Few people can address the social dimensions of religion with the knowledge, insight, and eloquence of Robert Bellah. Through his teaching and, especially, his writing, Bellah’s ideas have traveled beyond the academy to influence the culture at large. In 2000, in recognition of his accomplishments in joining distinguished scholarship with committed citizenship, he received the National Humanities Medal from President Bill Clinton.
Bellah is Elliott Professor of Sociology, Emeritus, at the University of California at Berkeley. Prior to coming to Berkeley in 1967, he was a professor at Harvard University, where he completed his undergraduate and graduate study. His 1957 book, Tokugawa Religion, based on his doctoral dissertation, first established his reputation as a formidable scholar of Japanese religion. From 1960 to 1961, as a Fulbright research grantee in Japan, he continued his study of the role of religion in what he speaks of as his “other culture.”
Later, in such books as Beyond Belief, The New Religious Consciousness, and Uncivil Religion: Interreligious Hostility in America, Bellah focused on the changing place of religion in American society. In 1985, with coauthors Richard Madsen, William Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven Tipton, he published Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. Habits explores the diminishment of community bonds in an increasingly individualistic society, and the book’s interpretation of the social anomie of American life struck a chord with readers. The book became a national best-seller and the subject of wide and vigorous scholarly and popular debate. In 1991, Bellah and his cohorts followed upHabits with the equally trenchant The Good Society. Today, at age seventy-seven, he has, as a writer, barely lost a step, and is now hard at work on a book about the highly contested topic of religious evolution.
I first heard of Bellah sometime in the early 1980s, when I was a staff member of the Zen Center of Los Angeles. ZCLA and the San Francisco Zen Center had cosponsored a scholar’s conference, held at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, on the work of the great thirteenth-century Zen master Eihei Dogen. Bellah had been among the small group of participants, and a friend of mine, a Buddhologist and one of the conference organizers, spoke to me effusively of the event, reserving special praise for Bellah’s presentation. His paper was entitled “The Meaning of Dogen Today,” and in it he cautioned against reading Dogen’s words—and, by implication, those of any seminal religious figure—outside the social context in which they were recorded. Failure to take proper account of this context, he argued, could lead to unintended and socially deleterious consequences.
For me this was exciting yet sobering stuff. Bellah wasn’t just making the familiar case that Buddhism must adapt to changes in the social environment; he was addressing issues of the cultural transmission of religion with a thoroughness I had never before encountered. He asserted that to view spiritual truths apart from their historical context would be to risk tailoring them to cultural assumptions that might be anything but emancipatory.
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