Today's date:
Winter 2002


Religio-Secular Society

Martin Marty is one of America's leading theologians. He is professor of theology at the School of Divinity at the University of Chicago and is senior editor of the Christian Century, and he co-directed the Fundamentalism Project of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Professor Marty spoke to NPQ Editor Nathan Gardels.

The Japanese philosopher Takeshi Umehara argues that the collapse of Marxism, "a side current of modernity," was the precursor to the collapse of secular liberalism, "modernity's main current." Both, he argues, excommunicated the "other world, the world of the spirit" through their materialist philosophy. Both, as a result, are now failing.

Even foreign policy intellectuals like Zbigniew Brzezinski are beginning to argue that unless America and the West regain their spiritual vigor, they will fade on the world scene.

Do you agree?

MARTIN MARTY | Of course, Marxism promised an inevitable future utopia that could be tested on this Earth. The Marxist-economic model failed, and when the political systems of the Soviet bloc came under pressure to deliver, we discovered there was nothing inside. They imploded.

Liberal societies are not sufficiently integrated as a system to implode in the same way in the face of crisis. What is true is a growing acknowledgment that the three pillars of secular liberalism-rationality as a mode of thinking, the constitutional republic and individualism-are of themselves spiritually sterile, which does not mean they should, or can be, torn down. It only means that they alone cannot prop up a civilization; they answer wonderfully to the practical side of life, but do nothing for the passional side of life.

I am a Christian, but I think in secular rational ways all the time. If I am ill, I don't want Mormon brain surgery, I don't want Baptist blood transfusions and I don't want Lutheran proctology. I just want the job done. This mode or rationality isn't fortified too much by a heavy philosophy, but is likely to stay with us for many dimensions of life simply because it works too well.

The establishment of a constitutional republic-in effect the official privatizing of religion-has been able to keep the peace while unleashing in America a religious explosion, making this country the most religious of any advanced industrialized nation. Swirling all about this public/private division of religion are religious arguments affecting every major public debate, from the civil rights movement to abortion.

So, there is really a tremendous amount of this spiritual vitality going on, but it all has to follow the rules of the game, using modes of reasoning not based upon one's particular revelation.

In the course of practical life we mix the religious and the rational in all that we do. If you are faced with the medical ethics question of "should we pull the plug on grandma?" what resources do you call upon?

You don't ask a philosopher to come in and lecture on Aristotle or Mills about the greatest good for the greatest number. You ask, "what does my good doctor say, what does my rabbi say, what does my family say?" You ask a different range of questions that have to do with different dimensions. You employ intuition, tradition, community, memory, hope and affection. You ask "who is grandma, what does she mean to us, what are her thoughts and wishes?"

That mix of modes of experience-including the religious dimension-which are brought to bear in the challenges we face in life, is very vital, more than the culture knows. I don't think we want to try to impose on this realm a single metaphysic which presumes to have an answer for all things in all times and for all people.

When Zbigniew Brzezinski and others worry about the moral fabric of America and call for a social renewal, perhaps they tend a little too much toward the theocratic view of the need for a single spiritual system.

Our nation's spirituality is too particularized, so individualized, that you could almost say that the last 20 years of explosive spiritual revival in America has had almost no social consequences. Outside the anti-abortion activists, people are finding their own way. But as far as the fabric of the culture is concerned, it is about as decisive as whether you like Bartok or rock music. Individuals are on their own quest.

So, amid the pillars of secularism, people go to synagogue, they go to church, they go to co-dependency groups and affirm the existence of a higher power for which liberal culture has no vocabulary. When we are replenished in our spirit, we go back into the liberal culture, changing it bit by bit. Already liberal culture has been transformed into something quite different than that envisioned by the philosophes of the Enlightenment.

A lot of foundations are threatened in Western civilization; a lot of walls are sagging. I know many roofs that can cave in. But there is a lot of remodeling, annexing and improvisation going on autonomously throughout the culture. I do not think it is possible in the pluralist West that the alternative to our sagging civilization can be some kind of spiritual recovery based on the voluntary acceptance of a single metaphysic, be it Christian republicanism or "secular enlightenment" or what have you.

As usual, the elites in the mass media, academia, entertainment and commerce are only now catching on to what has been happening in most of the culture for decades. Then they try to codify it in a film or systematize it in a program.

If we do try to turn all that autonomous improvisation into a system, then we will surely shortcut this "organic" spiritual renovation and invite the kind of fate that put the Marxist system in the trashbin of history.

NPQ | But the concern of those whom you suspect of having theocratic, systematizing proclivities is not so much that they want a single metaphysic; they just object to a menu of metaphysics where there is no hierarchy of values, where everything that comes along is just as good as the next. It is only a matter of choice.

If liberal society needs a moral order, how can a relative, plural, decentralized array of spiritual choices provide it?

MARTY | Pluralism can be exaggerated so much that the overlappages are forgotten. I'm not saying that a Buddhist is going to become a Christian. But I am not an "utter pluralist" who believes we all must just exist out there because distinct philosophies legitimate our beliefs. In America, we are a society of spiritual as well as political coalitions.

I am thus a civic pluralist who believes that we can draw on Aristotle's aggregates or Madison's pluralities for what they bring to the larger pattern, all the while honoring those pluralities and giving people some measure of identity and trust.

Also, as an historian, I do not think that the kind of cohesive moral order so many now harken back to ever existed in the systemic way they wish to remember.

Moral orders hang together in a different way. People know there are things, as Katharine Hepburn used to put it, that "you shouldn't oughta do." You shouldn't oughta put graffitti on walls, or vandalize, or abuse drugs.

But the "shouldn't oughtas" don't arise from a formal metaphysic. They emerge from a common life that is informally nurtured.

First in this mesh of relations is a common devotion to place. When you settle on a plot of Earth, you consecrate it. You are attached to those you live with. A common time is another link in the mesh.
The Earth belongs to the living, but when we think of our grandchildren, we import their future time into ours and adopt the generational ethic of being environmentally aware. A common story means we share the same myths and reference points. You can point to many mythical points of reference in our society today-for example, the recent launching of the space shuttle Challenger with men and women right out of central casting for a plural society (Protestant, Catholic, Jew, black, white, Buddhist) says it all about who we are.

Then there are common propositions, the closest to a metaphysic, and, in American society, common constitutionalism. We agree, for example, that certain truths are "self-evident," such as individual freedom, and we agree to abide by a common set of rules applied equally to all.

And finally there is common affection in the sense of affectivity or attachment. You may fight all the time at the family reunion about who will get grandma's silver, but you are fighting with your own kin and wouldn't miss the reunion for anything.

All of these things are the locus of moral order, and they are infused with the values brought to them by religious faith.

My theology-the Augustinian-Calvin-Lutheran tradition-does not believe that everything good that happens in the world, and it is our mission to build the City of God, has to be done in the name of God. In Christianity and the Encounter With World Religions, Paul Tillich wrote that "in the depth of every living religion there is a point at which the religion itself loses its importance, a point at which it breaks through its particularity, elevating it to spiritual freedom and with it to a vision of the spiritual presence in other expressions as the ultimate meaning of man's existence."

It is through that spiritual presence that religious awakening in the West will influence and transform liberal culture.

NPQ | All these less-than-universal commonalities don't, however, seem to counterbalance the all-embracing assault of consumer society and the invasion of the media into the places and affections of which you speak.

The stories are different, but the message is coherent in the "permissive cornucopia," as Brzezinski calls it, of the mass culture.

All the private spiritualism and the particular commonalities would seem to add up, in Leo Strauss's phrase, to "retail sanity, but wholesale madness."

MARTY | I can match anybody in hyperbole about the terrible problems we face. But they have to be addressed piecemeal, not systematically. That is the way our culture works.

We are not innocent about these things any more. Whoever has written a book about how to solve the whole problem is today forgotten and unread. Arnold Toynbee towered over other historians with his power of synthesis. But today we read the pragmatists instead. Both political parties now appreciate Eisenhower.

NPQ | The British writer Bryan Appleyard calls for a "post-scientific" society in which science is put in its proper place in a pecking order beneath religion and faith. Science and the secular liberal society it has spawned with its rational principles, he says, has left us marooned on barren sands.

You have spoken of a "religio-secular" society where the two coexist. How does your view ?t with Appleyard's?

MARTY | As I indicated earlier when talking about brain surgery, I think there are many domains of the scientific method that will survive any cultural shift, and for which there is no special reason to bring in issues of the transcendent, the spiritual, faith, the supernatural or the spooky.

I do think that sacral aura of science, and its priesthood of scientists, has faded as the ultimate authority in our lives. This is true from psychoanalysis to physics. There is no doubt the claims of science which appealed to the Promethean impulse in humans are more and more suspect.

Far from rendering man more divine, each pushing back of limits makes us aware of greater limits. Each conquest of distance reveals greater distance. Behind the light we have found a black hole.

As a result, the passional side of human nature is reclaiming its space.

I think "coexistence" is too cool a word to describe the relationship between science and religion in our age. The collapse of one in the face of the other, which seems to be Appleyard's approach, is too strong.

Perhaps Paul Tillich's idea of correlation would be better. In a religio-secular society there would be a certain symbiosis where the religious and the scientific modes of experience live off each other, interacting.

The concept of modes of experience is critical to understanding the emergent religio-secular culture that I see. We all as individuals live many roles. A student may wear a dashiki to class, but he wears a cap and gown to graduation. We are citizen, father, cook, sufferer. When the minister says "dearly beloved" to his wife, to his children, to a couple getting married, to his congregation he means something different each time, though all these meanings come from a single core.

As a biblical scholar I analyze Romans Chapter 8 for its rhetoric, its grammar and for its location in the Greco-Roman discourse and the biography of Paul. The mode of experience I employ here is no different than that of an atheist scholar.

Then, I walk into a sanctuary where faith beckons to faith. In the midst of my own ambiguities and doubts, as a believer I am drawn to that text which says love is stronger than death, that you won't be overwhelmed. I can't prove it, but I believe it.

Then I could come home, as I did a dozen years ago, to learn that my wife had terminal cancer. Then that text spoke to me in a very different mode.

These modes of experience aren't contradictory. Though they come from separate universes of discourse, a person can hold them all in an integrated personality and not be schizophrenic. We possess all these modes in good faith and move about among them.

This is as true for civilizations as it is for individuals. Modes of experience do overlap, they cross boundaries and they can't be boxed off. Civilizations are not pure, thoroughly cogent and untouched by other modes of experience.

This comingling of modes of experience is unsettling to fundamentalists. For them, there can be only one mode and one meaning. For them, everyone of good faith and moderate intelligence would have to agree to the same meaning of the Koran or the Bible because it can only be seen one way. If you don't agree it is because of the devil, bad faith, chosen ignorance or willful resistance.

Fundamentalists worldwide are "non-hermeneutical." They believe that the meaning of a text was sealed when God or Allah gave it verbatim to the apostles or Muhammed. There is no room for interpretation based upon the modes of experience you bring to the text.

NPQ | A thesis: The more modes of experience we come into contact with through global communications and the postmodern ubiquity of the consumerist media, the more fundamentalism will build as a backlash.

Do you see that dynamic?

MARTY | Yes, but we must stick close to the facts.

A good part of the militant Islamic reaction in a place like Algeria today is due to the failure of the secular, nominally Muslim military regime to deliver on the economic goods. They created a void for someone to say compellingly: "Allah did not intend for you to spend your life in poverty and listlessness. He intended a better life for you; join our movement and you will have that life."

The Iranian revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini against the modernizing Shah was a clear example of your thesis. Iranian parents saw their child being lured away from the righteous path by the Western media and technology. The parents, who know they can never realize the materialist aspirations promoted by Western advertising, tell her that modernity is evil and corrosive. They fear a blowing wind will take this tender, frail plant of their daughter's mentality away. So, they build a greenhouse out of Koranic passages to shelter their seedling.

The morally corrosive forms of modernity have had a similar effect in America, especially among those who have begun to rise in the economic system but then stalled out economically.

The signals on television undercut parental intentions for a four-year-old; the signals of pluralism which reduce overt religion in the classroom come as an assault on what the parents want for the 14-year-old; the assault of relativism on solid values around us, the fact that nobody can come up with peer standards, confuses the 24-year-old parent.

In all three instances, the parents and the young adults hear something like what the Muslim hears from Allah: God didn't intend for you to be this bereft, this marooned, this beleaguered.

What they hear is what those Iranians susceptible to Khomeini's message heard: God intended you to be a special people, a holy nation. You are supposed to be exalted individuals, the redeemed ones. You are supposed to be chosen by the covenant. Yet, here you are, overwhelmed by public schools, Hollywood and the cultural elites, MTV promiscuity and the Supreme Court.

The difference between fundamentalism and mere traditionalism or orthodoxy is that the fundamentalist fights back. These are not the Amish who withdraw into the countryside and let the world pass by. The fundamentalist must engage that world at the devil's domain, the domain of the Great Satan.

NPQ | ...a figurative jihad.

MARTY | Yes, in the sense that the struggle against the devil is being turned over to God, the agent of apocalypse, who will settle all accounts in the end.

NPQ | Though the Enlightenment worldview has been humbled in the many ways we have discussed, its lasting legacy of the free individual is codified in the notion of universal human rights.

Isn't even the concept of human rights in conflict not just with fundamentalist Islam but with the avowedly religious civilization built upon submission to Allah, not individual liberation; fusion of temporal and spiritual realms; sovereignty of God, not the people; and rule of the Word, not reason?

MARTY | Theocracy and the concept of human rights as outlined by the United Nations, the Geneva Accords and the Helsinki Accords cannot be reconciled. Islamic definitions of human rights have glorious things to say about the rights of believers, and precious little about the infidel and non-believer or minority.

Many orthodox Muslims, of course, are moderate about human rights. But Islam never formally separated church and state, to use Western lingo in their context. Even when they did so tactically, they never separated religion and regime theologically. As a result, it is much easier for fundamentalists to seize their cultures than it would be in the West.

The West, however, must be cautious in its claim to universalism. A Buddhist of good will says to us, "OK, if the West wants to be universal, then it must give up the dogmatism and monotheism of Judeo-Christianity...."

For myself, a good side of me, as a Christian believer, remains with the Enlightenment. Every time I see someone emerge from a sacred bath in the Ganges with dysentery, I am reminded of my secular commitments.