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Transcript:

August 17, 2007

Bill Moyers talks with Historian Martin E. Marty

BILL MOYERS: If you were browsing through your favorite neighborhood bookstore and came upon a book with the title, THE MYSTERY OF THE CHILD, odds are you wouldn't likely think the author to be one of the country's most distinguished historians, especially when the cover has the filmatic quality of this one:

But there it is — a name historians and readers of history will recognize immediately. Martin E. Marty. This is the latest of over 50 books he has produced over his long and productive life including: RIGHTEOUS EMPIRE, winner of The National Book Award. The three volume MODERN AMERICAN RELIGION and THE ONE AND THE MANY: AMERICA'S STRUGGLE FOR THE COMMON GOOD.

He's also written four books with his son, the photographer Micah Marty.

More recently, this past president of The American Academy of Religion. Winner of the National Humanities Medal. Recipient of 72 honorary doctorates and admiral in the Nebraska Navy. Was one of the leaders of a project on the child in law, religion and society at Emory University in Georgia and that brings us to his book, THE MYSTERY OF THE CHILD, drawing on literature as new as today's poetry and as old as the Bible. Martin Marty encourages all of us to maintain the child's openness to wonder as we grow old.

BILL MOYERS: You're a historian. You've got a life's work to show for it, including over 50 books. But this book is not a history. And there's very little in what you've done ever to suggest that you would write a book about children. So, why did you write it?

MARTIN MARTY: I think it was a stage of life where I was really ready for this. Just a couple days ago, I was in the-- apartment of an-- an art dealer. We got to talk about the revival of interest in the artist Georges Rouault, who had been big 50 years ago and then in decline. Most of his work was-- brutal, brusque. One series was called Man is a Wolf to Man. Corrupt judges, prostitutes-

And suddenly in his 70's, he's painted Jesus on the way to Emmaus, resurrection, bright green, yellow, white and so on. And I said, "Why do you do that?" He said, "I spent my life painting shadows. I think I've earned the right to paint the dawn." And I think there's a certain sense when you're an historian. You see all the corruption all the time. And I wanted to do a dawn book.

BILL MOYERS: Well, it's interesting, because in most of the histories I've ever read-- children appear very rarely, I mean-- even though they're affected by the plagues, and the wars, and the famines, and the catastrophes, and the Crusades and all of that. Children seem to be left out of history.

That's changing, since women have entered the writing force, for one thing. My successor at the University of Chicago writes about how New Englanders, John Edwards' types brought up their children and that. So, we're discovering it now. But there was a-- almost total void. Because they were-

BILL MOYERS: Men see the word differently?

MARTIN MARTY: Men see the world in terms of power. Big events. Wars, treaties who gets elected-- who tromps on whom. That's basically the plot of most history. Children are-- are not a big part of it. And yet, in my personal life, they-- they almost, I won't say dominate, 'cause I don't like the word. But they're very upfront.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, You've got quite an extended family, I know.

MARTIN MARTY: Yes. It changes in number all the time. My late first wife and I had four sons. And then we took in as foster and equivalent of adoption, 'cause that's 40 years ago-- two Mexican children, brother and sister, And then-- I married the widow of my college roommate, who died when their baby was eight weeks old.

And we would take in people. French student or so. One year, we had two boys from Uganda, a nine and 12 year old. And, there were seven boys, aged nine to fourteen around the table every day, for better-- than a year. So, it's always been that. And now I've-- in the stage of having great grandchildren. And--

BILL MOYERS: Great grandchildren. What has it mean to you to have so many, such a pluralistic family?

MARTIN MARTY: Partly it's accidental. We just said the door's open. We believed both-- by nature, and by our own children's generosity. They always had to vote

BILL MOYERS: Let me come back to your book.

BILL MOYERS: But if you see-- what do you mean by the mystery of the child?

MARTIN MARTY: A great French philosopher, Gabriel Marcel makes a difference between a problem and a mystery.

MARTIN MARTY: "The problem," says Marcel, "Is something that I could isolate." "Problems," he says, "Have solutions or potential solutions." Mysteries don't. Mysteries have depths. Mysteries are unfathomable.

And I just love watching our children, watching grandchildren, watching great grandchildren, watching babies, watching just anybody the unfolding that package, which you could explain of in scientific terms. But you never really capture-- what happens.

BILL MOYERS: So, do you think those of us who deal with children, grandparents, parents, caregivers would deal with them differently if we see them as a mystery instead of a problem?

MARTIN MARTY: Definitely. I think-- two impulses we have that the concept of mystery will lead you to treat differently. Marcel, who says, "The problem stands outside me. Mystery, I'm inside it. Mystery, I can't get distance on myself, or it or that other person."

You're drawn into seeing the world in their angle. I like to take people to the Museum of Science--

BILL MOYERS: Yeah.

MARTIN MARTY: --in Chicago. And everything is done. The-- the chairs we're sitting in are seven feet tall. And you're there. And the spoon is this long. And I try to think that that's what it looks like to the child. And we wonder why the child falls and pushes things around. If you're dealing with the mystery of the child, you're inside it.

BILL MOYERS: During that exhibit, there's a huge table. Big--

MARTIN MARTY: Everything is--

BILL MOYERS: --silverware--

MARTIN MARTY: --huge, yeah.

BILL MOYERS: And you imagine falling off that if you're a child.

MARTIN MARTY: That's right. And you're reduced-- I quote-- the great French novelist, George Bernanos did a thing called THE DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST. And it became a great film, too. And this priest has trouble with this catechism class. Somebody smarts off at him. He talks to a monsignor. And he's really down on children.

And the monsignor says to him-- "Probably no more terrifying sentence has ever been heard by human ears than this. Quote, 'Unless you change and become like a little child you shall not enter the kingdom.'" And in a funny way, while not every reader of the book is gonna have the concept of the kingdom-- I think that notion that you spend your life finding ways to change and become like a little child means you will be more open to mystery, more responsive to others, more receptive.

BILL MOYERS: That is one of Jesus' most perplexing questions. Unless you become as children, you shall not enter--

MARTIN MARTY: Yeah.

BILL MOYERS: --the kingdom of Heaven. What do you think he meant by that?

MARTIN MARTY: I had a-- late, great colleague at Chicago, Paul Ricoeur, who once said, "You'll never under the parables of Jesus until you realize that every one turns things upside down." The littlest seed becomes the greatest tree.

The lost sheep's more important than those that weren't ever lost. The people not invited to the banquet get head tables. You have to die in order to live. In the gospel of Luke, he's always interested in the marginal people.

The poor, the prostitutes, the-- tax collectors, who are hated, they're the oppressor-- the lep-- people with leprosy and-- who didn't count? And in that world, children didn't count. And so, putting the child there-- makes that central.

BILL MOYERS: He's not talking a second childhood?

MARTIN MARTY: Oh, no.

MARTIN MARTY: A second childhood would be out entirely, because a second childhood isn't faithful to the first childhood. Second child is what we consider as what happened is tragic. It's an old name for things like Alzheimer's, or senility or dementia.

That's always seen as a diminishing of life. And it's tragic. And it's there. And you don't-- get away from it. But-- not a second childhood. Because childhood is always opening and always--

BILL MOYERS: Potential, growing, maturing.

MARTIN MARTY: --more's gonna happen-- yeah.

MARTIN MARTY: So, I do take, I did find one dictionary that had a word I needed. I don't like to coin words. But if I can find one dictionary, it had the word childness .

BILL MOYERS: Yeah.

MARTIN MARTY: This is that character. And I even quote a couple of Catholic theologians, who talked about how you keep some of these qualities from the life of the child, through all the contingencies of life. And if you, Bill Moyers, make a list of the people you most admired when they're in their 80's and 90's, they keep that dimension of childhood.

Pablo Casals said, "I'm the oldest cellist in the world. And I'm the oldest musician. But I'm also the youngest."

BILL MOYERS: We met-- Pablo Casals many years ago, my wife and I were young in Washington, he said, "I want you to be young. Young all your life, and to say things to the world that are true."

MARTIN MARTY: That's always his last word. Yes, children can lie. But when they tell stories, fanciful as they may be, to that child, they're unfolding a-- a truth.

And the-- that's why so often we collect what they say. When mothers sit in the park and chat about the children, they're quoted as if they're sages. Because they do say things that impart a kind of a wisdom. But I think Casals meant more than that.

Casals also would go to the piano every day. And he'd play two of Bach's two part inventions. The simplest-looking music you could find. A third year piano student plays them badly. But he had to start over every day. He had to get a new start. And that was his way to do it.

BILL MOYERS: You say children are receptive. Responsive. Amendable. Simple. Teachable. Relatively helpless. Insignificant. Unimposing. Lacking status. Dependent. Of such is the kingdom of God.

MARTIN MARTY: Because any of those can be-- can change. Take the opposite of everything you just said and you can't change. Like an autumn leave. All the sap has gone out of it. It can't change now because there's nowhere to go. -- Which is why I also make a great point of the value of conversation and-- and questioning. As opposed to arguing.

Argument is extremely important. I don't-- I want my legislatures to argue. You can't have justice without argument. I want my medical researchers to argue about which cell does what. It's beautiful in its place. But in the mysteries of life arguing is there a God or not? We-- what-- where will argument get you? Where's the evidence? Where's the-- either side, you can't get anywhere there. You do it through conversation. And all the great thinkers that I know of do that. Again, the gospel stories of Jesus, he usually-they want to attack him in an argument and he asks a question.

BILL MOYERS: He tells a story too--

MARTIN MARTY: Yeah. Alright, indeed, every time

MARTIN MARTY: I think one of the problems that happened in the transmission of knowledge in our adult world is the way-- on so much of television now you always choose the two most extreme figures who will lose everything if they yield any point. And it never contributes to truth. I've been invited several times to debate one of the new school of atheists-

MARTIN MARTY: And as you and every listener has to know that these four or five all say that if you just get rid of all religion the world would be benign and peaceful.

Well-- my question is how do you explain Mao and Stalin and Lennon and all of the great totalitarians, all of whom set out to get rid of God and religion and killed several hundred million people. I'm not defending the religious record. There's horrible stuff out there.

BILL MOYERS: Right.

MARTIN MARTY: And I make a lot of my living in my noisy books about describing that. But you're not going to get rid of religion. You can't suppress this impulse.

It's increasing not decreasing. And you can't sit at Oxford or Harvard or Chicago and say, "The world would be nice if other people would get their PhDs in Physics and learn enough to know that isn't it." Religion in the villages of-- Latin America.

It's in the villages of the Islamic world. Every 7th person in the world was a Muslim 50 years ago. Now every 5th person is. It's growing. In sub-Saharan Africa-- 18,000 new Christians everyday.

You're not gonna have somebody sit up here on television and talk them out of it. So the issue, I change it-- to the question. Since we're not gonna rid of science or religion how do we find better ways to get along?

MARTIN MARTY: I grew up, theologically at the time, when everybody envisioned a world that was gonna be purely secular. Secular, empirical, pragmatic, etcetera.

The people prophesized that said, "But notice that every great philosopher in history of the last century pictures that either following that, or against it, you're gonna have a period of-- of, I'll call it, neo religiosity." They were saying something comforting there. They were saying it could be religion of nationalism.

Could be religion of race. It could be a religion of violence, we see a lot of that. But it's gonna be there. And so, to me, the interesting question is-- how do the two coexist? But you can't debate the fundamental point of it.

BILL MOYERS: Do you see the pendulum swinging either way?

MARTIN MARTY: We live under a two fold sign. On one level we are more secular than anybody envisioned back in the enlightenment. But religious people are that. Think of how much in the-- in the religious right turned secular. When they got away from piety into pure politics.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah. Yeah.

MARTIN MARTY: When they're only asking this question. Years ago David Martin, a great British sociologist, religion-- said, "Here's a paradox to modern world. I can summarize it all in one phrase. Texas Baptist millionaire. They're in church and they don't want their minister to mention anything in the-- modern world."

MARTIN MARTY: Oil depletion allowances. They didn't want anything discussed like that. They wanted other worldliness and-- and same. On the other hand, they were-- utterly mired in it. We all are in some degree.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah.

MARTIN MARTY: I'm secular in that I don't believe that I have to ask for the holy spirit to when I turn ignition of a car. It's following secular principles. Secular comes from the word meaning of this age.

Now that's growing. And it's interesting it grows in some parts of the world. I have a mental map that I call the spiritual ice belt. It starts west of Poland, as western Europe.

British Isles. I used to say except Ireland, but Ireland is now secular. Canada, northern US, Japan. That's the spiritual ice belt. In which there are all kinds of religions and there are all kinds of renewals of religion.

But, over all, it is the world of the pragmatic and the contractual and so on. You don't walk into the faculty clubs of these places and expect the revival. But we're totally out of step with all of the rest of the world.

All of central and Latin America, all of Africa, northern and sub-Saharan, all of Asia. all of Africa, northern and sub-Saharan, all of Asia. It teems. And, again, to get back to the point of can you get rid of it-- when the iron curtain fell, 72 years had gone by in which you had the most efficient ruthless system yet to get rid of religion.

You-- you spill oceans of blood to get there. You kill the priests. You use-- rivers of ink to argue about it. The day that fell every religion that was there in 1917 is still there. And some new ones.

BILL MOYERS: Let me come to this-- book you wrote called WHEN FAITHS COLLIDE. I happen to know, as many of our audience do, that you, for five years, chaired a very important study of fundamentalism a number of years ago. And we've seen in your lifetime and mine the resurgence of fundamentalism.

At the same time, we have seen, as you noted earlier, we've seen the rise of evangelical atheism. Where are these surges going to lead? The surge of fundamentalism and the surge of disbelief.

MARTIN MARTY: Well, the surge of fundamentalism is going to-- out number the literate atheists by hundreds of thousands to one. What did-- Kafka once say, "The fight between you and the world, bet on the world." Alright, in the fight between these two forces, bet on-- the zealot.

MARTIN MARTY: Though the atheist could be all these same things too. So, in that sense, the religious fundamentalist who is closed, in terms of the child book, and the-- secular fundamentalist in atheism, have a lot in common. But your question is also a different question.

Mainly, where does it lead? We may not have much time, because these things used to just be allowed to be around. And now with weaponry being what it is-- the game can end a lot sooner than we might think.

But as we used to say, all things being equal. If you just let things work out in the give and take and politics and history and so on-- I-- I think that the extreme hard-line-- which now is tied into tribalism and politics and-- militarism and so on, in the end, is not satisfying to all the questions that people are gonna keep asking. You do it on a short range.

You do it under the leadership of a charismatic leader. You do it if you hate somebody else enough.

BILL MOYERS: The world seems divided now between those who welcome-- a clash of good and evil. Those who believe that militant fundamentalism has to be met with militant-- response on that. Does it scare you?

MARTIN MARTY: It scares me. But I think there are a lot of gradations between the two alternatives. I want defense. I don't want anybody that wants to can smuggle a nuke into New York.

I-- you know, I-- I'm conscious of all that. But the talk of Islamo- fascism, and all these ways in which we've gotta be as full as machismo as they do, toward what end? As I look back-- did we fight Hitler and-- Japanese more militantly because we-- demonized them?

Demonizing the other I don't think helps the cause. And it does bad stuff to us. It assumes therefore we've got it made. So-- alertness, yes. Defense, yes. But saying the only way to do it is at all times to build up the clash of civilizations-- I think it's folly. It's expensive. And it hurts the soul.

BILL MOYERS: Let me come back to your book.

BILL MOYERS: Is the soul of a child different-- in one period of her life from the other periods of her life?

MARTIN MARTY: Then you have to let me define soul.

BILL MOYERS: Alright. Go right ahead. You have my blessing.

MARTIN MARTY: I'll do it with-a colleague Leon Kass, who you know.

BILL MOYERS: Oh yeah.

MARTIN MARTY: And behind him, Aristotle.

BILL MOYERS: He's a biologist, an ethicist--

MARTIN MARTY: And he was head of the president's commission on stem cell research.

BILL MOYERS: A colleague with you at Chicago University

MARTIN MARTY: Yeah.

BILL MOYERS: Chicago for a long time.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah.

MARTIN MARTY: And-- in one of his books-- on-- development of soul out of Darwinian roots. Soul is not a ghost in a machine.

MARTIN MARTY: Soul is not a pilot on a ship. Soul is not a thing. Soul-- and here's Aristotle and Kass and me translating them-- is the integrated, vital power of any organic body open to possibility and future.

MARTIN MARTY: If I say she has a generous soul, you don't need to know much more about her, right? If I would take a word, spoiled brat, I've condensed a person and say there's no soul there. I may be making false judgment.

And I'm writing somebody off prematurely. I don't believe in doing that. But if I'm doing that I'm really saying it's no longer vital. It isn't open to a future. It's closed. I use a lot in the book about the image of open and close.

BILL MOYERS: Do you think children ponder the mystery of life?

MARTIN MARTY: Oh, I think so all the time.

BILL MOYERS: Even at a young age?

MARTIN MARTY: Indeed, it comes in why did my kitty die? And what happened? Will I meet my dog in heaven? Why is everybody crying-- because grandma's-- sick

I think those are the things we lose later on. And I think we sometimes can get-- sense that better in a-- in a-- quote, primitive culture, which keeps some of these dimensions. One of my sons was in Africa when his mother died. Ten people of the tribe moved into his house for ten days.

That's just what they do. To console. To beat drums. And to make the food and do all that. We have traces of that in our religions. But if you go to the typical last rites, again, everything is in control.

The makeup on the stuffed body is there. The greeting you give in the funeral home-- "I express my sympathy," and so on. It's gone. Not the child. The child is really, really gonna cry. And then go out and skip and play hopscotch and-- do all the rest. Because they're not done in by a single circumstance.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, kids know today that bad things happen all the time.

MARTIN MARTY: Yeah. I did a-- TV film with nine little kids after 9/11. Producer said they were told that the children would be all terrified by that.

But-- the one kid was from the ghetto. And he said, "Yeah, I have fears. I have fears that-- I go to school and my lunch money will be stolen. Coming home I have fears that-- two gangs are gonna fight over which gang I'm gonna be in."

He's translating these fears all the while, and his dream is of a-- of a better set up.

BILL MOYERS: You're-- you're about to become how old?

MARTIN MARTY: Eighty.

BILL MOYERS: Are you becoming, as Jesus said, like a child all over again?

MARTIN MARTY: I'm trying to take lessons-- to do it appropriately to the age. When you say becoming it again I hope I was, at 70 and 60 and 50 and 40, appropriate to the age.

But if I learned well, I was being that. I quote-- my teacher at one stage was Daniel Boorstin, later librarian of congress. And he dedicated a book, when I was studying under him, he dedicated a book to his children.

And that dedication meant more than the book to me. "To Jonathan, David and Paul." Quote, "Like genius, simple, that's why they are the great teachers. Pablo Cassal's playing those Bach two part invention is choosing simple.

BILL MOYERS: Simple.

MARTIN MARTY: Music.

BILL MOYERS: But I don't think Bach is simple. But I'm not a musician, obviously. But he seems--

MARTIN MARTY: If you play-- Rachmaninoff concerto you would have looked back to these little two part inventions as being something that really teaches you. Now, you don't exhaust them. He plays them because they're inexhaustible.

BILL MOYERS: You quote in here a Jesuit figure who says, "The real high point of my life is still to come." What do you make of that?

MARTIN MARTY: Oh, I'd like to think that.

BILL MOYERS: At 80?

MARTIN MARTY: I hope at 90 No, I'm an utter realist about the fact that these powers can fail you and-- they can miserably fail you. But I still detect, in many people who see the loss of these powers-- inventiveness, discover things they hadn't known. I told a story the other day of-- of a jazz musician, Ed Summerland (PH) and I. We did a program-- I was dedicating a building at a little college in Sioux City, Iowa.

And-- the local-- church asked could we, do something for them. So I read a poem by Sam Francis called "The Hawk." And he blew it. He blew what the Hawk would do. He took the mouthpiece off and shrieked it and all that.

My mother's friends all applauded us. And one of them came up and said, "Are you still in town tomorrow morning?" "Well, we have a noon plane." "Can you come to our senior citizens home and do that there for all the other people?" He said, "I will if you all of you will bring something that makes noise with tissue paper, or a washboard, or a bell. I don't care what it is." For an hour he did that. Most of them had never made music in their life. And they were-- they were not in second childhood. They were learning-- and unfolding in their wheelchairs.

And so-- several people have said, "Did you write this book as preparation for aging?" No, I did it to try to understand the mystery of the child. But the whole thesis is that whatever is mysterious about the child is something we can constantly keep changing to be replenished by. And so we don't give up on people.

BILL MOYERS: The book is THE MYSTERY OF THE CHILD. Martin Marty, thank you very much for joining us.

MARTIN MARTY: A privilege to chat with you. To converse.



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