Robert Bellah Memorial at the American Sociological Association

Robert Bellah

Robert Bellah, the famous sociologist of religion who passed away last week, received a thoughtful obituary today in the New York Times.

He also be remembered at this year’s annual meetings of the American Sociological Association on Saturday, August 10, 2013, at 7 pm. The event is being organized by Jeffrey Alexander of Yale’s Department of Sociology. It will be held in the Regent Room on the 2nd floor of the Hilton New York Midtown.

 

Remembering Robert Bellah

This is a guest blog written by Jeff Guhin, a sociologist doing a post-doc at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at UVA. His current work is on morality and citizenship in public schools. He’s also interested in theory, science studies, qualitative methods, religion, and how to be a decent human being. He originally posted his reflections on his own blog, and gave me permission to re-print it here.

By Jeff Guhin

Robert Bellah

In their books, authors can appear wise and kind, with moral courage and keen aesthetic sense.  Yet in person, these same authors often disappoint: they can be lechers or snobs, mean spirits or simple bores.  A gifted writer is not necessarily a good speaker, and neither is a capacious mind necessarily a generous soul.  Margo Rabb wrote about this very problem in a recent New York Times article, and now, as I reflect on Robert Bellah’s death, I’m struck by a quote in the article from one of my favorite writers, George Saunders.  He said, “You can read Mailer or Hemingway and see — or at least I do — that what separated them from greater writers (like Chekhov, say) was a certain failing of kindness or compassion or gentleness — an interest in the little guy, i.e., the nonglamorous little guy, a willingness and ability to look at all of their characters with love.”

Bellah had this very generosity, this concern for the little guy.  It’s what made him a communist and what made him a Christian.  He shares that move—from radical leftist to radical Christian—with another of my heroes, Dorothy Day.  The two had a lot in common: a gift for writing, a mysticism of quiet wonder, a sense that their lingering questions about community and meaning and God could be answered in a community of fellow travelers who cared about personal relationships and common meals and the idea that small steps like this could change the world.  They were also both brave.  Day stood up to her church and her government, and Bellah stood up to his government too, and the first church of every academic, Harvard University, going into Canadian exile rather than naming names during the McCarthy era.  Yet he eventually found his way back to Harvard, where he got tenure, and besides a brief controversy at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, he finished his life and work at the University of California, Berkeley, where many of my most important teachers and mentors worked with him.

Bellah was an author who lived up to his beautiful books. And the books were beautiful: gracefully written, intellectual without being obtuse, full of moral urgency yet without didacticism or despair.  Newcomers should look especially at his books on America: Habits of the Heart, and its sequel, The Good Society. Look also at his work on civil religion and the relationship between religion and sociology in Beyond Belief and The Broken Covenant.  Here’s how we work, Bellah wanted to say, and he was a talented enough sociologist to convince many of us he was right.  His teacher was Talcott Parsons, who famously attempted an important synthesis of Weber and Durkheim (along with Marx, the two are considered the founders of sociology).  Parsons’s synthesis was criticized and then completely attacked just as Bellah was coming into his own as a scholar.  The tension put Bellah in an odd position as he was in many ways Parsons’s star student. Yet he was also a member of the new guard, and a friend since graduate school to celebrity anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who advocated, with Bellah, a new focus on interpretation in the social sciences, borrowing techniques from literary theory and hermeneutic philosophy.If Parsons’s fusion of Weber and Durkheim was conservative, focused on structural stability instead of change, then Bellah’s was reformist, describing how our symbols work and also how that work works to either bring us together or pull us apart.

Unlike his teacher, Bellah was more indebted to Durkheim’s later work on religion than his earlier work on social structures, and it was this focus on meaning that influenced a generation of cultural sociologists.  Perhaps most important was his essay, “Civil Religion in America,” which showed not only the late Durkheimian basis of our national life but also the Weberian contingency of our connections.

Amidst a new generation—led by the world systems theory of Immanuel Wallerstein—who insisted that economics and power were the only ways to understand sociology, Bellah insisted that meanings were more than just superstructure.  His sociology was neither quantitative nor especially variable-driven, which made him less popular as his field moved towards scientisism.  Yet it also made his work an early prophecy of a post-positivist future.  Along with a scattered few colleagues across the country, he was a voice crying out in the wilderness, making straight the way of culture.  Jeffrey Alexander, one of Bellah’s most successful students, is not exaggerating when he says that “There is a sense in which every contemporary sociologist is Bellah’s child, niece, or nephew.”\

Besides showing how we work, Bellah wanted to show us why that question mattered and how, by asking that question, we are able to imagine other ways we could live, ways that might provide greater justice, or compassion, or community.  That focus on community was not only theoretical. From everything I have heard, Bellah took his relationships very seriously—with his students, his colleagues, his friends, his family, and his wife of many years.  He was a remarkably happy man—I thought of Aquinas’s adage that “joy is the noblest virtue” when I met him—and the smile that you see on the cover of the Robert Bellah reader was surely not a pose.  I get the sense that’s often just how he looked.

I was lucky enough to be at a dinner for him after a talk he gave at Yale, and a former student of his asked him about his experience of graduate school.  “I really enjoyed it,” he said.  What about being a junior professor? “I enjoyed that too!” he said, smiling.  The former student asked him, “Was there ever a period of life you didn’t enjoy?” He smiled and paused thoughtfully.  “Well, my wife died recently, and that was simply a fact I had to endure.  But, basically, I enjoy life.”I barely knew this man, and I had only managed to finagle my way into this dinner because I knew the organizers and I had recently written a review of Bellah’s last book, on the relationship between evolution and religion.  The book is an incredible achievement, not least for finally bringing Bellah back to his early interest in East Asia and evolution. As I describe in the review, I was struck by the intellectual breadth, the ethical sensibility and, the exuberant excitement in the many ways we’ve found to be human.  He didn’t deny that we all might destroy ourselves, a worry Bellah had for some time. Yet it was his deep appreciation for everything human culture can achieve that made his worries matter: for all the evil we can do, you got the sense from Bellah that it’s good we’re still here, and we should think hard about how to get better at it.

Unlike the authors Margo Rabb mentioned, I was struck by how similar Bellah’s person was to his written work: the same optimism, the same combination of intellectual luminosity and straightforward, exuberant joy.  I’ve rarely met someone about whom I immediately thought, here is how I should live. Which is not to argue that I have anywhere near Bellah’s mind—or, for that matter, his soul.  But still, it’s nice to know that real people like him existed.  Even if for a time.When we talked at that dinner, I told Bellah about a poet whose work I love, Marie Howe.  He hadn’t heard of her, and so I e-mailed a poem she wrote about her brother’s death, “What the Living Do.”

Here is what Bellah wrote in response: “Thanks so much–this is quite lovely.  Perhaps you know that I lost my wife of 61 years in 2010.  Anyway the poem strikes home and I want to read more of her.”  As I look over the poem myself, I find myself weirdly thinking of Bob Bellah, despite not having had more than two e-mails and four hours with him.  Nonetheless, to quote the poem’s last lines:

“But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass, say, the window of the corner video store, and I’m gripped by a cherishing so deep for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I’m speechless: I am living. I remember you.”

Goodbye, Robert Bellah

Robert Bellah

Robert Bellah once wrote: “Because good social science is always morally serious, we can transpose Weber’s saying that only a mature man can have the calling for politics into the statement that only a mature person can have the calling for sociology. Moral vacuity creates cognitively trivial work.” (The Robert Bellah Reader, p. 400)

One of the greatest American sociologists, Robert Bellah has passed away in these finals days of July. I got the email from my graduate school mentor Robert Wuthnow of Princeton while I sat in a coffee shop at Yale with Phil Gorski preparing for this morning’s philosophy of social science seminar. We were both shocked. The email only said his death was caused by  complications following surgery. 

I wrote about my conversations with Bellah previously on Black, White and Gray, and I’m immensely glad I got to meet a living legend just months before he passed away. At that meeting, Bellah spent as much time talking about how much he loved his recently deceased wife of more than 60 years as he did telling me about his latest book, Religion in Human Evolution, and we chatted about his new interest Catholic social teaching. Aristotle said that often we can’t tell if a person’s life has been flourishing until after they have died. May Bellah’s flourishing intellectual legacy and his example passion for people, ideas and the truth live on long after his death.

 

How Can We Be A Good Samaritan When The “Mission” Is Over?

This summer, thousands of high school and college students across the country will go on service trips, some of them with faith-based groups like the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and Dominican Volunteers, and others with do important service work with secular groups. Going out from one’s normal environment to help others is like an institutionalized version of the Good Samaritan parable.

But what do we do when the “mission” is over? While in college, I personally had intense mission experiences in Mexico and Cuba with faith-based groups. Then I worked full-time for three years in a secular organization, the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress, that tried to help rebuild war-torn communities in Central American in the mid-1990s.

Perhaps harder than doing mission or social justice work is adjusting to your normal life after it’s over. Your heart and mind are blown wide open by the sadness, poverty and destruction you see, and you see your see your own economic privilege like never before.

In a thoughtful blog I read this week, Yale sociology graduate student Jeffrey Guhin reflects on how he understands what it means to work for peace and justice now that he’s no longer fully immersed in what could be called social justice work.

“How do you be a Good Samaritan when the volunteer year is over, when you have a job, a rent payment, bills, a spouse, and kids?  I think there are answers here if we work together to uncover them, and I’d like to think about them by taking a few positions in the story…”

Jeff and I discussed our experiences about working for justice, first as volunteers and then as young professionals over pizza and beer recently in New Haven (and we celebrated a few days pre-emptively Jeff’s Ph.D. final approval). Jeff is an eloquent writer and an engaging speaker, so I encourage you to read his full post here, as I can’t say it any better than he did.

But I will point out a few treasures in his words. Referring to the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jeff wrote:

“Remember that we should have died on that road. Everything from that moment on is a gift.  Don’t feel upset you can’t help everyone; feel grateful you can help anyone at all.  What can we do in a spirit of gratitude, in celebration for the wonder of our existence?  It’s an important question for us to remember, especially as we move forward in our commitments to justice and peace.  This is where the Dominican commitment to relationship is so central, and why it has to be paired with a sense of gratitude: it is our relationships that make us feel the need to act for justice, and it is our gratitude that helps us do so with patience, non-attachment, and a calm and loving awareness of our own limitations (and the limitations of those we’re serving).”

As intellectuals who can drown ourselves in reading sociology, philosophy and theology and debate which ideas from the Enlightenment enhance human flourishing and which serve the cult of individualism, Jeff and I laughed at how easy it is for us to forget that being a Christian comes down to having a contemplative outlook on life and a deep commitment to charity for all. As Jeff points out, we can forget that we didn’t create ourselves, and we certainly didn’t make ourselves into the brilliant intellectuals and virtuous young professionals we can so easily (and self-righteously) pride ourselves in being. Jeff reminds us that, if we acknowledge our own lives and our own talents for what they are–a gift–then that gratitude opens us up to developing relationships that foster our on-going commitments to justice.

It took me years of reflection to reach many of the same conclusions as Jeff. Mission and service work is a vitally important part of young adult formation. But most of us will spend the rest of our lives in lawyer’s offices, teaching students in middle school, or at home with children. It can easily seem that such work doesn’t have a service or a mission component, at least not one as important as helping the poor in a foreign country. But as I learned from mentors in a few mission groups I worked with as a graduate student, Amor en Acción (who organizes mission trips from  Miami to Haiti and the Dominican Republic) and Exodus Youth Services (who works with the homeless and poor in Washington, DC), the purpose of a mission is inner transformation and building relationships.

If our hearts are changed, then every day becomes a chance to serve others. But let’s not forget Jeff’s words of wisdom: our lives are a gift, our relationships are the most important things in our lives, and literally everyone who passes us by on the street is someone we are called to love and serve.


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