Thinking in Public
March 7, 2011
(This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated)
Mohler: This is “Thinking in Public,” a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about front line theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host, and President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
There are several privileged positions from which to observe religion in America but few of them can match a forty year tenure at the University of Chicago Divinity School. And few eyes have been so perceptive as those of Martin Marty. For many years, professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School and a man who has perhaps better than anyone else in America demonstrated the merger between academia and journalism. I’m looking forward to this conversation with one of America’s most prolific historians.
Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. He taught there in the Divinity School for thirty-five years and there at the university. The Martin Marty Center is a foundation for the study of public religion in America. He’s also been a columnist for the Christian Century, the editor of the newsletter known as Context and a contributor to so many other works. Beyond that he’s the author of over fifty books. And is one of the most influential scholars in American academia today. Professor Marty welcome to Thinking in Public.
Marty: Thank you.
Mohler: You know, I just have to tell you right at the very beginning that you have been a model for me in terms of a scholar who writes. And yet even as I say that I just have to say that fifty books is absolutely beyond the estimation. And these are real books. These aren’t just compiled volumes. When you began your professorial career, did you know you were going to do this?
Marty: I’ll let you in on a secret. I’m a hack writer namely. I have never yet written a book that somebody didn’t ask me to write on a theme that they asked me to do. I’m now retired at the age of eighty-three, and the books are behind me so far. And somebody says, don’t you have something in you that is just burning to come forward? And I said…and people kept asking, so I kept asking/ I lived under deadlines from 1956 until this year.
Mohler: Well, it is an enormous body corpus of work and when I look at it, I just have to say you know considering all of the things you did you certainly disproved the fact that you can’t write and do all these other things. And frankly, write quite well.
Marty: Most satisfying thing for me and my deans is at my retirement they had reckoned that I had only missed a dozen classes in thirty-five years. So that was my fanatic point.
Mohler: The academic president in me is even more amazed. That is an incredible record.
Marty: You are a scholar primarily of religion in the modern age and in particular in America. And just given many of the things we have to deal with in terms of the challenge of modernity, how would you characterize the challenge to Christianity from the modern age as you have traced it in your historical work?
Marty: I think the two things that we feel most are one, pluralism. Most Christians from the age of Constantine until maybe this century spent their life living with people who are like my ancestors, were Swiss Reformed, and they never met anybody in their life who wasn’t Swiss Reformed. And that was pretty true of almost everybody. There was a state church established church or the population overwhelmingly similarly. They came in groups, and you got your signals from that and so there wasn’t much problem of relativism or anything of that sort. You were…yourself. That’s not possible now. My wife and I have down through great-grandchildren and their spouses, we figured out one day ten different ethnic group backgrounds very different family reunions and so on. It’s a wonderful family and is friendly, but meanings have to be translated a lot. So that’s the first pluralism. The other one I think is implied in what we’re doing here in Louisville and in Chicago this goes out all over the country or the world who knows. And that would be speed of communication and variety of communication. In the church, for example a pastor use to have a privileged position and whatever he said was what they heard. Today they have tweet, and twitter, and e-mail, and every kind of voice along the way and sorting people’s way through that is very important. I see this as both an enhancement and a distraction. Both of them are enhancements and distractions….tends to give us things in a way that could be used or mis-used. And just as pluralism can mean access to many other kinds of people we wouldn’t have met otherwise, preach the gospel, interpret the gospel, be good citizens, that’s an enhancement and yet…a distraction that can lapse into relativism. And so is communication. Terrible, terrible things happen. All you do is have to look through television screen or listen to popular music, and you can see pop culture is not on the side of the gospel, and it’s very distracting. And yet, if I want to talk to someone in South Africa today about a common Christian cause, I just e-mail and we’re in touch and that’s a great enhancement.
Mohler: On your first point I’m reminded of Peter Berger’s change of heart on the issue of secularization. He said that previously virtually all intellectuals believed that secularization was the inevitable consequence of modernity. He said that is probably not true, but it is true that pluralization is the necessary, inevitable consequence of modernity. Christian churches have responded to these challenges is different ways. You yourself are an ordained Lutheran pastor and have been for over half a century. You’ve been one of the most keen observers of American religion. Tell me what exactly is your description or diagnosis of what happened to the mainline more liberal Protestant denominations over the last half century.
Marty: Well, I think a number of things happened on the simplist terms. It’s partly demographic. That is they chose to live in parts of the country that aren’t growing therefore they didn’t move out with it. The other ones who chose to have small families, and that makes a big difference. I was a pastor for eleven years at mid-century and the suburban boom, and we grew very fast. We also grew with youth. I think I had been there six or seven years, and we had 750 adults and 1,000 children. When I walk down the halls of almost any church in the mainline especially, by the way Catholicism is very similar today, I walk down the line and see huge confirmation classes and people going through all these various rites and far fewer. And mainliners again like non-Latino Catholics marry late and then there’s dispersal. Those with suburban boom years, I think the main line took for granted. I would describe the main line as the people who were chaplains to the establishment when there was an establishment. If you take main line churches this isn’t often mentioned, but almost all of them have an ancestry of church establishment which means that the clergy were paid out of taxes. The building was sustained through admissible funds things were done in your favor, etc. And so well, I’m a Lutheran and that meant Germany and Scandinavia and Catholics and southern Europeans, Episcopal, England, you go right down the list. Presbyterian Scotlands almost everyone had that in their background and that meant, I think, that they coasted. You would be called upon for civic duties. You would be called upon for interpretation of life, etc. and I think they never caught on that there would be no church tomorrow unless they won their own kids and the neighbors. In one of my books I…a picture of change is coming. First people to catch on to modernity in this sense would be for example the United States the Great Awakening in New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, and New England, and so on. Somebody rides into town on a horse and asks are you converted, and the people have been listening to a divine who says now in the 17th century, it means it behooves us to do so and so and they’re all asleep and somebody else comes in and wakens them up and says that your minister has to have his wakening up. You have to have this wakening up, and so they learned that technique, and I think that carries over. Southern Baptists are very good at it still. And most of the people call it even evangelical. I think there is some sagging among them but they did catch onto this. But I think that’s the big thing. Somebody once said if you line up latitudinally what we do know about the Episcopalians. If you ask every Episcopalian, when did you last invite someone to church, I think it came out to once in every twenty-nine years. Well, you can’t grow a competitive society that way. I think that’s probably the biggest thing. There are tremendous centers of vitality. There are hundreds and hundreds of bustling churches whether they have 200 members or 2,000 members. But, I think as a cultural mark up until the 1950’s there were Jewish quoters at the big universities. Today, there are Jewish presidents at most of them and most of them, take Asians and Jews, that’s pretty much who runs the prestigious universities. So when you put together your boardroom, it isn’t like it would’ve been fifty years ago. And the mainline churches and their pastors were sort of chaplains for establishment. That day is gone.
Mohler: You’ve given a lot of attention to the theology of these churches and how that was also impacted by their response to modernity. And again, we’re looking at the mainline churches, what would you trace as the theological trajectory that’s really marked the last half century or so?
Marty: Well, I think the, again, they inherited a church and lived off it without thinking a lot about what they had to do about it no doubt about that. There was a great conformity to culture and when the culture shifted, they couldn’t shift with it. My own, I wrote a book a couple of years ago on the Christian world, global history, and I try to ask myself what did everybody who is called Christians make central no matter what else happened? I took a line from the book by James D.G. Dunn who asked of the New Testament. Well he hypothesized there would be great differences between being in Ephesus, or Corinth, or Rome, or Jerusalem and then of course as it spreads out into all the world what do they all hold in common? And my overall observation would be in his phrase that “the human Jesus is exalted Lord” if you have only the human Jesus you can have unitarianism, etc. and you can have some of the mainline churches leading that way. And you can say some real nice things about Jesus. And you can admire Jesus a great deal, but it’s not lasting. There are all kinds of other people you could turn to for that. If you have only exalted Lord, you’re kind of Gnostic here are. A lot of people who think that Jesus is nice, but he never really touched the earth that they know, etc. And I think that the former had a lot of the mainline churches. I don’t think many of them were off there in Gnosticism. That’s part of the New Age stuff that we have today but that was not what hit the main line churches.
Mohler: You have given a lot of attention to conservative religion in America. And I have to say I think one of the functions you have very interestingly fulfilled especially to the Christian…and elsewhere you have helped to interpret theological conservatives to the mainliners in a way that I found very interesting. Many years ago you took on the role as the director and giving oversight to the fundamentalism project. And that has led to probably more interesting conversation on the conservative side of the spectrum than anything else you have done. So before asking you some questions about the actual experience of supervising that project, let me just ask you how do you define or identity fundamentalism?
Marty: Well, we have about 100 scholars working on it, and we had to do it all the time because we worked, we started with 13 religions. It was a comparative study not just Christianity, and I guess most of it wasn’t Christianity. And they had asked what are we looking for. What, our main instrument, it was a well funded thing, and we mainly sent them out with tape recordings and asked people. We didn’t want to land on people and say here’s fundamentalism and you got a…Rather what you do you think and then they would deduce and bring together. And what really emerged from that and became by volume one of a five volume work are guidelines is every movement that got the name fundamentalism or its analog in Hebrew or Arabic, or whatever, every movement that got that name was either a church body, or religious body, or a nation or a culture that was already conservative.
We never found a “moderate” or liberal that in any of the religions that turned fundamentalist. You were conservative. Secondly, you had a few challenges. There are an awful lot of conservatives in religion that didn’t turn that way. In fact the word fundamentalism came about in a magazine, a Baptist magazine in 1920 when somebody said in a Northern Baptist Convention, I think it was called then, everybody in our church body thinks their conservative, but they don’t fight back. We’re being challenged by evolution. We’re being challenged by progressivism. We’re being challenged by biblical criticism. And they don’t fight back. And I think that was the biggest single thing that fundamentalism people who feel that when there is a threat, not a trivial threat, fundamentalists we were studying were not people who were bugged and bothered by every little thing. But if they felt that the threat would come right to the heart of things, they had to fight back and then you have to find tools for that if you’re doing that. I always use kind of a graphic image. Fundamentalists do jujitsu on modernity. They take the force of what’s coming at them. I mentioned earlier modernity and mass media, you’d think that mass media would be the best symbol of modernity and yet the fundamentalists were better at it than any modernists or liberals were. Why? Because it was a threat it would have done them in if they had to learn it to bring it back to the culture. And then again of course we never pretended emphatically. We never pretended that any through these religions were similar in content. We’re talking about the forms that were there and that’s what we look for. And, I think that as I have observed it through the years it’s very dynamic as you well know and by listening would know. It doesn’t change and I think the biggest single change that came is the observation that the United States is a very hard country to remain militant fundamentalist. Supreme Court cases come up now and then about it. They are “all over the place,” but I think what they learned in the 1940’s when the National Association of Evangelicals was formed and I think Southern Baptists trends have been similar somebody said that real hard base, that real hard line, alienates people from Christ it doesn’t draw them. So we need a different pattern. And I think what’s interesting to me was as we study evangelicalism almost all of them could sign on the dotted line with any doctrine you come up with that the fundamentalists had and yet it was very different pattern.
A lot of it came through their colleges. Quite a string of well the weakness, and I guess I shouldn’t go down the list but there are scores of Christian colleges in which you learn of course all the Christian teachings, but you also have the climate in which you can do more radical stuff. I was at a party one night with a very major teacher in one of the evangelical colleges. Someone said you know you could be teaching anywhere. You could be at Princeton, you could be anywhere, why are you choosing to be there? And she said because when you get to the real hard stuff you don’t have to hold back. What do you mean? She says well, we would teach Nietzsche more freely on our campus then we could at a state school where people say how can you be talking about the death of God. They know that when we’re talking about it I won’t say a greenhouse shelter but it stays of the worst winds. So I think that the intellectual side of it has changed greatly. I think we saw it first in my own field American religious history. When I started out if you went to Harvard, Yale, Chicago, Princeton or something you weren’t even reckoned with. And very few evangelicals well today the last 15-20 years if I list the top ten probably eight of them would be evangelicals. The Mark Knolls, and the Skip Stouts, and the Boenhoeffers, I could go on and on. I think there was a tremendous change there that makes a difference and therefore I think that people like myself who I tell true stories will notice those changes and I think also try to make bridges. I don’t think you can collapse one into the other. They can influence each other but there are also a lot of things they can do together. Many of the social service things I mentioned do that and I’ll give you just one quick illustration. Up till twenty years ago the environmental movement, ecological movement, movements about crime and change, movement about conserving, many, all fundamentalists if I say and most evangelicals were mistrustful. Either the world will end soon said the fundamentalists so why bother? OR evangelicals would say well too much of this language comes from New Age and so on. And all of a sudden they re-study the Bible and decide from page one on the concern was the natural world around us. Once they catch on we really got something going. So I think that’s been one of the major trends. There’s another side to it of course and that is the evangelical or pop side of them are very open to pop culture and they can very easily corrupt their message in the impulse of getting more people, getting more excited, and pretty soon the gospel comes in second entertainment. But that’s a different topic for a different day.
Mohler: In all likelihood many evangelicals came to know of Martin Marty through the Fundamentalism Project, and it became a matter of some controversy among some conservative Christians in America wondering if it was at all fair that conservative Christians will be put alongside conservatives in other faiths as if it’s one thing just in different forms. I’m looking forward to pressing that point with Dr. Marty as we continue Thinking in Public.
Dr. Marty in looking at the materials collated by and analyzed by the Fundamentalism Project, I think one thing that strikes me and you dealt with this earlier when you spoke about the issue of fundamentalists using modernity the way it was defined as more or less a resistance to the modern age what rankled many conservatives beyond those who would identify as fundamentalists is that there appeared to be in that project the insinuation that fundamentalism is a phenomenon that’s just founded different variance. For instance, evangelical Christians respond to that by saying well, you know this is not driven by the same precise kind of concern. And I’m wondering, just looking at it from your perspective having directed that project, is fundamentalism one thing you would say that has various manifestations related to these faith traditions, or is it upon analysis different in terms of its organic reality?
Marty: Oh I think it’s very different. What we were dealing with were, I guess you would say, the externals phenomenon the things that…and so on. But I learned very early, there used to be a magazine called Saturday Review a wonderful magazine that like so many other secular things didn’t last as long as the church did. So I have to remind people that there was such. And I wrote an article must have been around 1979, 80 let’s say, right after the Iranian revolution. A lot of people, in fact those at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Boston, got us going on this Fundamentalist Project because we always kidded on the Bostonians never met a fundamentalist. Today, they would know more but back then they never met one. They were just scared silly and you could use the word Khomeini and Falwell and you could strike terror, and we got to understand this stuff. Well, I wrote an article, in that article a hundred of word apart I made a reference to Khomeini and a reference to Falwell and before long on-line Martin Marty who thinks that Khomeini and Falwell are the same thing…anything but that. You think you can understand. Let’s just say that in the laboratory, cellular structure, you learn how different each cell is while you’re seeing what cells have in common. If all these cells are doing this and then one of them turns cancerous you learn that through the comparative method. So what we would do here, I’m not trying to find a metaphoric answer but what came to my mind was comparative method. You could say…or anything else would work, you compare so the thing stands out that wouldn’t stand out otherwise. One of our studies was on family structure, and one of the chapters was a professor from New Zealand who was the world’s expert on the family structure of fundamentalist seek in the Punjab and he wrote about it and we learned a lot about it there. Helen…. wrote about Japanese. We don’t think they were real fundamentalist in Japan because they really don’t have text but hardliners. And you compare them to the people that Nancy Emerman was the captain of our American team, she wrote about Bible believers in Massachusetts. Well, when they get up in the morning they do almost nothing similar to what those other two do. And yet, let’s put it this way, the sexual revolution when it hit so suddenly in the sixties you don’t hear much about it in 1950’s and the boom of suburban religious. Sixties it really hit. I knew many people who were mainline, moderately conservative mainliners and they’d be talking, and well my daughter’s pregnant, but she’s not married, or my son’s living with so and so, and rise in divorce rates, you saw all those things and more or less people in mainline and…practice away from the bishops sort of rolled with the punches said well we don’t want to lose our children. We don’t want to alienate we’ll just live with it and make the best of it and affirm what we can. And I think when that hit the fundamentalists they all said well, we have to do something about it. So you get movements like Focus on the Family and so on that will build barriers. We’re not going to let all these things happen to us. I think that was a big difference, and that’s true I think in almost all of the versions of the fundamentalisms that we studied. But we never want to create the impression that they would be similar. We didn’t have fundamentalists in the study group by their choice, that is we had everyone who wrote, wrote out of their tradition. I mentioned Nancy Emerman out of the Southern Baptist tradition. The Ayatollah Abdulaziz Sachedina out of his Saudi Arabian Islamic background, none of them would have been classified as a fundamentalist but they would understand it and they weren’t, we also didn’t want people who were hostile to it. Some people who leave a religious movement spend their whole life taking revenge on their spiritual past, and we didn’t want that either. But they knew it inside. They knew the music of it, they knew things that don’t get written down too much. And when they would get together we would have twice a year meetings open to the public. And numbers of fundamentalists would show up and be there. I spoke at Moody Church not long ago to a group of pastors, and there was Vernon Lyons who was probably the hardest line Protestant, white fundamentalist in the city and he was always friendly. We compare notes and so on with very friendly greetings and kept on. Well, if he ever thought that I thought that his Baptist church substance had anything in common with Islam or any of the others that would have broken off. So there’s a big distinction there. I think every fundamentalist in any religion who reads those books could learn something about themselves in the way that you can learn if you have both a window and a mirror. But if you only think it’s a mirror than I think we would have failed.
Mohler: Well, I have all of those volumes and as a matter of fact my Martin Marty section in my library takes up a matter of feet not inches, and I’m very thankful for that. I was looking in preparation for this conversation back at some of your books, and I came across something that I just thought would lead to just the right kind of question. At one point you described yourself as ambiguously related to evangelicalism. And I think I know what you mean by that, but when you look at evangelicalism in America today what do you see?
Marty: Ok. Well first of all when…I used to always kid about it that I would go to gatherings, it was a stage in the 60’s and 70’s, when the Billy Graham people were reaching out in their cultural directions. New ways of involving laity, business people, etc. they would have these conferences of sixty-seventy people, and they’d introduce everybody and say and this year our non-evangelical is Martin Marty. I would say I’m the only person in this room whose a member of the church body that has the word evangelical in his title. Something’s going on there. Evangelicals of the gospel, and I’d like to think I’m dead on, on that. I’m ordained. I took an ordination vow to read the scriptures, make use of the Lutheran Confessions as instrumental tools along the way, and I feel very much at home with that. And most things that evangelicals are about would be right down my line. Evangelicals who have apocalyptic views, second coming that kind of thing. Every communion service, my wife and I are there. At one point in the service we shout Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again, but we don’t give dates to it and we don’t know the pattern. But we’re home with all the creeds so all those ways are to me just evangelical would be there. Now the, when I’m with evangelicals beyond that I think we make a great deal more than most of them do, not all of them of infant baptism. So many years ago, well 1976, Bill Moyers was doing a program on the rise of born agains, Jimmy Carter running talked to people in the media who had never heard of anyone being born again. In fact on your campus, I was there the Spring of 76, and I got a phone call from Newsweek. I won’t use their name. “Marty what do you make of this crazy potential democratic candidate Jimmy Carter?” I said why do you call him crazy? My boss at the Christian Century is the Illinois Chairman…he claims he had a personal experience with Jesus, and he’s born again. And I said, well what’s so strange. He says well we ask around Newsweek nobody here is born again. nobody here knows anyone who is born again, and I said I’m only a few hundred miles from you on a Louisville campus. Everybody here is born again and everybody they know is born again or will be when they get a chance to get at them. Well, Moyers wanted to do a program on Senator Hughes of Iowa a lot of prominent people were coming on that way. And then he said are you born again? I said yeah. He said when? February 26, 1928. And he said come on, you’re not that old he had his kind…of fifteen years to his reckoning. Well, we believe that you are born again in baptism, and you’re born again every day. We are faithful Lutherans, and its says in the last page of our hymn book every day in the morning upon arising, you make the sign of the cross as a token of your having been baptized. You repent, and you look forward to the new day in prayer and you end it that way in the evening too. Now that’s quite different I think from the meanings of baptism that come with anti-baptist and Baptist traditions the born again….and the same. But at least play a game if your church body or your confession were to disappear what would you be? And I kind of kiddingly say, well, I don’t know I’d be either a Roman Catholic or a Mennonite. Somebody said those two couldn’t be further apart. Well, but I like some aspects of Catholicism—development, growth, comprehension, sacraments, but I also like the ethics and intensity of the Mennonites. And I think that the goal is to bring these two together and it’s going to be done in very different ways partly doctrinally but mainly culturally. And I think that I can be right at home if I preach in chapel on any of the campuses called evangelical. I have no problem at all, and I think I get accepted along the way and I’ll go to religion class and we’ll cover nine tenths of the same things. I think the intensity of the conversion experience is the biggest single difference that is experienced. I wish it were otherwise. I have often felt since mainline and again everything I’ve said about mainline. I think everything I’ve said would apply to the non-Latino Catholics in America too. To study their statistics, to study their tenants their very similar kind of thing and both of them have been uneasy about the idea of taking your voice and witnessing and trying to get somebody to follow it along the way. We have lessons to learn there.
Mohler: You know on the issue of evangelicalism, I go back to the 1970’s and 1980’s and especially with the interest in what was then called the new religious right with the 1976 Newsweek which you mentioned perhaps even in this very article declaring in a cover story “The Year of the Evangelicals” if this was a tribe they just discovered. You have looked at not only the past but you’ve been able to be very insightful about pointing to the future. If you were speaking to American evangelicals, what would you say would be the greatest challenges that evangelicals are likely to face looking at the decades ahead?
Marty: I think probably the biggest one is they are now involved in an entanglement with culture just like the mainline used to be…they become chaplains to a huge part of the culture much of the south, much of the west, just look at the polls, they’re very close to a lot of that. And without realizing it, you sort of affirm it along the way without realizing how far you’ve gone. I’ll just take one of those illustration I don’t know how controversial it is but it’s a point I think is very big as far as my understanding of the prophetic Judaism and then of Christianity through the ages the fundamental thing about us is that we are social beings, we are communal beings, people of Israel or saved as a people always. Jesus and the disciples form a new community and in Christian terms, Paul’s terms, we are members one of another. Well, I think there are analogs to that in other parts of the culture we are social beings. Whenever I hear the hyper individualism of you know, we made it, we don’t have to share. If we choose to share, we can do it voluntarily, but don’t let them tax us, etc. If you’re poor, you’re on hard luck, you did all that, there’s a huge amount I guess, I’ll bring up the word without wanting to invest it too much the free market which has many blessings can also be consuming and the gospel gets identified with it or the word capitalism would be. Well yeah, how did the gospel, and how do the Christian church get along from 33AD until 1776 when Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations or the 1500’s when John Calvin wrote things? We get by with many different economies, and we’re going to have to keep doing that. I think entertainment is another big thing. We used to kid about it that when Elvis Presley and types came on the scene evangelicals, not just fundamentalists were massively opposed it was gyration of the hips was very sexual. The materialist imagery and all that was it and a few years later all these were being replicated. I covered some events in which pop rock Christianity was being presented on stage, and you know you have thousands of kids there, and I’m glad to see them. Words were about Jesus instead of somebody else, but you wouldn’t know from the words, the costumery was just the same, the biggest sales difference was that there was no pot and marijuana in the air. I’m not knocking it all. And a friend of mine said well, we play that kind of music, we let our kids play that kind of music because here let have you hear what they would be listening to if they didn’t have this. And after eight measures, I would say oh no, I agree with you let’s use that alternative. But there’s a huge element of the entertainment world. The materialist world, the economic individualist world that I think is quite different from, my say of 58 and all those places were called as a community to deal with our problems together. For a second analogy to this some time ago on NPR I heard a physician, I don’t know whether he’s a person of faith or not but he was really doing wonderful things. Retired could have sat back but instead he’s offering free services to people who can’t afford anything. And finally the person said to him, why are you doing this? And he said because I’m a citizen. And I think that’s a fundamental thing, that we don’t get in our debates of the far left and the far right today. The far left obscures the independence of the individual and the far right as the individual determining everything or not recognizing the place their in. Now you don’t have to be Christian to be that, just a good citizen. But I think that the evangelical Christians…are probably mired in that culture as the mainline was in the 1950’s, and they couldn’t find a voice to engage and critique of the culture, the suburban culture today.
Mohler: 5,000 articles and 50 books later what has been the biggest surprise of your research and reflection on religion in America?
Marty: I guess its durability and eventiveness. I was never wholly in the camp of the secular motif you talked about with Peter Berger. I coined a word which nobody in the world picked up, not a very beautiful word, but I described our culture as being “religio-secular” you can’t untangle it at all. A quick illustration comes to my mind a scholar you would know David Martin, a British sociologist way back in the fifties wrote a book on eliminating the concept of the secular. I don’t know anybody more than Peter Berger, who knows what secular is about but it never has it all to itself and he said, I can in three words, I can show you how it doesn’t fit. Texas Baptists millionaire, the Texas Baptist millionaire didn’t want the preacher ever to mention…preaching allowances but he was wholly accommodate to that but he also wanted what it meant to be a Baptist. Well, I think Americans have a funny way of combining these two. I did write one of those fifty-two books was called The Modern Cycism and what interested me was how on the continent of Europe the breach came in the 19th century, radical terms I call them the bearded God killers—Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Darwin, Freud the bearded God killers and we really didn’t have any who would be scared of those who are around now the new atheists but they did it and boy you had to choose all the way. In England, the word I used was everydayishness, they made a million compromises to new ways of life, stop going to church, stopped anything else. In America, we just want to call it a controlled secularity. And I think that is still strong that we open the flood gates and certain kinds come through and other places we hold back on it. And therefore when I deal with Africans they wonder how secular pagan we are. And when I deal with Europeans, they wonder why we are so religious. And I think they’re something of the genius so the American unfolding is that. I’m very concerned to losing in Catholicism and all forms of Protestantism of the younger generation—maybe two generations now. When I look around a Catholic meeting or a mainline Protestant meeting and ..even evangelical are worried about it too. So I think we have to find ways that the next generations can keep this interplay going. So that’s been a surprise that I was told, the world would be either secular or religious and it isn’t. On a global scene Christianity never had it so good, huge growth in the poor parts of the world and yet, when I look at Western Europe they never had it so bad because it’s hard to retrieve when you lose the loyalty of people.
Mohler: Yes, as the term post-Christian now comes to affirm. You know, when you mentioned David Martin, I recalled the fact that he once responded to the idea of American exceptionalism on this by saying that the problem with a lot of the claims about American religion is that a pollster in America hears a man stub his toe and use the Lord’s name in vain and thinks he’s found a believer. And there’s a sense in which I think sometimes he’s right.
Marty: Yeah. Now he was very adept at pointing these things out he’s very perceptive about it. I think when he was talking so much about secularization. I remember we were at a meeting once at the end of the sixties at Princeton, they got together everyone who wrote a “bestseller” everybody from the death of God over to revival, religion. And sitting in an orchard with him, “Marty my next book’s really going to surprise you because it’s called a Rumor of Angels. I’m pretty convinced that the transcendent order infringes on our world in ways you can’t obscure it.” I think he pretty well held with that no matter where else things took him. And again the world moves on beyond Peter Berger since my generation but I think he put a good stamp on it all the way.
Mohler: Professor Martin Marty I just have to tell you it’s been a sheer delight to be in conversation with you today. And I can just look forward to the next time. Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public.
Marty: Enjoyed the chance.
Mohler: Well, I can tell you one thing I hope if I lived to be eighty-three, I’m able to think and to speak so perceptively as Martin Marty did with me today. When I think about that conversation, I was struck by the fact that we’re not only talking to a man who has over a half century of academia and scholarship and 5,000 articles and fifty books behind him, he’s a mind very much still at work. And that’s what makes the conversation even more interesting.
It is an incredible responsibility to teach in the field of American Christianity or religion in America at a place like the University of Chicago Divinity School. Martin Marty is himself an exemplar of mainstream Protestantism of one of the old mainline churches. He is an ordained Lutheran clergyman. He writes with a very keen confessionalism, he knows who he is and what he believes. He has an interest in, you’ll remember his term, that ambiguous relation to evangelicals and conservative Christians but he writes about us as one who is also distant from us. It’s fascinating to be in conversation with someone who has been studying conservative Christians among others for the part of a century that basically marks the very beginnings of the evangelical movement until the present day. I found several points of conversation with Dr. Marty to be particularly interesting.
One was his diagnosis of the response to modernity. After all, we look at mainline Protestantism and conservative Christians will look at that and immediately say the first reason for this decline is theological. It was theological compromise that led to the evacuation of these churches. Dr. Marty wanted to speak of demographic issues, and we don’t want to deny those. As a matter of fact when we look at evangelicals today, evangelicals demographically are following very many of the same trends that the mainline Protestants experienced just a couple of generations before. We too are having fewer children and after all when it comes to the population growth in this country, it is not amongst the part of the population that is at least already more likely to be evangelical. That population curve is now trending towards ethnic minorities where evangelicals are going to have to devise new ways of being missiologicaly significant and evangelistic if we’re going to reach those persons with the message that is most important to us.
But you know when he spoke of evangelicals he went back and spoke of the mainline Protestant denominations as having been the chaplains to the establishment as he said when there was an establishment. Well there still is an establishment it’s just a different kind of establishment. And when I asked Dr. Marty about evangelicalism he said that the evangelical churches in the denominations are now to some extent the chaplains to a different establishment. Now I think that’s a very important word we need to hear. Because the danger is always that we will co-opted by the culture to which we want to have the relation of some kind of respected chaplain. And what we’re facing in America today whether you want to call it pluralizing, or secularizing, or modernizing is a reality in which evangelicals had better be very theologically sure-footed or we will find ourselves doing exactly what the mainline Protestant denomination did just a couple of generations before us. There’s a whole lot going on here just in terms of the language that we use. Talking about fundamentalist and evangelicals and mainline Protestants but that’s the kind of distinction that really is important if we’re going to talk in a meaningful way about the shape of Christianity in America today.
I love the way Martin Marty is able to make huge academic concepts very tangible. I love the words that he coins such as my favorite “everydayishness” when it comes to how actually faith is lived out in everyday life. And if everydayishness after all becomes more secular, well that’s a very clear proof and demonstration of the fact that something very important in terms of our theological conviction has been lost.
You know in hearing Dr. Marty speak there’s a great deal of candor you know just speaking of the fact that one of the reasons the mainline Protestant denominations declined is because they no longer invite anyone to go to church with them. His remark about the Episcopalians who invited someone to church once every twenty-nine years, well that’s another warning to us that the same thing can happen among us if we are not very, very careful. He’s very honest about the intellectual shape of the modern age. When he spoke about the bearded God-killers, Marxs, and Nietzsche, and Freud, and Darwin, he’s speaking about those who really set the stage for so many of the conversation that are continuing to day. He spoke of course about other things that I think are very instrumentally important to us. When he spoke about evangelical institutions and evangelical colleges and when he spoke about what it means to retain a very clear sense of distinctiveness. I really appreciated what he had to say about the professor in an evangelical institution who said look, we can teach the hard stuff because they know where we are. I think that’s one of the most important things that evangelicals need to hear. We are able to take on the hard issues. We are able to talk about whether its nihilism, or existentialism, or just about anything that could confront us today. We’re able to talk about it at full strength precisely because there is a prior commitment that is public and assured to the faith that is after all once for all delivered to the saints.
Martin Marty is one of those observers of all things who is able to distill and bring things together. I really admire the way he is able to synthesize to bring these things together and to explain them. Even where I disagree with him, I have to look and say there was a very intelligent mind looking at the data trying to see the patterns and to understand what these things do mean. That’s one of the responsibilities we have, we need more who are more like evangelical Martin Martys—able to look at the world, able to see it for what it is, able to trace the trends, able to trace the history, and able to interpret not only the past but the present as we look to the future. You know a conversation with someone like Martin Marty is just one of those unusual opportunities that reminds us that out there in there world today there are many, many creative minds, insightful, intelligent minds who are saying things that we need to hear.
As another final word, I really appreciated his distinction between looking through a window and looking at a mirror. I think one of the problems with many evangelicals is that we spend too much time looking in the mirror looking at how we see ourselves and perhaps even asking the question how others see us, but we actually need to be looking out at the world. Coming to terms with belief systems and worldviews and philosophies and ideologies and doctrines that are taught by others in order to understand, what we really must be saying and how we must be engaging the modern world. It’s important not only to see but to know how we indeed are seen.
Finally, I’m reminded of the sheer gift of conversation. What a joy it was to be in conversation with someone that has the insights and the experience, the analytical ability of someone like Martin Marty. But, I want to remind you that God has made us conversational creatures, and you will have the opportunity today, and in successive days to be in conversations that can likewise disclose and be opportunities for the disclosure of things that are most important to us. And most importantly of course that means gospel conversations. Of course, it’s also important that we think in public. We really learn by the process of watching other minds in action. And our minds themselves become sharper by thinking in public.
Before signing off I want to remind you about a very special opportunity. I want to invite you to join Mary and me and other friends of Southern Seminary as we take a cruise to Alaska July 30-August 6 later this year. The cruise promises to combine absolutely breathtaking beauty with the opportunity to share a bible conference experience aboard the ship. As we travel along the coast and see some of the most beautiful displays of God’s glory in creation. For more information visit sbts.edu. Remember my website at albertmohler.com. For a wealth of information that is available there for you and remember you can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.comalbertmohler. Thank you for joining me for Thinking In Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.