine intervention or happy accident, Bibfeldt’s maneuver keyed an extraordinary career. Marty not only became one of the Divinity School’s shining lights, but also the nation’s foremost scholar on church history. The native of West Point, Nebraska, marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., in Selma, Alabama, and was one of the rare Protestants participating at Vatican II, the Roman Catholic Church’s historic summit meeting in the mid-1960s. And, later in his career, a brief meeting at O’Hare Airport led to a lasting friendship with television producer Norman Lear, creator of Archie Bunker, Mary Hartmann, Maude, and George Jefferson.

Today Marty sits on a dozen boards and has been given five dozen honorary degrees as well as the National Humanities Medal and the Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is the George B. Caldwell senior scholar-in-residence at the Park Ridge Center for the Study of Health, Faith, and Ethics, and he directs the Public Religion Project at the U of C, where in March he gained emeritus status as the Fairfax M. Cone distinguished service professor.

Despite his stature, despite the remarkable visibility, when you ask the man with the name how he’d like to be remembered, he says, “That I was a good teacher. That’s been my great joy, where I’ve always gotten the most pleasure.”

Entering Marty’s fifth-floor office at the Public Religion Project, across from the Drake Hotel where Walton Street crosses Michigan Avenue, you spy him before he sees you. He is seated at a table—framed within two doorways, down a short hallway—reading, eating a bagel. In a sort of telescopic fashion there he is: the man with the name. It is a spacious corner office—glass all around, offering a lookout’s view of the rustling city streets, the honking cabs, and hurried people. There are books and neatly arranged papers and framed, retro posters of the old South Shore Line and a photo of Marty’s father, a Lutheran schoolteacher and organist.

You are dutifully punctual, even fearfully early, because of Marty’s reputation regarding time. As in “Marty time”— reflecting, perhaps, the precision, organization, and frugality genetically administered by his Swiss ancestry. Again, the tales are legend. Days calibrated to the minute. His ability to thrive on four, maybe five, hours of sleep. His 7-, 8- and 10-minute naps scheduled throughout the day to refresh him—meticulously timed, sometimes in full recline on his office floor, always a quick but deep, reviving sleep. His knack for comfortably doing two, three tasks at once.

This last habit is especially unnerving to graduate students who diligently prepare presentations then sweat through them—laboring insecurely—while overseer Marty, last row of the classroom, appears distracted, preoccupied, busily attending other tasks. He is reading, writing, checking his mail, making notations in his checkbook, until the discourse is complete. At which time he surgically dissects and masterfully elucidates (in stunning detail) the presentation’s strengths, weaknesses, finer points, miscalculations.

You don’t want to be late.

But what you find is that Marty greets you hospitably, warmly. When asked about his achievements, he does not offer you a list of publications or his curriculum vitae, his profile in Who’s Who in the World, or even the testimonials of those who nominated him (the list of nominators itself a who’s who) for the University of Chicago Alumni Medal, which he proudly received at Reunion this year. Instead, he produces a very, very long list of graduates on whose dissertations he is listed as first adviser.

“I take more pleasure,” the professor explains, “in the fact that there are more than 100 people I was thesis adviser to, more pleasure in a new book by Scott Appleby or someone of his vintage, than one of my own.” R. Scott Appleby, AM’79, PhD’85, now director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame, was a research assistant under Marty and later worked down the hall from him for more than five years while the two coedited a landmark, six-volume study of religious fundamentalism around the world.

“The grueling schedule, the Marty pace, and the Marty quality,” says Appleby, “is not human.” Yet what the protégé emphasizes is this: the Marty parties, the ones for students at his 100-year-old home in the Chicago suburb of Riverside, those Christmas and springtime festivities with charades and door prizes; the hundreds, probably thousands of letters of recommendations; the hundreds of scholars Marty has guided as “unofficial mentor”; the countless number of people personally helped. What Appleby emphasizes is that Marty “gives and gives and gives to his students, far outspending them in generosity,” that he “is always thinking of other people, that everything is done graciously, with a smile on his face, that service is very central to what he does.”

“Marty is not God,” Appleby told the 1996 gathering of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, which gave the religious historian its career achievement award that year. “But he is a condition of the possibility for one. The workings of grace in him are powerfully transparent.”

Indeed. This past February more than 500 people helped Marty celebrate his 70th birthday at a party co-hosted by his wife Harriet, Norman Lear, and journalist Bill Moyers—who set aside some good-natured teasing to say, “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 25 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.”

Given Marty’s accomplishments, given the intensity and fervor and dedication brought to his life’s work, to his teaching and writing, to his students and colleagues and comrades in thought, the tireless productivity, the drive and the will and the many applications of his knowledge and gifts and wisdom, you expect to find a man less congenial, less at peace, less serenely comfortable sitting back for an afternoon’s conversation. You also suspect that something has been neglected or sacrificed in the pursuit of those many demands. Or that the man’s life has been charmed, tragedy free. Not so. On the contrary.

Marty married Elsa Schumacher in 1952, the same year he was graduated from the seminary and ordained. Despite the many demands imposed on the ambitious scholar-teacher and despite the many callings from distant venues, the young husband and father guarded and cherished his family time. Saturdays especially were sacred days in the Marty household—an extended family of six children, including two who joined the Martys as foster children. This was in the mid-’60s when Marty, ministering to migratory workers, grew close to and took in a 3-year-old boy and 12-year-old girl. But there were others who came and stayed and eventually moved on—two boys from Uganda, for example, and seven or so adolescents who moved in, off-and-on, for various lengths of time. “In the summertime,” Marty recalls, “there’d be these sort of inner-city strays living with us, kind of a UN under our roof.”

Not only were Saturdays devotedly reserved for family time, but the annual camping trips became noteworthy expeditions, taking the Marty clan to 47 states, Canada, Mexico, and 13 European nations. Then there was the 11-year period when the family retreated each summer to an island in Lake Michigan. But in the midst of these happily tumbling years, Elsa was diagnosed with brain cancer, struggled for 10 months, and died in September 1981.

At the urging of a publisher Marty wrote A Cry of Absence: Reflections for the Winter of the Heart, a personal meditation on those heartache months of nursing Elsa. Now a classic in spirituality, the reflective memoir and the response it generated has moved the scholar to write other books dealing more personally with the Christian journey through the contemporary landscape (including four collaborations with his son Micah, a photographer).

In the midst of this healing, Marty reconnected with a longtime friend, the widow of his college roommate. He and Harriet, a mother of one, and a musician and teacher who has better acquainted Marty with music, the arts, and entertainment, were married in 1982—concrete evidence, Marty has said, of the dramatic workings of providence in his life.

Harriet, it seems, is the source of something you have heard about Marty, something curious; because it is clear Marty is onto something—something that makes him who he is, unique and special in the universe of scholars, thinkers, theologians, writers. Appleby says it is because Marty feels forgiven. Forgiven. You ask Marty if that is true, and what he has been forgiven for. You ask about guilt and forgiveness.

He smiles and tells a story about how one night Harriet had been troubled by some things and how Marty suggested she not “take on the burden of all this,” to which she replied, “It would be helpful if you had a little sense of guilt.” Marty smiles again at the memory, then offers an illuminating discourse on guilt and forgiveness, issues central to Christian faith and redemption. He talks about the importance of forgiving others—”a conscious willed act that comes in the form of a gift, that becomes a way of life,” he says, adding, “If you see a person who does that habitually, you see a free person. If I forgive you, it liberates me.”

It is odd that the subject has come up today, Marty says, because the Los Angeles Times has just asked him to write a piece on forgiveness and Bill Clinton, and he has recently contributed an essay to a book dealing with forgiveness and the Holocaust. So he cites Paul Tillich and he talks about Martin Luther’s “core gospel of forgiveness” and his attempts “to find a gracious God.”

Then Marty explains, “I make a great deal out of the words ‘ordinary,’ ‘quotidian,’ ‘daily.’ I believe very much in the sense of each day. There is a Lutheran precept that we are born again every day, that we have a new slate; and if you have made every effort at reparation and reconciliation, and maybe talk to God a little, and if you then wake up feeling guilty, it is your own fault. There is really no reason to worry because each day takes care of itself.”

You have heard of people living in each moment and you have been told Marty is one of these, that he has the ability to focus clearly and cleanly on each task at hand, each student’s problem, each puzzle begging analysis, each demand on his time. Then he proceeds to the next. He likes, he says, the word (if there is indeed such a word) “intrinsicality.” What he means, he explains, “is the integrity of each day, the intrinsic worth of each act in each day, the intrinsic worth of the act you are doing.”

That, he says, is the unifying principle at the center of his life. And as you pursue that center, he tells you:

  • that his “model” has been Pope John XXIII, whom Hugo Rahner described as “God’s grave and merry person,” an appellation Marty says he’d gladly take as his own;
  • that in his role as a “public scholar” and “civic pedagogue” he has tried to be “a fanatically faithful scholar”;
  • that his “life quest” has been understanding and explaining the public and religious pluralism and “what each takes from the other”;
  • that in a life devoted to intellectual pursuits it is better “to be moored rather than unmoored, to know where the port is”— his own “port” being his “sense of roots,” his “Nebraska Lutheran childhood” to which he returns after venturing into “the cosmopolitan world of academia, secularity, pluralism, and sophistication”;
  • and that he is “not afraid of the home stretch.”

This last derives from a discussion of his “retirement” and whether or not he will really be slowing down. “The ideal,” Marty says, “would be to do so; if virtuous, I would slow down.” There are friends, he points out, he’d like to spend “two hours with instead of 10 minutes,” and he’d like “more balance between leisure and activity,” recognizing that “productivity and recreation are both virtues,” and that there’s “a whole library of books on the shelf at home and I’d like to sit on the porch and read through it.”

But then there was his spring project—a Divinity School conference on Narratives in American Religion (“I love narrative. My theology is narrative, is storied.”) More books that “talk to the soul” to write. And more. Yet more. Marty borrows a metaphor from an old friend who died at age 102. “Life is a book of chapters,” he says. “And I see my life as a library book, one checked out long ago. The spine is now cracked, the pages frayed. The book is well-read, perhaps long overdue, and soon the library will call me in.

“But,” he goes on, “there’s a new chapter, a new plot developing, new dramas, a new set of assignments. I don’t think anything is anticlimactic. Each chapter surprises me. I look forward to the surprises in each chapter.”

The conversation turns a bit, with Marty explaining how nervous he gets before preaching, with him predicting trends in religion in the decades ahead, with him talking about how he probably always knew he would teach and write, about time management and his childhood and the day he and a boyhood friend dropped in on Carl Sandburg. They were scolded by Sandburg’s wife and told the writer was busy upstairs, that they should get along now. But soon the author himself came down and scolded the boys and told them they were interrupting and intruding—before inviting them up to his study for a gracious afternoon’s talk.

This last is an example, Marty says, of disponibilité, being flexible with one’s time, making oneself available to others. One of Marty’s great gifts, says Appleby, is captured in Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy’s Respondeo etsi Mutabor: “I respond even though I have to be changed.”

In many ways, you figure, Marty’s life has been one of adapting, adjusting, responding, being changed by the many ways he serves others, yet changing others by the way he responds to them, to their questions, needs, requests, petitions. Answering calls, God’s calling.

Thinking of the final call, you have to ask him, “Are you afraid of dying?”

To which Marty responds smiling, deferring to Woody Alien: “I’m not afraid of dying. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” You both laugh; Marty continues, “I could live with annihilation, extinction. We will die, accidents happen, people will forget we ever lived. But I am a terrible chicken about pain. And I do not, of course, look forward to the painful declines of my powers. I saw my wife go through brain cancer, and it’s not a pretty sight.”

Marty then talks about the immortal soul, the difference between Greek and Christian conceptions, the incomprehensibility of eternal life, and how every morning he awakens at 4:57 a.m., three minutes before the alarm is set to go off, and abides by “the Lutheran custom of making the sign of the cross and saying a little prayer—a daily reminder that you are mortal, that the body is mortal.”

Of course, it is clear to you—from the many people touched, the many words written, the Divinity School’s new Martin Marty Center to study religion’s role in public life and culture—that Marty’s life is richly layered, that his house has many rooms. And you know he has found answers to questions still nagging you, that there is so much more to learn from him. But you sense it is time for you to go, time for him to get on with his life, to give his full attention to the next task at hand. And as you walk away, looking back at the professor returning to his office, you see and are glad that the man with the name is inspiritingly human.

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