Marty Addresses “The Dilemmas of Fundamentalisms

Melody Moberg

A man Time Magazine calls the “most influential interpreter of religion” in America stepped onto the Memorial Chapel stage Wednesday, Apr. 9, lecturing on a topic especially relevant to our world of escalating polarization and religious extremism.
Theologian Martin Marty spoke about “The Dilemmas of Fundamentalisms,” peppering his talk with humorous anecdotes. The event was part of an ongoing lecture series for the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences Arts and Letters, a nonprofit organization seeking to connect “people and ideas for a better Wisconsin.”
Martin Marty is one of the preeminent scholars of religion living today. He has written over 50 books and is the recipient of 75 honorary doctorates. He has also received both the National Humanities Medal and the Medal for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, served on two U.S. Presidential Commissions, is an ordained Lutheran pastor and is one of the few Protestants who participated at Vatican II.
He taught at the University of Chicago for 35 years in the Divinity school before his retirement in 1998. Following his retirement, the university’s Institute for the Advanced Study of Religion was renamed the Martin Marty Center in his honor. Despite his retirement, he remains a prolific writer and lecturer.
In the early 1990s, Martin Marty and R. Scott Appleby embarked on “The Fundamentalism Project,” a multi-year study of world fundamentalisms funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
The study culminated in five encyclopedic volumes published between 1991 and 1995 by the University of Chicago Press. What he learned from this project was the topic of Wednesday’s talk.
Marty began his lecture by outlining what he means by “the Dilemmas of Fundamentalisms.” He specifically spoke in terms of plurals because of his emphasis on “discerning distinctions” and not “lumping together” diverse religious traditions.
These “dilemmas” reflect the choices fundamentalists make personally and collectively — such as whether they will be peaceful or militant — and the choices “outsiders” need to make when viewing and interacting with these groups.
Although Marty acknowledges the diversity of fundamentalist movements, he also recognizes important traits common to all fundamentalisms. His research focuses on three of these characterizing traits.
Marty argues that contrary to popular conceptions, fundamentalisms are “at home in modernity.” They are acutely aware of the modern world, and, more importantly, will use technology to promote their cause and react to threats.
Fundamentalisms are certain they possess pure, absolute Truth. Finally, Fundamentalists focus upon an idealized past when everything was “perfect.” They believe they can return to that perfection by taking steps in the here-and-now.
Marty is known for his willingness to engage in a conversation and promote dialogues about hot-button issues such as fundamentalisms, where it is all too easy to be polemical. To illustrate the active recruitment of Fundamentalisms he joked that, in contrast, Episcopalians invite a new member “every 29 years.”
His tact and personality shone though at the question-and-answer session following his speech. Marty was confronted by a difficult woman from the audience who tried to give him a book and asked him if he was familiar with it. Marty smiled, thanked her, and said it contains “some of the wildest metaphysic” he had “ever thought of or heard of.”
He was also asked to comment on the Chicago pastor Jeremiah Wright, one of his former students. Marty acknowledged that Wright said “really really awful things.” However, Marty also recounted hilarious and poignant stories of evening services he attended at Wright’s church, although he admitted that he tries not to be “involved in endorsements.”
Karen Koenig, a fellow in religious studies, studied under Marty at the University of Chicago in the mid-1990s. She and other history of Christianity students played “an advanced form of Pictionary” at his home at Christmastime. The winning team got to pick books from Marty’s extensive library.
Koenig said that Marty “combines rigorous intellectual inquiry and academic integrity with an unfailingly open and generous spirit,” qualities “exemplified” at last week’s talk.
“He urged the audience to be precise about their language,” said Koenig, “while urging us all not to talk past each other and shut each other out when approaching these difficult issues.