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St. Mark's Catholic Church, Isla Vista, California February 21, 1986
Habits of the Heart:
Robert N. Bellah
To get the conversation started this evening I thought I would talk a little bit about some of the findings of Habits of the Heart, about religion, and particularly about the tendency in America in the direction of religious privatism. Early in chapter nine, which is the chapter on religion in Habits, we describe someone whose real name we don't use but who has become sufficiently paradigmatic that as I go around the country I find people talking about this before I have a chance to say anything. We interviewed, in the research for Habits of the Heart, one young woman who has named her religion after herself.
But the case of Sheila is not confined to people who haven't been to church in a long time. On the basis of our interviews, and a great deal of other data, I think we can say that many people sitting in the pews of Protestant and even Catholic churches are Sheilaists who feel that religion is essentially a private matter and that there is no particular constraint on them placed by the historic church, or even by the Bible and the tradition. We quote in Habits of the Heart a recent Gallup poll, which indicated that 80 percent of Americans agreed with the statement that "an individual should arrive at his or her own religious beliefs independent of any churches or synagogues." Now, again, that isn't the way it really happens. But just the notion that religious belief ought to be a purely internal thing, and then you go to the church or synagogue of your choice, shows how deeply ingrained a kind of religious privatism is, which turns the church into something like the Kiwanis Club or some other kind of voluntary association that you go to or not if you feel comfortable with it-but which has no organic claim upon you.
Now I would like to shift gears here and quote from the opening of a very interesting report of the Doctrine Commission of the Church of England on the problem of belief within the church that begins by referring to a play of Dorothy Sayers, which I think is raising the issue quite vividly. This play of Dorothy Sayers was written in 1946 and concerns a pilot in the RAF who was killed and then returns to his native city of Litchfield in England, and finds himself welcomed by the town's people from the past centuries and required to stake his claim to citizenship. The town recorder says to the young man, "What matters here is not so much what you did as why you did it. Can you recite your creed?" And the airman says, "I believe in God." And then the chorus of town's people, picking him up and carrying him along, says, "The Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth and in Jesus Christ," and then suddenly the airman breaks in and says, "No! No! No! What made me start off like that. I reacted automatically to the word creed. My personal creed is something totally different." So here we have Sheila in England already in 1946.
Now America is not England and, in any case, though England still has an officially established church, it is probably almost as pluralistic as we are. And I only use that example to suggest the kind of radical tension between a conception of the church as a part of the common life, as there before we came, as it will be after we go, as partly constituting who we are-and not merely a flimsy, temporary structure that depends on our momentary and voluntary will for its existence at all. But the question remains, how do we, in a pluralist society, avoid the radical individualism expressed by Sheila and also by the young airman in the Dorothy Sayers play? That's not easy.
Reinhold Neibuhr, I think, tries to get at that when he contrasts two dangers: secularism, on the one hand, which would simply admit the emptying out of any religious content of culture; and, on the other hand, religious triumphalism that would assert something like a Christian America as we've heard lately from certain quarters. He argues instead for what he calls a religious solution to the problem of religious diversity. "This solution makes religious and cultural diversity," Neibuhr writes,
The point here is as communities, as churches with a strong sense of corporate identity, we enter into the public sphere and speak to our fellow citizens out of our faith, not in some triumphalist claim for special privilege, but also without renouncing the fact that we carry a tradition that is deep and that forms our lives. Neibuhr goes on to say,
Or both, I would add.
In chapter nine of Habits of the Heart, we try to talk about three congregations that are engaged in this effort to deal with a pluralistic society, remaining faithful to their heritage but speaking to the reality of the world in which they live. The first two are a liberal Presbyterian church and a conservative evangelical one. The liberal Presbyterian church is one in which the pastor is as apt to tell a story from the Maharishi as he is to comment on the New Testament in his sermons. And when the parishioners come into the pastor's study with a particularly severe problem the pastor is apt to say, "Wonderful, what an opportunity for growth!" And we were not surprised to learn that this congregation sometimes refers to itself as the Redwood Hot Tub Memorial Presbyterian Church, since it has a strong dose of Eastern religion and a strong dose of human potential psychology. These are wonderful people and they do a lot of good things. They have sponsored Vietnamese families and they're concerned with the lack of recreational facilities for Chicano young people. They have a loving congregation. But I think it is not being judgmental in an overly harsh sense, although in America we are never supposed to be judgmental, to say that their hold on their own tradition has grown a bit faint.
The second congregation, a conservative evangelical church, is ardently and fervently biblical. Indeed, the pastor runs a course on New Testament Greek so that the congregation can get as close to the text as possible. It, however, tends to make out of the Bible a set of rules that pushes it in the direction of a kind of legalism that gives it a certain tightness of coherence but a deep suspicion of the surrounding world. In fact, we find that this church has little concern with the world other than a certain amount of evangelical outreach to convert others to its own position. But larger questions of poverty or nuclear war are not things with which it is concerned.
Now when the research came in from my four fellow authors and field workers, these were the two churches I got. I said that's fine. These do represent sort of the poles between which everything exists in America, but we will not go with only those two churches. Bring me another. I specifically wanted a Catholic parish at that point, but my coauthors were exhausted and worried about tenure and other things and didn't have time to go and get another church for me. So I took my trusty tape recorder and went off to my own parish, St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Berkeley, and that is St. Stephen's Episcopal Church. Dick Madsen, strong Catholic churchmen that he is, said, "Well Bob, that church sounds pretty Catholic to me." So, we had to make do with an Episcopal church, which we used to illustrate the possibility of trying to keep some kind of continuity with biblical teaching and with the liturgical tradition of the church-while at the same time speaking to the world on all kinds of issues, from the homeless and hungry in our own city to issues of sanctuary for central American refugees, nuclear war and all those kinds of things. So I think that it does function in that chapter to give you a sense of another way of doing it than the first two churches, admirable in many ways though those first two are.
After the publication of Habits of the Heart, I came across a very interesting book, Varieties of Religious Presence, written by David Roozen and a couple of collaborators, which is a study of all the congregations and churches-Catholic, Jewish, fundamentalist, Protestant mainline-in Hartford, Connecticut. They give twelve really rather rich profiles of particular congregations out of the mass of groups that they studied and they make a nice supplement and enrichment to chapter nine in Habits of the Heart. I found in their book St. Margaret's Roman Catholic Church, which would have been what I wanted for that third church in chapter nine. I thought, as a conclusion to my opening comments here, I would share with you this Catholic parish in Hartford as the Catholic example of the effort to balance faithfulness and a relationship to the problems of the world. So, I'll just read you a few paragraphs of this to give you a flavor of it and then we will stop for discussion.
That, I think, is very important because the life of this parish is focused on the Eucharist in a uniquely intense way. It isn't social concern versus the religious life but there is a deep mutual enrichment. As one member put it:
Now, one of the interesting things about this parish is that they have been able to hold onto their young people and involve them in the church. Whereas we know that the most difficult group for the Catholic church to reach in America are Hispanic youth, they have a relatively high involvement because they have a program that really speaks to these young people.
But, again, it isn't just an activist program. It is a religious program. Eighty young people come together each Sunday evening for a more directly church-related program that includes a discussion of the Gospel lesson for that Sunday for the first hour and then a discussion of some issue of social concern for the second hour. And out of these discussions often comes some form of action in the world that they can undertake together. But they cultivate their understanding of the Bible and spirituality together with their involvement in the social problems that afflict their community so sharply.
They also have a vigorous program that helps young people in their learning. They don't have a parochial school but they have supplementary educational aids that help tutor them in English so they have a chance for a decent job in this society. They have been attacked by some conservatives for having too much Spanish in their liturgy and by some radicals for teaching English to the young people too vigorously. But they think they need to do both.
So, I think that this is just one example of others, and when I use this example in various communities I've usually been told about a parish nearby that is somewhat like St. Margaret's, so I am quite sure that it's not unique. But it is this pattern that I think the Habits of the Heart group thinks is the one that is most helpful for religious life in America.
Questions & Answers
Question [a woman]: I don't know if this question has any value but I wondered how they got 80 Hispanic youth together in one place. Is it because of their ethnicity that maybe they have a stronger sense of community or had they already done a lot of foundational work to get them to the point where they could get them once a week for two hours?
Bellah: I don't know exactly how they did it. It's not just ethnicity because the Hispanic, traditional Catholicism of many of the older people in the parish is quite passive and primarily oriented towards the authority of the priest. They have been able to galvanize these young people in very different and, in a sense, more American way, into a more active kind of participation in the parish life. The pastor, who is not Hispanic, is obviously a very dynamic person and has put together an extraordinary staff. Usually, it takes that kind of leadership to encourage others to take responsibility and to feel they're part of it; and once that dynamism gets going, of course, amazing things can happen.
Q [a man]: Would you say that these young people, who've taken these weekly discussions and then later on do the social thing, might not still tend to develop individualism in that they develop their own personal thoughts?
B: Here I think we want to keep a balance because it is a normal part of growing up that we have to take these things into ourselves and make them a part of ourselves. So the sense that one's religion is deeply personal is healthy. The problem with Sheilaism is-and here, I think, to give her her due, she came to this very privatized notion out of rebellion against a very harshly repressive fundamentalist childhood-that she has made the inner trip and hasn't come back out again, so to speak. So everything is entirely psychologized and internal. What I think is a healthier outcome is not that that internalization doesn't happen-it must happen-but that it then moves back into a strong sense of commitment to community and the realization that one cannot fulfill one's religious understanding except in and through community, and that it is one's common commitments in the church that actualize that inner conscience and faith. It's keeping the polarity open that is healthy. It's when only the internal side of the polarity exists and becomes absolutized then I think it becomes problematic.
Q [a man]: In your book, there are a lot of people who seem to have positive attitudes towards the world, or towards family, or towards community. Do you see a movement towards moving away from individualism to more of a sense of community?
B: Movements and tendencies and trends are very hard to measure. I think we clearly see a great deal of nostalgia for a more connected, more communitarian society. People we talked to from a wide variety of different positions-religiously or politically-tended to idealize the small town. They think that life would really be nice in the small town where you could really trust other people, you could leave your doors unlocked and so on. So we were not surprised when a Gallup poll showed that a majority of Americans, if they could live in any size community, said the place they would most like to live is in a community of less than 10,000. More than 50 percent said that. Well, you know how many people actually live in such towns; and I think most of that 50 some odd percent would go stark-staring mad in about a week in such a community. But they think that's what they want.
The sort of nostalgic talk about traditional values, the resonance that Reagan has gotten with family, neighborhood, religion and so on. There's a lot of wish for that. But there is not terribly much willingness to pay the price for it. Somehow one wants that as a sort of warm glow but what one is really doing is advancing one's competitive advantages in a very different kind of world. And I think Americans want it both ways. The extraordinary effectiveness of the Reagan rhetoric is that he has said that you can have it both ways. You can be an entrepreneur and get rich and you can also have the traditional values, though we know that the rise of consumer capitalism is really what undercuts traditional values. But, as long as we think we can have everything and not pay any price for it, that's attractive.
So, in short, I think people are not happy with radical individualism. I think people want connectedness and community. But I think they're not willing to give up the private quest for money and power that would be necessary to create genuine community-at least not yet. We haven't come to the crunch on that.
Q [a woman]: In the parish that you spoke of, could you isolate any factor that would make that community spirit come alive. Why did it happen in that particular parish? What were some of the factors and elements that went into creating this life?
B: And you see how much people want to know how to do it. [Laughter] If I read the whole chapter I'm afraid we still wouldn't have any secret of success, the sort of ten steps towards a lively parish. I don't want to be disrespectful because I see the seriousness of your question. But I don't think we have any way of putting that into a formula more than what I've already said. That is, some priests who really care, who are able to get some laity involved enough to take responsibility themselves so that it all doesn't fall on the priest. And then somehow you just build on that. It's probably pretty mysterious because there're probably some very gifted priests who try to do that in other places and it hasn't worked. I don't know. I think partly we have to say it's the grace of God to have a parish like that, though obviously it takes a lot of work too.
Q [a man]: In Shielaism, the vocabulary tends to be the vocabulary of therapy. And, people who come out of therapy, the thing you'll often hear them saying is, "I have to do what's best for me." In religion, we have the vocabulary for community. We can talk about the body of Christ. In therapy, when you talk about community, sometimes it comes out as: "I help somebody but it's for me. The reason I'm doing this is because it's better for me." Is there a vocabulary, a middle ground vocabulary that allows us to talk about altruism and community, which is not specifically religious but is not, you know, but is secular, is what I am trying to say? Is there a secular vocabulary that lets us talk about those values?
B: I think there is. There's a very old vocabulary rooted in Platonic and Aristotelian ethics-the language of the virtues. You used the word, altruistic, and I am very suspicious of that word. I think that's a very modern way of looking at it-to contrast egoistic and altruistic. I think the classical ethical position would be that the life of a virtuous person, who's fully realizing their human capacities for fulfilling those virtues, is both the best life for that person and the life that contributes most to a real community. In other words, it isn't a case of, in any simple sense, crushing your ego and just thinking of other people. After all, Jesus told us to love our neighbor as ourselves. He doesn't say don't love yourself. Self-love is a perfectly normal thing. But self-love, in its positive meaning, only comes to fruition when it-really there's an economy of love: love of God, love of neighbor and love of self-all of which are legitimate. It isn't that we destroy one for the sake of the other, though there is a hierarchy. But if we see that the fulfillment of the self is in community and not that it's a case, as in much of the therapeutic language, it's an either/or. Which isn't to say that sacrifice is not also a positive good, which the therapeutic language doesn't like. There are moments when-and there again it's complicated because-to be true to our own deepest intuitions involves sacrifice, including the sacrifice of our life, as in the case of Martin Luther King in whose honor we had a holiday this past Monday. So, you don't want to get into the business of making everything in terms of a very simple sense of self realization. On the other hand, you don't want to get into this modern notion of contrasting self and world as though it was a zero-sum situation.
Q [a Catholic bishop]: Professor, I am interested in this quote you gave from Neibuhr. It seemed to me that the gist of it was that if the religious groups pluralistically do not speak out their best values, secularism will simply push them into an inconsequential corner. I wonder if it isn't a trend in that direction in the United States, in our country. We see it, for example, in some of the public issues that we address as churches. Nuclear war would be one. Abortion would be another. People seem to say about that: "But religion should be private, not something that you put forth and come into contact with our public policy. This is America that we're dealing with. There are issues. Religion is something else." I wonder if there hasn't been a steady trend. I don't know whether it's due to immigration. At one time, this was a basically Protestant country and there was a sense of community, I think, about that. Is it possible-you know, you're an expert on Japanese religion. Is there a trend, which is going to make this community-dimension of religion in support of our common ethic and polity even more difficult as we become more pluralistic?
B: I think that has been the trend and the danger of one understanding of disestablishment is to proclaim religion is simply private, which I don't think was the understanding of the people who wrote the First Amendment, nor the people who were most influential in this society for many decades after the Constitution was promulgated. But more recently, the notion of religion as radically private-as being illegitimate in the public sphere at all-has become widespread. And then somehow that's attributed to Thomas Jefferson and the First Amendment is suppose to mean that. The effort to drive religion out of public life altogether, which carried to its complete conclusion would forbid the president to mention God in the inaugural address, which presidents have done ever since Washington, and would mean that Christmas couldn't be a holiday and other absurdities of that sort. I think that tendency that you point to is there.
On the other hand, I do feel that what Martin Marty calls the public church-not in the sense of the old Protestant quasi-establishment but in the sense of a pluralistic religious community that is nonetheless actively involved in the world-serves to counteract that. And here-after Vatican II brought the Catholic Church much more centrally into American public life and opened up a variety of friendly relations between the major Protestant denominations and the Catholic Church-seems to me to be the structural context for realizing what Neibuhr was trying to do.
There is a real tension. It's not clear to me that it has to go that radically privatizing way, although some secular intellectuals very much push in that direction. But it seems to me that the two recent most significant letters from the bishops on nuclear war and on the economy contribute very valuably to offsetting that by insisting on speaking to the church but also to fellow Christians and to the nation at large on issues of deep concern-and getting a hearing. Even if it's hard to get heard in some quarters. So, I think that is the right kind of action to offset this trend of privatism.
Q [female UCSB student]: Currently I am taking a course at the university on religion and society and we're learning about the concept of deprivation and how people join a religion because of either economic or social deprivation. What is your comment on that theory?
B: You must tell me afterwards who teaches that.
Q: You know it's Professor Hammond. [Laughter]
B: Well, there is a view that religion is always a response to some kind of deprivation. The problem with that theory is that it's almost impossible to disprove. I mean if people are poor, it's because they're economically deprived. If they are powerless, it's because they are politically deprived. However, what happens if they are rich and powerful and still somehow need religion? Well, then, according to this theory, they suffer from moral deprivation. The world is morally meaningless. Well, the human condition is such that I don't know anybody who isn't deprived of something. And therefore you get a theory that doesn't explain anything because it explains everything. So, I am personally not enamored with the deprivation theory of religion. I also think of that marvelous story that Dorothy Day tells in her autobiography that it wasn't when she was at her rock bottom, in prison and suffering, that she came to her religious conversion. But it was at a moment of great and overflowing joy that she finally completed her sense of commitment to Christ and the church. That would seem to me to suggest that the deprivation theory-there are no atheists in foxholes kind of thing-is pretty over-simplified.
Q [a man]: I first heard you many, many years ago back, I guess, in the late sixties. You were talking about how the Vietnam war was stirring up some religious patriotism.
B: Well, of course, the tendency of people to think God is on their side is nothing new on this earth and the effort to try to be on God's side is a continuous struggle. Not only between the church and the world but also within the church itself. I don't quite know what to make of the "new patriotism" and the Rambo syndrome and all of that. I don't take it entirely at face value. I think that in spite of the wish to be proud of America again or, as our President says, to be standing tall, as we abandon one position after another. Take the effort to send troops to central America. It seems to me when this administration began, the first three or four months were devoted to trying to drum up national enthusiasm for troops in Central America. The polls came in disastrously low on that and they backed away from it; and they've been afraid to do that ever since. So, whatever the jingoistic patriotism may be, it doesn't have much punch when it comes to anything like a genuine military involvement at the moment. That leads me to think that we are not really in the most dangerous mood. Frankly, I thought that the enthusiasm for the American side in the Olympic games was probably a relatively healthy outlet for that. I think people shouting, USA! USA!, it's wonderful that the blacks and the Asian-Americans and the women and everybody were winning gold medals and we're all Americans and that's fine. As long as we are not killing anybody else, that's a fine kind of thing.
Q: Would you contrast the public church and civil religion?
B: To tell the truth, I have stopped using the term civil religion. I found that it created more arguments about definitions than I had time for, because I am interested in the substance and not hassling over definition. What I meant by civil religion in America-what I pointed to in my original article and spelled out in the book, The Broken Covenant-was a long tradition in American public life, of which Lincoln is the absolute central exemplar, of calling the nation to account as responsible to an authority higher than the nation, of insisting that the nation is not absolute, and making that part of our public life. It's there in the Declaration of Independence. We exist under the rule of the laws of God, which are above the laws of men. Now, inevitably, civil religion was understood by many people to mean the idolatrous worship of the state. And that's why I got tired of fighting that war. It's certainly not what I meant. So, I gave it up.
There is a tradition of religion in our public life, which I described and called civil religion, that does assert, and the central texts of that tradition do assert, both the higher authority of God over the nation and the fact that the nation is not absolute. The public church is a critical element in a society that must operate to keep that religious understanding of the nation viable. Always by criticizing any tendency-of the God-is-on-our-side kind-to simply fuse nation and deity. Unfortunately, often enough, the most jingoistic identity of nation and church has not come from our political leaders but from the churches themselves. So, the churches have often contributed to a kind of debased form of civil religion. But, nonetheless, what I think is the significance of a public church is a church, which keeps its distance from power, which claims no constitutional authority-but which is actively involved in the common discourse about matters of public concern. And is ready to bring its critical understanding to bear on current policy-in a civil way-and abide by majority rule in a way that does not condemn your enemies on a particular issue as being against God, as some of the new Christian right people are apt to do. That, I think, keeps the religious dimension alive in its critical perspective in our society and contributes to whatever this thing might be called, since civil religion seems to be a problematic term-that reminds us that we are not absolute as a people.
Q [UCSB Professor Raimundo Panikkar]: Well, hearing you, I feel that sometimes it's more difficult to put a sensible question than to give a good answer. I'll try, if I can, to formulate my thought and ask you to elaborate further. Once the majority of Americans have lost the innocence of a corporate belonging, and you have already, and rightly so, denounced the idols of false corporate identity, once we have considered that to reach a certain type of individual consciousness, which leads to individualism, once we have lost that innocence, and reached what, for many Americans, is considered a positive gain-so that I can have self-confidence in myself. I can begin to enjoy a certain wage, et cetera, et cetera. And this, I fully agree with you, leads nowhere. What is the next step? How can we regain the lost innocence, not just going backwards and going back to that which we consider a great gain to have overcome?
B: If I can reformulate the way you're setting it up, Americans tend to think that there are only two options. There is either inclusion in a kind of engulfing absolute, authoritarian community, or radical and total privatistic autonomy. And what I think that we need to do to respond to that second tendency-which has become in some ways ever stronger in our society-is to suggest that that tendency pushed to its extreme also leads to authoritarianism. This is Tocqueville's teaching. Society reduced to its constituent individuals, each isolated and alone, shut up in the solitude of their own hearts, as he said, automatically becomes a despotic society, because people cannot effectively, through corporate action, make a difference in their government. And so they will be ruled, whether they like it or not or even whether they know it or not, by powers entirely out of their control. So radical individualism-far from bringing freedom-is the condition for the loss of freedom. Genuine freedom exists in the polarity between respect for individual dignity and freedom, on the one hand, and groups in which people can realize that freedom together in a vital communal way. I think the very symptoms of our society cry out for that middle ground as the proper solution to our problems.
Q: How are we going to integrate, to regain that consciousness? Would you be ready to accept the more traditional Catholic understanding of church, which originates from patristic times when the Cappadocians said, "At the beginning, God created the Church." So that the Church, whatever that may be, is prior to the individual. So that you are born into a society. Because otherwise how do we overcome individual consciousness? Because if you tell me only by pragmatic arguments-that it will not work; it will lead to another authoritarianism-I think I am not overcoming my individualism. I'm getting a kind of majority, or rights, or I try to respect your freedom because this way you will respect my freedom. But, in this way, do we overcome that inbuilt American individualism if we do not get something of another order? And that's why I found it very appealing when you put the examples of the churches. Although I am looking for a fourth church, which is not from the Hispanic tradition, which can still be something very positive. But you spoke of the broken covenant. Can we make it whole once again in a new way?
B: Yes. Yes. Although, again, I want to remind you St. Margaret's is not a traditional Hispanic parish. It really isn't. I certainly agree with you, if I may generalize beyond a specific document of the church, and, actually, one tradition in sociology has been fighting this battle for a long time. Namely, the argument that human society does not come about when isolated individuals come together to make a contract-a basic Anglo Saxon, American notion, rooted in Locke and Hobbes and so on. That we would never become persons at all except in and through community. No child could even grow up without the love of a mother or a father. I think we now need to know that both parents must be there from the beginning, not just the mother. But a child becomes a person in interaction with other people. It becomes a self only in and through interaction with other people. There isn't any other way to have a self except through the deepest kind of relationship to other people. We love because He first loved us. That is what makes love possible-which runs right against the teaching of current psychology that you have to love yourself first. They always say that you have to love yourself first. Whoever could love themselves first if they were never loved? What kind of thing is that? We didn't create ourselves. We didn't give birth to ourselves. It's the most fundamental thing about us that our being comes about through social connectedness. That is a teaching that is very hard for Americans to hear. Whether they get it from the church or whether they get it from Emile Durkheim in a sociology course. We just have to keep working on it.
Q: Would you go on from that and make a criticism of democracy?
Q: Well, democracy is based on the basis of individualism and my vote is as much as yours and that I built my own opinion, independently from everything, and then I just cast my will that the others will respect. You can't have it both ways.
B: You're giving me, really, a modern contract theory of democracy and I would root democracy in part in the classic republican tradition and in an Aristotelian understanding that citizens of a free republic govern and are governed in turn, but are citizens only so far as they are capable of leading a virtuous life, which means a life in community. I think we need to recover that richer content of what a democratic society is rather than the modern notion of isolated, contentless, radically individual volition as the only basis. So, it really is a struggle that is philosophical, theological and political all at once.
Q [a man]: An interesting thing in your book, I thought, was your notion of a community of memory. You use it for Martin Luther King. And tonight you were talking about how, in our country right now, President Reagan tends to invoke the idea of a community of memory but of the memory of just the victories. And we were talking about how a healthier concept would be not only to look at strengths but also to look at our weaknesses and to be able to put those together and to make all of those a part of our memory to build up the sense of community.
B: Yes. The German Catholic theologian Johann Baptist Metz has spoken of dangerous memories that are dangerous because they threaten our complacency; but they are, above all, the things we have to remember. I remember the strangest thing, in a sense, that Richard Nixon ever said was that this country had never done anything wrong. I think he thought also Richard Nixon had never done anything wrong. The total repression of, you know, anything negative. But I don't want to go to the other extreme. I certainly don't believe this is the worst nation in human history the way one of the radical students of the sixties told me. He doesn't know much history if he thinks that. But this is after all the nation that committed genocide against most of the native Americans. It is a nation, which, for a very long time, tolerated slavery after most of the rest of the world had thought it an abomination. It is the only nation in the world which ever used atomic weapons against civilian populations. If you want to start talking about the things we have done wrong the list is long and horrifying. It might make us a little less self-righteous in condemning those who are our opponents in the world today. So, yes, I agree with you. To not remember the dark side is certainly not the point. Nostalgia is precisely that. Forgetting everything bad. Remembering only the good side, which means remembering something that never was. It's a false memory. It is a self-serving memory. It simply soothes and satisfies us but it isn't true. It's not really memory at all.
Q [a man]: You seem to have an organismic view of American society; and there are three main traditions that you outline: the biblical, the Greek civic humanist and the modern traditions. And it seems to me that the modern tradition is dominating and that the biblical and civic humanist traditions are having a rough time trying to act as humanizing the modern. And I guess part of my question is that it seems to me that for religious communities to be strong in public life they have to be connected with the sources of their faith. And one of the ways-I think Jacob Needleman alludes to this in Lost Christianity-one of the ways to be connected with the sources of one's faith is to cultivate the traditions of desert spirituality: prayer, solitude, silence. Henry Nouwen has talked about this somewhat. And fasting. But the spiritual experiences that come out of those kinds of practices, and the following reflection on those experiences, can shock us into shifting the accent of reality, which is now placed so heavily on the modern ethos, to one that's more in touch with the sources of our faith.
But there is also a danger. Not only is it hard to submit to the authority of those experiences-experiences that come out of spiritual disciplines can be extraordinarily powerful. And it seems to me that the monastic tradition in Catholicism is very strong about this but in the Protestant tradition, I don't see that happening. And there's a danger of privatizing those experiences, and not bringing them back into the public arena in connection with traditions. But I was wondering if you see that as one way to get in touch with the sources of our faith and do you see that as important-and as a way to balance, I guess, the dominance of modern ideology?
B: Well, I certainly do and I think the danger you point to is that the traditions, the mystical traditions-oriental but also western mystical traditions-can be used for, or just absorbed into, the kind of privatized spirituality which doesn't speak to the world at all. On the other hand, I think we have some extraordinary exemplars of people who kept the basic, vital dynamic going. I think particularly of Thomas Merton, a contemplative who particularly in his last years became deeply concerned with the world. I spent a little time at the Hermitage of the Immaculate Heart, which is a Camaldolese Benedictine monastery south of Big Sur, this last summer and found the people there, though engaged in a very rigorous kind of religious life, also deeply concerned about issues in the world-and doing various things about it. So, yes, at its best, when that tension is vital and creative the contemplative life strengthens our active life; and, in turn, the active life gives a context for the contemplative life.
More generally, I think the problem of the religious communities being able forcefully to articulate their own heritage is serious. Last week, I was at Loyola University in New Orleans where they are going through a process, as such schools do periodically, of wondering what is the meaning of Catholic education or Jesuit education if the curriculum consists of ever burgeoning courses in computer science, accounting, management, communications. Where is the Catholic substance? Where is the tradition of classical philosophy for which they have stood for such a long time? It's not that those courses aren't still there. But are they the real core of that curriculum? Or is Loyola simply one more place in which privatized careerists can come to get a better job? In which case, why put the resources into it? I think at every level religious institutions in this society constantly have to think about those things. You're under real constraints. If you don't offer any courses in computer science, you won't get any students at all. If you turn the place into nothing but computer science, why be a Catholic university? It's not an easy situation. But I think we need to fight that battle at every point. And secular universities have largely given up on it. The humanities are irrelevant and down graded. Although there are still people fighting there too.
Q [a man]: Dr. Bellah, the issue of religious community and holding onto our heritage-I, as a member of a religious community, I am very aware of a great need for trust and also self-sacrifices in such a group so that it can become a community of memory. And it also strikes me that individualism is something that feeds on itself and it's something that grows very subtly. Even within a religious community, I can be very afraid, well, "Hey, there's somebody else getting a good assignment or a good deal. Am I ever going to get something like that?" I think in society in general, individualism grows by, "Look, other people are getting a good deal, am I going to get a good deal too?" But even if you want to raise a prophetic voice against individualism, in order to be heard in public discourse, you still have to marshal your resources and have your financial backing and so forth.
B: Get a few grants. [Laughter]
B: Well, the careerist life is not confined to the business world obviously. It's certainly exists in the university and its not utterly unheard of in the church. So we're all subject to those pressures. No question about it. I think, however, that the context of community from which you started is one of the things that helps that from getting out of hand. The fact that Habits of the Heart was written by five people, who devoted a great deal of time to each other and to the project, helped it from being just a monument to the greater glory of Robert N. Bellah. I always insist when people say, "Bellah is the author of Habits of the Heart," that I'm only one of five authors. And I can tell you that there were plenty of points in the work on the book when they told me that "You're getting out of line, Bob. So, please stop." And that's very sobering when you've got four very bright younger people who are not prepared to just do whatever you think is the best thing. So, yes, exactly, nurturing the context that will constantly remind you of what you owe to others. And this crazy example we have in Habits of the Heart of this Chrysler dealer who loved to talk about the importance of the self-made man and earning your own money and, you know, raising yourself by your boot straps. And it was a long time before we learned that his father had established the dealership and he merely inherited it. He never mentioned his father. You'd think he'd made it all by himself. And that's the American way. But to remember that none of us ever gets anywhere in society without an awful lot of helpful people: parents and teachers and friends. And making that alive in a genuine sort of relationship is the only way that I know how to offset that tendency.
Q [a man]: As I listen to you talk about the churches trying to do something, some social concerns, aren't we all still saying, "God's on our side"? In a pluralistic society, what hope is there that these people will come together in a kind of common hermeneutics? Then there is the problem of moving from what God has said in ancient times, in the Bible and tradition, to get them all to agree on what God is saying today? Yet, everybody is saying, "God is on our side." The Catholic bishops are saying that and the evangelicals. In fact, you're not a religious person unless you have some indication that God's on your side. But we all have different Gods. Or, at least, a lack of a common methodology and hermeneutics. To me, that's a very important issue.
B: I would put it a bit differently. I think we all have the same God, though sometimes we don't know it. And while in one sense believing that God is on our side is probably necessary to go on living at all, the dangerous implication of that is offset when we see ourselves as in a continuous struggle to discern what God wants us to do. It may not be what we're doing right now. And I think that the three congregations that we discussed in chapter nine are all caught in that polarity. None of them has simply asserted God is on our side and there is no problem. They're all seeking to discover God's will.
As far as coming to a consensus and discovering a hermeneutic method that would make us all come out with the same solution, I am not very optimistic. What I would hope for, however, is the development of a community of discourse in which we could reason together and try to help each other discern what God wants us to do. And in that regard, I do think we have moved quite a long distance. That is, I see an institution like the Graduate Theological Union with three Catholic schools and, what is it, six Protestant schools. We learn from each other. There is no triumphalism and no assertion that one or the other has the absolute truth. We know that we have the same God. We don't agree many times but we try to go on talking even when we don't agree. And that, it seems to me, is what we maximally need to hope for: the community that is in search of the truth, knowing that the truth in itself belongs to God.
Q: What you're saying sounds good but it presupposes maturity, morality, spirituality and so on. How do you see your research in relation to Erik Erikson or Lawrence Kohlberg's stages of moral development or now James Fowler's stages of faith development? If we were all at a mature level, you know, four, five, six, or somewhere in there, we could sit down and reason together.
B: I have a feeling that most of us slide up and down those scales quite a lot, but all of us need a little help from time to time. No, I have no great expectation of any massively high level of maturity in any of these regards. I think we help each other. I think a vital religious community helps to nurture people who are spiritually grown up and that the most we could hope for, really, is a leaven of people. After all, we have always known that there are some specially gifted. That's what the saints are. They give us the examples that we, in our much more inadequate way, try to follow.
The question is whether we have in our society at least some considerable sprinkle of people that when the moment comes, or the many moments, when the darkness is about to descend, have the courage to help us, show us the right way. I think we do. I am not despairing. I think there are an extraordinary number of mature and serious people in our churches, in our civic organizations, in our common life and that's really what gives me some hope that all is not lost.
Q [a man]: I'd like to speak out loud a few minutes and ramble around and maybe out of that come up with a couple of questions. About five or six years ago, I read Peter Berger's book, The Heretical Imperative, and all I've got now are a few impressions that I remember. There are two things, as I walk away from the book and over these years have appreciated. One is the awareness that the very fact of modernity and the very fact that the world is changing very much in a global sort of way-we're becoming a "global village"-is having an impact not only on religion in this country but religions throughout the world. The second memory I have is, and I'm not even sure if these are Berger's words or even what his thesis was, but it's the impression that I took from it. That is, perhaps a real place of salvation, in a sense, for the religions for the world, will come with an honest dialogue between the East and the West. So that's one set of thoughts.
In reading your book several months ago, and I wish I had had a chance to read it more recently, one of the things that really struck me that I've never really reflected on before was that a lot of the predicament that we are in as a nation, as families and as religions, with individualism, and in both its utilitarian and expressive forms, is linked along with the economic shifts that took place in the United States and which involves, among other things, moving from a small town economy to a national economy. And then I think you do some hinting about the implications that we are no longer a national economy. We're moving more into a global or international economy. And I guess my questions have something to do with that. It's like, okay, now that we're moving into an era of international economies and that we are interdependent or that we're becoming more and more conscious because I drink coffee here it's impacting somebody in another country and so forth. But it's like all those links are becoming more real than ever before. In fact, there is an economic shift going on. My question is: What is that going to do to us in terms of individualism? And what about the religions of the world? Not only do we have religious pluralism in terms of the biblical religions but also, you know, it's like the religions of the world are now having to interrelate with each other and impact each other more and more. And I was just wondering if you would say something in those two areas.
B: This will be the last answer. I think we're in a somewhat different situation with respect to those two issues. I am not sure how parallel they are. The religious communities seem to me, with some striking exceptions, more ready for dialogue or even-Raimundo [Panikkar] is an expert on all this-the kind of conversation that isn't just dialogue but genuine participation. That point that Wilfred Smith has made that, finally, the religious heritage of the human species is one. There is a deep unity here. Not in the sense of identity but that the history of all our religions has so many connections that we live in a world of neighbors rather than enemies. That I think is becoming possible in a way different from any other period in history, although there are still those enclaves of groups that are hostile to those of other faiths.
But, unfortunately, I think the economic interdependence of the world is not having such a benign consequence. The problem seems to be that somewhere in the back of our minds we know how deeply interdependent we are. All we have to do is look at the labels on our clothes and find that this shirt was made in Korea. The shoes were made in Taiwan and something else was made in Yugoslavia and so on. And our oil comes from Saudi Arabia and the coffee comes from Brazil and so on and so on. But by and large, that has no moral meaning. Rather than reinforcing a notion of our deep moral interdependency, it's frightening. What are the Japanese doing? They're outselling us. They're doing better than we are all over the world. What if the Arabs cut off the oil? Right now that doesn't seem to be a danger but a few years ago it looked like a very serious danger and it probably will again because the oil resources of the world are finite. What if the Brazilian government defaults on its debts and creates a world depression? In other words, this interdependency seems to contribute to growing levels of anxiety, fear. We live in a world of neo-mercantilism where each country is trying to emphasize it's own, private interest as against the other countries. I mean there's a whole model that our problem in United States is that we aren't number one anymore. We are not competing effectively so that some other countries will be worse off than we are. I mean world interdependence is not leading us to a conception of a world economic order that has a normative, moral element to it. Pope John Paul II and the American hierarchy have spoken of such a moral dimension of an economic order but that's not what is happening in the world.
So, I think we are at a strange disjunction in which the interdependent world in which we live, instead of softening and moderating and supplementing our individualism, only makes it worse. In this connection, I think of something that the Episcopal Chaplain at Berkeley said about our current student culture: that the students at Berkeley are competing for the first class staterooms on the Titanic. That is, they think the ship is going down and, in the meantime, they would like to live very well thank you. [Nervous laughter] Now, if that's the attitude, then competitiveness for the first class staterooms is almost going to guarantee that the ship goes down. What we need desperately is an effort to make moral sense-and translate that into genuine policy sense-of the fact that we are in an interdependent world. But I don't see the leadership for that coming from anywhere at the moment.