In their books, authors can appear wise and kind, with moral courage and keen aesthetic sense. Yet in person, these same authors often disappoint: they can be lechers or snobs, mean spirits or simple bores. A gifted writer is not necessarily a good speaker, and neither is a capacious mind necessarily a generous soul. Margo Rabb wrote about this very problem in a recent New York Times article, and now, as I reflect on Robert Bellah’s death, I’m struck by a quote in the article from one of my favorite writers, George Saunders. He said, “You can read Mailer or Hemingway and see — or at least I do — that what separated them from greater writers (like Chekhov, say) was a certain failing of kindness or compassion or gentleness — an interest in the little guy, i.e., the nonglamorous little guy, a willingness and ability to look at all of their characters with love.”
Bellah had this very generosity, this concern for the little guy. It’s what made him a communist and what made him a Christian. He shares that move—from radical leftist to radical Christian—with another of my heroes, Dorothy Day. The two had a lot in common: a gift for writing, a mysticism of quiet wonder, a sense that their lingering questions about community and meaning and God could be answered in a community of fellow travelers who cared about personal relationships and common meals and the idea that small steps like this could change the world. They were also both brave. Day stood up to her church and her government, and Bellah stood up to his government too, and the first church of every academic, Harvard University, going into Canadian exile rather than naming names during the McCarthy era. Yet he eventually found his way back to Harvard, where he got tenure, and besides a brief controversy at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, he finished his life and work at the University of California, Berkeley, where many of my most important teachers and mentors worked with him.
Bellah was an author who lived up to his beautiful books. And the books were beautiful: gracefully written, intellectual without being obtuse, full of moral urgency yet without didacticism or despair. Newcomers should look especially at his books on America: Habits of the Heart, and its sequel, The Good Society. Look also at his work on civil religion and the relationship between religion and sociology in Beyond Belief and The Broken Covenant. Here’s how we work, Bellah wanted to say, and he was a talented enough sociologist to convince many of us he was right. His teacher was Talcott Parsons, who famously attempted an important synthesis of Weber and Durkheim (along with Marx, the two are considered the founders of sociology). Parsons’s synthesis was criticized and then completely attacked just as Bellah was coming into his own as a scholar. The tension put Bellah in an odd position as he was in many ways Parsons’s star student. Yet he was also a member of the new guard, and a friend since graduate school to celebrity anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who advocated, with Bellah, a new focus on interpretation in the social sciences, borrowing techniques from literary theory and hermeneutic philosophy.
If Parsons’s fusion of Weber and Durkheim was conservative, focused on structural stability instead of change, then Bellah’s was reformist, describing how our symbols work and also how that work works to either bring us together or pull us apart. Unlike his teacher, Bellah was more indebted to Durkheim’s later work on religion than his earlier work on social structures, and it was this focus on meaning that influenced a generation of cultural sociologists. Perhaps most important was his essay, “Civil Religion in America,” which showed not only the late Durkheimian basis of our national life but also the Weberian contingency of our connections.
Amidst a new generation—led by the world systems theory of Immanuel Wallerstein—who insisted that economics and power were the only ways to understand sociology, Bellah insisted that meanings were more than just superstructure. His sociology was neither quantitative nor especially variable-driven, which made him less popular as his field moved towards scientisism. Yet it also made his work an early prophecy of a post-positivist future. Along with a scattered few colleagues across the country, he was a voice crying out in the wilderness, making straight the way of culture. Jeffrey Alexander, one of Bellah's most successful students, is not exaggerating when he says that "There is a sense in which every contemporary sociologist is Bellah’s child, niece, or nephew."
Besides showing how we work, Bellah wanted to show us why that question mattered and how, by asking that question, we are able to imagine other ways we could live, ways that might provide greater justice, or compassion, or community. That focus on community was not only theoretical. From everything I have heard, Bellah took his relationships very seriously—with his students, his colleagues, his friends, his family, and his wife of many years. He was a remarkably happy man—I thought of Aquinas’s adage that “joy is the noblest virtue” when I met him—and the smile that you see on the cover of the Robert Bellah reader was surely not a pose. I get the sense that’s often just how he looked. I was lucky enough to be at a dinner for him after a talk he gave at Yale, and a former student of his asked him about his experience of graduate school. “I really enjoyed it,” he said. What about being a junior professor? “I enjoyed that too!” he said, smiling. The former student asked him, “Was there ever a period of life you didn’t enjoy?” He smiled and paused thoughtfully. “Well, my wife died recently, and that was simply a fact I had to endure. But, basically, I enjoy life.”
I barely knew this man, and I had only managed to finagle my way into this dinner because I knew the organizers and I had recently written a review of Bellah’s last book, on the relationship between evolution and religion. The book is an incredible achievement, not least for finally bringing Bellah back to his early interest in East Asia and evolution. As I describe in the review, I was struck by the intellectual breadth, the ethical sensibility and, the exuberant excitement in the many ways we've found to be human. He didn't deny that we all might destroy ourselves, a worry Bellah had for some time. Yet it was his deep appreciation for everything human culture can achieve that made his worries matter: for all the evil we can do, you got the sense from Bellah that it's good we're still here, and we should think hard about how to get better at it.
Unlike the authors Margo Rabb mentioned, I was struck by how similar Bellah's person was to his written work: the same optimism, the same combination of intellectual luminosity and straightforward, exuberant joy. I’ve rarely met someone about whom I immediately thought, here is how I should live. Which is not to argue that I have anywhere near Bellah’s mind—or, for that matter, his soul. But still, it’s nice to know that real people like him existed. Even if for a time.
When we talked at that dinner, I told Bellah about a poet whose work I love, Marie Howe. He hadn’t heard of her, and so I e-mailed a poem she wrote about her brother’s death, "What the Living Do." Here is what Bellah wrote in response: “Thanks so much--this is quite lovely. Perhaps you know that I lost my wife of 61 years in 2010. Anyway the poem strikes home and I want to read more of her.” As I look over the poem myself, I find myself weirdly thinking of Bob Bellah, despite not having had more than two e-mails and four hours with him. Nonetheless, to quote the poem’s last lines:
But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass, say, the window of the corner video store, and I'm gripped by a cherishing so deep
for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I'm speechless:
I am living. I remember you.