A Sense of Place: The Many Horizons of Martin E. Marty

Article excerpt

And now the music of the worlds transforms me. My planet enters a different house. Trees and leaves become more distinct. Philosophies one after another go out. Everything is lighter yet not less odd. from "Good Night," by Czeslaw Milosz

WHEN YOU grow up on the prairie you learn to live with what you have. The Marty people--formerly the Martis, Swiss Lutherans who emigrated to America in 1869--had dirt. Nebraska dirt. They mixed it with water and made houses. They set their houses against caves and rock formations and brought organs, linens and teacups into them. In the mud houses, they sang songs to God.

They had sky, too. And calamity. They looked at the horizon and saw in the foreground a step or two. The middle ground was where possibility lay, and then, way off, beyond the horizon was eternity. When what you have are mud houses and teacups, dirt and sky, the landscape becomes metaphysical, Martin E. Marty would say. How odd, he would also say, when opposing realities come together in harmonious symbiosis, the simple and the magisterial, the earthy and the transcendent, sod houses and songs to God.

One wonders what oddness conspired to create this man--an historian, writer, editor, professor, pastor, friend and family man. At 75, retired from the University of Chicago Divinity School, he has more honors and awards and books and articles written than some towns have people.

What can be said of this "phenomenon," as his friend Bill Moyers calls him? Well, for one, he's putting the final flourishes on a biography of Martin Luther to be published in the Penguin "Lives" series. For another, he recently spoke at the 50th anniversary of his graduating class at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, the flagship theological school of the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod, with which he has shared sometimes awkward relations (Marty left the Missouri Synod during the inerrancy battles of the 1970s)--and he received a standing ovation. For another, in early July he celebrated the 50th anniversary of his ordination, held at his home church, Ascension Lutheran in Riverside, Illinois. (A hymn was sung there which cantor Randall Sensmeier had composed for him: "One with God before Creation; MARTY 8 7 8 7 with Chorus," based on Philippians 2:5-11.) And Emory University just announced that Marty will be a visiting professor there next year, directing a project on children.

Some German scholars once called him "an historical historian." Former student John Stackhouse, professor at Regent College, Vancouver, calls him a "physiological marvel" who is "a lot smarter than the rest of us." Mark Edwards, former president of St. Olaf College, where Marty served on the Board of Regents, says anyone who tries to compare himself to Marty in energy and intellect is "just asking for a nervous breakdown." If there is a criticism other scholars have, it is that he has been a "consensus" historian. Richard John Neuhaus, conservative Catholic theologian and editor-in-chief of First Things, likens Marty's outlook to the views of the editorial board of the New York Times--and that is not intended as a compliment. His son Peter Marty, a Lutheran minister in Iowa, says, "I don't know so much what he's like as a theologian; his intellect ... is a given. I just know he's a great dad."

In his own congregation he's simply "Pastor Marty." The Sunday I attended he presided in the absence of the regular pastor. When a child came forward for communion, lifting her face to receive the elements, he placed his hand on her head and whispered a blessing.

There is still plenty to say about Martin E. Marty. For me, however, understanding "the phenomenon" has come not from statements made but in questions pondered. What is an historical historian? What is the significance of the sacrament? What is the meaning of the hand of a priestly shepherd on the head of a waiting child? These questions can be entertained only by understanding the life and world that shaped the man. …