‘Religion and the City’ honors Marty at ChicagoBy Josh Schonwald
In honor of the 10th anniversary of its Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion, the Divinity School hosted a conference this week on Tuesday, Feb. 5 and Wednesday, Feb. 6, which brought together some of the world’s leading scholars to discuss the myriad relationships between religion and the city.
The “Religion and the City: Our Urban Humanity and Beyond” conference, which also celebrated the 80th birthday of Martin Marty, the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus and the center’s namesake, spanned a wide array of topics, from the role of religion in the architecture of cities, to the influence of gospel music in Chicago, to the impact of suburbanization on young Muslims in Chicago, and to the role that urban life has played in the moral thinking of philosophers and theologians.
Since its inception, the Marty Center has focused on the role of religion in public life, having held nearly 30 scholarly conferences on everything from religion in India, to women and religion, to religion and the death penalty. This week’s conference was the center’s first to focus specifically on the city.
That focus, said Richard Rosengarten, Dean of the Divinity School, was a direct outgrowth of the center’s ongoing commitment. “Too often, religion in public life can be reduced to the political,” said Rosengarten. It certainly is a crucial element, he added, but the center’s goal is to foment a broader conversation about the role of religion and to examine the other equally important dimensions of the religions in public life—the rich and nuanced ways in which religion inflects the civic, the cultural and the economic as well as the political. “And the city is an ideal lens through which to examine these manifold dimensions,” he said.
William Schweiker, the Director of the Martin Marty Center and the Edward L. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor of Theological Ethics in the Divinity School, said that cities are an appealing prism for scholars of religions because they are “wild and complex places in which religions are a social and cultural force.” He added that international cities, such as Chicago, have a particular appeal. “International cities enact the reality of global dynamics.” And, he said, “They allow for contemporary ethical reflection on global realities.”
Ray Suarez, senior correspondent of the “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer,” gave the plenary address in a taped speech. Suarez (A.M.,’93), who studied religion at the Divinity School and who wrote The Holy Vote: The Politics of Faith in America, kicked off the conference with “From Mega to the Storefront: Church and Community in the 21st Century” a speech about the different, yet equally vital faces of religion in the city and suburbs.
Three breakout sessions followed Suarez’s talk.
In “Religious Architecture and the City,” Robert Nelson, the Robert Lehman professor of art history at Yale University who has studied the function of holy objects in society, used architectural examples from the city of Chicago to address the central question: What is or should be the message of church architecture?
In “Diaspora Religions in Chicago: The Case of Islam,” Malika Zeghal, Associate Professor in the Divinity School, focused on the evolution of Chicago’s Islamic community, emphasizing its move from inner-city neighborhoods to the middle-class suburbs. Zeghal discussed how a younger generation of Muslims is responding to this evolution toward suburban middle-class conservative Islam by trying to do social work and solve inner-city issues on the basis of religious beliefs.
In “What Athens Has To Do with Jerusalem: Location and the Origins of Ethics,” Schweiker described how the role of the city has been central to the moral thinking of theologians and ethicists throughout human history, from the Hebrew prophets, Socrates, and Jesus, to modern thinkers such as Rousseau and Thoreau. With this approach, the renowned theological ethicist said, “the city becomes a prism through which to think about how we reflect critically on beliefs about what is good and just and also assess the values and belief that orient social life.”
Concluding the first day of the conference was the presentation, “Chicago and the Traditions of Gospel Music,” at which The Sons and Daughter of Levi of Chicago’s Salem Baptist Church performed with narrative by Walter Owens Jr., the church’s Minister of Music.
The conference resumed on Wednesday, Feb. 6 with a panel discussion, titled “Immigration and Religion in the City,” led by James Lewis, executive director of the Louisville Institute, and featuring Mary Meg McCarthy, executive director of the National Immigrant Justice Center; William Adelman, professor emeritus of labor and industrial relations at the University of Illinois; and Greg Wangerin, executive director of the Interfaith Refugee and Immigration Ministries.
In the second plenary address of the conference, “Religious Violence and the City,” Martha Nussbaum, the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics in the Divinity School, Philosophy and the Law School, analyzed the Gujarat riots in India in 2002, and discussed the general factors that seem to promote a climate of religious violence, as well as factors that seem to mitigate it. Nussbaum, who has extensively studied Hindu religious violence, then applied her analysis to the United States.
Marty, the guest of honor, joined an array of the conference’s speakers at a concluding discussion, titled “Humane and Cosmopolitan Religions in the 21st Century.”
The conference was a fitting tribute to Marty, who turned 80 on Tuesday, Feb. 5, said longtime colleague Clark Gilpin, the Margaret E. Burton Distinguished Service Professor in the Divinity School and the Martin Marty Center’s first director.
Marty attended graduate school at Chicago, was a Lutheran minister in the Chicago suburbs and taught at Chicago for more than three decades. “He’s a real Chicagoan,” said Gilpin, “whose long affiliation with the University is equaled by his cosmopolitan interests in the city’s religious and cultural institutions. Marty has a great appreciation both for the central role played by Chicago in the history of American religious pluralism and the many ways in which religions inform the contemporary life of metropolitan Chicago.”
Editor’s note: Those individuals listed as speakers at the conference “Religion and the City,” were scheduled to appear as of press time.