The Robert Bellah ReaderEdited by Robert N. Bellah and Steven M. TiptonDuke University Press, $27.95, 555 pp.
Few runs in American intellectual life can rival the long and prolific career of sociologist Robert Bellah. Author of more than three hundred books, articles, essays, and reviews, Bellah has spread his ideas far and wide: more than seven thousand scholarly articles cite his work, in scores of journals-from anthropology to theology, law to economics-all over the world. His accomplishments have received significant attention both within the academy and in the wider society, where he is known for such works of popular sociology as Habits of the Heart. Bellah recently turned eighty-in 2000, he received the National Humanities Medal-and Duke University Press has now brought out The Robert Bellah Reader, reflecting the breadth and depth of his work over half a century as a scholar, teacher, and public intellectual.
Edited by Bellah and longtime collaborator Steven M. Tipton, the collection draws from four areas that have engaged the author throughout his career. Bellah started out as a comparativist, examining the role of religion in places like Japan and the American Southwest, and he has continued in this vein for many years, drawing on the influence of such diverse thinkers as Jean Jacques Rousseau, H. Richard Niebuhr, and Jürgen Habermas. Part 1 of the Reader points to his forty-year interest in addressing big questions, such as the relationship between the active and contemplative parts of life, and between collective ritual and individual motivation. Can a society that emphasizes action to the exclusion of contemplation be a healthy environment for growth? How does individual initiative depend on ritual and collective symbols?
Part 2 sets forth Bellah’s well-known writings on American religion. In addition to his classic 1967 essay, “Civil Religion in America,” it includes recent writings on “American Empire” and rampant individualism, essays that highlight Bellah’s skill in bridging disciplinary boundaries. As a student and then a professor in the 1940s and ’50s, Bellah was a member of Harvard’s famous Department of Social Relations, where scholars were busy integrating social scientific research from various fields. As a result, his work on American religion has been informed as much by theologians as by social scientists; Paul Tillich and H. Richard Niebuhr figure as prominently as Mary Douglas and Max Weber. “I have never been a disciplinary tribalist,” Bellah writes. He often draws on current scholarship in ethics, church history, and theology to shape his own systematic analyses about religion and religious change.
Bellah’s influence in the academy extends not just around the country but, indeed, around the world. Hundreds of active scholars can trace their intellectual lineage back to him; his intellectual heirs populate the faculties of the top sociology departments in the United States, and can be found teaching at universities from Singapore to Brazil. Yet The Robert Bellah Reader shows little reluctance to criticize higher education.
The volume’s third section assesses the relationship between the university and society, addressing matters such as the place of ethics in intellectual inquiry, the “culture wars” on university campuses, and the importance of education for the common good. Bellah writes not only to illumine, but also to exhort; his capacious intellect is frequently put in the service of chastening the academy. “Within the scholarly community, there is not a great deal to be proud of,” he asserts. “We have left the understanding of our basic institutions...to the specialists, and with notable exceptions, they have not done a very good job of it.” Exhorting fellow social scientists to critical self-reflection and constructive social interpretation, he reminds them that social science can generate data but not meaning. Moral gravitas is required of the intellectual enterprise, he states-and he finds it significantly lacking within the groves of academe.
But it is the book’s fourth section that is the most provocative. Here, Bellah explores the connection between sociology and theology. Perhaps most surprising is his decision to include three sermons that he preached-one at the National Cathedral and two at his home Episcopal parish in Berkeley. Bellah often writes critically about the penchant of American Protestants to confuse church and nation, yet his own career has intertwined these topics repeatedly, reflecting the moral engagement of a sociologist who does not hesitate-literally-to sermonize. In his quest to help modern society understand itself better, Bellah insists that we not leave behind the deeper, more complicated questions of meaning and value.
The overall tone of The Robert Bellah Reader is weighty without being funereal, troubled but not overwrought. A majority of the essays were published within the past ten years, and these more recent pieces strike me as more hopeful and constructive than some of Bellah’s earlier works. The volume also benefits from occasional editorial comments, in which the author tells us how his thinking has changed on a particular subject since the essay first appeared. I would have welcomed more such musings. How have developments such as the rise of conservative Protestantism within American public life modified Bellah’s thinking? How did September 11, 2001, change his notion of the common good or of the best means to achieve it?
At the same time, the Reader is fairly bulky at more than five hundred pages, and could have been trimmed. Some material is unnecessarily repeated. In several passages Bellah condemns the U.S. government’s assumption that “only we can be trusted” to use weapons of mass destruction justly, and he repeats his endorsement of Robert Wuthnow’s idea of “porous” institutions again and again. More than once, Bellah refers to his displeasure with William Riker’s Wall Street Journal critique of Habits of the Heart-which is funny because no one but Bellah remembers the review, while everyone remembers the book. Habits of the Heart, which was published in 1985 and is Bellah’s most famous work, explored the tension between America’s fierce individualism and the need for citizens to work together. Bellah’s concern for the common good has animated his writing ever since.
Missing from The Robert Bellah Reader are treatments of social conflict or discussions of how divisions within contemporary society (of race, class, or gender) undermine the moral cohesion Bellah seeks for American culture. Though Bellah was a Marxist as a young man and continues to criticize capitalism, Marxian concerns with social cleavages are virtually absent from his writings. Also missing are close-to-the-ground, data-driven analyses of social problems. That is not Bellah’s kind of social science. In fact, he condemns “boring” articles in journals like the American Sociological Review, lamenting that “moral timidity” and methodological minutiae have become defining characteristics of what gets published in social science.
Despite some gaps and shortcomings, The Robert Bellah Reader is a gift to readers, offering a generous view of the scholar behind the ideas. We meet a wide-ranging thinker whose work addresses comparative social science, historical social change, and what was once called “moral philosophy.” Social scientists who study religion often go to great lengths to hide their own spiritual sensibilities, in the name of scholarly objectivity. Yet Bellah, by concluding this collection with sociology and theology, seems to highlight his faith. In this he reveals his loyalty to that French father of sociology, Émile Durkheim, who was always unafraid to bring the subject of religion directly to bear on pressing social issues. Durkheim regarded religion as the foundation of all social institutions, orienting our way of life more powerfully than the economy, or the state, or even the family. In similar fashion, Bellah pays close attention to the ways people find meaning in contemporary life. As he reflects on his own system of meaning-making, Christian theology remains part of the mix. In “Stories as Arrows,” Bellah writes that while we need to affirm rational criticism, “we must also see that rational criticism has never created a viable spiritual or ethical vision.” Yes, skepticism is healthy, but it has its limits: “We need to affirm the healthy function of doubt at the same time that we see that doubt only makes sense in relation to effective belief.”
Robert Bellah keeps the doors open on moral questions, integrating normative convictions with critical social analysis and refusing to put faith and reason into separate categories-for himself or his scholarship. One senses that Bellah’s decision to conclude this impressive volume with a homily reveals his deeper allegiance at the places where social science and faith meet.