Remembering Robert N. Bellah

It may have been appropriate, in its own way, that the great sociologist, Robert Bellah, died on the feast of St. Ignatius. He had so many Jesuit friends, former students and colleagues at the Graduate Theological Union. Bellah was my teacher, mentor, colleague at GTU for over twenty-three years, and friend. Our lives inter-twined in so many ways. I remember, at first, when going to the University of California, Berkeley to begin my doctorate, being dissappointed that he was appointed my advisor. I had never heard of him then but had devoured all of the writings of Charles Glock, who was the main reason I chose Berkeley for doctoral studies with an emphasis on sociology of religion. It turned out, of course, that, like Bellah, my bent was for theory and the deep meaning of social structures and social change and I lacked the taste for Glock's more empirical, statistical studies in sociology (although, like Bellah and through his teaching, I did come to appreciate how to learn from them). I also learned from Bellah to look on the social sciences as moral sciences.

Others can attest to the intellectual achievements of Bellah, often enough likened to the great Max Weber for the scope and perspicacious breadth of his learning and the sway of his interests in global religion. I also had some personal and pastoral relations with Bob. When I was a doctoral student doing research in the Netherlands for my dissertation, which was published as The Evolution of Dutch Catholicism by the University of California Press in 1978, I kept sending chapters back to Bellah in 1973, who was, at that time, resident at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton. Not getting much by way of response, I began to despair that I was on the right track. I wrote an imploring and urgent letter to him. When he finally replied, he told me that he apologized but that his oldest daughter had committed suicide and he was finding it painful and shattering to adjust to that. He asked whether I knew of some good spiritual reading to help him and I suggested Images of Hope: Imagination as Healer of the Hopeless by William Lynch, S.J.


Bob and his wife of 61 years, Melanie (who was Jewish) became good friends. I recalled the other day a time when the three of us were going together to Stanford for a dinner and, then, a lecture by Peter Berger. Melanie was dawdling getting ready and Bob chided her: "Come on, Melanie, you know that sociologists and Jesuits need their scotch before dinner" and, then, in a aside to me, chuckling, he said, "especially you Jesuits!"

In 1976, a second tradegy hit Bob and Melanie. Another daughter, Abby, a senior in high school, tragically died in a brutal car accident in Berkeley. Bob asked me if I would conduct the funeral for her. "Make it as close to a kind of eucharist as you can," he said, although, of course, since Abby was never baptized it could not be a eucharist as such. For many years, Bob and I team-taught a course on social ethics and society, starting with Plato and Aristotle and going down through Aquinas. I can't remember how many doctoral comprehensive or dissertation defenses we both served together on. He always stunned me by his wide grasp of both philosophy and theology. Someone who was so widely esteemed by the likes of Jurgen Habermas, Charles Taylor and Hans Joas had to represent an exceptionally fine mind. Bob was also a very generous spirit who did not hesitate to learn from the marginal or forgotten ones of history.

One only has to read his last magisterial book, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (Harvard University Press, 2011), to see the scope of his learning and astute insights. I was humbled to have been invited to contribute to a festschrift honoring him, edited by his co-authors of the best-selling Habits of the Heart and The Good Society (the latter book shows Bob's interest in Catholic social teaching on the good society). I was also greatly honored to be the only outsider to the sociology department at Berkeley asked to give a testimonial speech at Bob's retirement party from the department in 1997.

Bob was a very devout Anglo-Catholic member of the Episcopal church. In mourning his passing, I went back into my journals to retrieve the homily I gave on the occasion of my last vows as a Jesuit, May 19, 1979. In it, I noted that, perhaps, the best way to understand one's particular path in life is to name one's spiritual teachers along the way. I singled out three of mine, the first of those named being Bob. Here is what I said about him, then, and I have only over the years come to see just how much my reflections captured his virtuous, kindly, generous and perspicacious humanity. I cite now from that homily at my last vows as a Jesuit:

The first teacher I lift up is not a Jesuit, not even a Catholic, although I esteem him as, perhaps, the most deeply and authentically spiritual person I have ever known. Robert Bellah taught me that Christianity is essentially a longing, an unslakeable thirst for living water in the sense of John's gospel, a profound hunger for the signs of God's presence. Bob also taught me that the holy mystery lies both veiled and yet betrayed in every human event, person, tradition and institution. He challenged me to become more truly Catholic than I have ever yet been. I know now that the only obstacle to God's deepened presense in my life is me—my complacency, my mediocrity, my too literalist expectations about where God can be found and how. Through Bob I came to be convinced that a serious outreach to other spiritual traditions besides my own is necessary if I wish to discover the meaning and validity of the Jesuit tradition for our own time. Indeed, through him I came for the first time to understand the Ignatian thrust to find God in all things—not to project him but to find him—and to seek to find him truly in all things.

Not surprisingly, when I sent a copy of that homily to Bob, he responded: "I was quite stunned at your remarks about me which I do not feel that I at all deserve." Look at the smile of the man—he enjoyed life and was never tired of probing its wonders (and horrors) and by-ways and enticing invitations to become more fully human. Bob was never an optimist (he had too much a realist sense of evil), as he always insisted; nor was he a pessimist but a Christian and, therefore he had, despite all appearances to the contrary in our world, hope. I am sure that hope will not fail him now that he has died and is with the risen Jesus in whom he so deeply believed.

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Grahame Fallon
5 years 5 months ago
Thanks for "Remembering Robert Bellah" by John Colemen SJ. I rejoiced in "Habits of the Heart" that Bellah co-authored in 1986. I agree that "a serious outreach to other spiritual traditions or streams besides my own is necessary". About 1977 a senior student asked, "What does Teilhard do for you?" My reply - "I like to think he makes me more of a catholic. That's all-embracing or cat-holic with a small `c'!" I regard Pierre Teilhard (1881-1955) as more Franciscan than Jesuit - more Scotist than Thomist. "The Way of the Mystics" is "The Anthropologicvl Way" - inviting us to advance from "Bible History and Geography" to "Cosmic History and Geography". "Yes - Cosmic!" Pope John Paul II exclaimed in 2003. For the Redeemer of Man - Jesus Christ - is the ongoing and ascenting centre of the universe and of history (1979) - His Story.
sadi beret
2 years 10 months ago
“Of Bellah’s brilliance there can be no doubt. The sheer amount this man knows about religion is otherworldly… Bellah stands in the tradition of such stalwarts of the sociological imagination as Emile Durkheim and Max Weber. Only one word is appropriate to characterize this book’s subject as well as its substance, and that is ‘magisterial.’”—Alan Wolfe, The New York Times Book Review “An audacious project… Religion in Human Evolution is no simple effort to ‘reconcile’ religious belief with scientific understanding, but something far more interesting and ambitious. It seeks to take both religion and evolution seriously on their own terms, and to locate us within the stories they tell about the human condition in a way informed by the best emerging research on both terrains… The result is a grand narrative written in full understanding of the failures and limitations of recent grand narratives. Religion in Human Evolution is a magnum opus founded on careful research and immersed in the ‘reflective judgment’ of one of our best thinkers and writers… This is a big book, full of big ideas that demand sustained attention and disciplined thought. But in my view it repays a reader’s effort in full… For over half a century, Robert N. Bellah has set his extraordinary mind out on the frontiers of human knowledge and has written back to make that knowledge accessible to the educated reader. This remarkable book finds him nearing the close of a long and fruitful life, and generously giving it back to us in love.”—Richard L. Wood, Commonweal “This book could really be regarded as Robert Bellah’s ‘State of the Species’ address, after a life of scholarship and reflection. It is about everything: the nature of knowledge and meaning, and the history of our deepest yearnings and practices, as expressed in our religions. Posterity will decide whether he has succeeded, but the effort is magnificent in its own right. We all speak of doing difficult, disciplined, interdisciplinary thinking. Well, folks, this is what it looks like, down on the ground.”—Merlin Donald, The Immanent Frame “Religion in Human Evolution is not like so many other ‘science and religion’ books, which tend to explain away belief as a smudge on a brain scan or an accident of early hominid social organization. It is, instead, a bold attempt to understand religion as part of the biggest big picture—life, the universe, and everything… One need not believe in intelligent design to look for embryonic traces of human behavior on the lower rungs of the evolutionary ladder. [Bellah’s] attempt to do just that, with the help of recent research in zoology and anthropology, results in a menagerie of case studies that provide the book’s real innovation. Not only the chimps and monkeys evoked by the word ‘evolution’ in the title, but wolves and birds and iguanas all pass through these pages. Within such a sundry cast, Bellah searches for a commonality that may give some indication of where and when the uniquely human activity of religion was born. What he finds is as intriguing as it is unexpected… Bellah is less concerned with whether religion is right or wrong, good or bad, perfume or mustard gas, than with understanding what it is and where it comes from, and in following the path toward that understanding, wherever it may lead… In a perfect world, the endless curiosity on display throughout Religion in Human Evolution would set the tone for all discussions of religion in the public square.”—Peter Manseau, Bookforum “The new magnum opus of a great contemporary sociologist… Bellah is one of those rare social scientists who not only studies the origins of our religions but who also participates in an active Christian congregation in his University of California neighborhood. Because he appropriates so wide a range of contemporary evolutionary sciences, in the 600 pages of this book a reader is likely to experience a great depth of gratitude for our debts as humans to our ancient lineages—to all the beings who are responsible for the explosion of our fellow species on our earth… If we read this book, adherents of every modern religion—especially Jews, Christians, and Muslims—will find vast new reasons for gratitude for our ancestors human and extra-human. We meet in these pages eloquent summaries of how the evolution of the human mind may be the greatest mystery of all.”—Donald Shriver, Tikkun “One might best see this work as an attempt to do for the 21st century what the great sociologist of religion Max Weber did for the 20th in treating Judaism, China and India.”—Pheme Perkins, America “Religion in Human Evolution is an immense work; it would merit description as the achievement of a lifetime, were it not actually Bellah’s second such achievement… What does it amount to? Quite a lot, actually: effectively, a history of the world up to about 2,000 years ago. The book has a James Michener-esque scope, proceeding effectively from the Big Bang forward. The only comparisons I can come up with are Hegel’s magisterial but fragmentary notes for his Lectures on the Philosophy of Religions, or Weber’s monumental works on the Sociology of World Religions (which got through China and India and ancient Israel, but no further). Bellah is definitely playing major league sociology… Both in the scale of its ambition, and in the degree to which that ambition is realized, this is a book that will outlast its critics… Each moment in his account invites further reflection, deeper immersion in the realities under study, a richer, more empathetic comprehension of what it is like to be these people. For all these reasons, I hope that future work in evolutionary theory and religion will learn from Bellah’s example.”—Charles Mathewes, American Interest “You can’t accuse Robert Bellah of thinking small. The University of California, Berkeley, sociologist set out to cover ‘from the Palaeolithic to the Axial Age’ and he does. (The Axial Age ran from about 800 BC to 200 BC when the first major religions got going.) The result is a deeply thoughtful discussion of how evolution and religion went hand in hand, each influencing the other, from humanity’s earliest days. It’s like a chat with a great thinker who takes one engaging tangent after another.”—Leigh Dayton, The Australian “Robert Bellah’s magnum opus does far more than just satisfy. It provides a transformative and thrillingly interdisciplinary account of the evolution of religion itself… So expert and simultaneously readable is Religion in Human Evolution—a model of academic writing—that it effectively banishes the paltry efforts of Daniel Dennett and Pascal Boyer and Robert Wright.”—Scott Stephens, Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Religion and Ethics blog “Ever since Darwin, the theory of evolution has been considered the deadly enemy of religious belief; the creation of Adam and Eve and the process of natural selection simply do not go together. In Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age, the sociologist Robert Bellah offers a new, unexpected way of reconciling these opposites, using evolutionary psychology to argue that the invention of religious belief played a crucial role in the development of modern human beings.”—Barnes & Noble Review “Religion in Human Evolution is a near-exhaustive examination of the biological and cultural origins of religion… Bellah gleefully plunges into the past, from the Big Bang to the first millennium B.C. in Israel, Greece, China, and India. For him, cosmology, cosmogony, mythology, ontogeny, and phylogeny all belong in the same chapter, or in some cases, the same paragraph, right alongside Hegel, Dawkins, and an astounding array of writers, scientists, sociologists, and philosophers. Although the tome stops short in the first millennium (leaving the last few thousand years for other scholars, or a future volume), its overall narrative does not feel incomplete. Expect to spend a long time reading this book—and expect to see the world differently when you finish.”—Benjamin Soloway, The Daily “Religion in Human Evolution is an immensely ambitious book on a topic only a scholar of Robert Bellah’s stature could dare to tackle. It attempts no less than to explain human biological as well as cultural evolution in one sweep, beginning with early hominids and ending with the ‘axial age.’ Bellah engages evolutionary biology as well as cognitive psychology for the framing of his argument. This is a courageous move of transcending conventional disciplinary boundaries, for which he should be applauded… With Religion in Human Evolution Robert Bellah has given us a marvelous book written with the wisdom of age as well as youthful enthusiasm. Having discovered the importance of play in human evolution rather late in the writing process, Bellah nevertheless must have internalized it much earlier. All these rich chapters on ancient Israel, Greece, China, and India convey a certain playfulness and intellectual joy, which carry his narrative often beyond the needs of his argument, but stimulate and enrich the reader immensely.”—Martin Riesebrodt, The Immanent Frame “Bellah’s book is an interesting departure from the traditional separation of science and religion. He maintains that the evolving worldviews sought to unify rather than to divide people. Poignantly, it is upon these principles that both Western and Eastern modern societies are now based. What strikes the reader most powerfully is how the author connects cultural development and religion in an evolutionary context. He suggests that cultural evolution can be seen in mimetic, mythical, and theoretical contexts.”—Brian Renvall, Library Journal “In this magisterial effort, eminent sociologist of religion Bellah attempts nothing less than to show the ways that the evolution of certain capacities among humans provided the foundation for religion… [Readers] will be rewarded with a wealth of sparkling insights into the history of religion.”—Publishers Weekly “Insightful and magisterial, it is the crowning achievement of a brilliant scholar who is sympathetic to religion and deeply attuned to the problems of modernity… [Bellah] draws on scientific explanations and historical facts to present and support a new multistranded theory of religion, one that places the human pursuit of meaning squarely in the context of our social history, which in turn rests in the context of our biological and cosmological evolution.”—Linda Heuman, Tricycle “This is an extraordinarily rich book based on wide-ranging scholarship. It contains not just a host of individual studies, but is informed with a coherent and powerful theoretical structure. There is nothing like it in existence. Of course, it will be challenged. But it will bring the debate a great step forward, even for its detractors. And it will enable other scholars to build on its insights in further studies of religion past and present.”—Charles Taylor, author of A Secular Age “This great book is the intellectual harvest of the rich academic life of a leading social theorist who has assimilated a vast range of biological, anthropological, and historical literature in the pursuit of a breathtaking project. Robert Bellah first searches for the roots of ritual and myth in the natural evolution of our species and then follows with the social evolution of religion up to the Axial Age. In the second part of his book, he succeeds in a unique comparison of the origins of the handful of surviving world-religions, including Greek philosophy. In this field I do not know of an equally ambitious and comprehensive study.”—Jürgen Habermas “Religion in Human Evolution is a work of remarkable ambition and breadth. The wealth of reference which Robert Bellah calls upon in support of his argument is breath-taking, as is the daring of the argument itself. A marvellously stimulating book.”—John Banville, novelist “Bellah’s reexamination of his own classic theory of religious evolution provides a treasure-chest of rich detail and sociological insight. The evolutionary story is not linear but full of twists and variations. The human capacity for religion begins in the earliest ritual gatherings involving emotion, music and dance, producing collective effervescence and shared narratives that give meaning to the utilitarian world. But ritual entwines with power and stratification, as chiefs vie with each other over the sheer length, expense, and impressiveness of ritual. Archaic kingdoms take a sinister turn with terroristic rituals such as human sacrifices exalting the power of god and ruler simultaneously. As societies become more complex and rulers acquire organization that relies more on administration and taxation than on sheer impressiveness and terror, religions move towards the axial breakthrough into more abstract, universal and self-reflexive concepts, elevating the religious sphere above worldly goods and power. Above all, the religions of the breakthrough become ethicized, turning against cruelty and inequality and creating the ideals that eventually will become those of more just and humane societies. Bellah deftly examines the major historical texts and weighs contemporary scholarship in presenting his encompassing vision.”—Randall Collins, University of Pennsylvania “This book is the opus magnum of the greatest living sociologist of religion. Nobody since Max Weber has produced such an erudite and systematic comparative world history of religion in its earlier phases. Robert Bellah opens new vistas for the interdisciplinary study of religion and for global inter-religious dialogue.”—Hans Joas, The University of Chicago and the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies, Albert Ludwig University of Freiburg “Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution is the most important systematic and historical treatment of religion since Hegel, Durkheim, and Weber. It is a page-turner of a bildungsroman of the human spirit on a truly global scale, and should be on every educated person’s bookshelves. Bellah breathes new life into critical universal history by making ancient China and India indispensable parts of a grand narrative of human religious evolution. The generosity and breadth of his empathy and curiosity in humanity is on full display on every page. One will never see human history and our contemporary world the same after reading this magnificent book.”—Yang Xiao, Kenyon College


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