Retiring Scholar Takes a Look Back and a Peek Into the Future
Study, the Bible says, to show thyself approved. Martin E. Marty has studied. And then some.
For more than half a century, Marty has taught, studied and written about theology, becoming perhaps America’s best-known scholar of religion.
Marty, who recently retired from the University of Chicago faculty at the age of 70, says today’s student of American religion “is more surprised by its continuity than . . . by its downturns.”
“For the future, I think the issue will not be, will a lot of people believe in God or not? They keep doing that,” he said. “The issue will be, will they find communities, will they build loyalties, will they take that and make a difference in the world because of it?”
Through his life’s work he has met many of the nation’s best-known figures of the past 40 years: Presidents John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Lyndon Johnson, George Bush and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He has written 50 books, marched in Selma, Ala., during the civil rights movement, preached in Desmond Tutu’s Cape Town, South Africa, cathedral and corresponded with the Rev. Billy Graham.
In a letter, Marty says, Graham once promised him “that in the life to come we are finally going to sit down for a lot of conversation.” Last year, President Clinton presented Marty with the National Humanities Medal.
Marty started out in a pulpit, spending a decade as a Lutheran pastor while writing for Christian Century magazine. His experience as a pastor has remained central to his life and work despite decades as a university professor.
“I’m never not in church,” he said. “The sacramental life means a lot to me.”
Marty’s own pastor, the Rev. Linda Lee Nelson of Ascension Lutheran Church in the Chicago suburb of Riverside, calls him “a mix of so many amazing worlds, from the academic world to cocktail parties with New York’s socialites, to dinner with the president, to wrestling on the floor with children on retreats.”
Born in West Point, Neb., Martin Emil Marty was raised a Lutheran. His father taught in a two-room school; his mother was a church organist.
From his youth, he knew his vocation would be religion. While attending the seminary, he did fieldwork at a tuberculosis sanitarium and ministered “to people who you knew would be dead the next week.” He dreaded the weekly visits but felt good afterward and decided to become a pastor.
But Marty found it hard to make time for both ministry and writing, so he became a teacher, joining the University of Chicago faculty in 1963.
In the past half-century, Marty has seen religion and his own life change tremendously.
In 1985, he helped found the Park Ridge Center for the Study of Health, Faith and Ethics, in part because of the lengthy illness of his first wife, Elsa, who died of cancer in 1981.
He remembers the “terribly black” days as his wife lay dying and they read from the Psalms each midnight as she took her medication. Still, Marty, who writes of those days in his book “A Cry of Absence,” says: “It was never, ‘Why us?’ ”
“I think God puts us in a world of nature and freedom,” he said, and faith comes in how a person handles such trials. He refers to “agape,” the Greek word for God’s love for humans, and said, “I think that’s what sustained us.”
In 1982, Marty remarried. His wife, Harriet, is a musician.
Marty cites two of the most negative influences on religion in America today as the frequent weekend trips that families now take and high-rise living where there is less community loyalty. “We used to say you could outlive three bad pastorates. Now, people get impatient with three weak sermons and they go shopping,” he said.
Like many, he fondly remembers the “irretrievable” 1950s, “the only decade where everything worked for religion.” Suburban churches and college chapels were being built. People traveled less and attended church regularly.
“People were in single-family homes. They married early and had a couple of kids.” They used institutions, he says, to satisfy their search for religion and find peace of mind.
Of contemporary trends, Marty is most disturbed by the plight of the poor and homeless. Just as Americans today find past tolerance of slavery sad and puzzling, Marty believes our descendants will wonder how we could have been so blind to the underclass.
“In the midst of all the bounty for which everyone gives thanks to God,” Marty said, “we haven’t the imagination or the resources to do anything but settle for a permanent underclass.”
In February, 560 of Marty’s friends and colleagues turned out for a birthday party and retirement celebration at which the University of Chicago announced creation of the Martin E. Marty Center, a research institute for the study of religion’s role in public life and culture.
In retirement, Marty plans to write and serve as director of the Public Religion Project, which focuses on religion in public life.
“I like to take the semi-visible and bring it to visibility,” he said, “not as public relations for religion, but because I think the human race is better off if we take the things that move us most out into the public square.”