Aug 7, 2013

Robert Bellah and the 'religious turn'

A little noted episode in Robert Bellah's career, from the New York Times obituary:
As a result of Professor Bellah’s abiding concern with religion, his work did not find favor in all scholarly quarters.

In 1973, after he had been named to a professorship at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., many of the institute's faculty -- whose members were overwhelmingly scientists and mathematicians -- called his scholarly credentials into question.

The apparent reason, Professor Bellah's colleagues said this week, was that in the ardently secular canon of the hard sciences, religion was deemed an insufficiently rigorous subject for scholarly scrutiny. Professor Bellah renounced the appointment and remained at Berkeley.
Steven Tipton, professor at Candler School of Theology at Emory University and one of Bellah's co-authors on Habits of the Heart, told the New York Times that Bellah's work "shows how religion is enacted in history and cannot be grasped outside it," which is to say, it's a real subject for scholarship.

It's common to hear talk of the "religious turn" in academia. Not sure there's a better example of the dramatic difference in how religion is treated in academia now than the distance between Bellah's conflict at Princeton in '73 and his reputation at his death in '13.

"Modern America has a soul, not only a body," Tipton said, "and Bellah probed that soul more deeply and subtly than anyone in his field or his time."