MAN OF FAITH
June 4, 1998
A profile of one of the nation's leading teachers of religion, Martin Marty at the University of Chicago. Richard Ostling of Time Magazine has his story.
RICHARD OSTLING: Looking at Martin Marty during one of his seven-minute naps he takes several times a day, you'd never know he's one of the most prolific, energetic, and influential interpreters of American religion. He says the naps help him revive his body and are a form of prayer.
MARTIN MARTY, Church Historian: I have never believed that prayer has to be something that you're uttering all the time. I think it's a way of life. It's a conversation with God. It's a conversation with the reality around you. And this is one of the modes in which you let yourself surrender. You're not in control. You're not trying to be in control, and I think that is very much what happens in good prayer.
RICHARD OSTLING: Awake, church historian Marty is a whirlwind. Writing with his favorite jazz or classical music in the background, Marty has produced some 50 books on religion and articles by the thousands in both popular and academic publications. When he's not writing, he's been either teaching in Chicago, studying the impact of religion on health, traveling and speaking around the country, responding to endless requests from the media-or entertaining students at home with musician wife Harriet. He's booked two years ahead and scheduled to the minute, using every spare moment of his time, whether it's scanning the dozens of periodicals he receives while taking a bath, or memorizing poems when stuck in traffic. What motivates him is a sense of calling.
MARTIN MARTY: I think the idea of vocation that each of us live a life that has a distinctive stamp on it, and you might trudge off to very routine kind of work, but you are important to somebody, and you count; you count under God, and you count in the eye of the neighbor. It's something that I think we often forget along the way.
RICHARD OSTLING: Evangelical church historian Mark Noll of Wheaton College says there's no religious spokesman quite like Marty.
MARK NOLL, Church Historian of Wheaton College: Unlike some other well-known religious figures-Pat Robertson, Oral Roberts, Billy Graham-Marty is known for providing background, for providing context, for providing analysis, whereas, these other well-known figures are known for promoting their particular view of religious matters. The fact that Marty can do these things can provide analysis to many different sources while clearly remaining obviously himself a person of faith is remarkable.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: We have all been enriched by his work, and we thank him for it. Ladies and gentlemen, Martin Marty.
RICHARD OSTLING: Marty was recognized for efforts to help diverse communities of faith understand each other when he received the National Humanities Medal at a White House ceremony last September. He was the first religion scholar to be so honored.
SPOKESMAN: Who is Martin Marty?
RICHARD OSTLING: Five hundred people turned out to celebrate his 70th birthday and his retirement from the University of Chicago. In attendance were those whose work he's influenced, like Public Television Commentator Bill Moyers.
BILL MOYERS, Public Television Commentator: The phenomenon is that this pastor, professor, editor, author, historian, and journalist, who has for years been acknowledged to be "the" most influential interpreter of American religion, could so consistently practice what he studies.
RICHARD OSTLING: Television Producer Norman Lear had a more personal memory.
NORMAN LEAR, Television Producer: Through one of our early walks I asked Marty to give me the shortest definition he could of worship. And he said, "gratitude." And then he added, "In prayer, God answers the soul's attitudes, not the words." I loved that. I love what it has meant to me in my life.
RICHARD OSTLING: Marty's faith has been strengthened by his commitment to the neighborhood church where he's worshiped the past 35 years. An ordained Lutheran minister, who began his career as a pastor, he says community-that gathering of people who can test one another-not doctrine or a formal church body-is what has shaped him.
MARTIN MARTY: I am much more a communal believer than an individual believer. And so gathering over the bread and wine and Sunday in a little, tiny church, waking up every morning and reminding myself that in our language I have been baptized, I have been turned over to God, I'm free for the day, I wake up and I make the sign of the cross for the day as a reminder of that, and that frees me and liberates me.
RICHARD OSTLING: Marty remains a lifelong pastor, relating to everyone, young and old, says his minister, Linda Lee Nelson.
LINDA LEE NELSON, Minister: For Marty what that means is to be a conveyor of grace, unconditional love, acceptance, support, without judgments, without questions, and to take that person and to bring them into a fold of a community.
RICHARD OSTLING: Though a Christian, his personal journey of faith has been shaped by other religious traditions too.
MARTIN MARTY: I think my own development through the years, both spiritually and intellectually, is to keep one part of the soul or foot on the ground of a tradition and on the other you feel free to roam and find ways to integrate other experiences and deal with the other. And, in a sense, I try to propagate that notion. I mean, Gandhi was really steeped in his tradition, and he could take Jesus with him. And Martin Luther King was a black Baptist pastor, and he could take Gandhi's non-violence into it. The Pope, John XXIII, you can't get more Catholic, and he could take it right into the community of the Jews. Thomas Merton, the Catholic mystic, is talking to Buddhist and Hindu monks the day he dies; he doesn't stop being Catholic, but he enriches there.
RICHARD OSTLING: Marty says he's also been enriched by weekly trips to study religion out where it's practiced. Any Thursday he's up before dawn to catch a flight to a college campus. Many of them have a church affiliation, like St. Olaf in Minnesota.
MARTIN MARTY: You could explore faith and non-faith, faith of other faiths, faith in this environment.
RICHARD OSTLING: He's visited over 600 campuses during the course of his career. But perhaps his greatest influence has come from his classes at the University of Chicago Divinity School, where he's influenced several generations of students preparing to become college professors or ministers.
MARTIN MARTY: You are saying that to find the face of God you go deeply, deeply, deeply into your own tradition.
RICHARD OSTLING: Deborah Mullen is one of Marty's doctoral students, who teaches at a nearby Presbyterian seminary.
DEBORAH MULLEN, Student: In the class there is just the sense that religion and faith and the understanding of those things in the American context are not purely academic pursuits for Marty, but it is an extension of his ministry as pastor.
MARTIN MARTY: I thought we would mainly be involved with bringing to light their own religion. And, instead, the issue becomes quality instead of quantity.
RICHARD OSTLING: Marty does not leave religion simply in the classroom or in church. He developed the Public Religion Project to focus on the role in society of America's increasingly diverse religions.
MARTIN MARTY: Today, for all of the pluralism we have, for the fact that in any university classroom and in any subway, in any ballgame you might well have every religion ever known in ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt, and the yellow pages of today's phone book, there still are some kinds of insulations. Most white Americans don't know African-American religion internally. They know a few songs, a few styles, but they aren't really living there. Most Christians don't know Jewish search in a deep way and vice versa.
RICHARD OSTLING: He's an optimist about the role religion plays in society, even though it's changed since he began his career four decades ago.
MARTIN MARTY: There's probably as much religious power around, but it's a highly diffuse character, and for something that works well, thus, if there's more religion in sitcoms, prime time television, movies, novels, poetry, than there was back then, this is an extremely interesting phenomenon. But it isn't there because the Jews said put it there, or the Muslims said put it there, or the Baptists said put it there. It's because the individuals out in the culture are nervous and searching and they will provide a market for it.
RICHARD OSTLING: Marty says the world religions continue to speak to that nervous searching.
MARTIN MARTY: I think it's as old as human history, and it's as vital as ever today, and it can only get more urgent, is the search for meaning. A French philosopher said, "Because we are present to a world, we are condemned to meaning." It's fired point blank at us, and we have to make sense of it. It's what I call the three in the morning feeling. You wake up and you know you're very little and life is very short, and where do I fit? And the religions of the world address that.
RICHARD OSTLING: Marty's own search has been nurtured by the Psalms, which he feels speak to the whole range of human experience. After the death of his first wife, Elsa, he turned to the Psalms in his grief and wrote his most popular book, "A Cry of Absence," and he explored them again in "A Promise of Winter," a book featuring photographs by his son, Micah. Though sunny by disposition, he prefers what he calls a wintry spirituality.
MARTIN MARTY: I have always found that in the discussion of the absence of God is where the presence is most felt, that in the wintry spirituality one sees more clearly. You see the structure of the tree when the leaves are gone; you see the whole horizon when all the bushes are down; very clarity-very clear outlines. In winter you see a great clarity of outline, and I think that's what I look for. It rings true to the human condition, and it also affirms.
RICHARD OSTLING: But Marty is also taken with the concept of grace and why so many good things happen to people. He now wants to write about God's presence, not absence. And if he were to write his own life story, he says it could well be titled "Amazing Grace."