June 9, 2008
— Martin E. Marty
Four weeks ago Sightings picked up on a column in The Wall Street Journal by Alan Jacobs, whom I misnamed. His fan club quickly alerted me to his achievements. While I had read some of his columns in Books and Culture, his name evidently had not registered enough with me. His books show that he is at home with C. S. Lewis, as I am not, and with Original Sin, as I am. The Wheaton College English professor is back in The Wall Street Journal (June 6). I'll pick up on his column, not in penance for my gaffe but because it prompts comment on a neglected theme.
In "Too Much Faith in Faith," Jacobs argues that religion in America is not as potent a force as its publicists or its enemies (the "New Atheists" who claim that it "poisons everything") suggest. He takes on sociologist Alan Wolfe, who had written in The Atlantic on the "unique fervor that religion inspires." Jacobs: "I have my doubts." He begins with personal experience—as Wheatonites reflexively do—as a "committed Christian" who teaches at a Christian college but, honestly, questions how much Christian faith and commitment actually guide his choices in books, music, hobbies, and styles of living, where he appears to be more "a middle-aged, and middle-class American man." He moves from there to observation of trends. "Is religion powerful? I suppose it is," or otherwise those who seek power wouldn't use it in their striving. Here kicks in the expert on original sin: "It's time to talk less about the power of religion and remember instead the dark forces in all human lives that religious language is too often used to hide."
If I quote any more I may have to pay royalties, when all I had wanted to do is say thanks. Emboldened by his example, here is some personal experience as background to my part in the Martin Marty Center and Sightings. Those inventions were prompted by the vision of us who frequent or make use of what are called or seen as "secular" universities, media outlets, markets, where religion was not and often is not conceived of as powerful. Even ten years ago we could not have foreseen the advertisements for religion and its power in public life, our chosen arena.
We've read all the statistics on the ups and downs of religious observance in this nation with its "faith in faith," notably the answers citizens give poll-takers about their involvement with communities where faith, not faith in faith, is nurtured and celebrated. Then we use our own eyes or read realistic surveys. About half of us citizens claim to have been at worship last week. Yet ministers in town and country situations cannot find that half. Two sociologists found a good way of checking up on attendance in a typical Ohio county, and thought that twenty to thirty percent attended on a typical weekend. As we head for our church, 4.7 miles mostly along the lake shore, on our left we pass hundreds—no, thousands—of apartments whence few exit for worship. On our right are hundreds—no, thousands—of runners-for-causes and hundreds more who just plain run, or play soccer.
I know, I know: attendance at church-synagogue-mosque is not a full indicator of the "spiritual" and "religious" energies and commitments of a people. But it is a measurable variable, a rather vivid place to check up on things. Jacobs, personal experience, and our careful scrutiny of trends will not convince us that religion is "not all that powerful." But it is powerful in ever-changing ways, less as a poisoner than the cynics think and less as an inspirer and guide than its promoters claim. We'll be resolved as ever to look at the "dark forces" and the bright gleams which are part of faith(s).
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
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